What’s the Deal With Americans Fighting in Syria?

Hello All!


hitting ISIS where it hurts? or driving further recruitment?

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that doesn’t overhype fairly obvious observations.

As the controversial new wave of American led coalition airstrikes continue to hit targets in Syria and Iraq, new revelations that there are American citizens fighting or planning to fight for the terrorist group known as ISIL/ISIS/Islamic State have taken to the news.

We’ll take a look at what some of these cases are and why they are not too far off from a much larger group of Americans fighting in a similar regional conflict from the 1930s.

The Current: Volunteer Fighters

jumping on the bandwagon

jumping on the bandwagon

Aside from attacking Kurds, the Syrian government, overrunning a good portion of Iraq, and forcing companies to quickly switch acronyms, it has been the way ISIS has carried out brutal executions of journalists and atrocities against minorities that has affected the public mind and subsequently US government action against ISIS.

Since ISIS’s effective takeover across most of Iraq, the U.S. decided to convene different countries into joining its coalition airstrike campaign at the recent UN convention last month. The prospect of full involvement in Syria since their civil war began in 2011 has been anathema to the U.S. and other countries, yet President Obama, Francois Hollande, and other leaders have felt enough public pressure to respond with a more “hands off” approach.

the coalition's hands off approach

the coalition’s hands off approach

Interestingly, and even more loudly announced by the press, is the knowledge that American citizens are now fighting alongside the jihadist fighters.  The actual number of Americans fighting for ISIS or other terror groups has been disputed – initial government estimates of over 100 Americans were deemed to be a misquote from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and now the government defined number stands at “a dozen”. But American politicians from both parties are calling these volunteer fighters a huge threat to the U.S. – perhaps as an election year dictum.

fingers crossed from Secretary Hagel

fingers crossed from Secretary Hagel

In addition, there has been a hunt and arrest of Americans who intend on joining ISIS or who have been plotting to attack from within – as was the case in Australia in September.

While ISIS, the airstrike coalition, the offshoots of Al-Qaeda in Syria (al-Nusra Front, et al) have garnered the attention, it’s interesting to note that these groups in the Middle East have the attention of the West and not other regions whose tactics are just as heinous to civilians, women, and children. The separatist groups M23 or ADF-Nalu from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Boko Haram in Nigeria, or al-Shabab in Somalia all are on the same level in terms of crimes against humanity, yet the international response to those groups have not been with the same vigor.

recruitment of child soldiers not enough for a coalition

recruitment of child soldiers not enough for a coalition

The latest buzz surrounding Americans volunteering to be part of such a group of militant fighters is interesting in that it is the surprise that is exhibited from newcasters as they announce “yet another” American citizen that has gone off to fight for ISIS. The known Americans have been mostly converts to Islam or have committed themselves to the vision of al-Baghdadi – the ISIS leader.

What the newscasters lower their voices for, and what should be remembered, is that the Americans who have gone to fight with ISIS have gone to fight in the Syrian Civil War, against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. While some certainly may be extreme and some are converts to Islam, many simply feel that “this group ISIS has it right”. The volunteers have been drawn to fight during tough economic times at home especially for those in the long term unemployed demographic. Choosing a successful group that blames others for the downfall or misfortune of their own makes perfect sense. It’s the same way people tend to gravitate towards gangs.

walking the "right" way

walking the “right” way

This conjures to mind a little known group of Americans who, during a time of economic depression, went to fight in another Civil War for groups that were at the time considered dangerous: The Spanish Civil War between 1936 – 1939.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade

The Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) began when a military coup across the country attempted to wrest control from the Republican government to General Francisco Franco and his Fascist party.  In the southwest and northwest, the military uprising was successful, but the people of Aragon, Madrid, Castellon, Valencia, and Cataluna stopped the effort – mostly through the power of local workers and farmers unions.

the situation in Spain in 1936

the situation in Spain in 1936

The resistance against Franco and the Fascists was an ambiguous amalgam of Left groups from Communists, to Trotskyists, to Socialists, and Anarchists – each which created their own militia. Given the situation of an uprising against a democratically elected government, many people from around the world were outraged – especially since they were beginning to see the monster of Fascism rearing its head elsewhere in Europe and Asia.

Thousands of volunteers from many countries decided to join the fight on the side of the Republica, now controlled by the “Generalidad” – a council of the political leaders of the various regions and groups. The Generalidad in late 1936 began to try and coalesce all the Spain-barricademilitias under one umbrella as a front against the fascists, but the fighting continued to be fought on a company to company basis (small militia units).

The military revolt opened the door for a social revolution to occur and workers unions and agrarian unions instinctively took over public buildings , transportation infrastructure, and munitions depots where the Republican government was absent or had fled. Worker collectives began to form especially in Barcelona and Aragon. These collectives offered a nearly idealistic anarchist society: free, stateless, and based on worker control. This is what drew many volunteers to fight for the Republican side – the chance to work and fight for a society that seemed to be headed towards Utopia.

the Left Republic

the Left Republic

Volunteers from abroad often joined in with one or more of the left groups. Such was the case of George Orwell, the English author, who fought with the PUSC (spanish Trotskyists). Others joined one large group known as the International Brigade.

Approximately 2,800 Americans joined the fight in a clandestine group called the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade.” The Brigade had as its goal to stop the spread of fascism in Spain and rid the country of Franco. They joined 35,000 other foreigners fighting for the Republic in the International Brigade. Their partners included Canadians, British, Irish, Portuguese, German, French, and many others.

Why did Americans join the fight in Spain?

The economic and political chaos and malaise of the 1930s certainly afforded a large population an opportunity to join an overseas adventure. Even more so, the depression spurred many Americans to join others who had suffered injustice, unemployment and were influenced by student radicalism and/or left group ideology.

anarcho-syndicalist union: The CNT

anarcho-syndicalist union: The CNT

The volunteers came from all walks of American life: Teachers, firefighters, students, sailors, salespeople, lumberjacks, athletes, and artists. But they were progressive and left leaning. They were led by a black commander, Oliver Law, and 60% of the volunteers were members of the Communist Party – a large connection when thinking about the socialist and communist union groups that were leading the government during the war.

Why did the U.S. not get involved in the Spanish Civil War?

After reluctantly declaring war in 1917 in WWI, the U.S. became vehemently anti-war and isolationist in the following 2 decades as a result. When conflicts arose in Europe in the 1930s, the U.S. was still mired in the Great Depression and had little precedence for involving itself in a major foreign conflict. Besides, the U.S. just defeated Spain in the Spanish-American war just 3 decades earlier – certainly not making them a key ally.

Thus, the Spanish Civil War, while important in pitting major ideologies against each other (fascism vs. socialism & democratic governance) did not see a Cold War influence or puppet masters wielding influence behind the scenes – at least not with the partipation of the U.S. The Soviet Union certainly held high influence over the Spanish Communists and their Union groups – an influence that would eventually lead to the dissolution of the anarchists. Germany financed Franco, though not as much as he had hoped, but the U.S. did not involve itself directly. The non-intervention policy actually harmed the Generalidad because American companies cooperated with Franco’s forces while an embargo against Fascist forces prevented arms from reaching the Republican sides.

walking with a fascist friend

walking with a fascist friend

Apart from the popular desire not to get involved overseas, the politics of the Spanish Republican Government, especially those in Barcelona were considered very radical. Left groups in the U.S. had historically received very negative press (ex. Haymarket riots) and the Red Scare had convinced many Americans of the “dangers” of Communism, Socialism, and Anarchism. The U.S. had even attempted to subvert the new Soviet government following the Russian Revolution in 1917, so the U.S. official policy was not inclined to support militias which were deemed to be “too radical.”

To further emphasize the official U.S. policy, the McCarthy era Communist witch hunts of the 1950s and 60s made life extremely difficult for returning veterans of the Spanish Civil War and members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – most of whom were not recognized for their service. Members were blacklisted and affected deeply by their affiliation with the war and its politics.

Conclusion: A Thread

So what does a civil war in Spain have to do with Americans joining an Islamic Militant group bent on creating a Caliphate across Iraq and Syria?

There’s a great deal of correlation, actually.

A solid comparison can be made of the militia groups fighting on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War and the rebel groups fighting under the umbrella group of the Free Syrian Army against the Syrian government and the dictatorship of Assad: many were deemed radical, or too radical to support with American arms.

Are they the right, moderately islamic, not too radical group to support?

Are they the right, moderately islamic, not too radical group to support?

Americans volunteering to fight in Spain and in Syria had no official U.S. backing and the U.S. has had a non-interventionist stance on the war itself. ISIS, long a Sunni militant group in Iraq that was mainly an outlier while American forces held pat in Iraq from 2004-2011, saw an opportunity to exert a larger following and force when the Syrian Civil War grew out of control in 2011 – 2012. Given the extent of the land they now control, ISIS is by far the biggest player in the Syrian war – but has their own agenda in setting up a caliphate under sharia law.

