A good part of the reason I started blogging was because I went to a history conference at a UT branch up between Dallas and Fort Worth and found that, contrary to belief, many well known academic historians have found community history projects to be invaluable because of their focus and details. Photos rated high. Photos with details rate high. Interviews with participants in events rated high. Interviews with older people rated high if you cover their experience and perspective.
- Prairie Weather


“Protest works. Just look at the proof”


The last place you will hear about the new American labor movement is in big American outlets.

Via lambert, via susie. See them, their blogrolls, Twitter hash tag #1u and just about any other outlet where citizens can get the word out.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)

The CIW is a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida. Via.


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The touching, eternal optimism of liberal hawks

As the response to the kidnapping of several hundred Nigerian schoolgirls has grown from hashtag activism to full blown international incident, the calls for action have become increasingly bellicose. Some of those calls have revealed (once again) a deeply rooted militaristic streak in America, one that transcends political affiliation. This time around the example starts in the UK, where last week Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett appeared to support bombing or invasion:

It is my view that there is a case for military assistance, but on a more basic level, there are things that we can do to support those who are begging for help. The British feminist movement has immense social media clout. We can all follow the Facebook group Bring Back Our Girls and use the hashtag. We can write to our world leaders, demanding that they offer assistance to rescue the girls. We can organise rallies and marches locally, as many others already have. We can support and listen to the Nigerian community here in the UK.

That paragraph has an interesting construction. It starts by at least tentatively approving bombing or invasion, but then details a number of non-military options for rescuing the girls. Interpretations may vary, but I got the impression she at least wanted preparations for bombing or invasion to begin and in addition to that for activists, governments and NGOs to continue to apply pressure on the Nigerian government.

But the bottom line is, she mentioned military action first. Given America’s recent history with bomb dropping, cranking up the war machine for another round doesn’t seem like a good idea. Glenn Greenwald said as much, and the reaction from some on the left was incandescent rage.

Bob Cesca decided to simply mischaracterize Greenwald, but that’s about par for the course with him. Rebecca Schoenkopf cut right to the chase and went Godwin. Chez Pazienza literally dehumanized him (“he has no humanity”) and also pulled off a neat trick. He linked to a piece of his detailing what an awful person Greenwald is, which includes the following numbered highlight: “Glenn Greenwald Is Almost Certainly Going To Call You Names at Some Point.” Pazienza furnished that link in a post titled “Glenn Greenwald: Asshole.”

Schoenkopf and Pazienza also gave hearty endorsements for bombing. First Schoenkopf, who apparently has been spending too much time playing Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell:

It is time to take out the Boko Haram dudes like you took out those pirates, and get those girls.

Seriously, just drone the shit out of em. Go get those girls.

But her understanding of the situation is actually more grounded in reality than Pazienza’s you’ve-got-to-be-fucking-kidding-me level of naïveté: “There was no concession that maybe, just this once, the vast resources and technological prowess at the disposal of a superpower could be used for good.”

Perhaps instead of hoping that maybe, just this once, this military adventure will be the one that finally gets freedom bombing right, it would be useful to reflect on how (darn the luck!) such actions have persistently refused to work out that way in the past.

Just a few years ago Libya was on the verge of genocide, remember? And we needed to drop lots of bombs to prevent that (no weaselspeak about NATO and leading from behind, thanks - without the US, the bombing wouldn’t have happened). We are now too modest to boast about such benevolent intervention with a Mission Accomplished party, but we all know it worked out splendidly right?

The impulse to say “fuck it, send in the troops” is not confined to neoconservatives. There are plenty on the left who enthusiastically support it as well - provided it is done for the correct purpose. The fact that such interventions invariably make things worse, aggrandize the “war first” faction, and marginalize those seeking effective nonviolent responses doesn’t seem to occur to those people, though. If we just keep fighting new Hitlers and preventing new Rwandas every few years we’ll eventually get right, no?

I actually do agree with Cosslett up to a point, though. There is a case for military assistance - if it’s made by, say, Belgium. Belgium seems like a peace-loving nation. They declined our offer to help bring Jeffersonian democracy to Iraq, and it doesn’t seem like its people feel the urge to regularly take up arms. So if Belgium says “this is bullshit, we’re going in,” I’m willing to listen.

