What’s the Deal With Executive Orders on Immigration?

Hello all,

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal” the blog that is seeing the highest readership of any blog ever! [citation needed]

Campaign soundbites = Presidential policy (so far)

Campaign soundbites = Presidential policy (so far)

In this week’s post we’ll discuss President Donald Trump*’s latest executive order halting immigration from 7 different countries that are predominantly Muslim. The public criticism and protest of the order has been widespread and large as many people feel that the order is the first step on the way to Trump’s promised “Muslim Registry” from the campaign trail.

Following the public backlash, the White House issued a press release on the executive order intending to clarify and justify the action. Trump cited a previous halting of immigrants by President Obama as legitimate reasoning for the action which is intended to “protect the nation from foreign terrorist entry.”

Since it has been issued, a lower federal court and a ninth circuit federal appeals court have prevented the order from being enforced by the Executive Branch, so at the moment, the order is blocked by the Judicial system though Mr. Trump has promised to fight the block all the way to the Supreme Court.

There have been many well-written briefs on the legal grounds, strategic folly, incoherence, and poor implementation. This blog will focus instead on the historical precedents on executive orders in the realm of immigration.

….Wait, there already was research and analysis done on this in the one week since the order by a group of respected historians at the University of Minnesota? …Dang.  Well, let’s write one anyways!

*yes, he actually is the President of the United States – kind of like when Doc Brown won’t believe Marty when he tells him that in 1985 Ronald Reagan is President of the U.S. – except much worse.

Historical Presidential Actions on Limiting Immigration

not a total ban from Iraq

not a total ban from Iraq

Unfortunately for Mr. Trump, his justification based on Obama’s order – “my policy is similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months” – does not hold up to scrutiny. First off, refugees do not travel on visas and secondly, the executive order from 2011 from President Obama was not a complete ban – it was a narrow more intense vetting of refugees and those applying for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs).  In addition, the Obama order was grounded in a specific threat from intelligence information that included the arrest of two Iraqi refugees in Kentucky and was an organized process that involved the intelligence and defense departments – not a direct order from an inexperienced White House staff.

This is not very “similar” to what the Trump order implements which is a near-total ban on immigrants with the exception of diplomats.

Have other presidents taken a similar draconian approach to banning immigration from certain countries or regions?

The answer, in the long and often exclusionary history of the United States is yes, with both the Executive Branch and Congress playing a role in excluding and enforcing draconian immigration laws and quotas. Instead of listing every single law or order that was put forth, we’ll highlight a few that exemplify the ban on certain immigrants – something that resonates with Trump’s executive order which suggests a ban on Muslims given his rhetoric and the countries involved but that does not explicitly say religion.

Exclusion – An American Tradition in Congress

The closed gate - the U.S. has explicitly denied entry to some before

The closed gate – the U.S. has explicitly denied entry to some before

The exclusion of certain immigrants by laws passed by Congress and signed by the President in the U.S. is well known, from the Alien and Seditions Acts of 1798 passed during President John Adam’s administration (which restricted migrants to the U.S. based on political beliefs) to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1880 which excluded all Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. for longer than 90 days, to the Immigration Act of 1917 and 1924 which more broadly restricted migrants from the “Asiatic Barred Zone”* to the introduction of literacy tests and immigration quotas to limit the total number of immigrants.

The quotas were based on current U.S. population, which meant that the quotas favored allowing more migrants from the British Isles and Northern Europe than Southern and Eastern Europeans. Interestingly, Congress has also sought to prevent immigration based on religion, though of course not explicitly. A good example of this is the Wagner – Rogers Act of 1939 which sought to admit 20,000 Jewish children from Germany. Congress prevented its passage but then passed a bill admitting British children endangered by German attacks. Congress has also passed bills allowing immigrants that were in the national interest – such as scientists and professors.

quota chart 1925 - 27

quota chart 1925 – 27

Finally, the case of the U.S. and Philippines (examined here)  by the Tydings-McDuffie Act changed the status of Filipinos from official U.S. citizens to aliens and created a quota of 50 Filipino immigrants admitted / year.

Exclusion has less commonly been a tradition from the pen of the White House and the Executive Order (although Presidents have signed draconian immigration laws). A 1952 law that overrode President Truman’s veto gave the President power to block immigrants or prevent full citizenship to whose political beliefs were “detrimental to the U.S.” – clearly a measure directed at Communists or Fascists. From the 1980 Refugee Act, the President gained powers to control numbers of refugees admitted to the U.S. but the Executive Branch has more commonly focused on increasing the inclusion of immigrants such as when President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Immigration Act which banned discrimination of immigration based on sex, religion, nationality, race, and background.

President Johnson at Liberty Island to sign the Immigration Act

President Johnson at Liberty Island to sign the Immigration Act

Any quotas set by the President since the 1980 Refugee Act have been made in consultation with Congress – except for Mr. Trumps. The one area where the Executive Branch has been top in line in preventing or restricting  migrants has been since 9/11  when the responsibility of immigration moved to the Department of Homeland Security. The huge increase in intelligence from the “war on terror” along with the Patriot Act gave the Executive Branch and newly swollen intelligence agencies new powers that disproportionately affected Arabs, South Asians, and Muslims.

*Interestingly this included barring migrants and refugees from Syria (which the current executive order includes as under the ban)

Conclusion: A Dangerous Precedent, Mr. President

Mr. Trump’s order is new in its sweeping effect (only diplomats excluded from the 7 country ban) and in its lack of accountability and participation from the Legislative Branch. The claims made by the President in the order such as the pressing need for national defense against terrorism, the similarity to President Obama’s executive order, and the exclusion of immigrants from specific countries do not hold up to scrutiny, or even some basic reading. On the count of the last point (exclusion from specific country), the order breaches the law (1965 Immigration Act – which prevents discrimination of immigrants based on national origin). Given Mr. Trump’s statement during the campaign and after winning about instituting a “Muslim Ban” this executive order comes close to doing this (which would violate the Constitution) – but does so without explicitly saying it.

The order, though currently blocked, is a dangerous step for the Trump Administration because it likely is counterproductive in reducing terrorist acts, prevents many qualified professionals such as scientists from Iran or professors from Sudan from entering the country – not to mention the splitting of families with dual citizenship and in general putting America under a very negative lens from the international community.

Until the next controversial executive order,*

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson

*won’t be long

Sources and Further Reads:







Sorry, Mr. President: The Obama Administration Did Nothing Similar to Your Immigration Ban


Posted in Elections, Politics, Revolution/Political Uprising, U.S. | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

What’s the Deal With an Authoritarian in Manila?

Hello All!

The Filipino Archipelago

The Philippine Archipelago

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that knows the difference between archipelagos and atoll formation (thanks, Darwin).

In this edition, we’ll discuss the fascinating and irascible new Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte and his new stance on Pacific relations with both China and the United States. We’ll examine if there is a possible connection between Filipino-U.S. historical relations and Duterte’s posturing for his country.

The Current: Popular and Unpredictable

In a recent speech and meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping back in the fall, newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte said he wanted the Philippines and United States to push toward splitting ties, a big blow to the United States’ “pivot” to Asia and the 100+ year alliance between the two countries. Following this, Duterte said he wanted the alliance to continue, but just to have U.S. troops based in the Philippines out. This severing of relations now seems to be tempered even further after significant briefings on the military alliance and the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency in Washington, D.C.

Xi meets Rodrigo

Xi meets Rodrigo

Duterte is extremely controversial internationally, calling President Obama a “son of a whore,” comparing himself to Adolph Hitler in his quest to rid his country of drug dealers and hustlers, but also confusing, saying that “God warned him off swearing,” and then proceeding to curse a reporter investigating the anti-drug campaign.

His back and forth and unpredictable actions along with his populist flavor that brought him to the highest office in the island nation have had some people calling him the “Filipino Donald Trump”, referencing the unpredictable political style peppered with many invectives and offensive comments made by the United States’ president elect.

another victim of extra-judicial killing

another victim of extra-judicial killing

Last week, the New York Times issued a photojournalist account of the strong anti-drug crackdown that has been violent and brutal in its extrajudicial killing of drug kingpins and accused drug users – a total of 3,500 estimated people have been killed. The Anti-drug crusade was a campaign promise by President Duterte prior to his election and received popular support from many Filipinos whose lives have been deeply impacted by the drug trade. Indeed, many Filipinos wrote in to the Times to support the President and the crackdown saying their fear from kingpins and for their general safety is greatly reduced.

The case of the of the drug crackdown is an interesting one as it shows an unwavering popular support of a strongman whose “popular cause”  violates international law (he has been indicted by the ICC) and the Filipino constitution. Their support could come from a feeling of inaction by the preceding government of Benigno Aquino and the stigma from a feeling of high levels of corruption.

Duterte's plays the strong security role

Duterte’s plays the strong security role

To understand the popular support of Duterte and his large shift against the U.S., let’s explore historical relations and the more recent political history of the archipelago nation.

From One Colonial Landlord to Another

The American “acquisition” of the Philippines following the Spanish – American War in 1898 via the Treaty of Paris was no mere handover of the reins of colonial power from a has-been (Spain) to the strengthening newby (U.S.). During the initial war, the U.S. Navy secured control around the islands by pummeling the Spanish fleet at the Battle of Manila Bay allowing a resistance / independence leader Emilio Aguinaldo to declare an independent Philippines on July 12, 1898. As U.S. ground forces took Manila, they promptly excluded Aguinaldo from the negotiation talks with the Spanish (ignoring the independence declaration) and took 400 years of brutal colonial rule and simply changed hands to a new imperial power.*

Aguinaldo as the stoic leader

Aguinaldo as the stoic leader – of the continuing resistance

The resistance movement that followed proceeded to last almost 4 more years and cost the lives of 4,374 American soldiers and 36,000 Filipino soldiers and civilians. The resistance was particularly brutal as the Filipinos (who were outnumbered and outgunned) used guerrilla hit and run tactics – which were responded in kind by ruthless American repercussions. The war became a matter for moral debate in the U.S. as the atrocities on both sides became known. Finally on July 4, 1902, newly sworn in President Theodore Roosevelt declared the resistance resolved as most fighters had been captured or killed and Aguinaldo had acquiesced to the Philippine becoming an American colony.

*Interestingly, the Philippines were unknown to most Americans upon defeating the Spanish including President McKinley himself who infamously could not find the islands on a map. McKinley struggled with what to do with the Philippines after defeating the Spanish – wavering between granting independence and semi-autonomy – but then ultimately decided to maintain American colonial control as it was in America’s business interest. A devout man, McKinley may have been divinely inspired to “christianize” the Filipino islanders as an impetus, but this doesn’t seem relevant since most Filipinos were already Catholic after 400 years of Spanish dominion.

Filipino – U.S Relations:  An Ocean Apart, Yet an Omnipresence

America's first imperial president

America’s first imperial president

The U.S. stance on overseeing the Philippines was officially titled “Benevolent Assimilation” – based on a proclamation by then President William McKinley to set up a civilian government under U.S. control that would bring religious freedom, set up judicial systems, secure private property, and upgrade transport and civilian systems “for” the Philippines. All this, was of course, decided without the consent of the 7,107 islands of 7 million disparate, mainly impoverished peoples within the “nation” which contain hundreds of distinct ethnic groups.

