How Air Conditioning Unites — And Divides

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(Photo: Shutterstock)

Before air conditioning, even presidents had to suffer.

In the summer months, Abraham Lincoln used to ride a horse every evening from the White House to a cottage at a higher elevation four miles away. There he’d join his family in an attempt to escape the muggiest depths of the nation’s capital.

In July 1881, White House aides took to blowing air through sheets dunked in ice water in an effort to cool a severely wounded James Garfield. He wound up dying from an assassin’s bullet.

In 1909, William Howard Taft took the desperate step of sleeping on the White House roof to escape the furnace that is a Washington summer.

Back then, you could say, extreme heat was a social leveler. When air conditioning first entered American homes, it created a deep divide. Only the extremely wealthy — the ones least likely to have a job that required working up a sweat — could afford these newfangled contraptions.

Minneapolis railroad tycoon Charles Gates is believed to be the first to purchase a home cooling unit in 1914. At 7 feet high and 20 feet long, the device required a mansion-size home.

Smaller window units hit the market in the 1930s, but at a cost of more than $ 120,000 in today’s dollars, they were beyond the reach of the vast majority of Americans. As late as 1965, just 10 percent of U.S. homes had air conditioning.

Today, the economic divide created by home air conditioning is virtually gone. The Department of Energy estimates that nearly 90 percent of U.S. families have either central air or window units.

The modern divide is in the workplace.

In my Washington, D.C. office, colleagues routinely wrap themselves in blankets for long meetings in our refrigerator-like conference room. And throughout the city, you can see men in dark suits and ties even when temperatures soar near 100 degrees. They may complain (and they do), but they spend so little time exposed to the elements that their hot uniforms aren’t much of a health risk.

The people who have to work outside are the ones who really suffer. And outdoor workers, the people who harvest our food, build our homes and bridges, and care for our greenery, tend to also be among the lowest-paid.

In Las Vegas, where luxury hotels blast cool air out onto the sidewalk, construction workers in the desert heat have sometimes had to fight for the right to water breaks. In the landscaping industry, which employs more than 900,000 workers nationally, average pay is just $ 28,560 per year, one of the lowest of any occupation tracked by the U.S. Labor Department.

And those are official statistics based on full-time employment. Outdoor workers’ actual earnings are likely much lower.

The Economic Policy Institute recently pointed out that most California farmworkers have unpredictable, seasonal work hours. In 2015, that state’s agricultural workers earned an average of just $ 17,500 per year, EPI estimates.

The health risks of outdoor work will only worsen, of course, with climate change. And one contributor to that change, ironically, is the air-conditioning boom in the developing world.

The rapid increase in air conditioner sales is narrowing the gaps between cool air haves and have-nots in countries like China, India, and Brazil — just as it did in the United States. But this boom will also generate massive greenhouse gas emissions that will make the planet even hotter.

Today’s air conditioning gaps are a symptom of much bigger problems with complex solutions.

On the labor side, we need to ensure living wages and safe working conditions for all workers. At the same time, we need to get serious about addressing climate change in a way that puts the greatest responsibility on those who have contributed the most to this global challenge.

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IPS Statement: Stand with Charlottesville

This weekend, events at the University of Virginia revealed the consequences of systemic and insidious white supremacy.

We saw hundreds of predominantly white men show up for a “Unite the Right” rally with torches and bats. When they were met by anti-racist protestors, we looked on in horror as one neo-Nazi drove his car through the crowd, killing one and injuring many others.

We watched as law enforcement — who showed up with guns, tanks, and tear gas at Ferguson and Standing Rock — allowed armed white supremacists to advance in Charlottesville.

And we heard the grotesque response from Donald Trump, who condemned violence “on many sides,” without initially naming those neo-Nazis who were responsible for the violence. Trump then told us to “cherish our history” — in the aftermath of a rally to protect a statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee.

It’s clear that our president doesn’t just placate and empower vile racists, but shares their agenda.

White supremacy didn’t just crop up this weekend — and in Charlottesville itself, there is a legacy of racism that is mirrored in cities in towns across the United States. It has been grounded in our institutions and policies since the beginning. Slavery morphed into Jim Crow, and Jim Crow into mass incarceration, housing and wage discrimination, and exclusion from well-funded schools. And white supremacist movements have been there all along.

As we send our love and support to the community and mourn the loss of Heather Heyer, we are reinforcing our commitment to push for equity in our economy, our climate, and our foreign policy.

We stand with the brave organizers and demonstrators who showed up in Charlottesville this weekend to condemn white supremacy. We’ll continue our work to develop and amplify policy solutions that are influenced by these voices on the frontlines.