“But if every country decided for itself whether to do that, it would be terribly destabilizing!” Yes, but in case you hadn’t noticed the US hasn’t been much of a force for stabilization lately. Furthermore, that objection implies the US is the nation in charge of deciding when wars should happen; that we are exceptionally and uniquely qualified to judge when military action is appropriate. Liberals who - even implicitly - endorse that should acknowledge it puts them comfortably with the Bill Kristols of the world. As a card-carrying member of the vast left wing conspiracy, all I can say is: I did not get that memo.

Benghazi: the environmental angle

One of the stranger stories in Washington this week happened in a House Oversight Committee hearing on Wednesday. The committee was investigating allegations of bad conduct at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and it certainly looks like some stricter oversight is in order. While it’s nothing compared to the Bush administration’s coke-snorting and lobbyist-banging Minerals Management Service, the theft of nearly a million dollars by (now jailed) former deputy assistant administrator John Beale is definitely worth a hearing or two.

What’s particularly interesting about this is that Beale initially said he was working undercover for the CIA, which kicked investigative authority over to the agency’s Office of Homeland Security, or OHS (not in any way connected to the Department of Homeland Security, of course). OHS is responsible for hazardous waste cleanup in the event that terrorists managed to, say, poison the water supply of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Since its investigations touch on national security, no one must know any details about them - including the agency it works for. In this case, OHS basically stonewalled the EPA Inspector General.

This sets up as a potentially fascinating case study of how bureaucracies have trouble working for the public good in a surveillance state. (As always with this topic, please keep in mind that in United States v. Reynolds, the case that established the State Secrets Privilege, a fraudulent claim of national security was used to shield the government from embarrassing disclosures.) The easier it is to shut down an investigation by invoking national security or state secrets, the more likely it is to be used to cover up incompetence or criminality. This is no garden variety turf war; it touches on some very important contemporary issues.

Which means Issa missed it completely. Instead he called it “the tip of EPA’s fraudulent iceberg” (Jesus does not love me enough for him to have called it a factory fire of malfeasance), and lumped it in with some penny-ante bad behavior to make an agency he is ideologically predisposed to dislike look bad. If the agency had more backbone than it appears to have, here would be a nice response to Issa’s grandstanding: “You know what, chairman? You’re right. The agency has been far too meek. So we’re going to re-open those investigations in Pavillion, WY, Dimock, PA, and Parker County, TX and this time we won’t stop till we get to the bottom.

That won’t happen, obviously. The most likely direction for all of this was foreshadowed by a different comment. First a little background though. Whether because of the failure of Obamacare to crash and burn the way Republicans had predicted, or as part of midterm (or God help us beyond) election strategy, the GOP now has the Benghazi cauldron at full bubble. The word must have gone out that no context was too ridiculous because here is how Issa worked it into an EPA hearing:

“It is my intention to bring to this committee a contempt if that is not done,” Issa said during a Wednesday hearing, before citing his investigation into the Internal Revenue Service targeting of Tea Party groups and the Benghazi terrorist attack as evidence that the Obama administration has a strategy of “running the clock” on House investigations.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee “subpoenaed Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy for documents and communications with White House officials related to the Agency’s response to congressional requests” in November.

Issa emphasized to Perciasepe that he has the support of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has just opted to appoint a select committee to investigate Benghazi.

“This branch of government’s time and willingness to cooperate with delay and denial has expired,” he said.

So there is your preview of coming attractions. It’s not bureaucratic wrangling, it’s not yet another unpleasant consequence of an aggrandized spy apparatus, no, it’s something much more far-reaching and sinister: The Benghazification of the entire executive branch!

Roughly half the national government is in some kind of political fugue state, unmoored from reality, continually blurting a single word answer to all questions. Until that breaks, it’s going to be all Benghazi all the time. Insanity may be your most attractive option.

Big Data meets civic engagement

About a year ago the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) had an information session in Portage county about a recently permitted group of injection wells. The presentation by Tom Tomastik, ODNR’s lead geologist for the injection well regulatory program, wasn’t very helpful, but other ODNR personnel offered some useful assistance.

I spoke with ODNR’s Tom Hill about the difficulty in finding inspection reports, and he basically said requests needed to be made on an individual basis; there was no way to go online and browse them. One of his colleagues referenced a downloadable database called RBDMS, but didn’t give a location or other information. I should have pursued that a little further, but what I had been able to find at the ODNR site to that point had been sufficiently difficult to use that I didn’t think it would be worth it. A few weeks ago, though, a friend sent me a link to RBDMS, and it turns out that it’s very helpful - if you know how to use it.