The installed civilian government was overwhelmingly in favor of independence led by the Nationalist Party (following the movement led by Aguinaldo) – but this demand was ignored by the U.S. for decades until 1934 when the U.S. Congress approved a proposal with the Tydings-McDuffie Act (Philippine Independence Act) of 1934 to grant independence within 10 years. This was delayed a couple of years by the end of World War II, but then was realized for the Philippines in 1946.

Subic Bay Naval Station

Subic Bay Naval Station

Despite allowing the Philippines to lead its own government after 1946, the United States maintained two major military bases: Subic Bay and Clark in order to maintain a strategic presence in the region. Following the second world war, General Dwight Eisenhower recommended that these bases be transferred to Filipino control but was overruled.

Eisenhower saw that the bases would be a sore spot for most Filipinos – the bases would be come to seen as continuing American imperialism and control – despite bringing in money for the local economy*. The bases became an even more vital to U.S. interests following the escalation of the Vietnam conflict under the Lyndon Johnson administration in 1965. The bases were finally relinquished to the Philippine government in 1992.

From this short history of U.S. – Filipino relations, we should take away the following:

  • Instead of allowing self-determination and independence following a centuries long colonization by Spain, the U.S. imposed their dominance to use the Philippines as an outpost colony in the Pacific. 
  • The Philippine War was the initial stepping stone for an enlarged American global presence in the Pacific
  • While the war quickly faded from memory in the U.S., in the Philippines it is remembered for its bloody years and the fomenting of subsequent decades of continuing imperial control by a foreign power.
*the same phenomenon could be applied  to the Okinawan islands south of Japan that came under American military control at the end of WWII and thereafter was an air force base for the United States. The pushback by the Okinawans (a distinct group native to the islands) following economic repression and crimes perpetrated by U.S. servicemen, has made both Japan and the U.S. consider the social cost of maintaining military bases around the world.

The Philippines Since Independence

Between independence and 1965 Filipino governments had peacefully transferred and saw high levels of economic growth but had suffered from internal uprisings and corruption and graft – all while social problems among most Filipinos remained. In 1965, the election of Ferdinand Marcos brought forth a period of authoritarianism, corruption and repression that may help explain the interesting connection to Duterte’s government.

Marcos was elected to two four year terms, but during his tenure, his indifference to the injustices experienced by most Filipinos touched off armed rebellions. In response, in 1971 Marcos declared martial law, suspended Congress and the constitution, cancelled the upcoming presidential election and ordered mass arrests of opposition figures. Using his enlarged power for the next 16 years, Marcos ran a series of protected monopolies through the government to steal billions of dollars – enriching himself at the expense of his people.

Marcos increases power

Marcos increases power

While Marcos repelled all sitting U.S. Presidents through his corruption and repression, the U.S. government continued to give billions in military aid – likely because of the continued need for the military bases and a presence in southeast Asia. The U.S. was able to proctor the release from prison of the main opposition leader, Benigno Aquino in 1980, who came to the U.S. for medical treatment following a heart attack while awaiting a death sentence by a military commission. Upon his return to Manila in 1983, Aquino was assassinated by a military squad soon after landing.

Aquino’s assassination touched off a huge rancor of protests from opposition groups and the majority of Filipinos who were tired of the corruption, intimidation, and repression at the hands of an authoritarian. Hoping to weaken the growing protest movement, Marcos called for an election on February 7, 1986, in which he claimed victory – but which only served to spark more protests as the results showed that Aquino was the winner and the election was clearly tampered with. The increased protests combined with the turn of 2 major military figures against Marcos forced his hand. The U.S. remained by his side until February 25th, when he escaped in exile to Guam and then to Hawaii until his death three years later.*

the widowed Corazon Aquino

the widowed Corazon Aquino

Taking the mantle of leadership was the widow of Benigno Aquino, Corazon Aquino. While difficult social and economic issues continued, she restored democracy and ended the term of U.S. ownership of the two major Naval bases at Clark and Subic Bay in 1992. The Aquino’s son, Benigno III, was elected president in 2010 and stayed in office until this past year 2015 with the election of Duterte.

The independent period of time of the Philippines shows:

  • The rise of the authoritarian Marcos led to extreme corruption, repression of freedoms, and a reduction in the pace of economic growth and prosperity.
  • The U.S. supported the Marcos dictatorship in order to maintain their military bases on the Philippoines – at the expense of democracy and economic
*Marcos made his escape in an American chopper to an American territory (Guam) and then to the U.S. itself. The U.S. was complicit in helping the dictator escape – just as they were implicit in their complacency to allow Marcos to impose his ruthless authoritarian government.

The Rise of Duterte: The Return of Authoritarianism?

The election of President Duterte in the Philippines at first look seems like an aberration. Many economic factors* indicating significant growth and stability during the Aquino III administration made many political scientists figure that a continuity candidate from the government establishment would continue the gains made by Aquino. In addition, on the foreign policy side, the increased aggression from China in the South China Sea would seem to warrant closer relations with the United States and its policy of freedom of navigation.

Duterte on the stump in Davao

Duterte on the stump in Davao

Throughout the electoral campaign process, however, it was the political outsider touting strong security (law and order), tough talk on drugs, departure from close relations to the U.S., and anti-corruption that eventually would prevail. Duterte’s message and political record on these issues from his time as mayor of the city of Davao on Mindanao island struck a chord with the majority of Filipinos – many of whom did not see the gains made by the country as a whole – Filipinos who experienced the brunt of Typhoon Haiyan, extreme poverty**, and whose urban communities experience the wrath of the drug trade, child labor, and even sex slavery.

Perhaps the violence against Filipino fishermen and the recent concessions by China have convinced many Filipinos that the direction of the future is a rising China and not the U.S. who many consider to still be the imperial power. The continuing memory of the United States as imperial overlord (from historical relations) may have indeed influenced the rise of Duterte. Given these factors, both domestic and international, Duterte’s populist appeal is understandable – yet does not erase his detestable behavior and brutal actions since he took office.160705-philippines-drugs-0424_6511015396fe9f74410fe81789a2b863-nbcnews-ux-2880-1000

Duterte has certainly carried over his local crackdown on drugs from Mindanao over to the national sphere vowing to “kill criminals” including drug users and addicts. The crackdown on drugs has been called “state sanctioned killing” by Amnesty International as multiple reports allege that the police and military have been complicit in the extrajudicial killings. Major scandals from his mayoral days including charges of financial corruption and conflict of interest in addition to charges of human rights abuses.

The candidate with essentially no foreign policy or national governing experience has many hornets nests to handle including the challenge of China as an aggressor in the South China Sea (see previous posts for background), the long running war between minority Muslim rebels and the state within the Philippines, and major free trade agreements to consider. Finally, Duterte has controversially given former dictator Marcos an official burial in Manila’s cemetery of heroes, something that every sitting Filipino president has publicly refused to do.  Interestingly, this received quite a backlash from the public and from public figures such as his Vice President.

Did the arguments for Duterte justify his election? Corruption was already being tackled (although not completely eliminated) under the outgoing Aquino administration. And what of drugs – are they not an issue? The drug “menace” and the numbers related to drug users, actors, and dealers have been inflated. Duterte had claimed that there were 3.7 million drug addicts that Duterte said, “must be slaughtered.” The number inflation though has not been seen as a problem according to officials it is worth it to “increase awareness” and community involvement. These high numbers, more dangerously, have provided the impetus to increase the violent crackdown.

*factors such as total economic growth of 6.5%, a stable inflation rate of 2%, and a low national debt. Factors that would likely continue should foreign investment and other influences remain.
** the population earning $1.90 / day or less increased from 12% to 13% from 2009 to 2012.

Conclusion: Prescient Connections

Cut from the same mould?

Cut from the same mold?

If these descriptions of a rise of the Filipino president sound familiar to readers it is because they are eerily similar to those ascribed to Mr. Trump, the president elect in the U.S. Interesting connections can also be made to recent elections around the world including Narendra Modi in India where an outsider to current political trends won through populist appeal – although the level of incompetence, brutality, and boisterous disregard for decency to other human beings is not on the same level as Duterte and Trump.

What can we take away from our discussion of historical relations and recent presidential elections?

  • The Filipino election of Rodrigo Duterte has a connection to a populist backlash to the status quo – a status that ultimately was also recognized in the United States’ own election.
  • The United States’s century long relationship with the Philippines has at times been tenuous – and the imperial feeling overhanging the Philippines has continued with the adoption of the military bases and the inaction against the dictator Marcos
  • Both Duterte and President elect Trump have little / no political experience, are brutish and disregard issues related to human rights, and have financial connections that should be labeled as corruption.

Despite the issues surrounding Duterte, he does remain very popular among Filipinos – likely for his attitude of sticking with a campaign promise – something that Mr. Trump will likely have trouble doing.

Until the next upset election, your faithful historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:








The Philippines’ vice president is passive-aggressively shaming Rodrigo Duterte on Twitter

Kinzer, Stephen. Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, Times Books, 2006.




Posted in American Intervention, Asia, colonialism, Elections, International Affairs, Justice, U.S. | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s the Deal With a Hot Middle East and Sahara?

Hello All,

leaving the comedy club deserted

leaving the comedy club deserted

Welcome to another edition of “WTD”, the blog whose humor is as dry as the Atacama.*

In this week’s post, we’ll chat about climate change’s effect on an already warm region of the world and how it may impact human migration and civilization patterns. We’ll also look at past migration patterns that have resulted from changing climactic events.

The Current: From Hot to Hotter to Unbearable

According to a new study, the regions of the Middle East and North Africa will experience a severe increase in extreme hot temperatures and dryness that may make human civilization in these areas unbearable. The study showed that by 2050, these regions will have hot days averaging 46 degrees Celsius (114 degrees Fahrenheit) and that these hot days will occur 5 times more frequently than present day.


Forecast for the next 3 decades

This warming trend as part of overall human induced climate change has occurred more drastically in the polar regions and in the desert regions. Since 1970, the number of extremely hot days in the Sahara and Middle East has doubled. If the current projections play out (even if the Paris agreements are followed), instead of 16 very hot days, this region will experience 80 such days. In the worst of projections (with current greenhouse gas emission levels), the number of hot days rises to 118, a frequency of temperature that would likely make the region unlivable for most human beings.

Climate Exodus and Migration

In addition to the extreme high temperatures, dust storms and particulates will also increase dramatically and likely increase pressure for human migration from those areas. If this is the future for the Middle East and North Africa, than more than 500 million people will be faced with the prospect of leaving their homes and parts of the roots of human civilization.

Big Populations light up the Middle East

Big Populations light up the Middle East

But the consequences of climate change are already inducing migration in the United States. This is the case especially in Louisiana where the state has lost a land mass the size of Delaware on the deltas in the Gulf of Mexico. For Isle de Jean Charles, a small island along the coast, has just received the first Federal Funds ($48 million) to move the entire community of 60 people to higher ground.

Although this is the first of its kind, it likely will not be the last resettlement for coastal communities or islands as there are 50 – 200 million people who will be the front lines to rising seas from the higher global temperatures and will face migration by 2050.

Has a changing climate affected human migration and survival before? What were the causes and results of those migratory patterns due to climate change? Let’s take a look at some historical and geological examples that could help shed some light on possible future events.

