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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What’s the Deal With a lack of Water in the West?

Hello all!

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that usually stays hydrated in some form or another.

In this week’s post, we’ll discuss the ongoing 4 year drought that has severely affected the western United States and what the short term and long term implications of the drought are.

We’ll also look into the discussions about why the drought is occurring and what may happen in the future in the region along with the implications of a warmer world on this region and others like it.

The Current: “Unprecedented 21st Century Drought Risk”

THIS much snow is usually here!

THIS much snow is usually here!

On Wednesday April 1, California Governor Jerry Brown announced an executive order imposing strict water usage limits on Californians, a 25 percent reduction on the state’s 400 local water supply agencies, with some cities facing a 35% reduction.

Brown appropriately made the announcement while standing on what usually had been several feet of snow pack, but with the extreme drought conditions was bare grass and dirt:

“The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past.” – Governor Jerry Brown

The executive order controversially does not pertain to owners of large farms, easily the biggest users of water in California, but farmers will have to issue comprehensive reports on water usage. Imposing fines on overuse of water  by individuals and businesses will be a difficult task and perhaps a widespread one. Officials are hopeful Californians will voluntarily curb their usage, but a similar voluntary effort in the past ran dry quickly.

Was Brown’s executive order necessary? What kind of water issues is the state and the West facing?

Exceptional Drought in CA and NV

Exceptional Drought in CA and NV

With 178 gallons of water being used per person / day, the usage problem in CA seems to be easily visible.

The bigger problem simply is the lack of precipitation in a long term drought that is affecting a population area of over 52 million people.

Consistently drier and warmer weather for the past 3-plus years in much of the West and Southwest U.S. has led to significant decreases in lake levels, river flows, mountain snow pack, underground aquifers, and more.

Over the past 3 years, 60% of Western states have seen at least abnormally dry conditions with 20% of the West being in extreme to exceptional drought. The following charts and graphs below show precipitation levels, mountain snow pack and moisture percentiles.

2015: extremely dry

2012- 15: extremely dry

Figure 1: Standardized Precipitation -Evapotranspiration Index  – basically, precipitation minus water loss to temp/dryness for Februaries in Nevada.

As you can see, the past 3 years is all in the deep red – far lower than any point in the last century.


the red is not good

the red is not good

snow pack measurements 2015

snow pack measurements 2015




Figure 2: % of Normal Precipitation.

Much of California here is well below 70% of normal precipitation averages.




Figure 3: Mountain Snowpack, March 2015.

While some of the Rocky Mountains in Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado are experiencing normal – above average snow pack conditions, the Cascades and Sierra Nevadas are facing extreme snowpack shortages and reduced levels.

This is a huge issue because annual snowfall and snowpack in the mountains provides much of the ground water and surface water for the large population residing in California and Nevada.



total moisture storage

total moisture storage

Figure 4: Total Current Moisture Percentile 2015

Once again the values here show extreme conditions in California that are likely to increase in severity as warmer months arrive and the decreased snowpack does not accommodate the groundwater and surface water need.





The Scope and Impact of the Problem

The figures don’t just show drought conditions in the West, but show extreme conditions that pose a severe threat to the water availability for citizens of the region.

With lack of water comes other serious conditions such as huge sink holes, building collapses, large economic impacts on different industries (such as ski resorts), and most importantly the impact on the agrarian sector. California’s Central Valley provides an enormous amount of food; nearly half of the nation’s fruit and vegetables come from California and much more is exported overseas.

With farmers being exempt from the water restrictions as of now, crop output should be on par as previous years and consumers shouldn’t see too big of a hit in the produce department at the store, but at a big cost. Large farms are pumping huge amounts of groundwater from wells that are drilled – depleting a resource that was always sensitive even before the drought. The withdrawals are far exceeding the replenishment and are starting to lead to serious problems. In some places the water table has dropped by 50 feet in the past few years. Permanent damage to the underground water storage capabilities (aquifer storage in sand and clay) may be the biggest issue in addition to sink holes, damages to smaller farms, and damage to roads and bridges.

