Monthly Archives: August 2012


  • Chicago’s black renaissance [Chicago Tribune]
  • New issue of Jacobin magazine [Jacobin]
  • What good are conventions now? [Swampland]
  • A civil rights group in Togo is encouraging women to withhold sex in protest of the country’s president. [TMC]
  • Mitt, can you just tell us what you actually think? Really? Just once? [The Economist]
  • The most puzzling David Brooks column in…a while. [NYT]
  • It’s funny because it’s true.. [The Onion]
  • Al Jazeera brings us a new sports network, beIn. [Grantland]
  • Joe Biden, is in fact, running for president. [TNR]

Vegetarianism: Key to Coping with Population Growth?


A post from French newspaper Le Monde‘s “Éco(lo)” blog speculates that an increase in the global number of vegetarians may help conserve water as the world adds an estimated 2 billion more people by 2050.  I’ll quote a bit of it for any Francophone readers out there:

Si les pays développés connaissent l’urgence à réduire la consommation de viande, peu imaginent adopter dans les prochaines décennies un régime végétarien quasi-généralisé. C’est pourtant la réalité qui attend la population mondiale d’ici 2050 afin d’éviter des pénuries alimentaires catastrophiques et des déficits en eau considérables, si l’on en croit une étude du Stockholm International Water Institute, citée par le Guardian.

Aujourd’hui, à l’échelle de la Terre, les 7 milliards d’hommes tirent en moyenne 20 % de leurs apports en protéines de produits d’origine animale. Mais d’ici 2050, ce chiffre devrait tomber à 5 %, pour nourrir deux milliards d’êtres humains supplémentaires.


La production de viande nécessite en effet non seulement de l’espace et des ressources – 30 % des terres habitables de la planète sont utilisées pour nourrir les animaux, selon l’Organisation des Nations unies pour l’alimentation et l’agriculture(FAO) –, mais aussi beaucoup d’eau pour faire pousser les cultures destinées à l’alimentation du bétail. Selon l’étude, les régimes riches en protéines animales engloutissent cinq à dix fois plus d’eau que ceux végétariens. Un kilo de bœuf nécessite ainsi 15 500 litres d’eau, un kilo de porc, 4 900 litres, le poulet, 4 000 litres, et le riz, 3 000 litres, selon une autre étude parue en février. Or, 1,1 milliard de personnes n’ont actuellement pas accès à une source d’eau salubre, selon l’organisation mondiale de la santé, et 800 millions à l’eau potable, d’après les Nations unies.

D’après les scientifiques, le végétarisme serait donc une façon d’augmenter la quantité de ressources naturelles disponibles pour produire plus de nourriture.

Basically, this post is reporting on a recent study by the Stockholm International Water Institute that estimates that global water supplies will be insufficient to produce enough meat to feed all the people on earth by 2050.  Because of the amount of water required to hydrate and produce feed for livestock, vegetarian diets are estimated to necessitate 5-10 times less water than the diets of meat-eaters.  The post claims that today, worldwide, 20% of people’s protein sources come from meat but that this number must drop to 5% for everyone to get enough protein.  If more people became vegetarian, this sort of outcome might be achieved, although there is one caveat (my translation follows):

The question of vegetarianism is not, however, clear-cut.  Certain experts estimate that vegetarians in developed countries do not consume many fewer resources than moderate omnivores.  The World Wildlife Fund also released in 2010 a report on the impact of agricultural production that emphasized that meat substitutes, including foods made from imported soy, could actually use more cultivatable land than their meat or dairy counterparts.

Which doesn’t negate the main point but merely emphasizes the importance of doing vegetarianism “the right way,” so to speak.  I’m a vegetarian–I eat no meat, including seafood, though I still eat eggs and dairy–so this sort of change appeals to me.  The blog post points out some of the ecological benefits of agriculture geared toward vegetarian diets, and, without getting into them, I think there would be health and ethical advantages as well.  (I must admit that while I feel I’ve done enough research to justify my personal decision not to eat meat, I’d need to do more to have an informed opinion about the probable ecological impacts of shifting global agriculture away from meat production.)

The problem, as I see it, is that such a shift toward increased vegetarianism wouldn’t be automatic.  The post also describes the number of people living in great hunger or famine conditions today, and I suspect that if this study’s model is accurate, a decrease in the availability of meat protein would lead to greater hunger and malnourishment rather than an uptick in vegetarianism.  The latter change would require a global, concerted effort, which would be most effective if led by governments around the world.  That seems decidedly unlikely.  There have been Malthusians since Malthus, and they’ve been wrong so far, but this sort of study still makes me worry.