The militia groups in Spain were considered radical politically, like ISIS is (or ultra-conservative religiously with their brand of “Islam”) but one significant difference is the use of torture and extreme violence in the public eye. Spanish militia groups did not execute journalists for the camera nor raped or pillaged minority villages – that was mainly the MO of Franco’s army (ie. Guernica). Yet given the American public’s image of Communism, Socialism, and Anarchism at the time, the idea of American volunteers fighting for such groups probably conjured unpleasant images – much like the media has made of the few Americans who have fought for ISIS.

guernica in ruins following the nationalist bombing

guernica in ruins following the nationalist bombing

Like today’s American volunteers for ISIS and other Syrian rebel groups, Americans fighting for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War may have had few opportunities because of the economic depression, faced serious discrimination, or saw a cause that was worth fighting for – one that they saw their own government looking the other way on. While non-intervention in Spain resulted in a lack of arms reaching militias defending their government, American inaction in Syria until the coalition airstrikes now appear to be helping the Assad regime instead of more moderate groups.

Though the numbers are significantly smaller in terms of volunteers fighting for ISIS than those in the Abe Lincoln Brigade, the explosion of coverage and shock is much higher this time around. Maybe we should take a look back at past conflicts instead of standing with mouths open.

Until the next militia group volunteership,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:









Posted in American Intervention, Conflict, Middle East, Radical Movements | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What’s the Deal With Sexism in Science?

Hello All!

Roz Franklin and her x-ray crystallography

Roz Franklin and her x-ray diffraction studies gave us our double helical structure of DNA

Welcome to another edition of ‘What’s the Deal?’, the blog that calls for tough conversations to be had to promote understanding and equality in the blogo-sphere.

In this week’s edition, we’ll take a look at a head-scratching reality of 2014: sexual harassment and discrimination in scientific fields. Despite legal protection in the workplace and the fact that STEM operations are trying heavily to recruit more women, sexism or reports of harassment occur far more often than one might expect.

To get our heads around the subject, we must understand that this is nothing new: the struggles of female scientists facing discrimination are well documented – scientists who provided a wealth of important research and scientific knowledge but were overshadowed or not given credit are just now starting to get the deserved credit. It is important to delve into this as a social crisis to change workplace cultures and provide the necessary means for prevention beyond just legal protection.

The Current: No one to report to

While the incidents of sexual assault on college campuses is raising awareness and beginning to change attitudes and avenues of reporting incidents, what happens beyond the campus and beyond the halls of research is less widely reported and less regulated.

Mildred Dresselhaus, a professor at MIT contributed to the discovery of buckballs and carbon nanotubes

Mildred Dresselhaus, a professor at MIT contributed to the discovery of buckballs and carbon nanotubes

In a study published in July, 64 % of survey respondents reported having experienced sexual harassment at a field site in which scientific investigation was being conducted. More confounding than the unacceptable, and illegal, behavior is the lack of a code of conduct and reporting  mechanisms available for victims of sexual harassment or assault. According to the study, only 1/2 of respondents recalled the existence of an actual code of conduct at their field site, and less than 1/4 said there was a sexual harassment policy.

The study, along with blogs and reporting that have profiled sexual harassment in the field of science writing, are revealing just how prevalent this systemic, problematic behavior is across scientific disciplines. The dearth of a quality reporting mechanisms is also striking.

Why is this happening?

Sexual harassment, like many social issues in the U.S., is still very pervasive across many parts of working society. Despite federal and state laws addressing discrimination and sexual harassment, the behavior persists, though at lower levels than in previous generations. In scientific research, much of the reported incidents of harassment or sexual assault have been directed from a superior to an inferior (trainee, grad student, etc.). In those situations, many victims fear a reprisal that would have them kicked out of their program or lose funding for their research. So even if there is a mechanism for reporting the incident at the organization, school, or research site, perpetrators might have less of a chance of facing repercussions.

Dr. Kate Clancy, who along with her Anthropological research, shares her own story of harassment in science with other women who have experienced discrimination or harassment

Dr. Kate Clancy, who along with her Anthropological research, shares her own story of harassment in science with other women who have experienced discrimination or harassment

Stories of harassment or assault often follow similar lines:

“We start with a young, enthusiastic, intelligent woman.  A male professor takes an intellectual interest in her, takes her under his wing, gives her a job and training.  When the inappropriate comments start, she feels uncomfortable, but says nothing. She feels indebted to the professor, and he has promised to guide her to a successful career.

Someone always asks, “Why didn’t she just leave?” Well, she might not leave because she is funded, and there aren’t many other opportunities. She may be too committed to the research.  She could be years into a graduate program, and changing professors would slow her progress to graduation substantially.  Potential new professors will want to know why she left, and it will be difficult to answer.  Others in her field will think she is an unreliable scholar for switching horses midstream. Her professor may refuse to give her a recommendation, limiting her options. She knows her life and her choices will become subject to public scrutiny. She knows that some would say that she was “asking for it.”  Finally, she knows that there is a lot to be lost from standing up to an abusive professor.”

In a highly competitive field for scarce funding, a reprisal could mean the end of the line, so incidents can sometimes go unreported. As can be clearly seen, all the laws in the world still aren’t be enough to resolve the issue an bring an end to inappropriate behavior. Until an open and free environment and culture can be created at the top of the structure along with guidelines, reporting mechanisms, and harassment training are instilled, the issues will continue.

Sex discrimination in science is a well documented fact. Some of our most important scientists were female and had to endure and encounter very difficult obstacles.

‘For Whomsoever Hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance, but whomsoever have not, from him (her) shall be taken away even that (s)he hath’ – Matthew 13:12

The list of female scientists who have been snubbed for credit of important scientific developments is long, too long. From nuclear fission, to bacteriophage discovery, classifying stars, mapping the universe, mapping the ocean floors, to the structure of DNA, female scientists have been left out of the textbooks and the halls of scientific recognition.

Charles Pickering and his female assistants, the 'computers' who mapped the universe

Charles Pickering and his female assistants, the ‘computers’ who mapped the universe. Including Annie Jump Cannon who created the modern Star Classification system.

This pattern of recognition (or lack there of ) is known as the ‘Matilda Effect’  – or ignoring female scientists in a research study or field. This was previously known as the ‘Matthew’ effect of giving credit to people with prior name recognition who often had little or less to do with a study than others (hence the biblical reference).

This sociological effect is one of the sources behind women losing out on scholar grants, lower odds on becoming a full professor, winning awards, sitting on scientific award boards, and as previously stated, receiving recognition for research. Studies on this situation reveal that:

‘although overt gender discrimination generally continues to decline in American society, our research is consistent with other studies that document the culturally held belief that women’s scholarly efforts are less important than those of men’

This effect is further verified by studies that have shown gender bias favoring men in accepting applicants for scientific research.  Faculty members (both female and male) rated male student applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the same female applicant. The results also showed male applicants receiving a higher salary and benefits.

Marie Tharp presenting her map of the ocean floor - an incredible effort since she was barred from oceanic expeditions because she was a woman.

Marie Tharp presenting her map of the ocean floor – an incredible effort since she was barred from oceanic expeditions because she was a woman.

So a cultural belief still exists in scientific fields that tends to ignore the contributions of women in science and considers them less important than those of men.

Is this the source of the relatively frequent sex assault cases in scientific field research?

Conclusions: Until the Right Structures and Cultures Exist

As is usually the case when we examine social issues, there is more than one cause to the issue. The preexisting culturally held belief that women’s scholarly efforts are less important than men’s has many causes. A long history of sex discrimination and treatment of women as second class citizens in the U.S. probably form the backbone of this belief.

Professor Elizabeth Blackburn discovered Telomerase, an enzyme that protects that ends of Chromosomes (telomeres) during replication

Professor Elizabeth Blackburn discovered Telomerase, an enzyme that protects that ends of Chromosomes (telomeres) during replication

But another issue that is telling is the exclusivity of scientific research and academia. The smaller percentage of females as managers or directors of research helps to keep workplace cultures  in the status quo – which as we’ve seen from the research studies done is discriminatory towards women. With less women and change at the top, modifying the workplace and research sites to include codes of conduct and sexual harassment training (and you know, regular respectful treatment of everyone, ie. Golden Rule) probably takes a back seat.

As is well known, women are significantly underrepresented in several scientific fields especially in engineering and physics. But even in scientific fields where women are the majority, such as psychology and primatology, bias persists – driven by organizers of scientific symposia – where women are given less time for presentation of research and participation. Cultures tend to be male dominated when there are less women around, but change of culture requires more than just female involvement.

This culture needs to change; No matter how many women are at a workplace, they deserve the same treatment and respect as any other employee. The change of culture starts at the top. For directors of research not to have a reporting mechanism in place or to ignore reports of sexual assault or discrimination is despicable. No employee or student should fear reprisal for being a victim of assault.

Cecilia Helena Payne Gaposhkin, the first woman to receive full professorship at Harvard

Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin, the first woman to head a department at Harvard completed important research on the composition of stars by correctly interpreting absorption spectrums

By actually implementing and applying codes of conduct and sexual harassment laws beyond the campus to research sites and by adding more ways to report incidents (as required by law), there will be an improvement to the numbers and hopefully the culture.

