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

Hello All!

captured the general public's eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

See? It's fine!

See? It’s fine!

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

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

Gov. Snyder was pretending to be blind to the crisis

Gov. Snyder was pretending to be blind to the crisis

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

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

Four questions from this unbelievable turn of events:

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

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

bottled water: cases were donated

bottled water: cases were donated

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

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

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

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

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

Corroded lead pipe

Corroded lead pipe

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

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

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

Environmental Contamination and Race: A Startling Connection

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

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

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

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

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

The trash incinerator in Miami known as "Old Smokey"

The trash incinerator in Miami known as “Old Smokey”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Health Impact from Environmental Injustice

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

asthma mortality rates: black vs. white

Asthma mortality rates: black vs. white

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

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

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

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

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


Conclusion: Lack of Political Power Creates Segregation of Toxic Exposure

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

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

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

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

limiting housing options for lower income Americans

limiting housing options for lower income Americans

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Until the next water crisis,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson


Sources and Further Reads:


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

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

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

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











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

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

What’s the Deal With Dissatisfaction in America?

Hello all!

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

The American Smile has turned upside down

The American Smile has turned upside down

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

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

The Current: Not so Popular

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

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

much improved

much improved

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

So why the doom and gloom America?

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

Is it Economic?

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


An average increase in GDP of 2.2% since 2009

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

good to be in the top 1%

good to be in the top 1%

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

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

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

Is it the Cost of Education?

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

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

Is it social dynamics and demographics?

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

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

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

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

Is it the “End of Second Term Blues”?

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

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

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

Or Is it simply the Pall of Current Events?

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

huh, looks like the 1% is also lily white

huh, looks like the 1% is also lily white

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

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

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

not lost in the shuffle

not lost in the shuffle

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

Until the next poll,

Your faithful historian,

Eric G. Prileson


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

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


Sources and Further Reads:










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

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

Hello All!

I'm being paid peanuts to write this blog

I’m being paid peanuts to write this blog

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

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

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

Foodie Vocabulary: #Organic

one of the simplest organic molecules

one of the simplest organic molecules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A good sign the food you're purchasing is organic

A good sign the food you’re purchasing is organic

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

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

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

Foodie Vocabulary: “Local”

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

Farm to table

Farm to table

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

Foodie Vocabulary: “Natural” and  “Naturally raised”

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

Foodie Vocabulary: “Grass-Fed”

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

blue skies, green grass, fed cows

blue skies, green grass, fed cows

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

Foodie Vocabulary: “Non-GMO”

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

well, a different kind of experiment

well, a different kind of experiment

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

POW, mind blown…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classic Barnyarders

Classic Barnyarders

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

the beta bond shown in red

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

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

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

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

What Does the Animal Want?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

overuse of antibiotics leads to resistant bacteria or "superbugs"

overuse of antibiotics leads to resistant bacteria or “superbugs”

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

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

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

Conclusion: What Should We as Consumers Decide?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An allegedly content animal

An allegedly content animal

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

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

Until we’re given a food label ourselves,

Your Faithful Historian / Animal and Range Scientists,

Vanessa J. and Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






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What’s the Deal With Trade Deals?

Hello All!

toilet paper also is involved with environmental regulations

toilet paper also is involved with environmental regulations

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

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

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

The Current: Fast Track to a Tough Vote

Rep. Levin's 5 min speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fast track to no voice

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

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

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

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

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

TPP: Because It’s Been 11 Years

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

Lowering trade barriers requires flexibility in trade deals

Lowering trade barriers requires flexibility in trade deals

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

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


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


Turns out the Economy was and still is Interconnected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calhoun, in a nullifying mood

Calhoun, in a nullifying mood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US Iron Production: 1844 – 1856 in gross tons

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

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

Tariffs or Free Trade = Large-scale Economic Growth?

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

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

UK vs. U.S. economic performance

UK vs. U.S. economic performance

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

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

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

The “free market” benefits everyone, especially America

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Tariff Levels before and after the GATT

Tariff Levels before and after the GATT


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

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

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

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

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

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


Conclusion: Large Trade Deals and Modernizing Rules

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

3 ring circus

3 ring circus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until the next 3 letter acronym,

LOL, your faithful historian,

Eric G. Prileson


Sources and Further Reads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Posted in Asia, Economy, International Affairs, Politics, U.S. | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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:









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