Image by Corey Templeton

The Journalism-Stock Ticker Combo

You may have seen it on business-related news programs, but the WSJ now appears to be integrating stock prices into their articles.  While reading this article on growing mine worker strikes in South Africa, I noticed that every time a company was mentioned it was followed by a small icon indicating the performance of its stock for that day.  You can scroll over these icons to see a somewhat more detailed graph of stock performance alongside a few more stats:













Needless to say, this sort of thing has pernicious effects on journalism, especially labor-related journalism.  When you read an article about striking miners and see that their employees’ stock has dropped for the day, that’s probably going to filter your understanding of the events more narrowly through their market effects.  Some WSJ readers might already be more disposed to think in these terms anyway, but it’s still not a good trend.

Screenshots by Aaron Bekemeyer, 2012

Ta-Nehisi on the Obama Presidency

Check out Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest article in The Atlantic, “Fear of a Black President.”  Here’s how the summary reads: “As a candidate, Barack Obama said we needed to reckon with race and with America’s original sin, slavery. But as our first black president, he has avoided mention of race almost entirely. In having to be “twice as good” and “half as black,” Obama reveals the false promise and double standard of integration.”

Some excerpts:

The irony of President Barack Obama is best captured in his comments on the death of Trayvon Martin, and the ensuing fray. Obama has pitched his presidency as a monument to moderation. He peppers his speeches with nods to ideas originally held by conservatives. He routinely cites Ronald Reagan. He effusively praises the enduring wisdom of the American people, and believes that the height of insight lies in the town square. Despite his sloganeering for change and progress, Obama is a conservative revolutionary, and nowhere is his conservative character revealed more than in the very sphere where he holds singular gravity—race.


“The thing is, a black man can’t be president in America, given the racial aversion and history that’s still out there,” Cornell Belcher, a pollster for Obama, told the journalist Gwen Ifill after the 2008 election. “However, an extraordinary, gifted, and talented young man who happens to be black can be president.”

Belcher’s formulation grants the power of anti-black racism, and proposes to defeat it by not acknowledging it. His is the perfect statement of the Obama era, a time marked by a revolution that must never announce itself, by a democracy that must never acknowledge the weight of race, even while being shaped by it. Barack Obama governs a nation enlightened enough to send an African American to the White House, but not enlightened enough to accept a black man as its president.


The political consequences of race extend beyond the domestic. I am, like many liberals, horrified by Obama’s embrace of a secretive drone policy, and particularly the killing of American citizens without any restraints. A president aware of black America’s tenuous hold on citizenship, of how the government has at times secretly conspired against its advancement—a black president with a broad sense of the world—should know better. Except a black president with Obama’s past is the perfect target for right-wing attacks depicting him as weak on terrorism. The president’s inability to speak candidly on race cannot be bracketed off from his inability to speak candidly on every­thing. Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.

Image by

From the Campaign Finance Reform Drawing Board

From the NYT:

The Congressional race between two incumbent Democrats in the redrawn 30th District in California is one of the most expensive in the country, but it is hardly unusual in reflecting the influence of big donors. Howard Berman has raised $3.5 million, while his opponent, Brad Sherman, raised $2.7 million. For both candidates, only 1 percent of their money came from donations under $200.


On Wednesday, two groups with outspoken records in favor of campaign finance reform proposed a plan that could restore a voice to ordinary citizens. Based on the very successful New York City campaign finance system, the plan would match contributions of $250 or less at a 5-to-1 rate with public funds. If someone gave $100 to a candidate, the program would add another $500 in public funds, magnifying the importance of the small donation.

The plan — proposed by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and Democracy 21, a campaign finance watchdog group — would be voluntary, but participating candidates would have to accept a $1,250 limit on all contributions, half the current level of $2,500. There would be a ceiling on public matches to candidates and a $50,000 limit on the amount a candidate could contribute to the campaign but no limit on spending.

The two groups estimated that such a system would cost about $700 million a year. But consider the benefits New York City has enjoyed from its program: more than half the donors to city candidates in 2009 were first-time givers, and more than 80 percent of those contributions were $175 or less. The percentage of residents contributing to a city campaign was more than three times higher than in New York State, and they were far more diverse (a good reason the state needs a similar system).

Republocrats? Sort of.

The Current Moment, with lucid commentary as always, has this to say about the Obama vs. Romney/Ryan race:

When Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running-mate the collective effervescence among various liberals was difficult not to notice.


There is just one problem with this, everybody is dancing around the same fire. The ‘issues,’ whatever exactly that means, are a narrow set of disagreements over one resounding consensus: how to reduce the deficit.


The Democrats and Republicans are disputatious members of the same tribe. The collective effervescence of the election is, above all, the reconstitution of elite consensus around a very limited set of differences on political economy.