Until the next revealing study spurs conversation and change,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson


Sources and Further Reads:










Isbell LA, Young TP, Harcourt AH. 2012. Stag parties linger: continued gender bias in a female-rich scientific discipline. PloS one 7(11):e49682.


Posted in Science, Social Issues | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

What’s the Deal With Cosmos in Russia?

Hello All!

a cold launch

a cold launch

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that rarely breaks Earth’s gravitational pull.

In this week’s post we discuss a cancelled rocket launch in Russia and what that means for the Russian aeronautics and space industry. We’ll put some context into the situation by discussing the gallantry of rocketry in the Soviet era and what impact that has on restoring it in modern day Russia.

The Current: Cancelled!

On Friday June 27, Russia’s space agency Roscosmos postponed the much vaunted rocket Angara just before its scheduled takeoff. The space agency cited an unknown technical issue that was caught by the automated diagnostics system as the reason behind the cancellation. Roscosmos declared that the ‘minor technical issue’ would be resolved and that they would attempt the launch again on Saturday the 28th.



Once again though, the maiden voyage of the Angara was postponed again on Saturday and the rocket has been shelved indefinitely until the fixes can be made (the problems are still unknown). The Angara was supposed to be the headlining rocket of a new class of Russian space rockets that were to bring the Russian space and rocket program back into the first class international picture.

The string of rocket failures (all with Proton design rockets) in the past three years culminating with the much anticipated Angara delay (with President Putin watching live footage) has certainly taken the air out of the high hopes the Russians have had for their revamped program (at least for now). The Angara program was to be entirely Russian built – a program begun soon after the fall of the Soviet Union. The program has been successful in building rockets entirely made in Russia and, as was scheduled, to be launched in Russia as well at Plesetsk (a former Soviet missile site), in the North of the country. The program was designed to compete with privately run international competitors SpaceX and ArianeSpace.

Who is Angara?

The Angara rocket (named after a Siberian River) is heavier than its Proton design predecessors, uses a different fuel (liquid oxygen and kerosene instead of hydrazine), could carry up to 25 tons, and was making its first voyage into lower Earth’s orbit. But the industry and company, Krunichev Space center are the same that built the failed Proton rockets, such as the crash just last month carrying sophisticated satellite equipment.

The new launch site is also called into question. In an effort to make the program entirely Russian, the historic Baikonur facility in Kazakhstan was abandoned in favor of the Plesetsk Cosmodrome site – one of two new launch sites within Russia’s territory (the other under construction in Vostochny in the far East). One must wonder if there is a connection between the company, new site, and the rocket issues.

The all-Russia program is immensely important to President Putin who personally followed the events following Friday’s cancellation to make sure that Angara did not end up as another failed launch: ““Do not rush the work. Carefully analyze everything and report to me after an hour,” Putin told (Defense Minister) Shoigu.

A Whole Lot of Anticipation

that's a nice rocket

that’s a nice rocket

We can start to see why President Putin would be so personally invested in the space programs redevelopment once we take a close look at the economic implications of the Angara program. But it becomes even more so in its historical and cultural meaning for Russia.

Yes, the new program has been in place since 1994. Yes, the program has cost nearly $3 billion. But you see, being at the top of the class in rocketry and the space program used to be Russia’s thing. The Angara is supposed to be the rocket that starts to get some of that mojo back.

A Blast From the Past (who expected that headline?)

Symbol of Soviet physics success - Igor Kurchatov

Symbol of Soviet physics success – Igor Kurchatov

Science faced numerous challenges in the Soviet Union in pre-World War II years where scientists were undervalued in society and faced terrible repression if they were found to be a threat to the Kremlin in any way. The ‘Stalinist Purges’ as they were known, infamously erased many of the top minds in Soviet society in the late 1930s. The war, however, showed how valuable science (especially physics) was when applied to certain technology – namely ballistics for military purposes. The atomic bomb displayed to Stalin just how important and powerful the sciences could be – and duly plunged efforts (and finances and resources) into creating a Soviet bomb to match the Americans (which it was in 1949).

As the mostly clandestine scrambling for nuclear weaponry accelerated, the civilian technological developments were racing at mind-boggling speeds as well in the throes of the Cold War. While simultaneously developing intercontinental ballistic missiles to carry atomic weapons, the Soviets were also busy reaching milestones in space, showing their industrial might and the extent to which they had invested in science and technology.

Yuri Gagarin makes the first orbit around the Earth

Yuri Gagarin makes the first orbit around the Earth

By launching the first satellites, having the first human orbit the Earth, first space walk, and have the first craft land on the moon, the Soviets had reached a pinnacle in aeronautics that was astonishingly fast given the difficult political and economic barriers. The Soviet legacy began to tarnish following the American milestones from the moon and the continuing success of NASA, but Soviet rocketry remains a potent symbol today even after the devastating blows from the fall of the USSR to huge budget cuts and an exodus of scientists.

So, the Angara program is Putin’s hope for a restoration of Soviet glory days?

Well, that simplistic view is not quite what it seems.

The Exploring Bear: Ursa Major

A successful Angara space flight would begin to put Russia back on the map as a major world player. Much like we saw in the Sochi Olympic opening ceremony, Russia is hoping to revamp its once vaunted industrial might – to show the world that the old bear is not hibernating any more – that Russia today is worthy of respect.

Putin personally getting involved in Angara's development

Putin personally getting involved in Angara’s development

One can make arguments that the long term investment in Russian rocketry is part of the effort, along with increased political involvement (see Ukraine, Georgia, and Syria), to command more respect from global leaders after the USSR’s collapse, but to make the connection is a bit speculative.

I think it is important to note the individual effort to which Russia is going with its Angara program – to accomplish it completely using Russian materials, Russian design, and Russian bases. Going away from the Baikonur facility in Kazakhstan (which it had a long term lease on) is moving away from a facility that is also used by the U.S. to send astronauts to the International Space Station to a location where it has complete control. Perhaps this is also a symbol of breaking away from international cooperation (which the ISS continues to be).

It’s clear that since the Russians invested so much in the program, they’re not abandoning their project after their failures thus far. This is a project upon which much is weighing: historical pride, national investment, and international fame – not something that Putin would give up anytime soon.

Until the next suborbital transflight,

Your Faithful Historian and Observer,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:


Holloway, David. Stalin and the Bomb. Yale University Press, 1994.






Posted in Europe, Science, U.S. | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s the Deal With a Minimum Wage Hike?

Hello All!

How much to move the cliffhanger?

How much to move the cliffhanger?

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that loves a good hike, even without a view at the top.

In this week’s post, we’ll venture into the current debate surrounding the Federal minimum wage and how this fits into the larger social issues of income disparity and concentration of wealth in the United States.

As we delve into this political hot potato, we have to ask ourselves what the debate over the minimum wage is really about. In other words, what is the reason that the majority of Americans polled support the current offer of a raise to the minimum wage?

This political hot potato is loaded

This political hot potato is loaded

It is the ever-present and pervasive divide between those with wealth and opportunity and those whose windows for opportunities are few and are shrinking. It is this widening chasm of opportunity access that minimum wage supporters highlight and want policy makers to address.

Let’s look at current efforts to raise the minimum wage, the historical use and goals of the minimum wage in the U.S. and from there, we can gain a clearer perspective on the debate.

The Current: A Sky-High Minimum Wage?

In the “in between” town of SeaTac, WA (between Seattle and Tacoma), residents voted last November to raise the local minimum wage to $15/hour, a 63% increase from the state minimum wage of $9.19/hr. As controversial as the hike itself was, thousands of employees of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport are not eligible for the pay increase as several employers at the airport filed lawsuits and won. So for now (there are appeals being considered) wages for many airport workers are “grounded.”

A lot of green being discussed in the emerald city

A lot of green being discussed in the emerald city

Up Interstate 5 to Seattle, another minimum wage law is being considered with equal measure of political divide. The eyebrow-raising proposal to raise Washington state’s largest city’s minimum wage to $15/hr is indeed a large step to take and has drawn the ire of businesses small and large who are worried about having to absorb the increased wages.

Another controversial twist in the plot is that the new minimum wage would be implemented to workers who receive tips – a major reason why the restaurant industry in the emerald city is up in arms.

Several other states are currently considering minimum wage legislation such as Maryland while New Jersey and Connecticut have already passed wage increases ($8.25 and $10.10 respectively). The minimum wage issue has really sprung into the spotlight recently with fast food worker strikes, D.C.’s living wage ordinance, and President Obama focusing on the issue with his State of the Union Address and his executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 for certain Federal workers.

The U.S. Senate is currently attempting to debate a change to the minimum wage. The bill (Fair Minimum Wage Act 2013) would amend the original Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to raise the minimum wage to $8.20 the first year, $9.15 the second, $10.10 after 2 years and index the wage to the Consumer Price Index in years afterwards.

not up for the rotunda

Debating before debating

The bill, introduced by Senate Democrats, cannot even make the Senate floor for debate because of its controversial nature and heavy lobbying from opposing voices – mostly business and conservative groups. So though the general public has voiced support for a raise, Congressional action has been non-existent.

Why has the push for a higher minimum wage been taken up a notch in the past year?