The Little Ice Age

A period of global cooling between the 14th and 19th centuries nicknamed the “Little Ice Age” saw global cooling occur on a scale of reduced temperature of about 1 degree Celsius. This had followed a Medieval Climate Anomaly that had lasted for 5 centuries. Popular accounts in the young United States include the “year without a summer” of 1816 in which New Englanders experienced snowstorms in June and severe crop shortages. The same time period also saw the River Thames ice over and good portions of Northern sea inlets freeze over, an unusual phenomenon. These are commonly depicted in popular European artwork.

ice skating on the Thames

ice skating on the Thames

More importantly, the global cooling period had a profound geopolitical effect.  Much of Europe depended on Cod (that’s right, the fish) whether salted as Bacalao or fresh for protein supplies. This vital resource began to migrate however as temperatures cooled and was one reason that seafaring nations began to construct ships capable of traveling further distances. This combined with the difficulties in trade and obstruction with the Islamic Empire which ruled the historical passages proved an impetus for exploration and the subsequent colonial expansion to the “New World.”

Though this large impact eventually brought about huge migrations (whether forced through bondage, religious persecution, or by choice) the most significant example of migration is the Irish Potato Famine which of course led to large Irish immigrants to the United States.

Note: The Little Ice Age and the Medieval Climate Anomaly are often cited as examples as to why current climate change and global warming are “nothing to worry about” and that Earth naturally experiences these changes and are not man-made. True enough that Earth does experience climactic changes, but they are due to natural occurrences such as increased volcanic activity and lower solar incidences (ie. solar flares, etc…).

Historical Responses to Climate Change

A recent study  from researchers at Washington State University on ancient civilizations between 500 AD – 1400 AD in the Pecos River region of current day New Mexico show that culture and geographic shift correlated with climactic shifts such as the 50 year long extreme drought that caused the abandonment of Chaco Canyon by the Chacoan peoples.

Chaco Canyon should not be confused with Choco Mountain

Chaco Canyon should not be confused with Choco Mountain

Using historical tree ring data and its effect on maize production, the authors argue that extreme droughts caused the peoples in the 4 corners area of the current day U.S. not only migrated, they changed their way of societal structure from one of economic hierarchy to one with a more communal emphasis. This is shown in the change in the physical living structures from one of differentiated home sizes to the more even “cookie cutter” variety.

A changing climate that upended tradition among agriculturally dependent societies must have resulted in intra-societal violence and in the end the authors argue that this changed the political situation significantly.

More to our current discussion of climate change’s effect on the Middle East, the historical record has an analogy for us to look to when it comes to climactic changes affecting major events in the Middle East. Another recent study looks at the fall of Constantinople (capital of the Eastern Roman Empire / Byzantium) and how a change of climate conditions may have contributed to the Byzantine collapse and fall of Constantinople in 1204 to the Islamic Empire.

Byzantium (Constantinople) with invasions included

Byzantium (Constantinople) with invasions included

The authors argue that continually arid winters and marked dryness in the 12th century followed by highly variable changes significantly affected the wheat production that had been so productive during more favorable conditions in the 10th and 11th centuries. This along with external political and military pressures was an important contributing factor to the Empire’s collapse. While Constantinople is not quite Syria, the pressures facing the people of that state also may include climactic pressures on food production and supplies. This of course was not a direct cause of the 2011 uprising and subsequent civil war, but could be a contributing factor.

Conclusion: The Migration Has Already Begun

Fresh off the boat, and influencing more xenophobic policies in Europe

Fresh off the boat, and influencing more xenophobic policies in Europe

The focus of the news the past 2 years has been on the refugee crisis on the Southern doorstep of Europe with people leaving behind conflicts and political turmoil in Syria, Afghanistan, Central Africa, and elsewhere. The refugees have already caused an uproar amongst the EU members and an economy that is still in the purgatory of recovery from the Great Recession. Imagine what the crisis will look like in 3 to 4 decades when temperatures force people to leave their homelands that will be suffering under an unrelenting sun.

the slowly fading isle and the new climate refugees of the U.S.

the slowly fading isle and the new climate refugees of the U.S.

As we discussed, many political turmoils have a background connection to climate changes, mostly in the realm of effects to agriculture. Now that we are beginning to the see the effects of human caused climate change to island nations from rising seas, record setting temperatures, and melting permafrost in tundra regions, the repercussions to human cultural change and migration patterns will be far more severe.

Many more people live on the planet than the historical examples given and especially in areas that will be hardest hit by the coming changes – from entire nations like the Philippines and Bangladesh, to regions such as the Middle East and North Africa. The difficulties that lie ahead even with more sanguine climate projections do not bode well for political calm.

Until the next heat wave,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:







Posted in environment, Science, Social Issues | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s the Deal With Public Health, The Environment and Race?

Hello All!

captured the general public's eye

Flint’s story has captured the general public’s eye

In this edition of WTD, we’ll discuss the high profile case of contaminated water in Flint, Michigan and how it connects with our community and social history of racial discrimination in housing and environmental concerns.

Throughout the history of the United States since the Industrial Revolution, the waste that we have produced from industry often has repercussions on our own people. What we have knowingly and sometimes purposely have done is contaminate residential areas where minorities live, or in the case of Flint, knowingly done nothing to easily fix a toxic system.

These stories are continuing examples of our struggle with providing equal opportunities for all people and of the large stumbling blocks that are ahead.

The Current: Toxic Lead – A Whole Generation in Flint Affected

The story of Flint, Michigan’s lead tainted water is a well known one thanks to the recent media coverage, so this will be a brief overview of events and current scenario:

In 2012, the management of the city of Flint passed over to a Governor appointed team of “Emergency Managers” whose goal was to reduce spending and make the city solvent because of a collapsing state pension and financial system. This was the case all over Michigan due to decreasing population and therefore a decreased tax base (a very brief synopsis).

In April 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan made the decision to switch their water from the Detroit system, which gets its water from Lake Huron, to getting water from the Lake directly. While the lengthy pipeline was being built, the city needed to get their water from somewhere, so in order to save money, the city managers decided to use water from the Flint River – a river long contaminated by the large GM auto manufacturer that was in Flint. Immediately, the Flint water showed issues such as E. Coli contamination, foul smells, and strange colors.



In addition, Flint residents began experiencing health issues such as rashes on the skin, clumps of hair falling out in the shower, and developing respiratory infections.

The river water is quite hard, meaning that it contains high levels of minerals (such as Magnesium, Calcium, etc…) and has a high pH that can be corrosive to metals. The water pipes carrying Flint’s potable water to houses and businesses are made of lead or are fitted using lead solder. As the corrosive Flint River water began flowing, it started to corrode the pipes allowing lead particulates into the drinking water of Flint residents. Usually, water officials add a chemical (corrosion inhibitors) that will prevent this corrosion, but this was not done until 2015 when the crisis had gone viral. Common corrosion inhibitors include silicates, carbonates, and hydroxides (eg. Sodium Hydroxide, NaOH). Important note: adding these chemicals is a FEDERAL REQUIREMENT and it was IGNORED. The corrosion of auto parts at the GM plant in Flint forced the hand of GM to use a different water source.

Levels of lead higher than the allowable 15 parts per billion (ppb) were first detected in Flint drinking water in 2013. Signs of the toxic heavy metal started showing themselves in Flint’s children in preschools and homes. The people of Flint were drinking, brushing their teeth, showering in, and cooking with water that was contaminated by lead.

See? It's fine!

See? It’s fine!

Meanwhile, officials were continuing to tout the water’s safety and more sinister, continuing to charge residents full water bills. In public, water officials and the Michigan Governor Rick Snyder claimed that to their knowledge, the water was perfectly safe.

This was even after tests by started showing that lead was indeed contaminating the water. Finally, in the fall of 2015, the Michigan government declared that there was indeed contamination of the water based on very recent testing and declared the water unsafe to drink and began adding the anti-corrosion agent and distributing bottled water.

Gov. Snyder was pretending to be blind to the crisis

Gov. Snyder was pretending to be blind to the crisis

At this time, major media coverage began focusing on the water contamination in Flint heavily, and the backlash against the Michigan government from the public outside of Flint was heavy. Then, it was revealed that Governor Snyder and his team of water managers knew many months before that the water was toxic, yet continued to claim its safety and collect bills for the tainted water. The National Guard was called in and began to distribute bottled water from public areas and people from around the country began donating bottled water and water filters to Flint.

But even the handling of the crisis has been an issue. The levels of lead in some homes are so high that the filters that have been handed out are useless. Even worse has been the mishandling of logistics. People having to cross town themselves on buses to pick up bottled water at fire stations and getting filters only to find that they don’t fit their faucets correctly.

Four questions from this unbelievable turn of events:

  1. Why, when the switch to Flint River water was made, was the anti-corrosive agent not added?
  2. Why was the lead contamination, though caught much earlier, not taken seriously by the Snyder administration?
  3. Why were water bills still collected and are still being collected now that the water is known to be toxic?
  4. Was Flint’s status as an economically depressed, poor, and mostly Black city play a role in its tainted water supply and subsequent government inaction?

As Governor Snyder declared in his state of the state address on January 19, his government failed the city of Flint and he apologized. But his apology fell on deaf ears for a city having been dealt a toxic hand and calls for his resignation being shouted outside the state house. Snyder’s government didn’t just fail Flint, they deliberately let the people of Flint be poisoned and then continued collecting money for tainted water.

bottled water: cases were donated

bottled water: cases were donated

Some people have come to the conclusion that given the state of Flint as 40% under the poverty line with a median salary level of $25,000, and majority African-American, that mainly voted for Governor Snyder’s opponent, that the city had little political clout. The city, because of financial issues, was being run under the auspices of un-elected officials who made the ultimate decision to switch to the Flint River water which led to the catastrophic results of water contamination and subsequent cover-up by the state.

Many lawsuits have since been drawn up against the state and an investigation by the justice department is underway to unravel what the state knew and to find those responsible. The future repercussions may be incalculable as a whole generation of young children in Flint are growing up with irreversible damage to their health and futures.

What’s So Bad About Lead?Water Contamination Crisis In Flint, Michigan

Lead is a neurotoxin, meaning that the heavy metal damages the nervous system in the body. In addition, lead can also negatively affect the kidneys and red blood cells. This is felt particularly in young children whose brains are developing at rapid rates and for pregnant women who are carrying a fetus or developing child. Development and growth can be stunted permanently by significant lead exposure. It can cause irritability, aggression, attention deficit, slow cognitive abilities,  and slow development that is irreversible. In addition, lead exposure can cause behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, anemia, and hearing problems.

The original safe level for drinking water was set at 50 ppb in 1991 under the Lead Copper Rule that is part of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, but has since been amended to 15 ppb as an “Action Level” where if the level is at 15 ppb or above, action must be taken to reduce lead levels. There is NO safe level of lead that can be consumed especially for children as the possible effects can have such devastating consequences.

Corroded lead pipe

Corroded lead pipe

As the New York Times recently reported, Flint is not the only place in the country where lead contamination of drinking water is a big issue. Many counties are dealing with older systems that use lead pipes are faced with funding shortfalls, and are seeing rising numbers of cases of lead in their people’s drinking water.

Have environmental toxins played a major role in shaping community development and causing action? Has environmental justice been an issue that showcases our fractured social history in the U.S.?

Let’s take a look at some examples from history that exemplify the correlation of race and poverty to environmental contamination and public failure of protection.