My only problem is with this last bit, which seems to be yet another incarnation of the notion that there’s really no difference between Democrats and Republicans.  This isn’t true, but it’s also false that there’s a world of difference between the two parties.  For me, what it comes down to is this: there are many issues that, generally speaking, the Democratic and Republican parties and their voters disagree over.  Abortion rights, tax policy, and, roughly speaking, levels of economic or environmental regulation and same-sex marriage.  Yes, there is greater diversity of politics among the Democrats than the Republicans, and opinions and actions of the national parties don’t necessarily correspond exactly to the opinions of their constituents, but as generalizations I think these hold up pretty well.

The problem, as TCM points out with the deficit reduction issue, is that these differences of opinion coalesce around a very limited set of issues, and they’re only two among many possible opinions.  Our current version of two-party politics means that there are many issues on which there is bipartisan consensus and many that are just never addressed at all by either party.  And there are many other policy positions and possible solutions to social and political issues that are never raised because they lie outside the very limited realm of our two-party universe.  (My friend Jacob has discussed problems with the two-party system at greater length here and here.)

Another way to look at this is to think about to whom these parties are responsive.  Increasingly, both are gearing their platforms and their actions toward voters and organizations with money.  There is some overlap in party support–many corporations, for instance, donate to both Republican and Democratic legislators in hopes of getting favorable laws passed either way–but there are definitely distinct groups of people who support one party or the other.  But neither the Dems nor the Republicans are going to be responsive to the interests and preferences of a majority of Americans.  (I don’t know how to put a number on this “majority,” but I will say that the median household income in the United States is somewhere between $45,000 and $50,000–i.e., half of all Americans make this amount or less–and the parties are generally not going to give a whiff about what any of these people want when it comes down to it.)  Historically, politics, even nominally democratic politics, has almost always been an elite affair, excluding large chunks of the population from the process and the benefits thereof.  So while there may be substantive differences between both main parties, these differences may not mean much to a majority, even a large majority, of Americans, to whom these differences mean relatively little.

Basically, I think discussions of the differences between the parties could use both a little more nuance and some perspective.  Yes, there are substantive differences between the two parties, but would these differences, if implemented in policy, mean a lot to most Americans?  In most cases and in general, probably not.

Image by Bearman2007

All Politics is Local – and Federal

This weekend I took the time to read several long-form NYT Magazine articles I’d been saving up, and I must admit I was disappointed.  I often look forward to the longer pieces from the paper’s magazine, but the two I focused on were a bit of a disappointment.  This biographical piece on Paul Ryan was informative, though I found the corresponding New Yorker article much more readable and illuminating.  More disappointing was Jonathan Mahler’s “Oakland, the Last Refuge of Radical America,” on the Occupy movement in Oakland, CA.  It was like Mahler was going out of his way to disparage the movement and deny that it had any relevance or legitimate purpose.  He treats Oakland’s occupiers like a bunch of crackpots and anachronisms who should really be seen as a footnote to other problems and processes of the city and the region: huge municipal budget deficits, a dysfunctional police department at risk of falling into federal receivership, and the ostensible inevitability of gentrification, to name the most important.

Many folks involved with Occupy Oakland in some way have penned responses to Mahler’s poor journalism, and of these I just read Darwin Bond-Graham’s “Oakland: Incubator for Meaningful Local Politics.”  Bond-Graham is a sociologist from Oakland, and he argues that Mahler’s piece ignores important pieces of Oakland’s radical history (most notably a Chicano movement rooted in the 1970s and the more recent “Oscar Grant Rebellion,” a response to the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant by BART police.  Bond-Graham thinks these omissions illustrate a sloppiness in Mahler’s piece and contribute to the latter’s ignorance of the movement as a powerful instance of and model for local politics:

Occupy Oakland was never about the boring liberal politics of advocating for change from the federal government or other distant forces that could only be appealed to with signs and slogans and moral suasion. For those who have taken part in it, Oakland’s most recent wave of protests was always about taking direct action to confront the immediate and real problems Oaklanders are facing, not just because of the financial crisis, but because of decades of disinvestment, police militarization, and austerity measures imposed by local politicians. Oaklanders were contesting the shut down schools, shuttered libraries, derelict parks, and the policies that have left much of the city in a state of disrepair.

He goes on to describe the recent rehabilitation of an abandoned building as the Victor Martinez People’s Library.  Despite a police crackdown, the library appears to be functioning still.

An older library produced by Occupy Oakland

These are powerful points, as Occupy Oakland’s strength seems to have been adapting protest to local conditions, but I think Bond-Graham’s viewpoint obscures something important as well.  He breezily dismisses the “boring liberal politics of advocating for change from the federal government or other distant forces,” but such a strategy is neither boring nor exclusively “liberal,” nor are its only tools “signs and slogans and moral suasion.”  Like it or not, the United States federal government is the most powerful player in the country, and its interventions in politics and society have a force and a staying power that nothing else does.  Besides producing an aversion to hierarchy and organization, the strong anarchist strains of the Occupy movement also seem to favor an emphasis on the local.  But if Occupy Oakland and similar movements truly aim to challenge, as they claim, transnational capital as well as corrupt local governments, their focus cannot be exclusively local.  Local conditions are, after all, determined by national and transnational forces, too, and the challenge to these forces must be mounted on all these levels.