Mind the Gap

The push for a higher minimum wage is part of a realization that income inequality, the gap between rich and poor, has increased too far in the last four decades and that access to opportunity and social mobility has decreased as a result.

Much has been made of the amount of wealth held by a small portion of the population (the 1% vs. the 99%) with the top 20% income earners controlling 93% of total income, but it usually stops there. More than recognizing that the wealthiest Americans control most of the money, we need to explain what this means for everyone.

Below is a non-exclusive list of life factors and expenses that one might look at in a typical family budget. What income inequality has shown is that this budget is not a source of stress for a decreasing few, while it has become often unattainable or the predictor of poverty for the increasing majority.

This budget includes:

  • Housing:  Unable to own your own home (less expensive in the long run compared to renting) or live in safe locations with access to quality schools, grocery stores, health providers, or parks. This map shows the required minimum wage to live in different counties around the country – easily outpacing the Federal minimum wage in most counties.

    expensive building blocks

    expensive building blocks

  • Childcare: The extreme costs of childcare force many families to sacrifice work or risk putting children in dangerous circumstances, profiled here in this PBS Newshour segment. This often sacrifices one parent’s income or severely limits a single mother’s ability to provide.
  • Employment: For many people, working multiple jobs is the only way to make enough money to pay for the essentials, and even this combined with government assistance is not sufficient. Multiple jobs leave less time to raise families, add stress to households, and can be a risk to health.
  • Education: Having to live in poorer areas mean that local schools are often underfunded (by lower property taxes) creating a stark inequity between low income and high income areas, reducing the chances for academic achievement, higher education and social mobility.

    A doctor's visit could be a bank breaker

    A doctor’s visit could be a bank breaker

  • Healthcare: Those folks who have healthcare included as a part of their employment are part of a decreasing population. With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, more people should be able to find a plan through an exchange, but the mindblowing costs of healthcare along with many states’ refusal to expand Medicaid provide costs that are unaffordable to many households.

The point of all this is that more and more Americans are facing situations in which the basics of living are becoming unaffordable and that windows of opportunity to move up are closing. Inequality should be measured with more than just income, but since income has a high connection to opportunity, it is a good indicator.

More than just income inequality though, more than “the rich get richer”, the gap is in access to opportunity. Take education, for example. The number one predictor of academic achievement today is family income: a recipe for decreasing social mobility for lower income Americans.

The minimum wage fits into this picture by providing a baseline of how individuals can provide the basics for their household from a minimum wage job and whether the value of the minimum wage has kept pace. The answer is unequivocally, no. Hence, the stagnancy of the minimum wage has contributed to inequality of opportunity.

You're about to hear my two cents. Does that make sense?

You’re about to hear my two cents. Does that make sense?

Haven’t we always had a minimum wage? And, why hasn’t the minimum wage been tied to inflation since the beginning? Wouldn’t that make sense? To get a sense of the purpose of the minimum wage as well as the political wrangling surrounding the subject, let’s take a look at  its long and controversial history.

A Fair Day’s Work

The first efforts to bring about a minimum wage coincided with other protections for laborers such as collective bargaining, worker safety, shorter hours, and other issues. These measures were initiated at the state level and meant to protect primarily women and children as the workforce changed from an agrarian economy to an industrial one.

Beginning as early as 1840 in the U.S., measures to protect workers were initiated as President Van Buren issued an executive order establishing a 10 hour work day for government workers. Several states followed with similar measures between 1840 – 1860 and 8 hour work days followed for Federal employees in 1868.

mutton chops and minimum wages

Van Buren had a progressive agenda to protect workers, but was thwarted politically in Congress.

The first minimum wage law was passed in Massachusetts in 1913 and 14 other states and D.C. followed between 1912 – 1923. But these laws were rendered toothless by a Supreme Court case, Adkins v. Children’s Hospital in 1923 which ruled that D.C.’s minimum wage law violated the “due process of the 5th Amendment” by interfering with a worker’s liberty of contract. This interference meant that the D.C. law was “getting in the way” of workers possibly bargaining for a higher wage. In addition, the court argued that since the 1918 law was meant to protect women workers, it was considered out of date because women were no longer disenfranchised in 1923, following the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote.

As a result of the court’s decision, state minimum wage laws across the country were either struck down or became strictly advisory, making them unenforceable. The 5-3 court decision was controversial, with Chief Justice William Howard Taft (the former President) dissenting, writing that minimum wages offer:

the benefit of the general class of employees in whose interest the law is passed, and so to that of the community at large.”

and protect employees because

“They are peculiarly subject to the overreaching of the harsh and greedy employer.”

Surprisingly, Taft was in favor of the minimum wage.

Surprisingly, Taft was in favor of the minimum wage.


and associate Justice Holmes asserted that Congress has a right to pass laws that protect the health and well being of workers:

to remove conditions leading to ill health, immorality and the deterioration of the race, no one would deny to be within the scope of constitutional legislation.”

So, the Supreme Court was relatively split on the minimum wage issue and whether the government had the authority to intervene in the free market to impose a minimum wage. Adkins v. Children’s Hospital was later overturned in 1937, but the debate over how much government should be able to be a part of the market was the question at stake here.

Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938

Interestingly, labor unions initially attempted to block legislation that limited hours and brought minimum wages to the table. This was mostly because labor groups worried that a minimum wage really would mean a maximum wage for laborers, but also because most of the large umbrella unions (AFL for craft trades, CIO for industrial labor) had men as the majority of their membership. The Great Depression forced the groups to realize that all workers needed protection from economic panics. Political wrangling between the two largest union groups delayed passage of a comprehensive labor standards bill.

Hillman had comprehensive labor vision

Hillman had comprehensive labor vision

2 main players in the 1930’s were instrumental in bringing forth President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s desire for a comprehensive labor standards law to protect all workers, men and women. Sidney Hillman, who helped create the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) with John L. Lewis along with Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor under President Roosevelt.

Hillman had created the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America union and was a staunch supporter of labor standards to protect workers:

“He was a lonely if not solitary voice, demanding national action on unemployment insurance, low cost housing, public works, the 5 day work week, and minimum wages.”

Perkins meanwhile had devoted her efforts to carrying out FDR’s mission of protecting Americans through labor standards as he had done as Governor of New York. Perkins was put in charge of drafting such a piece of legislation and Hillman, given his adamant support of the issue was asked to assist Perkins with the bill which was initially submitted in 1937. The bill included a $0.40/hour minimum wage and created a labor standards board that would establish maximum hours by industry with a floor at 40 hours per week.

the force behind FDR's agenda

the force behind FDR’s agenda

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) used its influence to attempt to block key parts of the bill which it saw as overly partial to the influence of Hillman and the CIO. This political wrangling back and forth saw measures watered down, such as key industries being removed from the influence of the labor standards board and delayed passage of the bill until 1938. President Roosevelt showed his exasperation over the delay during his State of the Union address in 1938:

“We are seeking, of course, only legislation to end starvation wages and intolerable hours; more desirable wages are and continue to be the product of collective bargaining.”

Roosevelt’s message was simple: laborers should not be receiving wages that don’t allow them to provide the basic necessities and that since the Supreme Court had already overturned their decision on Adkins v Children’s Hospital the year before, it had been decided that minimum wages did not violate the 5th Amendment. Soon after, the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed through Congress in 1938 implementing  the $0.40 / hour minimum wage for certain workers.

The benefits of the Labor Standards Law were immediate and impressive. By 1941, according to the Department of Labor, over 700,000 workers wages had been raised to the required $0.25/hr and the $0.40 minimum was covering all workers by 1943. After initial opposition, the AFL and other labor groups had grown to see the minimum wage as a success, helping to lobby for a $1 minimum wage in 1946.

From the FLSA to the FMWA

One of the drawbacks to the initial minimum wage of the FLSA of 1938 was the absence of a minimum wage adjusted for inflation. Therefore, unless Congress raises the minimum wage, it loses buying power every year (things usually cost more over time while your wage stayed stagnant). Congress regularly raised the wage between 1940 and 1970, but did not continue the process in the 1980s. Two increases in the wage in the 1990’s and one in 2009 have left the purchasing power of the subsistence wage stagnant at a 22% lower rate than the wage’s peak in 1968.

Sen. Harkin (IA) attempting to fix the FLSA

Sen. Harkin (IA) attempting to fix the FLSA with the FMWA

So, all of the basic necessities mentioned earlier now take up more of the earnings of minimum wage employees.

The latest proposal to raise the minimum wage, the Fair Minimum Wage Act would gradually raise the minimum to $10.10 over a couple of years that would be indexed to the Consumer Price Index and include a higher sub-minimum wage (for tipped workers).

It should be noted that most employers had and still have no intention of having their workers starve by paying them next to nothing. Before the FLSA, most employers paid their workers what was cost effective and was based on what the labor market demanded. Other employers set their own company culture based around fair wages for a fair day’s work, such as Henry Ford when he implemented a $5/day min. wage for his workers in 1934. Given this information, however, wages that were “cost effective” for employers often did not provide sufficient resources for employees and many employees were exploited whether they were immigrants, women, children, or a different race.

Taking this all into account, why has the minimum wage been so controversial? and why is the Fair Minimum Wage Act so important?