Environmental Contamination and Race: A Startling Connection

The events of the past and the data from them is clear enough to show definitively that people of color in the U.S. are more likely to live in areas exposed to toxic contamination and that many incinerators, trash dumps, toxic waste areas and industrial activity has been deliberately located in neighborhoods with people of color. The research done so far points to deliberate policy decisions on housing and segregation as major factors and not to market driven forces as reasons behind the disproportionate impact on minorities.

Rev. Ben Chavis, right, raises his fist as fellow protesters are taken to jail at the Warren County PCB landfill

Rev. Ben Chavis, right, raises his fist as fellow protesters are taken to jail at the Warren County PCB landfill

The oft-cited catalyst for the Environmental Justice movement is the case of a landfill to hold PCBs (poly-chlorinated bi-phenyls) in Warren County, North Carolina from 1982.  The landfill was chosen to be placed in the community of Afton which was 84% black and who primarily owned their own homes and operated single wells for water. Despite vehement opposition because of the possibilities of water contamination, the landfill went ahead as planned and demonstrations followed with hundreds of protesters arrested.

A Department of Defense depot in Memphis, Tennessee operated between 1942 – 1997 is situated very near many residential homes and schools (some within 100 yds) in communities that are predominately black. The depot drained toxic lead, PCBs, arsenic, chromium, and mercury in to the air and water. Many incidents of cancer and endocrine system diseases have resulted which many residents say have been ignored despite the efforts of clean up of the site since 1992 when the site was designated a superfund site by the EPA.

The trash incinerator in Miami known as "Old Smokey"

The trash incinerator in Miami known as “Old Smokey”

In the segregated black and Bahamian immigrant neighborhood of Coconut Grove in Miami, a trash incinerator was built in 1925 adjacent to neighborhood houses and local schools. The smoke stack known as “Old Smokey” belched black smoke and toxic chemicals from the trash it was burning into the air and contaminated the water and soil of the surrounding areas for 45 years until being shut down in 1970.

Despite its closure, exposure to the toxic area was not tracked and officials kept their mouths shut for many years until the information went public in 2011. The testing of soil in present day parks and schools continues but the repercussions have been permanently damaging. Clusters of cancer cases in the neighborhood seemed to be a mystery until the revelation of the contamination was made known.

These are but three of the cases of neighborhoods of color being disproportionately affected by the placement or location of waste dumps or toxic pollutants. The data collected by reports since the 1970s confirms the pattern is not isolated to a few cases.

A study conducted shortly after the Warren County protests by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice found that 40% of the estimated capacity of hazardous waste sites were located in primarily black zip codes and that race was the predominant factor in the location of these sites – even when income was factored out, race was the largest factor, signifying that the phenomenon was not market driven.screenshot-www.ase.tufts.edu 2016-02-13 12-28-40

A more recent study in Massachusetts in 2002 found that communities of color and low income communities are home to more hazardous waste sites and facilities and experience higher exposure to lead from paint or soil contamination. In Massachusetts, cumulative exposure in low income communities in 3 – 4 times higher than in other communities.

A California study from 2001 found strong links between race/ethnicity and exposure to toxic air pollutants. In Los Angeles schools, the researchers found that minority students suffered the most air pollution exposure and linked this exposure to poorer achievement in schools after factoring out income level and family education background.

Another 2001 study focused only in Los Angeles county researched the location of high capacity toxic waste storage facilities and found a positive correlation between minority community percentage and location of the facility. That is, the facilities were located disproportionately in minority communities.screenshot-www.cjtc.ucsc.edu 2016-02-19 10-52-41

The same study also found little evidence for the “Minority Move-In” hypothesis that suggests that location of waste areas and minority communities is market driven – meaning that since the area has a toxic landfill, the housing market is cheaper and attracts folks with lower incomes (which are more likely to be minority). Interestingly, the researchers of the LA study found a negative correlation for minority-move in, meaning that once a facility was installed, minority groups were less likely to move in.

The study’s central lesson: “Minorities attract TSDFs (toxic waste storage disposal facilities), but TSDFs do not generally attract minority residents.”

A 2004 study in Alabama found that of 29 garbage dumps considered in the study, 20 were in areas that were primarily African-American, low income, or both.

Most recently, a report from 2014 on Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) pollutant exposure found that there is a large disparity of exposure between white and non-white populations in the U.S. The study found that non-whites experience (4.6 ppb) 38% higher exposure levels of NO2 from pollution than whites do. NO2 is a pollutant mainly emitted from the burning of fossil fuels and from combustion engines of automobiles.

The Health Impact from Environmental Injustice

The disproportionate locale of pollution and toxic dumping sites in areas where minority groups live in the United States has had a significant impact on public health. Higher rates of asthma, incidents of cancer, and certain learning disabilities in communities of color are all correlated with toxin exposure from waste sites, incinerators, and dumps.

asthma mortality rates: black vs. white

Asthma mortality rates: black vs. white

One of the consequences of exposure to air pollution is an increase in asthma, a respiratory condition that if untreated can lead to serious issues or death. According to the American Lung Association, the hospitalization rate for asthma is three times as high for black children than white children and emergency room treatment is four times as high, and death rates for asthma are six to ten times as high for black children aged 10 – 14 than white children. (the high asthma rates minorities are compounded by a lower percentage of access to health care).

Exposure to toxins is also related to higher rates of cancer. Morello-Frosch and Jesdale used Census and EPA data to research the effects of segregation and risk of air toxin exposure and cancer rates. Their results showed that higher rates of segregation correlated with higher exposure rates for minority groups and that this may be impacting the health of those populations significantly.

As segregation increases, cancer rates increase, especially for Latinos, Asians, and Blacks

As segregation increases, cancer rates increase, especially for Latinos, Asians, and Blacks

Many of the toxins already discussed such as cadmium, arsenic, PCBs, and others are carcinogens or probable carcinogens according to the EPA and are present in higher concentrations in minority communities in the U.S. leading to the increased health issues and cancer rates.


Conclusion: Lack of Political Power Creates Segregation of Toxic Exposure

The story in Flint is heartbreaking and at the same time worrisome: How many other communities out there are being exposed to toxins because of mismanagement and frugality?

The explanation for why this happened, however, runs a bit deeper. The history of segregation and disproportionate exposure to toxins reveals specific patterns that the data backs up:

  • Minority groups live near and are exposed to toxins at much higher rates than whites.
  • Toxic waste areas have been located in minority neighborhoods at much higher rates than whites
  • Minorities suffer the health consequences of higher toxic exposure with higher rates of cancer from waste toxins and asthma from air pollution.

What are the explanations behind these facts and how does it connect to the Flint crisis?

limiting housing options for lower income Americans

limiting housing options for lower income Americans

Several key areas of public policy have helped to create the problem of segregated toxin exposure. The reduction in low income public housing options along with exclusionary zoning (which reduces the amount of land can be used for low income housing in urban areas), and infrastructure investment (such as reliable & effective transportation) are certainly partly to blame, but the concentration of political power from the use of gerrymandering has helped to take the political power away from communities of color.

This helps to explain the decision making on placement / location of toxic dumps as well as slow or lack of response for toxic exposure to things like tainted water.


Shouldn’t need political clout to clean up public drinking water

Although it is difficult to concretely prove, race clearly has also been a significant factor in placement of waste dumps and in slow public responses. Responses from white communities have more political clout as evidenced by Flint residents who remark that the crisis would have not happened or would have gotten a faster action in a majority white town. The filmmaker and activist Michael Moore has gone so far as to say that the city of Flint was left to be poisoned, to be ignored because it was majority black, poor, and had no political clout.

Many have attempted to explain away these issues as simply a result of the housing market and the purchasing power of the people who live there – meaning that since housing is cheaper in hazardous areas, it is simply the lower income folks who live in these areas out of their own financial decisions.

This argument does not stand up to the research and data collected which shows that race and not income is the determining factor for locations of waste dumps and toxin exposure. Lower incomes do seem to have an impact in a related arena, however, which may help to explain the data. The poor and minority groups (regardless of income) do not have as high an impact on politics because of their tax base and strategic interests. This lack of political clout therefore tends to leave out minority groups and lower income brackets when it comes to decision making in public policy.

So what have we learned from all this information? Or did we learn anything?

This article, aside from the current event aspect of the Flint water poisoning, is more of summary of facts that support a part of the growing realization for white America: that despite many gains including the leadership of the nation’s highest political office; discrimination, segregation, and unequal treatment for minority groups are alive and present. Looking at the current gaggle of Republican presidential candidates and their supporters is also clear evidence for this. While this article has focused on the issue of environmental injustice, it is part of a much larger overall pattern.

Until the next water crisis,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson


Sources and Further Reads:


Josh Sanburn, The Toxic Tap, Time Magazine, January 2016, pg. 33-39.

Rachel Massey, Environmental Justice: Income, Race, and Health, Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University

Manuel Pastor, Jr., Jim Sadd, and John Hipp, “Which Came First? Toxic Facilities, Minority Move-In, and Environmental Justice,” Journal of Urban Affairs, Vol. 23, Number 1, pgs. 1 – 21. 2001.

Rachel Morello-Frosch and Manuel Pastor, Jr., “Pollution, Communities, and Schools: A Portrait of Environmental Justice on Southern California’s ‘Riskscape.’” DifferenTakes (Spring 2001).











John Davis, “Most Alabama Dumps Sit in Poor or Black Areas,” Montgomery Advertiser, Sept. 8, 2004

Posted in Disasters, environment, Health, Justice, Science, Social Issues, U.S. | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s the Deal With Dissatisfaction in America?

Hello all!

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that enjoys pessimism in good times.

The American Smile has turned upside down

The American Smile has turned upside down

In this week’s post we’ll discuss the current doldrums of American political and public views that have persisted despite continuing economic gains. Is this a unique circumstance connected to the Obama administration’s second term? Or is it a consistent historical pattern in American presidential politics?

Tune in to the paragraphs below to see somewhat coherent sentences and possible answers that ring bells!  Or you know, you can tune out too. That’s your choice as the blog reader.

The Current: Not so Popular

According to Real Clear Politics poll averages, only 43.8 % of Americans approve of President Obama at the moment while 51.1 % disapprove of his work as executive leader. The low poll numbers are not entirely surprising for a 2nd term president, especially one prior to an election year. Congress, of course, is keeping up its abysmal numbers, coming in at 11.3% approval and 77% disapproval.

The more surprising numbers are the opinion polls on the direction of the country which show that only a mere 27.6% of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction while 64.4% think that the country is headed in the wrong direction.

much improved

much improved

These are some surprisingly low numbers given the macroeconomic state of affairs and the continuing positive monthly reports on the job front.  The economy has usually been a harbinger for Presidential approval ratings, yet so far improvements in unemployment numbers and GDP growth have not translated into political points for the President or the country as a whole.

So why the doom and gloom America?

Let’s try and see if we can gauge some specific rationale for American dissatisfaction.

Is it Economic?

Some people might see a paradox when they look at the unemployment rate and latest jobs report from October and see unemployment down to 5% and 270,000 jobs added (both positive) and then see the numbers revealing a distressed public.