American radical movements of all sorts have consistently leveraged the power of the federal government, directly or indirectly, to effect change in society.  Radical Republicans in Congress were largely responsible for Reconstruction in the South; left-wing forces in Depression-era America helped provided pressure that contributed to the establishment of the American welfare state under FDR; the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s were instrumental in the passage of the Voting Rights Act and related legislation.  You could of course debate whether these outcomes were ideal or complete, lasting (the gains of Reconstruction were not), or even good.  But the fact remains that the federal government carries weight that nothing else does, and if the left hopes to truly change American politics and society for the better, it must not forget the importance of this central institution.

Photo by Oakland Local

Tenure under threat at Wayne State

This would not be good:

Wayne State University in Detroit has proposed a new contract that would radically redefine the terms for eliminating faculty.

The school would be the first research university to effectively abolish tenure, said officials of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), opening the door for other campuses under pressure from cuts in public spending to try similar moves.

Traditionally, tenured faculty could be removed only after undergoing an extended peer review or in cases where the university is facing extreme financial stress.

The contract language management proposed in late July, however, would effectively remove peer review and centralize the power to terminate faculty in administrators’ hands.

The article provides some context for this as well:

According to Shor, the assault on tenure is another step in the “corporatization of the university.” Recent decisions like the appointment of Gilmour, the first Wayne president with no academic background, and the elimination of the Interdisciplinary Studies program that primarily served working-class people of color, have little to do with the economic realities facing the university, Shor said, and more to do with “politically motivated decisions about who the university should be serving.”

Department closures, layoffs of non-academic staff, extreme increases in tuition, and increasing reliance on adjunct faculty all point toward a radical shift to what some union members have been calling a corporate model of higher education. The cost of attending Wayne State full-time has risen from $3,970 a year in 2000 to $10,188 a year now.

A Song of Voter Suppression

I’ll admit, I haven’t been paying as much attention to voter suppression as I should. I think it’s obviously a serious thing if even George R. R. Martin, an unabashed liberal whose primary profession isn’t related to politics, weighs in:

I am way too busy these days for long political rants.

But I would be remiss if I do not at least make passing mention of how depressed, disgusted, and, yes, angry I’ve become as I watch the ongoing attempts at voter suppression in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Iowa, and other states where Republicans and their Teabagger allies control key seats of power.

It is one thing to attempt to win elections. But trying to do so by denying the most basic and important right of any American citizen to hundreds and thousands of people, on entirely spurious grounds… that goes beyond reprehensible. That is despicable.

It would really be nice if there were still some Republicans of conscience out there who would stand up and loudly denounce these efforts, a few men of honor and integrity for whom “win the election” does not “win the election at any cost.” There were once many Republicans I admired, even I disagreed with them: men like Everett Dirksen, Clifford Case, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Scranton… yes, even Barry Goldwater, conservative as he is. I do not believe for a moment that Goldwater would have approved of this, any more than Robert A. Heinlein would have. They were conservatives, but they were not bigots, nor racists, nor corrupt. The Vote Suppressors have far more in common with Lester Maddox, George Wallace, John Stennis, and their ilk than they do with their distinguished GOP forebears.

The people behind these efforts at disenfranchising large groups of voters (the young, the old, the black, the brown) are not Republicans, since clearly they have scant regard for our republic or its values. They are oligarchs and racists clad in the skins of dead elephants.

And don’t tell me they are libertarians either. No true libertarians would ever support a culture where citizens must “show their papers” to vote or travel. That’s a hallmark of a police state, not a free country.

(Image originally from The New Yorker.)

Bye Bye Cass

Cass Sunstein leaves the Obama administration with a not-so-great record [NYT]:

Few proposed rules escaped his gaze or his editor’s pen. Of the hundreds of regulations issued by the administration as of late last year, three-quarters were changed at OIRA, often at the urging of corporate interests, according to an analysis from the Center for Progressive Reform, a liberal-leaning group that monitors federal regulation. For rules from the Environmental Protection Agency, the figure was closer to 80 percent, the group found. In virtually every case, the rule was weakened, the group claimed.

Professor Steinzor cited Mr. Sunstein’s role in the killing of the E.P.A.’s proposed tightening of the standard for ozone pollution, the indefinite delay of rules governing coal ash disposal and the withdrawal earlier this year of a proposed update of child agricultural labor standards.

And here’s something you won’t hear often, even if it’s true:

Under Mr. Sunstein, the Obama administration has issued fewer regulations at this point in the president’s term than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton did. But compared with Mr. Bush’s first term, the Obama administration has finalized roughly 30 more “economically significant” regulations — those costing $100 million or more.