Conclusion: Diluting the Conversation to Obfuscate Inequality

The movement behind the original minimum wage laws had as its ultimate goal to decrease inequality and provide improved welfare for the least well off. We saw this in labor legislation and its defense by the justice system. The opposition to the minimum wage both at the state and federal level derives from the desire to have less government involvement in the free market and to reduce the number of Americans receiving assistance from Uncle Sam. This argument against the minimum wage extends to today with the hot potato now being juggled in Congress.

But what are opponents of the FMWA and the minimum wage arguing?

min. wage critics argue that a rise will lead to her getting zero income

min. wage critics argue that a rise will lead to her getting zero income

The most common argument against the minimum wage comes from an economic perspective, that if you require employers to raise worker’s wages, employers will cut back on employee hours and the number of jobs.

This will, the theory goes, price workers out of the job market by making the fewer number of jobs more competitive, leaving the less skilled out of the workforce and therefore hurting the very people the that wage intends to help. In other words, the minimum wage is, according to critics, a “job killer.”

From all the research done on minimum wages and their effects (and their is a ton of research) we can say that with modest increases in the subsistence wage (such as in the FWMA), there appears to be few job losses as a result. Some studies have shown job losses and reduced hours, but the overall effect is a net gain in earnings for the vast majority of low income workers – disproving the notion that employers will make giant cuts to employment from minimum wage hikes.

Not your typical minimum wage workers

Not your typical minimum wage workers

Critics also argue that recipients of minimum wage are usually not from low income households, the “wealthy teenager summer job” argument. But this is countered by the facts of who would benefit from the FWMA:

  • 84% are over 20 years old
  • 54% of the benefits from the wage increase would go to the bottom 1/3 of the income bracket
  • Women and minorities are over-represented as recipients compared to their percentage of the workforce
  • The average affected worker brings home 1/2 of the family earnings

It is true that wages are not the only sources of income for low income Americans. Benefits such as food stamps, access to Medicaid, and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) all help to supplement low income families. Minimum wage opponents argue that the EITC is sufficient enough to keep workers afloat. But the EITC only arrives once a year through tax refunds, and since it’s a work incentive, can put downward pressure on wages – meaning that a higher minimum wage should be a complement.

The divide seems impassible

The divide seems impassible

Are critics of the minimum wage really concerned about low income workers losing work according to their theory? Or are they only concerned about the influence of government and putting more in the hands of the poor?

With less taxes levied on the rich than in any other wealthy country, with the incomes of the top rising extremely fast with lower incomes stagnant, the intense critique against the minimum wage is a bit hard to understand. The reality of wealth distribution pushes in the other direction, with a maximum wage being a reasonable conjecture for addressing inequality.

Why does income inequality in the U.S. need to be addressed with the minimum wage increase as a start?

For people like Akilarose Thompson:

“To put it in perspective, yesterday I got paid, today I have not a dollar in my pocket,” said Akilarose Thompson, 24.

Thompson has worked at McDonalds for almost a year, serving customers on the cash register or on the drive-thru window. She got a pay rise in June and now earns $8.28 an hour – three cents above Illinois’s minimum wage of $8.25. Thompson works a second job too, at Red Lobster, but still has to go to food banks to support her and her 15-month-old daughter.

“Sometimes two or three a month. Lots of times you can only go to the same one (food bank) once a month, so I find different ones to go to. I have to in order to put food on the table,” she said.

“It is so depressing. You put a smile on because you’re in customer service and you have to. But on the inside it really breaks you down when you’re always at work but you’re always broke.”

The hardest thing, Thompson said, is the compromises she is forced to make because she does not earn enough money. She lives in West Humboldt Park, an area blighted by drug dealing. She worries about not being able to provide for her daughter.

“It would be life changing,” Thompson said (on the minimum wage rise). “I would be able to move and that is my sole thing right now. I have to get my daughter into a better neighbourhood. I have to.

“So if I was able to afford that then I could walk with my head held high. No more crying at night. Because you can’t cry in front of the kids because they’ll know something is wrong.”

A situation like Ms. Thompson’s is not atypical, it is not an apparition, it is not the result of poor work ethic, it is the chance result of being born in the United States: the land of shrinking opportunity.

Will the minimum wage be the fix that decreases income inequality perfectly? No, of course not, there is no quick fix to the social issue of income inequality. But a minimum wage increase does provide a much needed boost for 17 million American families like Ms. Thompson’s and would be a step in the right direction in reducing the great income and opportunity divide in our nation.

Until the next loaded hot potato,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:









Clifford Thies, The First Minimum Wage Laws, Cato Journal Volume 1, 1991. http://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/serials/files/cato-journal/1991/1/cj10n3-7.pdf

Howard Samuel, Troubled Passage: The Labor Movement and the Fair Labor Standards Act, Monthly Labor Review, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2000. http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2000/12/art3full.pdf

Schlesinger Jr., Arthur M., The Almanac of American History, Bramhall House, 1983.

Posted in Economy, Politics, Social Issues, U.S. | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What’s the Deal With a New Counter-Terrorism Strategy?

Hello All!

Dishing out support

Dishing out support

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?”, the blog that also offers indirect support to complex issues.

In this week’s edition, we’ll discuss the strategy for the United States Armed Forces to train the military and security forces of foreign countries in place of direct US military intervention.

Will this strategy to improve local security be more effective against terror networks than direct military takeover or invasion?

Let’s take a look at some insurgent and terror groups, the allies involved in combating terror, and what counter-terrorism strategies have been effective in the past.

The Current: Backseat Drivers

a growing problem

a growing problem

The many-headed hydra of Islamist extremism has begun to drastically alter the landscape of governments and security around the world. Nowhere is this more prominent than in several countries across the Sahara desert in Africa. In the last few years, several extremist groups have taken root and stirred up violence:

  • In Mali, we saw an extremist group attempt to take control over the northern part of the country and fought the Malian government (which had been taken over in a coup) only to be beaten back by supporting French troop intervention.
  • In Nigeria, Boko Haram has been using terror as a weapon in the North of the country killing civilians for religious and political reasons. The Nigerian government has struggled to contain and reduce the group’s attacks.
  • In Libya, militants have used the vacuum of security left after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi to control weapons and spread extremism across the porous borders to the Sahara.
  • In Somalia, where instability and militant power has sapped the country of normalcy for years, Al Shabab continues to threaten the fledgling government in Mogadishu.
  • In South Sudan, contested land between Sudan and South Sudan have been fought over by militias since South Sudan’s independence in 2011.

In his State of the Union address on January 28, President Obama outlined several issues on foreign policy that would be the focus of the United States Armed Forces in Africa (AFRICOM). The central focus in terms of security (outside of Afghanistan) has revolved around new methods of counter-terrorism operations that would be put into practice to prevent similar cases as those listed above.

Marching away from direct intervention

Marching away from direct intervention

The new plan is to use the accumulated knowledge from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to help governments in Africa cope with militant groups by training other country’s military forces. Considering the enormous resources it takes to run a full scale invasion (see Operation Iraqi Freedom), the Obama administration realized that it must use a combination of American training and intelligence in tandem with in country forces to provide security and to dilute the presence and power of terror networks.

The training strategy is based off of the great “learning experiences” of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where many military tactics failed to take root and form permanent secure alliances. Instead, the counter-terrorism operations will focus on training troops to build relationships with communities, promote economic and social mobility, along with providing security. This was one of the hard lessons learned by the U.S. Army and General David Petraeus in Iraq when they found an effective counter-terror tactic to be paying off locals not to attack U.S. forces and by providing aid.

Alternatively, the U.S. has based intelligence operations in several locations across the continent. In places like Burkina Faso, the U.S. has been basing drone reconnaissance missions to locate and identify targets. Using drones for intelligence gathering and attacking targets is a very controversial subject as the U.S. has seen in Pakistan and Yemen.

Will African security be reaping the benefits of intelligence?

Will African security be reaping the benefits of intelligence?

So, instead of being the head honcho, the United States is playing more of a backseat driver role.

Let’s look at where the United States strategy is going to be concentrated and why extremism has taken root in the Sahel.

Areas of Insurgency: Sahel of a Hard Time

Over the last decade or more, the United States has attempted to build a presence in several African countries along the southern portion of the Sahara desert where insurgent groups and terror outfits have sprung up. Many groups have wreaked havoc in their own countries for various purposes, but the U.S. main concern are groups who are affiliated with Al-Qaeda or other terror networks.

Why are these areas experiencing a rise in insurgencies and insecurity?

It turns out that:

  1. permeable borders
  2. distrust among neighboring countries
  3. corrupt or weak governance
  4. ethnic conflicts
  5. religious differences
  6. and limited economic opportunities

all provide fertile ground for extreme ideology and violent action.

Marking an uptick in violence

Marking an uptick in violence

Take Nigeria for instance (3, 4, 5, and 6).

In the North of the country, the Hausa-Fulani Muslim group Boko Haram (meaning “Western education is forbidden”) was created in 2000 in exasperation to corrupt government contracts that left disputed land out of their hands. Boko Haram has carried on a tradition of violence that has been frequent since Nigeria’s independence. By attacking public centers, places of worship (both Christian and Muslim), and schools, the group is attempting to gain control of the region by threatening those that oppose their views.