An average increase in GDP of 2.2% since 2009

But of course, positive economic data as a whole does not tell the story about how Americans feel about their opportunities to improve their situation or provide a better life for their children.

good to be in the top 1%

good to be in the top 1%

Since the Great Recession, most media and statistics have focused on the availability of jobs for all Americans as the Unemployment rate stood at a high of over 8% for many months. Though the unemployment rate has been reduced and the country’s GDP much enhanced, the numbers don’t show the lasting effects of the great recession on the % of people in the labor force, the long-term unemployed, and the effects on those who have given up looking for work.

But now that hiring has increased  and more people have some income, it has become more about what Americans can do with that income and how it can translate into wealth. The stagnation of income for middle and lower class America contrasts with the top income brackets whose wealth has increased at a very high rate.

An astonishing 22% of all wealth is controlled by the top 0.1% of the population in the U.S. (as of 2012), a rate that has not been seen since the oil baron and steel magnate days of Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Vanderbilt. Arguments are being made that the U.S. is now more an oligarchy than democracy.

Is it the Cost of Education?

Most Americans’ idea of a ticket to success is a college education, and the numbers do seem to continue to back this sentiment up. Increasingly, however, the value of a college education has begun to not add up when compared to the skyrocketing cost of tuition and the match-up of skills learned and available highly skilled jobs.

As is well known, the skyrocketing cost of tuition has forced many college grads to take out expensive loans and live at home or rent which delays home buying and significantly affects the cost of living, and has quickly becoming a hot topic on the campaign trail.

Is it social dynamics and demographics?

Could the feelings of economic inequality, the increasingly unaffordable rental market, under-performing and underfunded schools, high crime levels, and unequal treatment by law enforcement that are felt at higher levels by minority groups be affecting the general mood of Americans?

Tamir Rice has been one of many young blacks killed by police, straining already tense relations with law enforcement

Tamir Rice has been one of many young blacks killed by police, straining already tense relations with law enforcement

The consistent feeling of discrimination showing itself in everyday American life has now become a mainstream topic whether it is Black Lives Matter protests following police killings of blacks or whether it is stories of everyday discrimination. This “reawakening” for many Americans may be contributing to the majority dissatisfied feeling.

Is it the “End of Second Term Blues”?

Historically, with the exception of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, second terms have been on average a less popular relationship between the head of state and the American public since 1900. This has been such a predictable event that it has its own name: the 2nd term curse.

President Obama’s first term averaged 49% approval and so far his second term approval has been on par with the historical average, hovering in the low 40s – though it has seen some fluctuations. Obviously the presidents work is tied to many factors that occur during his term, many out of his control.

Perhaps Americans simply want to see some new faces at the helm.

Or Is it simply the Pall of Current Events?

The spates of violent terror attacks and mass shootings around the world have heightened tensions and raised fears for the public of their safety and of the most contentious issues that face Americans. Gun ownership, abortion rights, institutional racism, immigration, and military action against the many headed hydra of Islamic extremism are all pasting the headlines, social media front pages, talk shows, and of course the presidential campaign trail.

Of course! The presidential campaign trail! How could I have forgotten??



Nothing seems to have brought us down further than watching and hearing this gaggle of 2016 candidates – perhaps knowing that one of these individuals will be leading the Executive Branch of government as a representative of the American people is enough for anyone to hibernate in an icy depression despite a sparkling unemployment rate.


I think what the most disappointing thing to see is the devolution of a certain populace who continue to say they support egotistical maniacs like Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz. What it ultimately shows is that bigoted white Christian men are scared.  They are scared because they see a tide that is turning towards policies that may benefit all the people, and you know, not just the white folks. By 2060, there will be a plurality of ethnic groups with no majority white status for the U.S. But the day of no white majority in terms of children under 5 years old has already arrived (In 2014, 50.6% of all children under 5 were non-white).

The loudmouths who call themselves legitimate presidential candidates tell this populace what it wants to hear: “women are objects”    “all Muslims are terrorists”    “healthcare access for women is not important”    “the government is trying to take our guns”   “All immigrants are un-American”    “white men need to stick together to protect only our interests and prevent others from prospering in the same country”    

And these people eat it up because the politicians are playing to these “fears” of losing the majority. Interestingly, this group that supports Trump say they don’t want to support politicians, they want somebody who “speaks their mind” and “tells it like it is.” If telling it like it is is lying to the public, then they are supporting the iconic politician! Seeing this campaign and debates so far with the resulting poll numbers is enough for a prescription of Zoloft.

Why are these fears of “losing control of the country” unfounded? (aside from them being ridiculous, racist, and pre-1860) Let’s chart it out:

huh, looks like the 1% is also lily white

huh, looks like the 1% is also lily white

Black and latino families have 6% and 8% of the wealth respectively, that white families do. This is a startling connection to the wealth and income gaps explained earlier that have widened since the 1970s. The wealth and income gap is defined startlingly on racial lines. Not to mention that lack of equal pay that still exists for women compared to men ($0.79 compared to $1).

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. started the Poor Peoples Campaign in 1968 because he saw that segregation was only half the battle. The PPP was intended for all Americans, but its aim was to help blacks who made up a large portion of the poor in America (1 in 7 at the time was in poverty). He knew that economic inequality would leave blacks just as unequal and out of opportunities as before Brown v. Board.  Dr. King unfortunately would not see the organization to its potential as he was assassinated in April of 1968. The racial and economic divide has not yet since decreased.

So current events combined with the media frenzy surrounding the 2016 presidential campaign (it’s been going on for almost a year, with 1 more to go) has created a sense of disappointment and negative attention to foreign and domestic affairs. This feeling combined with very challenging social issues and continuing economic conditions has likely contributed greatly to the poll numbers which we see on the direction of the country.

not lost in the shuffle

not lost in the shuffle

Finally, what we should try and remember is that as bad as it may seem, things are actually pretty good in many ways. The “boring” indicators of GDP and employment are all up, the U.S. has built many positive relationships with allies and strategic partners in economic and global concerns (such as climate change), and on the domestic side, many new policies  are being put into place as a result of the difficult conversations had about race, prison sentencing, economic status, infrastructure, health care, tax issues, and more. This isn’t to say that the challenges mentioned above don’t exist or aren’t true issues, it’s just that the positive side of the story is often lost in the shuffle.

Until the next poll,

Your faithful historian,

Eric G. Prileson


Is it Mr. Green in the Billiard Room with the revolver?

No, no it isn’t. Stop reading this blog and go to bed.


Sources and Further Reads:










Posted in Elections, Justice, Politics, Social Issues, U.S. | Leave a comment

What’s the Deal With Grass-Fed Meat and Understanding Food Labels?

Hello All!

I'm being paid peanuts to write this blog

I’m being paid peanuts to write this blog

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that is certified to be fed mostly on peanuts.

In this edition, we’ll discuss the often misunderstood and misused terms surrounding food and nutrition such as non-GMO, organic, local, naturally raised, and grass-fed and look into the science of raising animals and livestock nutrition as it applies to animal and human heath, impact on the environment and of course taste.

Finally, we’ll delve into the rising interest from people into their food and what topics folks should really be focusing on as newly educated consumers. Regardless, it should be a topic that we all sink our teeth into.

Foodie Vocabulary: #Organic

one of the simplest organic molecules

one of the simplest organic molecules

To a chemist, organic means something completely different than in the general lexicon and on food packaging. In plain terms, organic simply means that at the molecular level, the substance contains Carbon – Hydrogen bonds and forms molecules that make up living things – so all living things are carbon based and organic (that we know of).

Organic in terms of its relation to food has come to mean that the product was grown or raised without synthetic (or human made) chemicals such as pesticides or non-organic feed. This distinction is very difficult to confirm from the farm to the table because of all the steps involved and the different distinctions and regulations on the labeling of “Organic.”

Let’s delve into this further. (I’ll wait for the kids to leave)… gone? Good.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines “organic” to be:

“A labeling term that denotes principally products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990… Organic farming entails:

  • Use of cover crops, green manures, animal manures and crop rotations to fertilize the soil, maximize biological activity and maintain long-term soil health.
  • Use of biological control, crop rotations and other techniques to manage weeds, insects and diseases.
  • An emphasis on biodiversity of the agricultural system and the surrounding environment.
  • Using rotational grazing and mixed forage pastures for livestock operations and alternative health care for animal well-being.
  • Reduction of external and off-farm inputs and elimination of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and other materials, such as hormones and antibiotics.
  • A focus on renewable resources, soil and water conservation, and management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological balance.”

Important to know is that the USDA under the updated Farm Bills and Organic Food Production Act  for the first time attempted to regulate what foods are considered organic and what can be labelled with the organic designation.

A good sign the food you're purchasing is organic

A good sign the food you’re purchasing is organic

In terms of USDA Organic labels that you will see, here are the precise definitions:

100% USDA organic means that the product was made or grown and processed with only organic ingredients. Certified Organic means that 95 – 99% of ingredients follow the organic growing and processing rules.

Also important to know is that there are distinct differences between what is considered USDA certified Organic (ie., what is regulated / allowed) and what many people consider 100% organic. While the USDA does significantly limit synthetic chemicals such as pesticides and biological stimulants, there are many allowable substances that are considered toxic or outside of other definitions of organic food production.

Foodie Vocabulary: “Local”

As the “local-vores” will ascertain, local food is better for consumers and the planet because it requires fewer steps in the supply chain, fewer resources to transport to market, supports the local economy, and is often connected with organic food production.

Farm to table

Farm to table

Sounds great, but the actual food term “local” is not specifically defined by the USDA and there is no actual geographic limit or range despite the connotation of the term. The U.S. Congress attempted to define “local food” as being sold within 400 miles of its origin. Other definitions have been recorded by farmers markets and other organizations – so the term is still a bit of a grey area.

Foodie Vocabulary: “Natural” and  “Naturally raised”

“Natural” as it refers to meat products is defined by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services as minimally processed with no artificial colors, chemical preservatives, or other synthetic ingredients. “Naturally raised” is a label that cannot be affixed to food products, only the live animals themselves as the two terms as food labels could confuse consumers.

Foodie Vocabulary: “Grass-Fed”

When people think of grass fed meats, many immediately jump to the cost aspect of the product, recalling the $17.50 / pound they paid (or didn’t pay) for a tenderloin steak at the supermarket, not realizing that the grass fed label is difficult to define and may in fact not be the best practice in raising the livestock.

blue skies, green grass, fed cows

blue skies, green grass, fed cows

The USDA grass fed marketing standard affixed to any grass fed meat product requires the animal to only have been fed on grass and forage and not have been fed any grain or grain product or animal by-products. The only exception is milk prior to weaning (see mammal, definition of).

Foodie Vocabulary: “Non-GMO”

This is the least understood and perhaps most controversial of all the labels and standards related to food products and agriculture. GMO as many readers know stands for “genetically modified organism” and is actually a very difficult thing to define. For most people, GMO has come to mean that the plant or animal had its genetic code modified through DNA manipulation or genetic engineering of a specific gene such as an insecticide producing plant. The most famous of these is so called “Bt Corn,” corn which produces a protein taken from a bacterial gene from Bacillus thuringiensis that is toxic to the corn borer worm. So, Bt Corn no longer is palatable to the corn borer worm, leaving it worm free.

well, a different kind of experiment

well, a different kind of experiment

Genetically modified could also mean simply selective breeding. Since the beginning of human agriculture roughly 10 million years ago, we have been genetically modifying organisms that produce larger yields, grow better in inclement environments, and produce more nutritious food. Though no one knew this until much later, selectively breeding certain crops and animals was modifying the genetics of crops and livestock. In a sense, since your parents probably selectively chose each other, YOU the reader, are an example of a GMO.