So we’ve outlined the problem in detail (more detail than perhaps you wished), now let’s examine the historical record and reasons behind the exceptional drought.

“Mother Nature didn’t intend for 40 million people to live here”

The historical data on droughts in the U.S. since 1900 suggest that Western states will certainly see higher levels of precipitation at some point and that the drought will eventually break. But the historical data also shows something else: this current drought is unprecedented in its severity and longevity.

What about in the future? Will this be a one time drought that westerners can adjust to like other situations? Or is something more sinister at work?

The projections for the future climate out West are relatively bleak, primarily as a result of global warming from higher greenhouse gas levels. Using historical data gleaned from tree ring samples to create climate models from the past 2000 years, researchers applied 17 different climate models which used soil moisture measurements and the Palmer index for net precipitation in conjunction with 2 different CO2 emissions projections.tree-rings-0019_web

The tree ring data gives researchers an idea of growing conditions for the tree during that particular year. Larger / fatter ring = better growing year with higher precipitation levels. Skinny ring = drier year with less precipitation. This is similar to the way scientists gain climate information from ice core rings: thicker ring: better snow levels/lower temperatures, skinny ring: warmer conditions, less snow.

The results from the study were the same: Higher risk of drought with higher global temperatures.

“The results … are extremely unfavorable for the continuation of agricultural and water resource management as they are currently practiced in the Great Plains and southwestern United States,” David Stahle

The higher risk of drought correlates with global warming as higher temperatures lead to a drying out across the West and significantly reduce snowpack in the mountains. This, according to climate models, could lead to droughts that last 2 – 3 decades – making current agricultural and populations in the West unsustainable. Notable from the research is the 2nd climate scenario in which human populations are able to curb emissions. In this second scenario, drought risk is still present, but far less severe.

So what we can say from this study and others like it are that the drought is severe now, but the worst is yet to come.

Conclusion: Much ado about nothing?

run dry

run dry

One striking example of the lack of water in the West that is easily seen is the case of the Colorado River and Rio Grande and how they have been reduced to a trickle because of overuse and dry conditions. It is likely that these rivers and the water sources they create (Lake Mead, etc…) will no longer be adequate for even supplementing water supplies – a huge deal for the large population centers that depend on them for drinking water and for agriculture which depends on them for crop production.

So is this drought in the U.S. a result of climate change?

It is very difficult to pinpoint a weather related disaster such as a drought or hurricane as a result of a long term climactic event such as human induced climate change. This is because climate change is a phenomenon that occurs over a longer period of time while a single drought is a short term weather related event. So we cannot say for sure that this drought is the direct result of climate change.

We can say, however, that the chances of drought have increased given the conditions yielded by climate change: drier weather patterns from an increase in global temps. But is only asking “Did climate change cause this drought” the real question to ask?

Perhaps another question to ask is should people continue their business as usual in areas experiencing extreme drought? and what are the effects for everyone else?

now boarders need to watch the patchies all year

now boarders need to watch the patchies all year

If states in the West are going through drier, warmer weather on a more consistent basis, then water will be a limited resource for everyone. Let’s take a look at what people will need to adjust to:

As Governor Brown quipped, no more nice little green lawns for everyone, and the 25% reduction will hit many everyday things for individuals and businesses. The goals for water reduction may be easier to hit for the cities as technology, water reclamation, and even desalination plants (a controversial project). What will be most difficult is for agriculture. The biggest users of water is from agriculture and there will need to be an adjustment to a situation where even groundwater is no longer a backup option for water.

maybe stop driving and start biking

maybe stop driving and start biking

As discussed earlier, with so much of our food being grown in the area and the significant stress put on aquifers by pumping, the ability to retain precipitation when it does fall will have significantly diminished, leaving less groundwater to pump. When that does happen, the ability to be a huge source of food for the U.S. and the world will be unsustainable.

