Archive for November, 2010

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The American South as developing country

November 22, 2010

This past Saturday, GOOD put up a nifty infographic (that’s what they do) showing Human Development Index scores by U.S. state. “Does America Have ‘Developing States’?” is the headline, and the brief text asks whether we should think about West Virginia and Tennessee as “developing.”

This is not a new concept; in fact, in a development class I TA’ed for in 2001, the instructor used the question, “Is the American South effectively a developing country?” as an organizing principle for part of the class. (Keep in mind the instructor got his degree from a university in the American South, and all the students were also from the American South.) This isn’t just a glib question. Human Development Index scores are clearly lower in Southern states than elsewhere in the country, particularly the northeast and west. Furthermore, it could well be argued that through the history of the United States, the economic organization of the country has been set up in a kind of extractive developed/developing relationship, with the industrial (and protected) North exploiting labor and cheap primary products from the agricultural (and more free-trade) South.

I haven’t seen the argument taken much further than this, but I don’t have much doubt that it could be. It’s certainly a useful teaching tool and food for thought.

Flying Whale

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Just ink, no action: the Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights

November 16, 2010

In 2007, Minnesota passed the Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights (PWBoR).

But congratulations aren’t really deserved.

Tonight, at an event sponsored by the Midwest Human Rights Coalition, I heard John Stiffin from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) talk about what has happened in the three years since the law’s passage.  His answer was appalling.  Basically, meat processing plants (called packinghouses here) have each been mailed an English poster of the PWBoR which they are required to post.  And–honestly–I think that’s the extent of it.

Let me start out by saying that I understand that the PWBoR was an unfunded mandate.  I understand that the DLI hasn’t been given many resources and I understand that real enforcement requires such resources.

But tonight I’m focusing in on the little things.  The inexcusable things.  The large impact-small cost failings that prevent policy changes from being as effective as they could be, even absent adequate funding.

  1. The poster isn’t included on the webpage with all other mandatory state posters from DLI for download or order.
  2. The poster wasn’t provided in any other languages, even though all other mandatory posters are.  Employers are expected to provide a translated version in the language of their workers.
  3. There has been no outreach to the Karen population, despite their recent and rapid concentration in meat processing centers such as Worthington and Albert Lea.
  4. Although the majority of packinghouse workers are from Mexico, Guatemala, Somalia, Sudan, or Southeast Asia, the single staff person was deliberately NOT hired from any of these ethnic groups to avoid the “appearance of favoritism.”
  5. There has been no collaboration with the staff person coordinating an nearly identical Bill of Rights in Nebraska.
  6. There is no proactive enforcement.  Compliance with the PWBoR isn’t integrated into OSHA’s compliance and a credible complaint is required to initiate an investigation.
  7. There is no protection for workers who file complaints, other than that the DLI “isn’t likely” to actively pursue information about their immigration status.

So maybe 6 and 7 aren’t really small cost criticisms.  But the others are.

And that’s just what I learned in a 20 minute rambling conversation.  And it doesn’t include individual-level complaints like Stiffin’s justification for not translating the poster into Spanish: Puerto Rican Spanish is different than Mexican Spanish, so translations are hard.  Right.  Because there is no such thing as Standard Spanish.  And we were really hoping the poster would be translated primarily in slang anyway.

Three years out, we should be talking about visa alternatives for workers who report violations (like the U-visa for survivors of domestic violence).  The PWBoR should be fully integrated in OSHA compliance.  And the coordinator should be able to articulate his outreach strategy to the workers, not just a one-time mailing to the employers.

Instead, we learn that there have been no complaints in three years.  Not a single one.  From one of the most dangerous industries employing some of our most vulnerable residents?  Despite John Stiffin’s reassurances, hardly proof of transformative legislation.

Jonas

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On BITs

November 10, 2010

Kevin Gallagher (Boston University, Tufts Global Development & Environment Program) and Jayati Ghosh (Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi) have written a great piece using Obama’s India visit as a hook to talk about Bilateral Investment Treaties. We hear about bilateral FTAs and multilateral organizations like the WTO all the time, but BITs have flown underneath the radar for a while. This is a great and timely intro for the uninitiated – BITs are essentially the crappy foreign investor protections contained in NAFTA-style FTAs and the long-dead Multilateral Agreement on Investment, stuck into independent treaties.

The Bolivian Cochabamba water privatization fiasco? There is a BIT relevant to that case, which Gallagher and Ghosh use as their illustrative example. And here’s another case study at Eyes On Trade of how BITs empower multinationals at the expense of sound domestic policymaking.

Flying Whale

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That election

November 3, 2010

Went to a post-election analysis event today with a former staffer for Minnesota Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, Brian McClung, and the current Speaker of the Minnesota State House, Margaret Anderson Kelliher. The state-level context here is that the governor’s race is going to a recount, although it seems to be generally accepted that the DFL candidate is likely to win; on the other hand, Republicans took control of both the state House and Senate despite the DFL having a veto-proof majority in the Senate and a near veto-proof majority in the House.

So when McClung opened the panel by gloating openly, it seemed justified and actually not annoying at all. Kelliher, on the other hand, seemed to be in total denial. This wasn’t a true “wave” election, she said; if it had been, DFLers X, Y and Z would have also lost. “This is a story of very low turnout,” she said, which as far as I can tell isn’t just a terrible analysis, it’s actually factually untrue.

The two eventually turned to talking about state-level policy moving forward, and Kelliher appeared to regain her sensibility. But then there was a question about what Obama’s reaction to this election should be. McClung put forth a fairly predictable Republican response: Obama needs to see this as a repudiation of his policies; he has overreached and people are angry at all the government spending etc etc. Clinton got this message in 1994 and changed; Obama must do the same. (Moderator Larry Jacobs made a little crack about how it’s interesting that Republicans seem to have fallen in love with Clinton recently.)

Kelliher’s response was completely ineffective and questionably coherent. She agreed that Obama has to relate to voters better. “He has to get out of the White House and talk to real people,” she said, or something completely meaningless like that. Way to defend the foundations of Democratic economic policy in a recession, Ms. Speaker!

So, I linked to this yesterday, but it’s particularly relevant with this context in mind, and worth quoting at length. Robert Reich says:

Obama shouldn’t be fooled into thinking Bill Clinton was reelected in 1996 because he moved to the center. I was there. Clinton was reelected because by then the economy had come roaring back to life.

[…]

For the next two years Republicans will try to paint Obama as a big-government liberal out of touch with America, who’s responsible for the continuing bad economy.

Obama won’t be able to win this argument by moving to the center — seeking to paint himself as a smaller-government moderate. This only confirms the Republican’s views that the central issue is size of government, that it’s been too large, and the economy can improve only if it’s smaller.

On the Republican playing field, Republicans always win.

Obama’s best hope of reelection will be to reframe the debate, making the central issue the power of big businesses and Wall Street to gain economic advantage at the expense of the rest of us. This is the Democratic playing field, and it’s more relevant today than at any time since the 1930s.

[…]

The 2012 economy won’t be as bad as the 1936 economy, hopefully. But it won’t be nearly as good as the 1996 economy. For a president running in 2012, 1936 is the more relevant.

Flying Whale

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Recently starred in Google Reader

November 2, 2010

We try not to do relatively thoughtless posts like link dumps too often, but I’ve got a critical mass of things worth reading and I figured it might be time. And only one election-related link (but it’s perhaps the most must-read of them all)!

Flying Whale