For those proclaiming shock and distance from these events and decrying: “this is not us,” we urge you to step back and review decades of violence against people of color in America and see that this, indeed, is us. But it doesn’t have to be. Each of us can take action today and in the days to come to transform this system of injustice.

You can find an event near you here to stand with Charlottesville and unite against white supremacy.

With love and in solidarity,
IPS family

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A Private-Sector Case Against Exploitation

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(Photo: Stuart Monk / Shutterstock)

Over a decade ago, I met with a group of small business leaders to talk about the perils of rising income and wealth inequality, and its destabilizing impact on the economy. This was years before the 2008 economic meltdown, the Occupy movement, Thomas Piketty’s Capital, and the electrifying presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders.

“Where are the business voices?” one small business leader asked me. “Where are the enlightened capitalists who understand that stagnant wages and rising wealth inequities are the real threats to the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg?”

I knew from experience that such business leaders were there. One was Jim Sinegal, the now-retired CEO of Costco, who fended off Wall Street pressure to cut wages and eloquently made the moral and business case for a higher federal minimum wage. “The more people make, the better lives they’re going to have and the better consumers they’re going to be,” Sinegal told The Washington Post. “It’s going to provide better jobs and better wages.”

Unfortunately, such voices are outliers.

Read the full article on The Nation.

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Disarmament Shouldn’t be a Precondition for Negotiations with North Korea

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(Image: Robin Atzeni / Shutterstock)

“We have to acknowledge that North Korea isn’t going to give up its nuclear capability as a precondition for negotiations,” foreign policy expert John Feffer said on Intercepted, “Why on Earth would they?”

North Korea’s nuclear ambition is best contextualized in history. Following the separation of the Koreas, both countries adopted different political-economic systems.

South Korea became more deeply embedded into the global economy and North Korea turned inward—a dichotomy that set the two countries off onto wildly divergent economic outcomes.

“It’s really exaggerated or aggravated by the collapse of communism,” Feffer said. When cheaply-supplied oil from the Soviet Union stopped entering North Korea, its agricultural and industrial capacity collapsed.

By 1995, a series of natural disasters set off a multi-year period of famine the country has yet to recover from.

“It was necessary for North Korea to find some other fuel source,” Feffer says, tying its nuclear ambition to its oil crisis. “But there was a military component as well.”

Not only was the South Korean economy flourishing in this time period, but its military capability was bolstered by American technological aid.

“North Korea fell behind rather rapidly. To level the playing field,” Feffer said, nuclear capability was seen as a cheap way of “coming up to speed.”

It also provided deterrence against “any possible U.S. intervention—either bombing or actual physical intervention into the country.”

“If they had not developed nuclear weapons. North Korea probably would not exist today.”

In contemporary diplomatic relations, Feffer argued, “We have to come up with different kinds of security guarantees in the process of negotiating with North Korea. We also have to acknowledge  that they’re not going to give away nuclear capability after a week of negotiations.”

“It’s going to take a while for this trust-building exercise to have any kind of impact,” Feffer said.

Listen to the full interview on Intercepted.

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Don’t Lie to Poor Kids About Why They’re Poor

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(Photo: Shutterstock)

Work hard and you’ll get ahead — that’s the mantra driven into young people across the country.

But what happens when children born into poverty run face first into the crushing reality that the society they live in really isn’t that fair at all?

As new research shows, they break down.

A just released study published in the journal Child Development tracked the middle school experience of a group of diverse, low-income students in Arizona. The study found that the kids who believed society was generally fair typically had high self-esteem, good classroom behavior, and less delinquent behavior outside of school when they showed up in the sixth grade.

When those same kids left in the eighth grade, though, each of those criteria had degraded — they showed lower self-esteem and worse behavior.

What caused this downward slide?

In short, belief in a fair and just system of returns ran head-on into reality for marginalized kids. When they see people that look like them struggling despite working hard, they’re forced to reckon with the cognitive dissonance.

This problem doesn’t afflict the well-off, who can comfortably imagine their success is the result of their hard work and not their inherited advantage.

Erin Godfrey, a psychology professor at New York University and the study’s lead author, explains that for marginalized kids who behave badly, “there’s this element of people think of me this way anyway, so this must be who I am.” She points out that middle school is the time when many young people begin to notice personal discrimination, identify as a member of a marginalized group, and recognize the existence of systemic discrimination.

The existence of a permanent and rigid system of inequality can be hard to grapple with at any age. The United States leads the world in overall wealth yet is also near the top in childhood poverty, with one in five kids born into poverty.

Despite an often-repeated myth about social mobility — the ability of the poor to become rich — the United States lags behind in this category. Canada now has three times the social mobility of the United States.

The gap between the rich and poor starts early. A 2016 study by the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund reports: “From as early as the age of 3, children from more affluent backgrounds tend to do better in cognitive tests.” By age 5, children from poor families are three times more likely to be in the bottom 10 percent in cognitive ability.