The Risk Based Data Management System (RBDMS) database tracks all of ODNR’s inspections, includes each well’s information and history, and can be downloaded free at ODNR’s site. This is actually a very good and useful thing for ODNR to make available to the public. Good on them for doing it (insert golf clap sound effect). The problem, and this obviously is not ODNR’s fault, is that there’s a lot of data. If you want to look at it yourself, download the setup program - or just download the Microsoft Access database if you have Access on your PC and know the right version to grab - and then download the weekly update. Create the directory C:\Rbdms on your hard drive and put everything there.

The weekly update is around 200 MB as a zip (compressed) file, and over 1 GB uncompressed. Again, lots of data. The “setup” database is the one presented for public use, and it links to the weekly update database. The weekly update has the raw data. Use the setup DB for querying, overwrite the update DB as needed, and the new data will be visible to the setup DB. I didn’t find the setup DB very useful because I was interested in inspection reports, and couldn’t find an interface for that.

In the weekly update database (Rbdmsd97.mdb) there are three tables - “well,” “wellHistry” and “tblInspection” - recording the relevant data. Making sense of it is another matter, though. Microsoft Access is what’s called a relational database management system (RDBMS, an unfortunately similar acronym to RBDMS), which means it structures data by relationships between tables. Think of each table as a spreadsheet. A business might have, say, a Customers table with one entry for each customer. Typically each entry has a unique identifier, often an auto-number field that exists solely to uniquely identify the record. So the first entry in the table for, say, Company X would get assigned Customer ID 1.

Then you might have an Orders table, where each customer’s order is placed. The order will have, say, quantity, price, and other data - and the Customer ID number from the Customer table to identify who made the order. There will be a one-to-many relationship between the tables because one customer can have many orders. Storing only the Customer ID in the Orders table - and not the customer name, address, etc. - is a more efficient way to store the data. There’s no need to repeat customer data in the Orders table, which would only make the database larger and slower, when you can just set up a relationship between the two tables and use the unique Customer ID to identify who placed the order.

Unless you are very familiar with the tables, though, you won’t know that the Company ID of 1 in the Orders table corresponds to Company X is the Customers table. It’s possible to set up querying and reporting that will join the appropriate fields and present the data in a more intuitive way, but you need to know how to join the tables in the first place to make that happen.

That’s the challenge to anyone looking at the weekly update database. For instance, say you want to look at wells in Portage county. The very first well in the Well table has API well number 34001200010000 and 1 in the County field (CNTY). What is county 1? You need to go to the County table, and it turns out County 1 is Adams (Portage is 133). So if you want to look at inspections for Portage county wells, you need to create a query joining the API number from the Well table to the API on the Inspection table, and also joining the county field from the Well table to the County table. Then run the query where county name equals “Portage.” Nothing to it, right?

That process needs to be repeated for every related field you’d like meaningful information on, like inspection type and inspection purpose. It’s a complicated process. Having this kind of large, structured data available is a relatively new thing, and citizens (or investigative journalists) who want to navigate it need to develop the skill set. It’s very different from the skill set required for processing unstructured data like a document dump in response to a FOIA request.

Being able to navigate an RDBMS effectively allows one to query, filter and flag meaningful items. It provides a way to go through a large database and find the information one is looking for. I’m still getting my arms around RBDMS, but here’s an example of something I saw flagged as I was spot checking my work. It’s from well API 34167296850000 (NEWELL RUN DISPOSAL WELL(SWIW #10) in Washington county). Inspection date 1/26/2010, inspector 2164 (Cynthia Van Dyke), emph. added because holy crap:

Tested tubing overnight. Left 2000# on tubing overnight, next morning was 1700#. Service rig on location. OOG worried about lose, Tom Tomastik suggests just wait until it fails integrity. This day pressured up tubing back up to 2000#, held there for 15 min. with only 11# drop. Will continue to use.
The inspection did not get marked for a violation or significant non-compliance. Sure seems like it should have though. I plan to keep going through the database and hope to report on other interesting findings. Anyone who wants to do their own research can get in touch and I’ll help out as I can; no need to reinvent the wheel.