POW, mind blown…

Many people have issues with the fact that much of the food they purchase came from seeds that had its genetics modified to repel insects, withstand drought, or grow incredibly large. This stance has led to a massive movement and bills in the U.S. Congress to force food producers to put labels on products that are genetically modified. Through pushback from food companies and others the current bills have stalled or failed in Congress and GMO labeling has not yet become a national requirement.

Given the increased concern of GMOs, many more studies are beginning to be conducted on GMO crops to test for potential food safety issues, but simply more transparency from agricultural science companies who produce GMO seeds such as Monsanto would be a nice start to help consumers understand how their food is grown.

At the same time, many people see an enormous potential for GMOs to cut into the issue of global hunger by providing small scale subsistence farmers with crop varieties that produce more nutritious yields.Revised-Seal-copy

In terms of food labeling, if the consumer wishes to avoid GMOs (a trying prospect) they can follow the 100% USDA Organic label which does not allow GMOs or they can look for the Non-GMO project verified sticker which is an independent organization (non-USDA verified).

The GMO topic is one for a future blog post, but for now, let us return to the food before it became food.

“That Cow is like, so Overweight – The Farmer Should Put it On a Diet”

Many people think they have an idea of what livestock should be eating so that the meat product is healthy, nutritious, and that the animal lived a healthy life. While the notion of a healthy life of the animal is important to the taste and ethical treatment of animals, there are many misconceptions about what livestock should be eating.

Arteriodyctala? I didn't sign up for a phylogeny lesson!

Arteriodyctala? I didn’t sign up for a phylogeny lesson!

This is in part due to the public’s lack of knowledge of plant nutrition, animal digestive systems and the misunderstanding of food labels. A prime example of this is the pig and the misconception that “only grass-fed” is good and / or healthy for the pig as it is raised.

While foraging for grass can be part of the hog’s diet (they will eat grass, shrubs, and trees), hogs -member of the order Arteriodyctala, or the even-toed Ungulates- are omnivorous and monogastric like humans, meaning in the non-domesticated natural setting, they subsist on many different food items such as fruits, flowers, roots, insects, and yes, even meat and bones. Due to this dietary smorgasbord of options for proper growth, domesticated pigs should be a fed proper diet that can include grains or other forms of carbohydrates including (gasp!) corn and soy along with leafy plant material such as alfalfa for vitamins and minerals. Without the diverse diet, pigs would not be able to achieve their full adult growth – and pork product potential.

“Pastured pork” would be a more appropriate term to use when searching for responsibly raised pork. If it can be verified that the hog was actually raised on soil and was able to obtain nutritional requirements with the forage in the pasture (roots, acorns, pecans, legumes, etc.) with or without outside supplementation, then this is about as close to pastured pork as you can get.

Most conventional hog farms that raise pigs in large, confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) feed a diet of corn and soy only, with little to no green forage. Most of these operations also feed the hogs sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics to promote faster growth and protect the immune system in the crowded, confined environment. The risks that are posed to human health with this method of raising hogs with the constant use of antibiotics should be a concern to anyone purchasing meat. More on this topic later…

The important thing to remember for the oinkers is their living environment and the derivation of their protein. The same applies for chickens. Chickens, as birds, are not primarily grass eaters and like most birds acquire most of their nutrition from many items such as grains (seeds), fruits, insects, and more. Chickens and other fowl will consume grass, forbs, and shrubs for essential nutrients, but it is not the only part of the diet. So if you were to actually see a grass-fed chicken, you wouldn’t be getting much meat off of the nutritionally deprived bird.

Classic Barnyarders

Classic Barnyarders

The ruminants, a sub class of the Ungulates, include such classic barnyarders as cattle, sheep, and goats. The diet of the ruminant can and should consist of mainly grass because of the way their bodies can process the often indigestible cellulose and fibrous portions of most grasses. These amazing digesters have a 4 chambered stomach which enables the animals to digest cellulose and other fibrous long-chain carbohydrates that monogastric animals cannot. Digestion of plant material can be converted into long term energy storage for the animal and is important to milk production.

the beta bond shown in red

Cellulose: The Unbreakable Bond (unless bacterial friends come along)

(Specifically, vertebrates at the biochemical level cannot break the beta-glycosidic bond of cellulose in order to digest most plant fiber. Ruminants contain within them microbes which can break the bond for them and ferment the material).

Given their symbiotic relationship with bacteria and chambered stomachs, a foraging diet consisting of herbaceous plants (grass, forbs, shrubs, tree leaves) makes great sense for cattle, sheep, and goats. The grass-fed label therefore should be associated specifically with beef, sheep (lamb), and goat (chivo).

Interestingly, the raising of ruminants on grass-fed production may be a solution to issues of food distribution and hunger in certain developing countries. Grass-fed ruminants demand less grain in their diets and therefore are not competing for food resources with humans. The nutritional quality of the forage and availability of sufficient foraging space should be taken into account before such a solution is met.

What Does the Animal Want?

In relation to how livestock products taste, contain nutritional value, and their usage of resources, what is important are the conditions it was raised in (stress, space, etc…), any use of hormones or antibiotics, and then its feed. Animals raised in crowded, dirty environments with cruel treatment will experience higher stress levels and are more likely to contract illnesses and affect the taste of the meat once it reaches market.

If grazers are grass fed but are mismanaged, significant damage can occur to the landscape as has been the case in the American Southwest and the Sahel in Africa. These large tracts of formerly prominent grasslands have been desertified or have lost their soil nutrient values due to overgrazing. In certain dry grassland environments, grazers must be kept moving otherwise they will (seemingly obviously) eat all the grass in front of them, leaving nothing behind. Making sure there is sufficient grass remaining is as important as the raising of the animal itself – for the benefit of the environment as well as the future of livestock grazing.


some studies have found the antibiotic Triclosan to be one of the most prevalent compounds around

some studies have found the antibiotic Triclosan to be one of the most prevalent compounds around

The most worrying of the issues concerning livestock, agriculture, and food labels – much more than GMOs- is the overuse of antibiotics on livestock. In general, humans overuse antibiotics for themselves from hand soap to shampoo to toothpaste. Antibiotics overuse has led to the rapid evolution of harmful microbes that no longer respond to antibiotics – bacteria known as “superbugs” that have been devastating hospitals around the country. According to the FDA, more kilograms of antibiotics are used on livestock than are used on humans, or about 80% of all antibiotics sold.

In one study, estimates show the presence of antibiotic resistant bacteria in over 50% of meat products – a telling statistic of the overuse of antibiotics in animals. But why are antibiotics used on animals so much? Shouldn’t they only be given when animals are sick?

Ideally that should be the case. Interestingly though, certain antibiotics called Growth Promoting Antibiotics (GPAs) given to livestock increase their growth because the antibiotics kill off some of their gut bacteria which allows the host animal (cow, etc…) to gain more nutrition from food, reduces toxins, and promotes more efficient nutrient absorption. So, farmers have an economic incentive to give animals unnecessary antibiotics to grow larger more quickly.

Antibiotics use in animals has its roots back to 1948 when scientists experimented with juvenile chickens and a variation of Vitamin B-12 from bacterial remnants. It turned out that the bacterial remnants contained traces of antibiotic which was responsible for rapid growth of the chickens. This spurred a new industry of antibiotics for animal growth.

overuse of antibiotics leads to resistant bacteria or "superbugs"

overuse of antibiotics leads to resistant bacteria or “superbugs”

Circling back to animal treatment, the addition of antibiotics to animals in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) can lead to not only stress but also easy transfer of bacteria and infections from animal to animal. This is one of the reasons why farmers and stockyards have used antibiotics in a non-therapeutic way – as a preventative measure. The problem with this is of course that this can increase the rate of antibiotic resistance from the sharing of genes from bacteria to bacteria that have acquired resistance.

Responding to public pressure, industry spokespeople have maintained that the use of Growth Promotion Antibiotics (GPAs) are necessary to maintain the economics of their industry and that the risks to humans are minimal. One review of studies concluded that the benefit of GPAs on cattle outweighed the increase in microbial resistance, but the CDC recommends that GPAs should only be administered to animals by veterinarians when the animals actually need antibiotics (ie. when suffering from a bacterial infection). Another study on the economics of GPAs tested the removal of the use of antibiotics on broiler chickens and found little to no change in cost of production and an actual increase in animal value.

Countries such as Denmark have eliminated the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics in all CAFOs, and those operations are still in business. Farmers, government officials and veterinarians come together regularly to discuss, argue and finally come to a consensus on the use of antibiotics in CAFOs. If they can figure it out, why can’t we?

Conclusion: What Should We as Consumers Decide?

Now that you have now been thoroughly brainwashed with the foodie vocabulary, facts about animal digestive systems, and the use of antibiotics in confined feeding systems, what kind of meat would you prefer? All of a sudden, your new-found knowledge may change or reinforce your previous views – or have caused you to become a vegetarian, (or an animal biologist fascinated by ruminant digestion. All of these are possibilities).

This New Zealand farm is probably where all those dogs get sent away to

This New Zealand farm is probably where all those dogs get sent away to

If grass fed is the desired purchase when looking at beef and lamb, and the grass-fed lamb from New Zealand is cheaper than the grass fed lamb 20 miles down the road (local), which do you choose?

Most people would choose the former – ‘Why pay more when I can get the same thing for a better price?’

Please stop and think about this, as there should be warning bells sounding. Is there something wrong with grass fed lamb from 10,000 miles away being more affordable than grass fed lamb grown in our own country? For that matter, how do you know it is really grass fed, or raised responsibly? Was it killed humanely? How much additional carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere to get it here on that huge barge across the Pacific?

After some thought about this, you might still choose the less expensive deal as we do have to face the reality of limited budgets. However, it might be worth it to check out the more local grass fed lamb, beef, goat, pastured pork and chicken, etc. just to see how the animals are raised and if nothing else, get a better deal if you buy it directly from the farmer or rancher. Maybe at the farm or ranch you find that the meat is not certified Organic, or the pigs have a large open-air dirt lot to run around on rather than endless pasture, and the grain the pigs are fed isn’t Non-GMO because it is just not available.

An allegedly content animal

An allegedly content animal

Despite these imperfections, do the animals seem content? Perhaps you notice that the people raising the animals enjoy what they do and want to keep doing it, or they employ conservation measures on their land, or are teaching the next generation how to milk a goat.

It may not be fancy, but maybe it is worth educating yourself just to see if a local farm or ranch could supply you with healthy food. In doing so, you not only support your foodie preferences, but you support an entire agrarian way of life that only promotes overall health and well being.

Until we’re given a food label ourselves,

Your Faithful Historian / Animal and Range Scientists,

Vanessa J. and Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:

Application of biotechnology to nutrition of animals in developing countries. Chapter 3 Basic Ruminant Nutrition. Application of biotechnology to nutrition of animals in developing countries [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 20]. Available from: http://www.fao.org/docrep/004/t0423e/t0423e03.htm

Estabrook, Barry. 2015. Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York.