It’s a complex problem. But the solutions to this deep structural inequality are actually fairly straightforward.

In short, we need major investments in universal public programs to rebuild the social safety net, ensure early childhood education as well as debt-free higher education, and good-paying jobs.

In other words, we need to help those born without inherited assets to get the same shot at education and employment as everyone else — and also reassure them that if they fail, they won’t end up homeless.

Those who claim the country can’t afford such programs should look at the massive subsidies lavished out to the ultra-wealthy. In 2016, half a trillion dollars were doled out in tax subsidies, overwhelmingly to the already rich.

But before we do all that, we simply have to tell the truth: Our economic system is far from fair. It’s tilted heavily against marginalized communities.

Teaching that to kids, rather than perpetuating a myth about “fairness,” is an important step forward.

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Report: Reversing Inequality

While there is now widespread understanding that extreme income and wealth inequality is growing and has negative impacts on society, most proposed solutions fail to address deeper systemic drivers. While technological change and globalization have supercharged inequalities, they are not the primary drivers.

This report, released with the Next Systems Project, offers a more critical explanation for extreme inequality and the ways in which the rules governing the economy have been distorted by power differentials and political factors. These rules –including tax, trade, regulation, public subsidies, and expenditures – have been tipped to advantage asset owners over wage earners, and transnational corporations over domestically-rooted enterprises. As a result, we are living with a particular flavor of a market economy – hyper-extractive monopoly capitalism – that is transferring wealth from workers and communities upwards to a small segment of the population.

Another driver of inequality is systemic racism and a legacy of discrimination in wages and wealth-building. These forces are impossible to separate and disentangle from other drivers of inequality. Policy interventions that don’t incorporate an understanding of systemic racism will fail to reverse or compound existing inequalities. And false solutions like a New Deal 2.0 program, including government stimulus packages, fail to recognize the ecological limits to traditional growth and the need to operate within the earth’s carrying capacity. The only path forward is building resilient communities that can bounce back from environmental and economic challenges.

This paper describes a full menu of “interventions” to reduce income and wealth inequality and address some of the systemic drivers of inequality. They fall into four categories, including policies that:

  • Lift the Floor, establishing minimal standard of living and safety nets
  • Level the Playing Field, by ensuring investments in public goods and elimination of the distorting influences of power and privilege
  • Deconcentrate Wealth, through interventions that directly reduce the concentration of wealth and power
  • Rewire the System, to undercut inequality drivers

One way forward is to build power and win some of these rule changes by focusing on “pressure points” that can accelerate the transition to the next system. This will require game changing campaigns that accomplish three things:

  • Reduce the concentration of wealth and power, break up institutions, or redistribute wealth and power.
  • Open up economic opportunities for those excluded in the current system.
  • Capture the imagination of a wide constituency of people willing to fight for policy change.

Three examples in the paper are:

  • Dividends for all: linking common wealth sources of revenue to programs that expand economic stability
  • Taxing excessive carbon solution and directing revenue to investments in renewable energy, green infrastructure and just transition efforts.
  • Expand tuition-free higher education by creating education trust funds funded by progressive taxes on wealth.

Read the full report here [PDF].
Download Quick Takeaways from the report here.
Find shareable graphics here.

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A Fight for Civil and Labor Rights: Union Vote Looms at Nissan

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A meeting with autoworkers in a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi. (Photo: Maina Kiai / Flickr)

“Our only hope is to control the vote.”

Mississippi civil rights leader and NAACP icon Medgar Evers said those words over 50 years ago about the fight for voting rights. He believed, like many activists, that voting enabled dignity in the control of one’s political and economic destiny.

Decades later, a new generation of Southern activists is renewing that vision.

On August 3 and 4, a 14-year campaign to organize the Nissan Motors plant in the small southern city of Canton, Mississippi will come to its climax. The workers at Nissan will finally have their say and get the opportunity to vote for a union, the United Autoworkers (UAW), to represent them on the job.

The vast majority of the nearly 4,000 workers who will be voting at the Nissan plant are African Americans, a population that has historically faced severe economic exploitation due to racism.

The UAW promises it will help the workers grow in strength and negotiate better working conditions, hours, wages, and benefits at the plant. Additionally, the workers have made a broader call for more dignity and respect on the job.

A victory for the workers at Nissan would be historic. It would represent one of the largest successes for labor in decades and one of its largest triumphs in the South.

Read the full article on NBC News.

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Rising Angst Among Defenders of Overpaid CEOs

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Slap-dash Sanctions Leave Less Room for Diplomacy

“These are ominous developments in all of these countries,” Phyllis Bennis told The Real News following reports that Donald Trump would sign a bill slapping sanctions on Russia, North Korea, and Iran—an extraordinarily different set of state actors which pose very different foreign policy challenges.