In a snapshot, the big picture of a lack of water in the West brings us back to those rivers.

The rivers are a good starting point because it is rivers that are a determinant of water for a majority of the world’s population. Whether it is the Sacramento River, the Colorado River, the Rio Grande, or the Indus, the Bramaputra, or the Yangtze, rivers are the lifeblood for so much of humanity, that significant changes in water levels could be a matter of life or death.

The facts on clean water availability for the world’s population is well known, but less known is availability of water at all for people and agriculture in dry or arid regions. The huge populations of South Asia dependent on sufficient water flow on tributaries from the Himalayan Mountains are in a tenuous situation. Without sufficient rainfall or mountain/glacial snowmelt farmers and citizens alike could be without a significant source of water.

Glacial runoff

Glacial runoff

This tenuous situation is compounded by climate change as glaciers are melting in the Himalayas leaving less long term water storage in the form of ice. In this situation, access to water could be severely limited for some of the world’s largest population centers.

The impact on the U.S. will certainly be significant and the adaptations that will be required will be interesting to observe as they develop. Most importantly, perhaps they can provide a model for other parts of the world to follow if climate change leaves water resources dry.

Until the next water reduction mandate,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson


Sources and Further Reads:






The Earth Institute at Columbia University. “Warming pushes Western U.S. toward driest period in 1,000 years: Unprecedented risk of drought in 21st century.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 February 2015.




Posted in Agriculture, Health, Politics, Science, Social Issues, U.S. | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s the Deal With Segregation by Incarceration, and the Need to Listen?

Hello All!

signs up across the nation

signs up across the nation

Welcome another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that attempts to reintroduce rational thought during a time when all sense of American history has somehow been forgotten.

In this week’s post, we’ll discuss the large-scale American cultural melee that has erupted from the recent court decisions in St. Louis and New York not to indict the police officers who had killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner, respectively.

As is usually the case, the national media and most analysts have put forth a reactionary canard that only attempts to rationalize the situation in a snapshot and does not take into context the historical ramifications of these events nor the consequences for the country.

the melting pot is boiling over

the melting pot is boiling over

By revisiting difficult issues as well as recognizing that our melting pot experiment has several serious cracks in the pewter, we can explain much more about the widespread feeling of injustice from all parts of society.

The Current: Injustice and Sensationalism

Thousands poured out onto the streets from their homes, dormitories, offices and shopping malls to protest. They held signs that read, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”, “I Can’t Breathe”, and “Black Lives Matter.”

Athletes, having been silent on many political issues for years,  joined the voices of dissent and made statements with their attire, entrances, and post-game conversations. Even the President joined the fray in support of the athletes and their statements.239E5D5600000578-0-image-64_1417383522207

People were mad. People saw evil triumphing over the helpless with a Justice System that was blind. People didn’t understand it. People created labels to help them understand, fueled by Twitter hashtags, TV headlines, and talking heads.

But instead of actually understanding the issue, we’re left with pure sensationalism that will be forgotten by most, just as the Asian Airliner disappearances and the American Ebola scare were. Once media giants realize people are not tuning in as often to read a scary headline with all CAPS, they will move on to the next highest ratings generating story.

How can we explain the travesty of the police killings of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and John Crawford III this year – not to mention the injustice following the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012?Ferguson-Standoff

We must view our society in a less reactionary form – which is difficult – it is in our nature to try and react and explain in a quick, easy, and catchy way. The roots of injustice from our fractured and messy history help to explain and offer a semblance of solution for people’s anger.

The Creation of Race as a Marker of Class and Servitude

The creation of race, the scaffolding of a hierarchical society, and divisions based on color are just some of the many legacies of slavery in the U.S. that have yet to dissolve. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, slaveholders in the agrarian sectors of the U.S. out-competed small planters and sharecroppers which left the majority of the laboring class as slaves of African descent. Family labor, indentured servants, and wage labor (mostly labor of European descent) declined significantly, leaving slavery (and inferiority) to be exclusively identified with or equated with people of African descent. Thus race and class structure was a manufactured social phenomenon.