An effort like this seems very important to me - the “wait until it fails” model of regulation doesn’t seem like a winner, and I’d like to see other examples highlighted. They are buried in data, though, and ferreting them out requires new tools and new talents. Activists take note.

Phoniness, calculation, and palatable hypocrisy

The community at Corrente is now well into its second week of batting around thoughts on recent/upcoming presidential elections, so perhaps inevitably the Ralph Nader/Al Gore situation came up.

The less interesting part of that to me is the electoral calculation. Democrats like to say Nader cost Gore the election, but that’s only true if Gore was a passive figure being acted upon. If he thought Nader was costing him votes, then he could have moved to the left to recapture them. If he thought that would have cost him more votes at the other end, then he could have moved to the right. And lets face it, the universe of poachable votes from Bush was orders of magnitude larger than the universe of losable voters to Nader.

That kind of calculation, though, is not as important as the fact that Gore was phony. Now, I grant up front that phoniness is ambiguous, and what comes off as phony to me might seem genuine to you. There is a certain kind of phoniness that can be quantified though. Namely, when words are wildly at odds with actions. Gore’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention gives a great illustration of that.

It’s the most irritating political speech I’ve ever witnessed. I was incredibly put off after watching it, and it made me less inclined to vote for him, not more. The phoniness had less to do with the staged kiss with Tipper (though see below) than the vaguely populist rhetoric so plainly at odds with Clinton administration policies:

Big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMO’s. Sometimes you have to be willing to stand up and say no - so families can have a better life.

[snip]

I know one thing about the job of the President. It is the only job in the Constitution that is charged with the responsibility of fighting for all the people. Not just the people of one state, or one district; not just the wealthy or the powerful — all the people. Especially those who need a voice; those who need a champion; those who need to be lifted up, so they are never left behind.

[snip]

So I say to you tonight: if you entrust me with the Presidency, I will fight for you.
I remember being genuinely angry as I heard that: Who are these big polluters, Al? Name three. Are they the same ones given carte blanche by NAFTA? Did gutting the safety net give families a better life? Were the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the passage of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act examples of fighting for all the people? By the time he got to “I will fight for you” I wanted to throw up.

Now, I’m somewhat sympathetic to the “good soldier” argument, the idea that the vice president has to largely be on board with the president’s agenda. But a VP running for president needs either to emphasize differences with the president, or endorse the president’s approach and run on continuity.

Gore had that chance, and as his Tipper kiss perfectly symbolized, he chose to draw a contrast on matters of private sexual propriety - not policy. On the issues that mattered, Gore was a complete phony. It wasn’t that he came across as stiff or awkward, but that his rhetoric and actions simply couldn’t be reconciled. Is it any wonder why at that moment - in the full flower of DLC-endorsed neoliberal economic policy, and before the ascent of the neocon right - Nader’s “not a dime’s worth of difference” critique found an audience?

Open ended rhetoric is, to me, a key indicator of phoniness. If you believe in something strongly enough you’ll be very specific about it. That may be why the appeal of John Edwards escaped me. (Alexa put it well: Edwards “for some reason truly made my skin crawl, although I couldn’t pinpoint ‘why.’”) For all the praise he got for raising inequality with his “two Americas” narrative, he never offered the kind of detail that might have made it compelling. I felt the same way about his “somewhere in America there’s a little girl going to bed hungry” line as I did Gore’s promise to fight for me: How about some details?

The frustrating thing about Edwards is that he appeared to grasp as much - at least sometimes. In his 2004 debate with Dick Cheney he showed just how powerful specificity could be. Cheney made some generalized criticism of trial lawyers and called for caps on damages. Edwards absolutely buried him:

But we don’t believe that we should take away the right of people like Valerie Lakey, who was the young girl who I represented, five years old, severely injured for life, on a defective swimming pool drain cover.

It turns out the company knew of 12 other children who had either been killed or severely injured by the same problem. They hid it. They didn’t tell anybody. They could have fixed it with a 2-cent screw. That’s wrong.

John Kerry and I are always going to stand with the Valerie Lakeys of the world, and not with the insurance companies.
It was one of his most genuine moments on the national stage, because he basically said: Here is what I’ve done, here is why I did it, this represents the kind of values and priorities I’ll bring to the office. And he was very specific; he named names. It was an incredibly compelling argument. He never really made it a staple of his campaign style, though, either then or later. He fell back on pabulum.