“The notion that you can do a kind of cookie cutter attack, ‘We’re going to sanction them all in one bill, get it all done at once.’—this is insane,” Bennis said.

Bennis said she doesn’t believe that sanctions are going to help alleviate the challenge that the U.S. faces in its relationship with any of these countries.

This slap-dash sanctioning with support from both political parties, Bennis said, speaks to the inability of Congress and the White House to deal with diplomacy in a serious way.

“‘This is the answer to all the problems we have with countries we don’t like,’” Bennis said, “we’ll just sanction them all!’”

The deficiencies in this approach, Bennis said, are best exemplified in Iraq. From 1990 until 2003, U.S. sanctions on the country had a devastating impact.

“Half a million children under the age of five died from the results of sanctions,” Bennis doesn’t mince words, “they were killed by U.S. foreign policy. Sanctions were doing the job of war.”

Sanctions can antagonize decision makers, and may encourage a dangerous response. She points to the response we’ve already seen in Russia, where Putin just demanded the removal of hundreds of U.S. staff. Meanwhile in North Korea, we’ve seen that sanctions have not had an impact on the country’s nuclear capabilities. And in the case of Iran, the United States is just isolating itself by undermining a nuclear deal backed by five other countries while Iran strengthens its position in the world.

This decision will have many different impacts, and linking them all into one bill is “rather extraordinary,” Bennis said.

“We’re going to have to have negotiations. The notion that we can do something and not talk simply doesn’t work in the real world,” Bennis said.

Watch the full interview on The Real News Network.

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Trumping Up Our Trains

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(Photo: Shutterstock)

Every time the train derails, my mother begs me to stay put. But how can I?

Along the densely populated eastern seaboard, your life is structured around transport. Not everyone can live in New York City or Washington D.C., so millions of people who work there commute in. The car traffic qualifies as its own hell, so many take the rail.

Joe Biden famously commuted on a train from Delaware to D.C. These days, I less famously commute from Maryland to D.C. So when Donald Trump announced an ambitious $ 1.1 trillion infrastructure plan, I was actually excited.

You see, American infrastructure isn’t so great. We have the world’s biggest economy, but our transit systems rank behind 10 other countries, according to the Global Competitiveness Index. Our trains are tied with Malaysia’s.

As a commuter, these statistics aren’t surprising.

New York, a global financial capital, boasts an intensely convoluted transportation system, where the subway stalls and overcrowds and overheats amidst the press of 4.3 million daily commuters. The stations leak so badly you could say many have permanent waterfall features.

The D.C. metro? It catches on fire. No, really. It does.

The derailments along the lines connecting neighboring states to New York are an even deadlier inconvenience. In 2015, 237 people were killed from Amtrak rail incidents alone, according to the Infrastructure Report Card.

That’s nearly double the number — 136 — who died in airline crashes. And nearly 1,000 more were injured.

As someone whose livelihood is intimately tied to accessing a city, transportation is important to me. So I was a bit let down (if vastly unsurprised) when Trump’s campaign promise didn’t pan out.

First, the numbers kept changing. Was it $ 1 trillion? Or $ 500 billion? Or $ 200 billion, mostly in tax breaks for businesses?

Well, he figured out his math eventually — his budget proposal actually cuts $ 2.4 billion from the Department of Transportation.

The money needed to fix the Metro-North line? Gone. That’s a pretty callous way for Trump to treat his home state.

But it’s also cruel to Trump’s supporters in places like Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana — rail-poor places sometimes jeered as “flyover country.”

Indeed, most of Trump’s proposed transportation cuts come out of railway systems that those states use, too. Trains through the Midwest already run late half the time, yet all 15 long-distance Amtrak lines get the axe in Trump’s budget.

Right now, 23 states are only serviced with long-distance trains, a figure that breaks neatly into 220 communities and 140 million people. That service is at risk — and so are thousands of jobs for the people who work the trains.

And who knows how many jobs might be lost by commuters? Already, delays along the Northeast lines cost the area $ 500 million a year when people can’t get to work.

Beyond the economic impacts are the long-term consequences that could arise from a less connected country. Historically, rail expansion didn’t just connect heartland areas to coastal cities — it allowed the agricultural industry to really take root, a fact of huge cultural as well as economic importance.

Protesters rallying from Denver to Cincinnati decided, no thank you, we want our trains. And Congress paid attention, kind of — it’s decided to keep the status quo for now. But that status quo was enough for Trump to decide that a $ 1.1 trillion transfusion was necessary to fix it. So where’s the plan?

Meanwhile, as I wait each day on D.C.’s often-late subway, I can’t help but think the people in “flyover country” are missing the same thing.

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