Indentured servitude in America: gradually replaced exclusively by African American slave labor

Indentured servitude in America: gradually replaced exclusively by African American slave labor

White abolitionists would be tainted by this racist structure in objecting slavery not for the negative effects on black slaves, but the effects on the white conscious – a phenomenon only affecting a dominant group. These racialist beliefs easily survived the Civil War post 1865 and gained new life especially in Northern cities where freed blacks joined an already competitive labor population with European immigrants – leading to segregated societies both North and South of the Mason – Dixon line.

The legalization of segregation, confirmed by Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) validated the lifestyle desired by the lost culture of servitude and cemented the division between blacks and whites physically. While the “in your face” racism and forced segregation is often associated with the Deep South only, blacks were segregated and faced significant issues in the North through discriminatory housing, lending, educational, occupational, and zoning practices that led to defacto segregation, if not legalized.

chicago race riots 1919

chicago race riots 1919

The frustration of blacks in all parts of the country was seen through race riots in cities like Chicago in 1919, 1950, and across several cities in 1964. In a new, manufactured way outside of the legalese of slavery, African-Americans had become subjugated in a different way.

***Side note: If the idea of segregation in the North is incomprehensible to some, consider the riots in Boston of whites in the 1970’s over the busing of blacks in order to integrate schools. The “white flight” that followed in Boston and elsewhere is easily seen today where minority groups are living in specific areas that were at one point neighborhoods of investment.

King's march remembered in the new movie portrayal

King’s march remembered in the new movie portrayal

Across the country, North and South, blacks and people of color were living in separate worlds from caucasians – but certainly not equal worlds as Thurgood Marshall proved as the plaintiff in the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case in 1954.

The forced integration of public facilities most immediately affected the South and the ensuing upheaval through the Civil Rights campaigns in the 1960’s is what is usually remembered: Dr. King leading peaceful sit ins, marches, boycotts, and giving tremendous speeches, lunch counter sit ins led by student protesters, federal troops forcing the integration of schools in Arkansas, and the high profile killings of blacks, eg. King and Medgar Evers.

These events and people of the Civil Rights movement should of course not be forgotten. But what needs to be highlighted is the less clear, less direct racism and discrimination in the North along with policies that have kept poor people, and specifically black Americans, separated through mass incarceration.

“Law and Order: The Hysteria of Tough on Crime”

Out of the development of the New Left movements of the 1960s in the U.S. came a response from politicians that has stymied the dreams of Civil Rights leaders: “Law and Order.”

Jack McCoy would not stand for these policies

Jack McCoy would not stand for these policies

No not the television drama, but the new policy initiated by Barry Goldwater and the new look Republicans of the 1960’s that sought to woo voters who were afraid of social progress and the elimination of their (white) society where blacks were subjugated as second class citizens.

The rise of violent domestic groups, such as the Weather Underground, radical student groups, drug using counter-culture groups, and anti-Vietnam war protesters stirred the pot for much of conservative America, but what really frightened many conservatives was the impending societal change if blacks were able to escape the fences of second class citizenship. In order to win over this large voting block, the Republican Party did two things: attempted to wrest control of the historically Democratic South, and create a “Tough on Crime” rhetoric and policy which was specifically meant to comfort whites (and themselves) in response to nonviolent civil disobedience of the Civil Rights movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Tonight there is violence in our streets, corruption in our highest offices, aimlessness among our youth, anxiety among our elderly. …Security from domestic violence, no less than from foreign aggression, is the most elementary form and fundamental purpose of any government, and a government that cannot fulfill this purpose is one that cannot command the loyalty of its citizens.” – excerpt from a Campaign stump speech by Barry Goldwater.

The roots of this idea of Law and Order came from the Presidential election of 1964 when Goldwater –  seeing the rise of the racist Governor of Alabama George Wallace winning significant numbers of voters away from Lyndon Johnson during the Democratic primary –  saw an opportunity to woo voters to the Republican side. Southern Democrats and many conservatives in the North had shown their hand in that the “tough on crime” rhetoric resonated with them.