But at least, unlike Gore, it didn’t seem like he would actively pursue policies that would increase inequality. If he wasn’t proposing anything substantive, at least he seemed willing to drift along if that’s where the prevailing winds blew.

That’s why one of the jobs for a voter is to decide on acceptable forms of insincerity. There’s a difference between someone who supports policies he has been actively working against and someone who supports policies he would accede to should they pass. Feeling warm and genuine kinship with a candidate is not likely to happen very often; better to figure out the kinds of hypocrisy one can live with.

Laying down markers for 2016

Over the past week there has been a spirited discussion of the 2008 Democratic primary at Corrente. One point of contention in the comments has been the way principles were invoked in the heat of the process. For instance, caucuses were heavily criticized as being too prone to fraud. I think caucuses are useful in theory because they help measure the intensity of a candidate’s support, not just breadth of it. That’s important in a general election because a motivated base is crucial to an effective get-out-the-vote effort.

In practice, though, the caucus system is unworkable because it has no transparency and no auditing. Partisans gather in a gymnasium and only the people gathered know what’s going on. Rules can be bent or broken, outright fraud can occur, and in the aftermath there are just charges or countercharges.

The party has little interest in investigating because once the nomination is clinched only bad things could come of it: De-legitimizing the nominee or further inflaming the losing side. Barring radical changes like extensive live streaming (web cams for everyone!) during the process, and an independent audit afterwards, caucus results in any close contest will be viewed with deep skepticism.

Another example of principles being hurriedly invoked has to do with the convention calendar. State parties eager to increase the relevance of their vote have frequently moved their election dates in defiance of the national party. The national party threatens sanctions, usually in the form of disallowing the delegates, and in a tight race the winner of those states will have a powerful incentive to invoke the sanctity of the vote and the specter of disenfranchisement to argue for counting the delegates.

Making these points when the stakes are so high carries more than a whiff of self-interest. It’s much more persuasive if one can point to such positions prior to the horse race. So even though we are over two and a half years from the next presidential election, right now is an especially good time to articulate some principles. Once candidates start to declare, it becomes much harder to raise them without having it perceived as being for someone’s benefit.

With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how I’d like to see the nominating process conducted/analyzed. Whether one intends to participate in the process or not (the comments at Corrente suggest quite a few people were sufficiently alienated by 2008 to swear off further involvement), primary season will be big news; it will be helpful to have a decent frame if only for jaded observation.

  • Caucus results should be lightly regarded for the reasons above.

  • State parties should have to live with sanctions from the national party for changing election dates. Disenfranchisemet because of that is the responsibility of the state party, not the national one. The national one, in its wisdom, sets the calendar how it likes. State parties should be expected to abide by that or suffer the consequences.

  • Debates should be open to any candidate that is actively campaigning, has field offices in upcoming (say six weeks) election states and is polling above the margin of error in at least half of the major polls. (A candidate’s internal polling results shouldn’t be used.)

  • A candidate’s position on an issue should be qualified by the nature of that position. For instance, most Democratic candidates will probably pay lip service to single payer. But there is a world of difference between “sure, I’d love for us to have it” and “this is my top domestic priority, a vote for me is a vote for single payer, and I will rally a citizen occupation of Washington starting the first day Congress is in session to make that happen.”

  • A candidate’s position should also be qualified by the ability of the candidate to make the change happen. Presidents have great latitude in executive areas like judicial nominations and federal agency rule making, less so in legislation. A Democrat who promises liberal utopia based on getting a raft of legislation through Congress - especially the House - is probably blowing smoke. That said, reality is malleable. We are told by our political betters that single payer is unrealistic, but a campaign like the one described above could make it suddenly become realistic.

  • Finally, we need a policy platform to grade candidates against. I’d humbly recommend a project I’ve contributed to as an example. Over the past few months the community at Corrente has been working on a 12 point platform, and I think it’s quite good. Here is an earlier version with a good breakdown of its different components, and here is the latest iteration. It’s been formulated outside of election season with the goal of creating a durable and just set of policies. I think it’s a fine yardstick to measure candidates against. I’m sure some will find it lacking, but the point is to have something to evaluate candidates against.

Those are my markers. What are yours?