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.

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

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

Hello All!

Dishing out support

Dishing out support

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

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

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

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

The Current: Backseat Drivers

a growing problem

a growing problem

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

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

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

Marching away from direct intervention

Marching away from direct intervention

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

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

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

Will African security be reaping the benefits of intelligence?

Will African security be reaping the benefits of intelligence?

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

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

Areas of Insurgency: Sahel of a Hard Time

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

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

It turns out that:

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

all provide fertile ground for extreme ideology and violent action.

Marking an uptick in violence

Marking an uptick in violence

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

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

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

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

Life is violent when militias fill the security void

Life is violent when militias fill the security void

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Fighting for Azawad

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

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

The French army can roll through in tanks too

The French army can roll through in tanks too

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

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

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

Lessons for International Cooperation: No Quick Fixes

Counter terrorism requires an adjustable wrench

Counter terrorism requires an adjustable wrench

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

How to move forward then?

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

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

Assistance beyond shade for the displaced

Assistance beyond shade for the displaced

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

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

Conclusion: Counter-Relapse

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

Relapse to desert security

Relapse to desert security

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

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

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

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

Contain the flame

Contain the flame

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

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

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

Until the next reactionary handbook,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson


Sources and Further Reads:










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