Graham JP, Boland JJ, Silbergeld E. Growth Promoting Antibiotics in Food Animal Production: An Economic Analysis. Public Health Reports [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 21]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc1804117/

McBride, W.D., N. Key and K.H. Mathews Jr. Subtherapeutic Antibiotics in U.S. Hog Production. Review of Agricultural Economics 30 no. 2 (2008): 270 – 88, naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/36676/PDF.

MSU Extension. Grass finished beef marketing update. MSU Extension [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 20]. Available from: http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/grass_finished_beef_marketing_update

Natural Resources Defense Council, “Newly Disclosed Documents Show FDA Allows Livestock Antibiotics Use Despite “High Risk” to Humans” (press release), nrdc.org/media/2014/140127a.asp.

Home | OTA. Home | OTA. Home | OTA [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 21]. Available from: http://www.ota.com/

Organic Production and Organic Food: Information Access Tools. Organic Production and Organic Food: Information Access Tools. Organic Production and Organic Food: Information Access Tools [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 20]. Available from: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/ofp/ofp.shtml

Organic Regulations. Organic Regulations. Organic Regulations [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 20]. Available from: http://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic

UC Health – UC San Diego. UC Health – UC San Diego. UC Health – UC San Diego [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 21]. Available from: http://health.ucsd.edu/news/releases/pages/2014-11-17-dirty-side-of-soap.aspx

Union of Concerned Scientists. “Hogging It!: Estimates of Antibiotic Abuse in Livestock”, ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/our-failing-food-system/industrial-agriculture-/hogging-it-estimates-of.html.

USDA ERS – Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues. USDA ERS – Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues. USDA ERS – Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 21]. Available from: http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err97.aspx

Wallace, H.D. Biological Responses to Antibacterial Feed Additives in Diets of Meat Producing Animals. Journal of Animal Science 31 no. 6 (December 1970): 1118 – 126, journalofanimalscience.org/content/31/6/1118.full.pdf.

Waters, Andrew E. et al. Multidrug-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus in U.S. Meat and Poultry. Clinical Infectious Diseases 52, no 7 (April 2011), full text at cid.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2011/04/14/cid.cir181.full.

eCFR — Code of Federal Regulations. eCFR — Code of Federal Regulations. eCFR — Code of Federal Regulations [Internet]. [cited 2015 Aug 20]. Available from: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?sid=722a65360984947d91f48c16343dc7b7&mc=true&node=sg7.3.205.g.sg0&rgn=div7






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What’s the Deal With Trade Deals?

Hello All!

toilet paper also is involved with environmental regulations

toilet paper also is involved with environmental regulations

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?”, the blog that is always on the fast track, and always remembers to refill the TP.

In this week’s post, we’ll discuss a certain trade deal involving the U.S. and several Asian Pacific and North American countries that has generated significant controversy. While the debate unrolls around the country about the impact of the trade deal on Americans and the economy, it evokes the question: why do countries make trade deals with each other?  And when they do make deals, how do they work and what impacts do they have?

To answer these questions it’s helpful to look back at past American trade policy and trade deals and their connections with the labor force, technology, commodity prices and more. Though not all information on the current trade deal is available yet, once the details are made public, we can use our historical lens to see what conclusions can be drawn about why this deal is controversial.

The Current: Fast Track to a Tough Vote

Rep. Levin's 5 min speech

Rep. Levin’s fast speech against fast track (great late morning CSPAN coverage)

On Monday, President Obama signed into law a “fast-track” legislation for voting on the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal with 12 Pacific Rim and North American countries. Though this “bill to vote for a bill” passed with bipartisan support, President Obama diverted from the support of many in his own party as Democratic stalwarts and progressive representatives such as Bernie Sanders, Sandy Levin, and Elizabeth Warren strongly opposed the fast track vote and the TPP in general.

"if TPA is approved, the details won't matter."

“if TPA is approved, the details won’t matter.”

This “TPA” or trade promotion authority as the fast track is known, grants the President and the U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman the authority to have the trade agreement be a Yes or No vote in Congress; no further amendments to the bill can be made once the TPA is in place. Even with the “Yea or Nay” decision process in place, however, the TPP still has to be agreed upon by a majority of Congress – not a forgone conclusion by any means.

The TPA: Once negotiations are completed on the agreement, Congress promises to either accept or reject the entire package without making amendments. This portion of TPA is essential, otherwise Congress is likely to start amending the first line of any agreement and probably would not stop making changes until the very last sentence

Fast track to no voice

For these folks, both the TPA and masking tape silence rights

The all or nothing approach to deciding on trade deals is controversial as many people feel that the people do not have a chance to voice their opinion on the deal and that Congress is effectively shutting out their own regulatory power.

Who is Responsible for Trade Agreements? Why the need for Fast Track?

As seen from the congressional compromises in U.S. history, trade deals were historically the responsibility of Congress to approve deals (Congress must approve all treaties with other countries) initiated by the Department of State (executive branch). In 1962, the Trade Expansion Act created the office of the Trade Representative and appointed the Special Trade Representative (STA) to be a specific adviser to the President and Congress with the responsibility of setting U.S. trade policy and trade investment relations at the rounds of global trade organization talks.

This is the current STA Michael Froman’s job during the current negotiations for the TPP. Froman must walk a tightrope amidst negotiating a deal with so many countries. These countries also know that Congress must approve the deal and that Congress is famous for making many amendments – some of which may not be to the liking of the member countries. This “Fast Track Approval” has its roots in the 1934 Reciprocal Trade Acts which gave the President a final word on tariff rates set by Congress. The fast track morphed in the Trade Act of 1974 to return the final deciding power back to Congress. This renewal of the same act is what was just granted in the TPA passage.

TPP: Because It’s Been 11 Years

The purpose of the trade agreement is to lower tariffs (or other trade barriers) on imports / exports (such as agriculture, goods, and services) in all countries involved and to establish new rules on labor, the environment, intellectual property rights and foreign direct investment.

Lowering trade barriers requires flexibility in trade deals

Lowering trade barriers requires flexibility in trade deals

Currently, the U.S. has Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with 20 countries and many other trade & investment frameworks with others, but there is no overarching deal with Asian-Pacific countries (Between them, the participating countries make up 40%  of the global economy). Lowering trade barriers is a typical part of most trade agreements so that countries have an easier time selling goods they produce and have easier access and lower costs on imports with all countries involved.

The huge trade deal is the first major trade agreement for the U.S. since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was agreed upon in 1994.  In conjunction with the TPP, President Obama is attempting to work with the European Union on a separate giant trade deal called the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The deals are controversial as they cover huge breadths of trade and international policy related to the environment, labor, imports/exports, and of course tariffs.


Were trade deals always controversial? What historical trade deals and policy give a good background for how the U.S. conducts its international trade and why the large deals are controversial?


Turns out the Economy was and still is Interconnected

The current aim of American trade policy has been to maintain open markets (free trade) and spurn tariff protected industries. This policy has been in place for decades, but was not always the case. American industries were specifically sheltered by high import tariffs for much of the country’s history.

Low to moderate tariffs (proposed by Alexander Hamilt0n) in the 1790s suggested not protectionism, but encouragement of imports with duties to help finance the debt accumulated in the Revolutionary War. Hamilton’s ideas were a precursor to early American trade policy: encourage trade, but protect fledgling industries.

The Embargo Act slowed the economy like the turtle in the cartoon

The Embargo Act slowed the economy like the turtle in the cartoon

Trade was cut nearly completely by the Embargo Act of 1807. President Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to spurn Great Britain (who had been seizing American ships to attempt to force America’s hand in taking their side during the Napoleonic wars) effectively cut off international partners and imported commodity prices rose by about 33% and by one estimate, the static welfare cost of the embargo was about 5% of GDP.

Though Jefferson was effective in cutting economic relations with Great Britain, the overall experience was a negative one for American finance and industry – resulting in a repeal and reopening of trade during the non-intercourse act of 1809.  One effect of turning inward during this time was a reallocation of resources from trade dependent industries (eg. Shipping) to crop production such as cotton – but this embargo adventure showed the importance of international trade for the American economy and its economic dependence (for the moment) on its former colonial ruler.

Tariff-ic Changes Part of U.S. Political dichotomy

Calhoun, in a nullifying mood

Calhoun, in a nullifying mood

Tariff rates rose into the 19th century until 1830 to help finance the War of 1812 and Western expansion. This included the famous “Tariff of Abominations” of 1828 so called because the protective tariff raised costs of imports so much so that the cost of living particularly in the South rose significantly. This tariff and the legislative fights that ensued following it saw one of the first attempts (first by South Carolina’s Senator Calhoun) to break away from the Union and was another representative example of the schism between North and South.

The period of 1830 – 1860 saw one of only two periods in which the tariff rate declined (the other being 1930 – present).  Protectionists (led by Senator Henry Clay) generally desired higher tariffs and attributed high tariffs to high prosperity and income. Free traders (led by John C. Calhoun) thought the inverse was true. So, the two political sides forged a series of tariff acts and compromises that were intended to lower import tariffs gradually until a sharp reduction in 1842.

Anthracite coal burns cleaner and longer, making iron production more efficient and cheaper

Anthracite coal burns cleaner and longer, making iron production more efficient and cheaper

Beginning with the Tariff Act of 1832, high tariffs were levied on goods such as cotton, iron, and wool – goods that were intended to be protected. The compromise act of 1833 lowered the same tariffs annually by small percentages that still afforded these industries protection until 1842, when sharp reductions would take the tariff duties to a horizontal 20% level that Calhoun and the free traders desired. Each of these levels was gradually reduced until 1857 when new legislation was passed, and a “near free trade” level was reached. The lowering of duties on certain items was quite dramatic: The duty on rolled iron for instance decreased from 87% in 1834 to 20% in 1846, a 67% drop!

A good example of how technology has its effects on international trade policy is best seen through the iron industry. England had access to its own iron deposits, coal deposits, and the technology to use both in order to manufacture and export rolled iron and pig iron very cheaply. Due to this cheaply available import, American iron manufacturers would be in need of protection by a tariff. The use of anthracite coal in the iron making process in the 1840s, however, increased production of iron in the U.S. and lessened the need for protective tariffs – coinciding with the dropping tariff rate.

screenshot-www.jstor.org 2015-07-07 11-49-10

US Iron Production: 1844 – 1856 in gross tons

Some of the tariff acts occurred near or around economic panics in the U.S.  The protectionist side tried to pinpoint the crises of 1837 and 1857 to the lowering of trade barriers. In reality, the crises were not related to the tariff acts, but more to the bank failures, speculation, and unduly expanded credit that occurred alongside. Similarly, free traders have attempted to show that higher tariffs were the cause of panics and that lower tariff rates improved economic activity and trade.

What the trade debates in the mid 19th century show is that protective tariffs (trade barriers) and their effect on costs and the economy as a whole were not a direct connection. Often there were several other underlying features which impacted the economy on a greater scale than the protective tariffs.

Tariffs or Free Trade = Large-scale Economic Growth?

Following the Civil War, high tariffs returned to protect domestic production from imports, one example being sugar production in Louisiana. The McKinley Tariff of 1890 raised prices on imported goods such as tinplating that encouraged the development of fledgling American manufacturers.

Rapid GDP growth in the late 19th and early 20th Century, it has been argued, was caused by higher protective tariffs such as on sugar and tin plating. The evidence shows, however, that similar to earlier in American history there is a correlation, but not necessarily causation. Labor force production and capital accumulation in non-traded sectors had a larger impact than protective tariffs.