Wallace campaigned for the re-segregation of America

Wallace campaigned for the re-segregation of America

Though LBJ ended up winning the election and pushing for the passage of further Civil Rights Legislation in 1965, 1964 was a watershed election year for the Republican party as it became entrenched in the South and their policy of Law and Order would become the norm in the administrations and Congresses to come.

New sets of Republican constituencies were thus courted through the use of racially charged code words—phrases and symbols that “refer indirectly to racial themes but do not directly
challenge popular democratic or egalitarian ideals.”

When Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, he and many Republicans (and some Democrats) in Congress brought Law and Order (the euphemism for slowing social change through law enforcement) to the forefront of their directive. After all, it had been what their party platform had been about:

John Ehrlichmann, Special Counsel to the President, described the Nixon administration’s campaign strategy of 1968 in this way: “We’ll go after the racists. That subliminal appeal to the anti-African-American voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches.”

Nixon uses drugs as the  target to sniff out ways of beefing up law enforcement

Nixon uses drugs as the target to sniff out ways of beefing up law enforcement

It is difficult, Nixon discovered, to change law enforcement from the Federal level when it is managed and carried out at the local level. To clear this hurdle, he funneled massive amounts of money into executive agencies that specifically targeted drugs: one area where the Feds have direct control. Drugs, it was argued, were the principal cause behind the crime that was committed:

In 1971, Nixon claimed that drug addicts steal more than $2 billion worth of property per year.  According to the FBI, however, the total value of all property stolen in the United States that year was $1.3 billion.

And so drugs, and locking up users, became the goal of law enforcement. Imprisonment, not therapy and rehabilitation became the goal. Crime, so the tale went according to the Conservatives, was a result of individual choice and not the result of poverty, necessity, social ills, or mental incapacity.

Reagan continued the policy of "Round em Up"

Reagan continued the policy of “Round em Up”

Nixon’s policies were intimately copied in the Reagan administration, again using the rallying cry of crime in the streets and suggesting that again it wasn’t the issue of poverty or social ills, or lack of opportunities which forced individuals into turning to crime:

“Here in the richest nation in the world, where more crime is committed than in any other nation, we are told that the answer to this problem is to reduce our poverty. This isn’t the answer…. Government’s function is to protect society from the criminal, not the other way around.”

This without a majority of public backing. In 1981, 58% of Americans believed that the roots of crime lay with unemployment and poverty. The War on Drugs continued; the support for the addicts diminished: 78% of funds allocated for combating drugs went to law enforcement, while the other 22% went to prevention. The frenzy increased in 1986 with the first Anti-Drug Abuse Act which required the military to be involved in narcotics operations and mandatory minimum sentences.

the rise of mass incarceration

the rise of mass incarceration

The first Bush administration 1988- 1992 actually outspent the previous administrations combined on anti-drug spending – which again was spent on incarcerating individuals, not on prevention or rehabilitation. There was no let up on the “Tough on Crime” movement with a Democrat in the White House as even tougher legislation was signed by Bill Clinton in 1994 and 1996. Asked to explain the inaction on other crime prevention legislation

One administration official said, “You can’t appear soft on crime when crime hysteria is sweeping the country.”

Segregation by Incarceration (SBI)

the rise of the prison complex

the rise of the prison complex

In 1975, there were an average of 400,000 people imprisoned in the U.S. By 2003, this number had increased to 2.1 million – an increase that correlates specifically with “Law and Order” era – or more accurately, the era of Mass Incarceration.

The rise in incarceration has been targeted towards and disproportionately felt by young black men. One Pew Study suggests that one in nine African-American men between the ages of 20 – 34 is in prison on a given day, and that number increases to 1 in 3 for those with less than a high school degree. Many scholars suggest that this situation of racial exclusion is a defacto return to Jim Crow segregation – where whites and blacks are physically separated and blacks are left with an identifying  marker as inferior, or “bound for prison.”