The group has found some voices of favor despite their reign of violence. Residents in northern cities like Maidiguri and Kano despise the inherent corruption in the Nigerian government that has been endemic since Nigeria’s independence in 1960 with roots in the colonial era. Boko Haram has plenty of recruits with an unequal distribution of power  between North and South combined with severely limited economic opportunities.

Insurgent groups have found a niche in areas where governance and security are weak. Even if the majority of the local population disagrees with their philosophies, groups are gaining strength because they do provide benefits for some communities. Case in point is Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, Libya (1, 2).

Life is violent when militias fill the security void

Life is violent when militias fill the security void

After the 2011 revolution and civil war in Libya ousted the Qaddafi regime, many militia groups that had helped defeat the pro-Qaddafi forces kept their weapons and were determined to make an impact on their newly independent country. Many of the groups were from the Eastern portion of the country, centered in Benghazi. As the new government was being organized in Tripoli, the local militia groups reigned over local towns and cities. Even after the government was created and much of the administrative dust had settled in Tripoli, the central government has remained quite powerless to provide security on the national level and still relies on local militias and groups to perform the task.

Why is the central government in Libya dependent on local militias still to provide security nearly 3 years after the fall of Qaddafi?

It turns out that many groups have simply become embedded in local communities. Unable to project their authority, the central government is helpless to stop extremist groups like Ansar al-Sharia who have become a fabric of the Benghazi society – despite many Libyans being opposed to their strict Islamist ideology:

“People attacked Ansar al-Sharia a few months ago because they were angry. But now they’re asking them to come back because there is no police… the people prefer to be protected by their own.”

In addition to providing protection, Ansar al-Sharia also provides social services such as food distribution and medical assistance. Recognizing their stance, Ansar al-Sharia has as its goal to now use their influence to have the Libyan constitution be one that adheres to strict sharia law. This of course does not sit well with many, especially in foreign circles where the group is blamed for the September 2012 attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi.

Violence between ethnic groups in the South of the country have reopened old wounds that had been patched by Qaddafi’s controlling regime. This is the region where a power vacuum has allowed many groups to flourish whose aim is to enact radical change with newly acquired weapons that have flown freely across borders.


More dangerous perhaps for counter terror operations has been the outflow of weapons from the Libyan civil war into the hands of rebel groups in other countries through the country’s porous southern border on the Sahara. The several separatist groups in northern Mali (1, 2, 3, 4, 6) provide a good demonstration of this and the problem of mistrust between African nations facing the same issue.


Fighting for Azawad

Sensing the window of opportunity afforded by a military coup in Bamako, the Malian capital, groups such as Ansar al-Dine, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the National Front for the Liberation of Azawad  (FLNA) began to take control of northern regions of Mali. The groups have their own agendas and goals. For example, Ansar al-dine wants to have sharia law implemented everywhere in Mali and the Muslim world. They operate under the umbrella of AQIM, but also include different local minority ethnic groups. AQIM seeks to equip and form jihadist militias across Africa to spread instability using weapons absorbed from the Libyan conflict and elsewhere.

The Tuaregs, a minority nomadic ethnic group in the Sahara, have wished for many years to become an autonomous republic outside of the control of Bamako in Mali’s south. Mali’s government had used the tactic of buying support and using friendly local leaders to secure the North. With a coup in early 2012, the Tuareg took up arms (mostly from Libya) to carve out their own territory in the desert. Islamist groups such as Ansar al-Dine supported the Tuareg initially, but soon carved their own path of overall jihad against civilians and non-supporters of their ideals. The ensuing chaos drew in the French armed forces in early 2013 as they traveled to their former colony to drive away many of the Islamist militias with support from Malian and other African forces.

The French army can roll through in tanks too

The French army can roll through in tanks too

Since the French and international forces intervention, constitutional order and integrity for Mali has returned but many insurgent forces remain and confidence in the new government is very low.  The newly elected Malian government has been slow to restore basic services and local clashes between Malian forces and militant groups have prevented humanitarian aid from reaching most of the North. This could be fueling a feedback loop of renewed violence:

Inability of government to provide basic services leads to  mistrust in government due to corruption leads to  anti-establishment activity or violence leads to → intervention and widespread conflict leads to → peace and restoration of the state authority leads to an inability to provide basic services to citizens.

As the possible feedback loop suggests, “Malian authorities cannot afford to repeat past, unfulfilled promises of change.” Otherwise, northern Mali could remain a fertile recruiting ground for insurgency.

Lessons for International Cooperation: No Quick Fixes

Counter terrorism requires an adjustable wrench

Counter terrorism requires an adjustable wrench

The cause of insurgency and ethnic violence is complex and solutions to combating terrorist groups (local or global) require answers in matching complexity. The United States has learned this lesson the hard way in the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq: the quick fix of direct military intervention and government installation is often more detrimental than intended.

How to move forward then?

Peace keeping operations and governments understand the seriousness of the situation, but must look to the root cause of the rise of the insurgent group. Is it a lack of security or government authority(Libya)? Is it a land dispute brought on by government corruption (Nigeria)? Is it lawlessness, poverty, and a government that doesn’t provide basic services(Mali)?

Where terror groups have gained support among the population, anti-terror operations must do the same but to a greater extent. If terror groups provide local security or police, the government or peace keeping operations must step in and provide legitimate security (without threatening civilians or allowing attacks). If terror groups provide basic services and aid, governments must be there to provide legitimate services and aid without the weight of corruption or threats. If terror groups are recruiting young men and women to fight in jihad against governments because there are no opportunities for young people, governments and counter-terror operations must provide jobs, aid, education, and money to support themselves and their government.

Assistance beyond shade for the displaced

Assistance beyond shade for the displaced

Many of these boil down to creating a legitimate government where there clearly isn’t any at the moment. Where government is absent or non-existent, this is the niche into which the United States must step in a partnership with the host country. The United States has already attempted to set up shop where they see potential threats. The effort by U.S. intelligence and counter terror operations has had several pitfalls and in some cases has failed outright. For example, the U.S. had been working with Malian forces for several years on counter-terror operations before the recent crisis, but without a stable host government, the training became moot.

In addition to counter-terror support from the U.S., countries like Mali should look to their neighbors for help. Insecure borders and governments that look the other way on insurgent groups allow terrorist groups to grow, recruit, train, and commit atrocities across the Sahel. Countries need to do more to share information, gain local citizen trust, and collaborate on security operations. Mistrust between nations is often deep, but the consequences of doing nothing will hurt every country in the long run.

Conclusion: Counter-Relapse

So, given the extent to which these groups are dug in and wreaking havoc in their respective regions, what new strategies can the U.S. and its allies take to counter?

Relapse to desert security

Relapse to desert security

Here is a short list that matches up with and makes a few additions to the Department of Defense strategy:

  • Use diplomatic power to urge presidents of African nations not just to host American drone and special forces operations, but to rapidly ensure fair delivery and execution of basic services and emergency aid, and to build trust with adjacent countries.
  • Use existing bases across the region to work with and train local police and military forces.
  • In training forces, stress the importance of building relationships with local leaders, investigating military malpractice, ending the use of community based armed groups for security, delivering social services, and  ensuring legitimate security without the threat of corruption or ethnic favoritism.
  • The backbone of all these training operations must be a government that is working to reverse corruption and provide protection for all of its citizens ( a tough task for any government).
  • Above all, use patience. Building relationships requires time and there is no “quick fix” for defeating shifty insurgent groups.

If the United States strategy sharpens its focus on these loci, it will use its power (both soft and hard) to help develop legitimate democracies and prevent relapse into failed states and hotbeds for extremists.

It is important to note that the terror groups listed here is by no means a comprehensive one; it is a microcosm in a complex region that also extends to the horn of Africa affecting countries like Uganda, South Sudan, Burundi, Cameroon, Kenya, and most frighteningly in the Central African Republic (CAR).

Contain the flame

Contain the flame

The current horror in the CAR is worrying enough from a regional and international standpoint excluding the immediate militias involved. If the situation broke down further into genocide or a full scale civil war, it would likely pull in several jihadist groups and hamper the counter-terror efforts of AFRICOM.

Beyond the strategy of counter terror operations, the displacement of civilians and the unspeakable violence has been extremely difficult to watch. The extreme poverty of communities in the Sahara desert has been exacerbated by violence to hamper any efforts by peacekeepers or Aid efforts. The U.S. and its counter-terror strategy must keep the local population in mind as a top, if not the top, priority in any strategy. International groups must do their best to prevent crimes against humanity and genocide and set up secure refugee zones. 20 years after the Rwandan genocide, the world must pull its blinders off to the “hole in the heart of Africa.”

These will all be areas to watch in 2014 as the U.S. and the world all have an interest in the region beyond countering terror.

Until the next reactionary handbook,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson


Sources and Further Reads:










Posted in Africa, American Intervention, International Affairs, U.S. | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s the Deal With Unions in the South?

Hello All!

All ears

All ears

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that counsels on worker’s councils from its own consulate.