UK vs. U.S. economic performance

UK vs. U.S. economic performance

In a different period of economic growth, the post-world war II era saw huge economic gains, but protective tariffs were relatively low.

Similarly, the post 1973 era ushered in an era of “free trade” but economic growth was significantly lower than the post-war decades and remained sporadic until the late 1990s. So again, little claim can be made for causation of economic growth following the initiation of higher protective tariffs or removing trade barriers domestically.

In the late 1800s, the U.S. changed from an exclusive exporter  of commodities and net importer of manufactured goods to an exporter of both commodities and manufactured goods. This is accounted for by an abundance of natural resources from the settling and expansion of the country’s borders as well as growth of industry, technology, and labor to match. Once the U.S. had become a net exporter, economic growth could increase even further if market access were achieved. Unfortunately, many overseas markets had in place many of the same trade barriers that the U.S. themselves had had to protect their own industries.

The “free market” benefits everyone, especially America

The initiation and control of trade with other countries has been a sign of ascension to an upper echelon economy and world power throughout history. The first international trade “agreements” were hardly agreed upon, but mainly a result of an intimidation factor and saber rattling. From French and British outposts in India, to the Portuguese along the African coast and the Dutch in the East Indies, trade came to be synonymous with colonialism and intimidation.

The Opium Wars represent a good example of a "forced trade agreement" FTA

The Opium Wars represent a good example of a “forced trade agreement” FTA

When Commodore Matthew Perry flew the American flag from a naval warship outside of Japan in 1854, the act was intended to force the Shogun regime to open their markets to the West, similar to the Opium Wars initiated by the British to open Chinese markets a decade earlier. China itself became an open trading partner with the U.S. in 1844 with the Treaty of Wangxia and in 1858 with the Treaty of Tianjin after the 2nd Opium War. These deals were seen as unequal as they gave Americans privileged status in trade and extracted concessions from the Chinese.

Similarly, when President Roosevelt sent a fleet of sixteen battleships nicknamed the “Great White Fleet”carrying 14,000 soldiers and 250,000 tons of arms  in 1907 on a global tour, it was a not-so-subtle showcase of American power. While the military specter was impressive following a victory in the Spanish-American War and annexation of Hawaii, it was also a symbol of economic might and power for the Americans that was echoed in a new-found colonial reach from the Pacific (the Philippines) and Hawaii to the Caribbean and Central America.

Following World War 2, the U.S. and other countries wanted to set up as much free trade as possible for the purpose of opening up economies on a global scale. The aim was to prevent super-protectionist and isolationist policies that resulted in the Great Depression and initiated a totalitarian drive to War. The highly protectionist Hawley-Smoot Tariff of 1930 was famous for sowing distrust among nations with high tariffs on agricultural goods first, then protective tariffs on other manufacturing sectors. High tariffs along with the onset of the Great Depression (Hawley – Smoot was less a cause, than a result of the depression) ground international trade to a halt with U.S. imports from Europe declining from 1.3 Billion in 1929 to 380 million in 1932.

High Tariff Levels before and after the GATT

Tariff Levels before and after the GATT


The initial agreements called the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) were a precursor to the current installment of this global free trade network called the World Trade Organization (WTO, begun in 1995).

The creation of the GATT and WTO turned the focus of trade from small, bilateral arrangements to a global scale marketplace where all countries involved voluntarily lowered tariffs to increase trade activity. The WTO now consists of over 150 countries and has operated with the general mantra of “reciprocity“, the idea being that member countries will make agreements with other members to lower their tariffs on something if the other does it too. (with certain industries allowed to be protected under “exemptions” such as some agricultural products). Member countries also agree to not add extra taxes to imported goods, or sort of reroute protectionism.

ASEAN, a regional group outside of the confines of the WTO

ASEAN, a regional group outside of the confines of the WTO

While the GATT and WTO have been in general a success for opening markets for exporters and importers alike, developing countries that are members may be left with little power once they enter a deal with a larger economy or larger exporter. Consequently, many other trade organizations have been created in the last few decades as organizations with specific interests or that already had regional agreements.

Many feel that the WTO is a modern day method for larger economies to coerce smaller developing markets into opening their markets without sufficient protection from tariffs. This legacy and difficulties with the WTO make larger trade agreements sensible in the long term.


Conclusion: Large Trade Deals and Modernizing Rules

Most people would agree that creating an arena for free trade to open international markets along with rules on environmental protection, the rights of labor, and digital guidelines are much needed in the internet age. More than 80% of Americans are in favor of international trade agreements – mainly because of the prospect of opening international markets and cheaper prices. Quarrels and disagreements begin, however, when the trade agreement process is not transparent and international agreements are highly influenced by small cadres of global businesses and governments.

3 ring circus

3 ring circus

The biggest gripe with lowering trade barriers is that there can be negative effects on American laborers who would see their own domestic market flooded with cheaper goods from other products; essentially, American goods sold at home would have less protection from tariffs as imports would be cheaper.

The effect of globalization facilitated by trade deals, such as NAFTA, has held down wages in rich countries and labor force participation according to a new paper by Ann Harrison of the University of Pennsylvania. This effect is intended to be offset by a corrollary to the TPP, the TAA, or trade adjustment assistance; designed to assist American workers whose job has been cut or directly impacted by international trade. The impact on American workers is the primary reason that AFL/CIO labor unions are very outspoken in their opposition to the deal.

Another issue with the potential positive impact is that the impact on GDP is minimal, estimated at only 0.2%, and comes mainly from the 12th member of the TPP, Japan, whose lifts on trade barriers may not include agriculture and auto parts (details yet to be released). The pro-TPP argument usually consists of “Falling tariffs = greater US exports and higher US GDP.” But this argument is too simplistic and not entirely accurate as the numbers portrayed by models show relative minimal impact.

The more potentially sinister side of the deal concerns the rules portion which constitute some of the controversy. The TPP is supposed to establish rules in trade so that labor rights are followed in all participating countries and that certain environmental standards, such as the trade of illegal products (such as ivory) or endangered species is prohibited. But of course relaxation of standards or strict implementation cannot be confirmed because the details are still not public. So if there are issues, the devil certainly is in the details. Will these rules, if stringent, actually be enforced? If the rules are broken, are there quick ways of dealing with the problem? Will global businesses have more control over telecommunications and the internet as a result?

There are significant worries about the scrapping of environmental regulations, rules about internet providers having to invest in hardware and availability, and about labor rules. Further, Senator Levin complains that the TPP does not address whether or how climate change issues should be addressed.

Warren's arguments of lack of transparency and corporate interests are powerful,   but will they be enough to override the TPP vote?

Warren’s arguments of lack of transparency and corporate interests are powerful, but will they be enough to override the TPP vote?

These issues and lack of details are harped on by many Democrats as reasons to oppose the TPP and especially the fast track. Now that the fast track is in place, the TPP will be fiercely debated with these issues and transparency at the forefront by progressives such as Elizabeth Warren.

Finally,the idea of the TPP seems to make sense from all sides, but as its written in its present form (that is already fast track approved and can’t be amended), it is missing key elements and may fail to bring about the economic objective at the expense for an added piece to President Obama’s legacy. His strong push for the deal even with missing components supports this notion. The U.S. has as much a political agenda with the trade deal as economic. The TPP is part of President Obama’s strategic “pivot” to Asia to potentially counter China’s economic influence in the region and attempt to address the allegations against China that they manipulate their currency to make import/export deals in their favor.

2,500 American troops in Australia is part of the pivot

2,500 American troops in Australia is part of the pivot

Without China’s inclusion in the deal, the world’s second largest economy, (nearly 1st) who can make a huge difference in the Asian-Pacific market, will attempt to close their own trade deals with the same countries as the TPP – so the lowering of trade barriers may be more favorable to the Chinese in the end.

All these arguments and more are at the table as Congress debates the trade deal and gives either the thumbs up or thumbs down.

Until the next 3 letter acronym,

LOL, your faithful historian,

Eric G. Prileson


Sources and Further Reads:

Accessed July 2, 2015. http://www.nber.org/reporter/summer06/irwin.html.

“ASEAN Framework For Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.” ASEAN Framework For Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Accessed July 1, 2015. http://www.asean.org/news/item/asean-framework-for-regional-comprehensive-economic-partnership.

“Asia-Pacific Trade.” AsiaPacific Trade. Accessed July 1, 2015. http://asiapacifictrade.org/?page_id=470.

Elms, Deborah K., and C.l. Lim. “An Overview and Snapshot of the TPP Negotiations.” A Quest For a Twenty-First Century Trade Agreement The Trans-Pacific Partnership, 2012, 21–44. doi:10.1017/cbo9781139236775.007.

“Fair Wind Blowing.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 2015. http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21656187-what-trade-deal-asia-could-most-usefully-include-fair-wind-blowing.

“Japanese-American Relations At the Turn of the Century, 1900–1922 – 1899–1913 – Milestones – Office of the Historian.” Japanese-American Relations At the Turn of the Century, 1900–1922 – 1899–1913 – Milestones – Office of the Historian. Accessed July 9, 2015. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1899-1913/japanese-relations.

Kinzer, Stephen. Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. New York: Times Books/Henry Holt, 2006.

“Levin Floor Statement On TPA and TAA.” Levin Floor Statement On TPA and TAA. Accessed July 1, 2015. http://democrats.waysandmeans.house.gov/press-release/levin-opening-remarks-tpa-hr-1314#.vxrje9cz_b4.twitter.

“Obama Signs Trade, Worker Assistance Bills Into Law.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/06/29/us/politics/ap-us-obama-trade.html.

“The Opium War And Foreign Encroachment | Asia for Educators | Columbia University.” The Opium War And Foreign Encroachment | Asia for Educators | Columbia University. Accessed July 6, 2015. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/special/china_1750_opium.htm#war.

“The Tariff Of Abominations: The Effects | US House of Representatives: History, Art &Amp; Archives.” The Tariff Of Abominations: The Effects. Accessed July 7, 2015. http://history.house.gov/historicalhighlight/detail/36974.

Taussig, F. W. “The Tariff, 1830-1860.” The Quarterly Journal Of Economics 2, no. 3 (1888): 314. doi:10.2307/1879417.

“WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATION.” World Trade Organization. Accessed July 8, 2015. https://www.wto.org/.

“What Is The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Really All About?” The Baseline Scenario, April 2015. http://baselinescenario.com/2015/06/04/what-is-the-trans-pacific-partnership-tpp-really-all-about/.

“What You Need to Know about the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” PBS. PBS. Accessed July 1, 2015. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/full-dress-battle-awaits-know-tpp/.

“Fast Track Passes and Symbolically the Rig Count Increases for the 1st Time This Year…” Fast Track Passes and Symbolically the Rig Count Increases for the 1st Time This Year… Accessed July 1, 2015. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/06/29/1397584/-fast-track-passes-and-symbolically-the-rig-count-increases-for-the-1st-time-this-year.



The Ex/Im Bank, OpEd column, by Barack Obama, published in the Boston Globe, 7/1/2015

Irwin, Douglas A. Historical Aspects of U.S. Trade Policy National Bureau of Economic Research, Research Summary 2006. http://www.nber.org/reporter/summer06/irwin.html#N_4_

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