The effects of imprisonment are steep on the individuals who experience it, but cost even more to the communities that support them and/or is dependent on them. Imprisonment exacerbates existing racial and socioeconomic inequalities by dividing communities of color from white communities, and making the disadvantaged more so. Upon release from prison, former inmates have less opportunity on the job market, lower wages, and are released to communities with little economic fortitude. Families are forced to make do with only one parent, leaving fewer male role models, and reducing the chances of escaping poverty. The 2 million people in prison may cause some people to react, but not the 20 million others who are indirectly affected by incarceration.

As ESPN writer Jason Whitlock who was writing to comment on several prominent athletes wearing “I Cant Breathe” T-Shirts noted,

SBI is much worse and more corrosive than Jim Crow.

Jim Crow had unintended benefits. It forced blacks to build and rely on their own economic, educational and social systems. SBI is a silent killer with no benefit.  It extinguishes hope.

So we see that the era of “Law and Order”, the War on Drugs, and the political mantra “Tough on Crime” has been the era of mass incarceration targeted specifically towards and affecting Black Americans.

the occupants of mass incarceration

the occupants of mass incarceration

Some may argue that yes, arrest rates have increased significantly, but that as a result violent crime rates have also decreased in a big way, and therefore, the era of mass incarceration has just been a roundup of “bad guys.” In reality though, the “tough on crime” movement has focused mostly on drugs, and on rounding up people of color.

Drug Law Enforcement = Prejudiced Law Enforcement

Despite equal rates of drug use across racial lines, communities and persons of color continue to be discriminated against as the targets of drug policies. This is nothing new. Laws against smoking opium in San Francisco (because the Chinese immigrants did) but not against ingesting opium in other, non-foreign forms, Coca-Cola removing cocaine from their product because their customer base feared blacks getting cocaine in any form – which whites believed was causing blacks to run “dangerously amuck.”

be wary of the aadvertisers

be wary of the aadvertisers

Marijuana being portrayed as a dangerous because it brought black and white youth together during the Jazz era of the 1920’s, and black youth being portrayed as traffickers of drugs and a danger to society in the 1960’s, is only a short list of the long history of drug laws and enforcement specifically targeting minority groups.

This is the background, the myriad of prejudice, that law enforcement had as they stepped up drug arrest rates in the era of mass incarceration and began using tactics such as “stop and frisk” that made racial profiling part of the job description.

Because of the continued prejudice, law enforcement continues to target blacks and other communities of color as its main strategy in the War on Drugs and has led to the high profile cases of killings, but more importantly has led to SBI.

Conclusion: What is the state of Martin’s Dream?

In August 2013, on the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, news networks ran a series of discussions about the so called “State of King’s Dream” where various scholars, pundits, writers, and others talked about racial affairs in the present. Most of those on the discussion came up with similar conclusions: that things had gotten much better, but that we still had a ways to go before reaching that dream and some kind of post-racial society.

King's dream, revisited

King’s dream, revisited

The way that the segments were put together showed that the network and some of the participants didn’t feel that race was high on the “importance checklist.” This year’s events, however, should certainly show that it should have been and that conversations about race should be had much more often. They would show that there are frightening examples of exactly how far we have to go before King’s dream is achievable.

For those still unconvinced that racial disparities exist in society, or that they live in a “post-racial” world where they “don’t see race”, take into consideration the significant discrimination that occurs in housing in the U.S. or the disparities in school discipline. In the former, the Department of Housing and Urban Development showed that blacks, asians, and hispanics are frequently discriminated against in housing and receiving loans – not in an overt in your face manner, but according to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, “just because it has taken on a hidden form doesn’t make it any less harmful.”

Some of the findings of a HUD study showed that

White testers were more frequently offered lower rents, told that deposits and other move-in costs were negotiable, or were quoted a lower price. Taking into account fees, deposits and rents, apartments were more likely to cost whites slightly less in the first year of rental than blacks might pay.