In this week’s edition, we’ll take a look at an important vote for unions at a car manufacturing  center in Tennessee from February. The vote was a key symbol in looking at how organized labor in the United States has decreased dramatically for several decades and what the future of labor unions holds.

We’ll review the history of organized labor in the country, especially in the South and make a conjecture about whether this is an irreversible trend in employment and what it means for key American industries in the future.

The Current: What the Volk wants

In a closely watched and intense vote that spiked national debate and tremendous outside spending and influence, employees of the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, TN voted 712 – 626 to not join the United Automobile Workers.

While both union and non-union supporters had predicted victory, the effort to gain union members in a traditionally anti-union region was seen as an important first step in a more comprehensive campaign to expand UAW membership in the South- notably to the Nissan plant in Smyrna, TN and the Mercedes plant in Alabama.

yoga means union, but union means  loss of subsidies from Bob Corker

yoga means union, but union means loss of subsidies from Bob Corker

The move towards a union faced serious political hurdles and threats from lawmakers. Had the plant unionized, the Tennessee governor Bill Haslem, Senator Bob Corker, and state senator Bo Watson asserted that parts suppliers would have located elsewhere and that subsidies would have been taken away from the plant.

Several states have been passing or considering “right to work” laws or legislation that gives states the right to determine whether an employee is required to join a union or not for a particular job. “Right to work” laws are highly controversial and are hotly debated around the country with union supporters contending the legislation is meant to weaken unions and contracts that supply steady workers rights and access to health care. Supporters of “right to work” see the law as giving individuals the freedom of choosing whether they want to join a union or not.

In addition, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist painted with a new medium by creating the “third party” Center for Worker Freedom which put up anti-union ad campaigns in and around Chattanooga, warning that the city might become “the next Detroit.” (the CWF was created specifically for this vote).

The people's auto has decided to stay out of the people's vote

The people’s auto has decided to stay out of the people’s vote

For its part, Volkswagen had stayed neutral on the issue and urged outsiders to not meddle in the vote. The German car maker has unions and works councils in all of its other 105 plants worldwide. Had the union won the vote to join the UAW, members would have collaborated with Volkswagen to create a German-style workers council – committees of white and blue collar managers and employees to develop factory policies.

After the loss of the vote, UAW representatives and union supporters at the plant immediately continued to press for a worker’s council – something that VW supports. But setting up a council without a pro-union vote is very difficult and may be impossible under U.S. labor law (no council has been set up before).

In addition, the UAW has filed an appeal with the U.S. government’s National Labor Relations Board seeking to overturn the vote and have a revote – again citing unfair intervention by outside interests against unionization. VW workers who voted against the union mentioned they already had good relations with their employer and an ability to bring up issues – therefore, making the idea of representation from a union unnecessary.

On the flip side, the UAW has been trying to extend their influence into foreign automaker plants in the South so that wages aren’t stagnant or depressed at the major American automaker plants in the North – part of an overall goal of decreasing the gap between rich and poor by raising blue collar/manufacturing wages.

But this begs an important question: Why did unions never form or establish themselves in the South in the first place?

Understanding this will help us answer the question of why Tennessee politicians and conservative voices opposed this unionization so vehemently. Let’s look further into the history of unionization in the U.S. and the culture of employment in the South to find these answers.

To Organize in the South…

Gompers helped start the strong tradition of organized labor in the industrial north

Gompers helped start the strong tradition of organized labor in the industrial north

Organized labor was delayed in its implementation in the southern United States. While the Knights of Labor formed in Philadelphia in 1869, and Samuel Gompers brought workers together to form the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) in 1881 and then later the American Federation of Labor (AF of L) in 1886, southern labor did not begin to organize seriously until the New Deal of the 1930s.

What reasons can we come up with as to why labor unions didn’t form in the South at the same time as the North?

  • Southern economy: the economy, as it had been since colonial days, was based primarily on agriculture and cash crops. The North on the other hand, had a more diverse economy with manufacturing centers and a higher concentration of laborers.
  • Type of Labor: Who was primarily working in the fields and crop distribution centers in the South? Slaves. Slavery certainly was not the only labor involved, but it did instill a culture of labor designed around lack of freedoms for workers even after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
  • Culture of Employment: Given the history of slavery in the South and the dependency of the economy on free labor, it is not too big of a stretch to conjecture that employers and landowners would continue similar practices of minimal rights for workers.

The South’s devastation from the Civil War and its agrarian economy both contributed to its delay to industrialize. Industries of various types such as textiles did develop in certain areas such as Charleston, South Carolina and Greensboro, NC, but often did not flourish in the South until after the Great Depression.

% of farms sharecropped 1865-1914

% of farms sharecropped 1865-1914

After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, many newly freed blacks stayed in the South and were often tied to former plantations as sharecroppers. This kept many blacks in positions of debt to landowners – sometimes their former owners.

Sharecropping became the primary way of life for many in the South, black and white. Instead of moving or creating population centers with a diverse economy, much of the south continued to be an agrarian economy with a near-peasant workforce.

Other blacks and southerners migrated West to newly opened lands in Oklahoma, Texas, and to the North. This migration began to develop en masse during and following World War 1 when industrial labor gaps in the North in cities like Chicago offered an escape from the sharecroppers life.

Given the labor that was working as sharecroppers (former slaves) and Jim Crow laws, labor conditions were not ripe for a union. A culture that had existed for more than 150 years based on a hierarchical society and slave labor wasn’t going to reverse itself immediately. It wasn’t  until the 1930’s that a group tried to bring fair conditions for sharecroppers, both black and white in the South.

the STFU had a uniting agenda

the STFU had a uniting agenda

The Southern Tenant Farmers Union was created to implement the AAA (Agriculture Adjustment Act – a New Deal policy) fairly for both landowners and sharecroppers in the South. Previous attempts to bring rights to sharecroppers were met with serious resistance and intimidation; threats that were mirrored in other industries when they developed in southern cities.

The Factory in the South

As we mentioned earlier, industry was delayed in becoming part of the southern economy. When it did arrive, it often did so because of the lack of worker representation.

Many industries began to look to the South as a haven for doing business for two main factors: cheaper labor, and no established union “interference.” While unions had been instrumental in helping this country adopt fair labor standards and conditions into law in 1938 and help give workers a voice in their scheduling, pay, and free time, many businesses and companies considered them disruptive and politically dangerous.ihy9412081

To achieve many of labor’s gains, unions of course had to organize and strike – a process which of course delays production. Union victories often meant extra costs to employers, whether that meant higher wages or stricter implementation of safety standards. Employers expanding to the South would not find the same type of organized labor.

To avoid the complications and potential extra costs that came from worker representation, employers from the outset paid reasonable wages and sometimes provided decent worker housing and communities. While this did discourage unionization, eventually some southern factory workers became driven to organize.  When they did, they sought out the powerful umbrella unions from the North. Both the AFL and CIO competed to be the union representation in certain plants.

sockin it to the man

sockin it to the man

As more and more industry moved South in the 20th century, unions never achieved high rates of membership. This certainly did not mean there were no efforts to organize or that interest was low. In a multitude of industries from textiles to mining to leather to aluminum, to meat processing to farming, unions throughout the South began to form. It often was an uphill process with many barriers, though.

Don West was a lifetime activist and organizer in civil rights and unions helping to infiltrate mines, factories, and political circles to instigate change and social and economic progress. West describes harassment against his efforts of trying to organize mine workers in Kentucky:

“You see, then you couldn’t go to a miner’s home, even on a week end, go to a home and talk with him. You wouldn’t be in the house more than three or four minutes and there would be a knock on the door and someone would be there: “What you doing there, buddy? You don’t live here. You get back where you belong.” Three miners couldn’t meet on the street corner, stop and talk, exchange the time of day. They would be broken up by the gun thugs, you see… We’d just gotten in the house when suddenly at this door and this window and all there was an officer with a six shooter, just like a bunch of desperados were being taken, you know. Arrested. And they piled all my books and papers and everything into some trunks and boxes we had and took them along with us, down to the court house. They confiscated my books and my total library and they put us in jail. Accused me of conspiring to overthrow the government.”

West’s experience was not a unique one. Employers often had the support of local law enforcement to break up strikes, potential organizing, or civil rights activism. Activism was also fought vigorously by groups like the Ku Klux Klan who later burned down West’s house for his actions.

Given the difficulty in organizing and the barriers to worker representation created by the South’s employment culture, it becomes easier to see why union membership has stayed low. Sometimes, workers simply showed no interest in joining a union. Either companies barred worker organizing or the incentives for workers to organize didn’t trump the membership dues. Whereas union membership and community were often one and the same in some northern communities, the same culture was virtually non-existent in the South.plot unfolds

The failure for unions to establish a foothold in the South in the 20th century coincided with the decline of unions overall in the United States. Many opponents of New Deal policies and the power of labor attempted to limit unions and reverse some of the gains that had been made in the early 2oth century. From the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 which, among other things, allowed employers to fire striking workers, to the McCarthy era witch hunts  that broke the power of socialists and communist factions of the left, and the strong-arm tactics of some union bosses all helped to decline union membership and sputter the formation of strong unions in the South.