In a test, a real estate agent refused to meet with a black tester who was not prequalified for a loan, while a white tester was given an appointment without being asked if she had prequalified.

Over all, black prospective renters were presented 11 percent fewer rentals than whites… As prospective buyers, blacks were presented 17 percent fewer homes

While door slamming, and blatant discrimination is not present, it is easy to see that blacks and whites are given very different treatment when it comes to housing and lending.

If one in 9 young black men is in prison at any given moment, people grow to associate (wrongly of course) young black men with being criminals, just as 4 centuries earlier, blacks were associated with inferiority through slavery. This association has affected our school systems, with black boys and girls receiving much higher suspension rates than whites:

From 2011 to 2012, black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide were suspended at a rate of 12 percent, compared with a rate of just 2 percent for white girls… In Georgia, the ratio of black girls receiving suspensions in the same period compared with white girls was 5 to 1.

“What kid needs to be having a conversation with a lawyer about the right to remain silent?” he said. “White kids don’t have those conversations; black kids do.”

“What kid needs to be having a conversation with a lawyer about the right to remain silent?” he said. “White kids don’t have those conversations; black kids do.”

The pattern also showed that the darker the skin color, the higher the suspension and discipline rate. Overall, the data shows a disproportionate discipline rate for blacks compared to their proportion of the school population:

Black students represent 16% of the student population, but 32-42% of students suspended or expelled. In comparison, white students also represent a similar range of between 31-40% of students suspended or expelled, but they are 51% of the student population.

This fact should resonate with the rate of imprisonment for blacks which is disproportionately high compared to overall population (37% of prison population, versus 12% of the population). Is it any wonder there is a connection? As Catherine Lhamon, the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education noted,

“The message we send when we suspend or expel any student is that that student is not worthy of being in the school,” Ms. Lhamon said. “That is a pretty ugly message to internalize and very, very difficult to get past as part of an educational career.”

Discrimination persists and is ingrained at every level of American life, whether we like it or not. It is so ingrained, that we can see it in brain scan images of white people who are encountering someone of another race, using preconceptions and stereotypes that are ingrained in us as soon as we are born and begin observing the world. The preconceptions were made and felt by Darren Wilson. They were made by the officers who shot Tamir Rice. They were made by George Zimmerman. They are made by TSA officers at the airport, NYPD cops using stop and frisk tactics, and officers engaging in unnecessary chokehold tactics.

I am white. The second I was born, I was born into a privileged sector of society, simply because of my skin color. I didn’t specifically ask for this privilege, but it certainly has given me benefits both large and small – least of which has been a lack of discrimination in school, housing, and interactions with law enforcement. No matter how poor I am, where I live, what bad decisions I make, I will still be white, and still born into a privilege that a person of color cannot be in this country.  I recognize this fact, as do many other white people, who chimed in with the #CrimingWhileWhite hashtag on twitter to show the disparities in law enforcement. But recognizing privilege through a lazily constructed hashtag doesn’t particularly do much.

How does one break down a social construct that has existed for centuries?

Not overnight. But it will happen. People of color have been fighting subjugation for centuries. They have been making the same arguments that I have put forth for a long, long time. What we should hope should come from this tumultuous era in U.S. history is the evocation of honest conversations about what causes our stereotypes, discriminatory practices, and prejudices.

White people who say that they don’t see discrimination, that policing is fair to all, that the recent events don’t constitute any form of this, and that incarceration rates are high for blacks because blacks commit a lot of crimes, just don’t get it. They won’t get it. They will perhaps never get it, because they have never been a minority in this country. They have no experience in the area of discrimination. When they say they don’t see discrimination and that it is not an issue, they are saying that blacks in this country are not telling the truth, and that the experiences of blacks are not real. These people should keep their mouths shut and just listen. Because for once, it’s time white people actually started listening to others.

As always, history has a lens that can help wrap our heads around the present and ourselves to determine who we are and how we interact with our fellow human beings.

Your faithful  historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:


U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights 2
Civil Rights Data Collection: Data Snapshot (School Discipline)
March 21, 2014






Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Belknap/Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 1998.


Wise, Tim. White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privelaged Son. Publishers Group West, Canada. 2005.


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

What’s the Deal With Americans Fighting in Syria?

Hello All!


hitting ISIS where it hurts? or driving further recruitment?

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

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

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

The Current: Volunteer Fighters

jumping on the bandwagon

jumping on the bandwagon

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

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

the coalition's hands off approach

the coalition’s hands off approach

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

fingers crossed from Secretary Hagel

fingers crossed from Secretary Hagel

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

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

recruitment of child soldiers not enough for a coalition

recruitment of child soldiers not enough for a coalition

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

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

walking the "right" way

walking the “right” way

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

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade

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

the situation in Spain in 1936

the situation in Spain in 1936

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

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

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

the Left Republic

the Left Republic

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

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

Why did Americans join the fight in Spain?

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

anarcho-syndicalist union: The CNT

anarcho-syndicalist union: The CNT

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

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

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

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

walking with a fascist friend

walking with a fascist friend

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

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

Conclusion: A Thread

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

There’s a great deal of correlation, actually.

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

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

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

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

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

guernica in ruins following the nationalist bombing

guernica in ruins following the nationalist bombing

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

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

Until the next militia group volunteership,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:









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

What’s the Deal With Sexism in Science?

Hello All!

Roz Franklin and her x-ray crystallography

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

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

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

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

The Current: No one to report to

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this happening?

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

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

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

Stories of harassment or assault often follow similar lines:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions: Until the Right Structures and Cultures Exist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until the next revealing study spurs conversation and change,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson


Sources and Further Reads:










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


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

What’s the Deal With Cosmos in Russia?

Hello All!

a cold launch

a cold launch

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

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

The Current: Cancelled!

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



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

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

Who is Angara?

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

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

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

A Whole Lot of Anticipation

that's a nice rocket

that’s a nice rocket

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

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

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

Symbol of Soviet physics success - Igor Kurchatov

Symbol of Soviet physics success – Igor Kurchatov

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

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

Yuri Gagarin makes the first orbit around the Earth

Yuri Gagarin makes the first orbit around the Earth

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

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

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

The Exploring Bear: Ursa Major

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

Putin personally getting involved in Angara's development

Putin personally getting involved in Angara’s development

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

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

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

Until the next suborbital transflight,

Your Faithful Historian and Observer,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:


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






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

What’s the Deal With a Minimum Wage Hike?

Hello All!

How much to move the cliffhanger?

How much to move the cliffhanger?

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

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

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

This political hot potato is loaded

This political hot potato is loaded

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

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

The Current: A Sky-High Minimum Wage?

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

A lot of green being discussed in the emerald city

A lot of green being discussed in the emerald city

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

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

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

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

not up for the rotunda

Debating before debating

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

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

Mind the Gap

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

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

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

This budget includes:

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

    expensive building blocks

    expensive building blocks

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

    A doctor's visit could be a bank breaker

    A doctor’s visit could be a bank breaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Fair Day’s Work

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

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

mutton chops and minimum wages

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

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

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

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

and protect employees because

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

Surprisingly, Taft was in favor of the minimum wage.

Surprisingly, Taft was in favor of the minimum wage.


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

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

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

Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938

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

Hillman had comprehensive labor vision

Hillman had comprehensive labor vision

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

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

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

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

the force behind FDR's agenda

the force behind FDR’s agenda

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

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

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

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

From the FLSA to the FMWA

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

Sen. Harkin (IA) attempting to fix the FLSA

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Diluting the Conversation to Obfuscate Inequality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not your typical minimum wage workers

Not your typical minimum wage workers

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

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

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

The divide seems impassible

The divide seems impassible

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

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

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

For people like Akilarose Thompson:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until the next loaded hot potato,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:









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

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

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

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