So we learned that the South was slow to unionize because of its longtime agrarian economy and hierarchical social castes which created a culture of employment around few worker’s rights and discrimination.

Once industries began to move South to take advantage of cheaper labor and avoid powerful unions, some workers saw the advantage of representation, but faced severe discrimination, retribution, and threats. Much of the union and community culture that had developed in the North failed to take root down South.

So unions in the South did exist and have existed for a long time in many industries, but certainly they did not, and have not had the numbers and representation that existed in the North.

Though the UAW’s appeal to the NLRB is still forthcoming, we have to begin to wonder if the UAW’s efforts to spread unionization to foreign owned auto plants is in vain. If politicians are intent on using their power to stop unionization, maybe using the popular private employer’s idea of Worker’s Councils will be a way around the barriers to worker representation.

It will certainly be very interesting to see if the UAW’s appeal will be taken seriously by the Obama administration. If it does, many will cry foul, citing that the administration would be backing labor outright. Perhaps the UAW will see that some of their tactics which many have seen as “strong arm” are not being perceived positively in southern states and may adapt accordingly.

While politics will be played from both sides, this union vote was fascinating and an interesting spot to view the state of unions and labor and to think about what’s to come.

Until the next worker’s council vote,

Your faithful historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:




Louis Uchitelle, The Disposable American





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What’s the Deal With a Hook, Line, and Sinker for Hookworm?

Hello All!

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that usually remembers to wear shoes outside.



In this week’s post, we’ll discuss a major breakthrough in the fight against hookworm, a parasitic agent that affects nearly 1 billion people around the world, mostly in poorer nations.

We’ll take a look at what hookworms do to humans, what the scientific breakthrough can do to help, and dig up some historical connections with this issue and others.

The Current: Hi, I’m Geno Type

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis this month have successfully decoded the genome of one of the hookworms that infect humans, Necator Americanus. The hookworm is a type of parasitic nematode worm (helminth, if you prefer the scientific term) that lives inside the small intestine of humans feeding on blood. The parasite can be transmitted between humans via contact with human waste that is not properly disposed of – a common condition of areas with little infrastructure or plumbing.

hookworm lifecycle

hookworm lifecycle

The parasite can cause anemia, or blood loss, gastrointestinal issues and nutritional loss. More severely, in pregnant women, the hookworm infection can cause severe anemia which can lead to maternal death or newborn death. Its prevalence among the world’s population makes it one of the most common infections.

Decoding the genome of the worm allows scientists to identify specialized mechanisms, anti-inflammatories, that the worm uses to live unharmed by human immune systems. The decoding of the genome can help fight the parasite by finding specific genes to be inactivated by a vaccine. When a hookworm enters a host human body, usually through the skin of bare feet, it moves and remains undetected into the small intestine, suppressing molecules that initiate inflammation – an immune system response. Though the immune system does mount a response against the parasite, it is relatively ineffective at harming the hookworm. The difficulty in tracking hookworm infection in clinical patients has made it especially difficult for scientists to develop an effective preventive vaccine.

The breakthrough will allow scientists to develop effective treatments against the hookworm but also create anti-inflammatory medications to counter autoimmune diseases and allergies. These potential developments in addition to current vaccines will provide a formidable fight in helping infected people remain hookworm free.

But this news has also raised some ethical questions about what the best course of action is to take in combating hookworm.

  • Yes, the potential of a vaccine to be distributed would help a lot of people, but wouldn’t it more helpful to combat the direct cause of hookworm?
  • Shouldn’t more resources go towards developing better plumbing infrastructure and educational intiatives in poorer countries?
  • Shouldn’t our efforts go towards helping improve the economic situation – which will indirectly improve sanitation and overall well-being?
  • Aren’t other prevalent and more deadly diseases worthy of our attention as well?

All intrigue-worth questions for sure, but let’s review an issue that involved the United States to gain a valuable perspective.

Hookworm in the U.S. of A.

coprolites, baby!!

coprolites, baby!!

Archaeological evidence for hookworm infection in the Americas dates back to pre-Columbian times and other parts of the world to ancient times. Fecal fossils revealed the eggs and larvae of parasitic worms preserved with the ancient waste (lots of feces talk in this post!). As we know now about how humans become infected, the parasite was a common infection for most people around the world in warm regions unless they had access to indoor plumbing.

This means of course that the parasite was a huge problem for rural Americans in the warm climate of the American South. The persistent and frequent cases of “ground itch anemia” in school children led to several public health investigations as to the cause of the problem. Just after the turn of the 20th century, scientists were able to identify Necator Americanus or the hookworm, as the parasite to blame.

While many vaccinations and efforts were made to get rid of the parasite inside the human host, the chief cause of infection was not eliminated. Many rural regions of the South continued to lack the infrastructure necessary to provide indoor plumbing to prevent infection. It took until after World War 2 in the 1940s for the combination of vaccination, education, and plumbing infrastructure to significantly reduce the problem.

more hookworm

more hookworm

It is easy for Americans to be puzzled by the prevalence of the hookworm infection rate when it is virtually non-existent here now. But our own struggle with the hookworm infection should provide a poignant background to tackle the international prevalence of the parasite.

One for the Dogs

Many Americans might be more familiar with helminths like N. americanus if they’ve ever taken their pet to the vet. Most dogs require a de-worming medication or vaccine to protect against worms like hookworm. Canines were originally test animals for vaccines not only to protect them, but also to see how vaccines might work in humans. The original canine vaccine – a type of radiation vaccine – was successful as a vaccine, but not as a commercial product (veterinarians preferred dog owners returning to purchase routine vaccinations instead of one).

multiple vet visits??!!

multiple vet visits??!!

But it was significantly more difficult to use canines as testing models for human hookworm infection. As you might imagine, canine immune systems don’t react exactly like their owners. Further, it was not economically feasible to maintain lab animals for this type of testing.

The Progress

Thought many scientists and much research since 1910 has been dedicated to obtaining an effective hookworm vaccine, a great deal of effort in clinical trials and research has occurred in the last 13 years. In 2000, the Human Hookworm Vaccine Initiative was founded with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation dedicated to creating an effective vaccine capable of eradicating hookworm around the globe.

ahh!! more hookworm!

ahh!! even more hookworm!

A vaccine antigen (Na-ASP-2 if you were curious as to its name) was eventually developed that began to show that the immune system could begin to mount a protective stance with the introduction of the antigen. After grants were awarded to the HHVI, clinical trials for  a couple of variants of the vaccine to be tested in rural Brazil began, but some had to be discontinued in 2007 because of allergic reactions in some participants.

Since then, multiple variants of antigen vaccines have been developed and manufactured with clinical testing done in rural sites around the globe as well as in the U.S. at research hospitals. As stated earlier, clinical testing for hookworm vaccines has proved extremely timely because of the nuances of the human immune response to infection and the difficulty in tracking infection. No doubt, progress has been made  in developing an effective vaccine that induces protection from the immune system against hookworm. The decoding of the hookworm genome only enhances the progress made so far by targeting specific areas.

Conclusion: One True Solution – Many Birds, One Stone

So as we can see, while the decoding of the hookworm genome is a remarkable achievement and one that has great potential, it is hardly the final nail in the coffin for the parasite.

Let’s review briefly what we learned today about your new favorite helminth:

  • Hookworm infection is one of the most common in the world, affecting around 1 Billion people.
  • The parasitic infection can cause serious problems like anemia and nutritional deficiency in children and pregnant women.
  • Vaccines that protect against the parasite are very difficult to create because of the hookworm’s ability to survive unharmed in the human body.
  • Decoding the hookworm genome this month is a major breakthrough in understanding genetically how the hookworm evades the immune system and how vaccines can be better targeted against it.

But what about those thought-provoking questions we asked earlier in the blog?

Ah yes, how could I forget? Well, instead of using third person answering techniques, let’s actually go ahead and address them right now.

As we saw in the U.S., the true solution to eradicating hookworm infection in humans is to have indoor plumbing infrastructure available for all. This would stop the transmission of hookworm from open latrines and waste systems to barefooted denizens. Not only would this prevent people from getting infected with hookworm, it would also prevent the many other diseases that are transmitted through poor sanitation, notably diarrhea.

But to reach this solution, we have to realize the immense scale of the problem. Nearly 36% of the world’s population, or 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation. Yikes. This means that the definitive solution to hookworm is many years away unfortunately.

Given this timescale (even the U.S. took several decades to solve the issue) a mixed response of economic development and vaccine development would be the most appropriate answer. In my own opinion, not enough is being done to build proper sanitation facilities for everyone – so perhaps it is aid that needs more research and development to be better targeted.

Map of NTDs

Map of NTDs

Finally, one could argue that many other more deadly diseases garner more attention than hookworm. This is certainly a true statement given the prevalence and danger generated by Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). But given the transmission methods of these diseases, better infrastructure and improved sanitation may be a solution as well.

Until the next infectious discussion is derived from a nematode,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:



http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3323499/ (Pub  Med)


Stiles CW. Frequency of hookworm disease or ground itch anemia among public school children in Southern Florida. Public Health Rep. 1910;25:351–4


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