Archive for International

May
27

You may already be there!

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The future is fun! … The future is fair! … You may already have won! … You may already be there!

— Firesign Theater, I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus, 1971

Oh, yeah. From the BBC:

One factory has “reduced employee strength from 110,000 to 50,000 thanks to the introduction of robots”, a government official told the South China Morning Post.

Xu Yulian, head of publicity for the Kunshan region, added: “More companies are likely to follow suit.”

China is investing heavily in a robot workforce.

That would be Foxconn Technology Group, technology factory with the nets to prevent employees from committing suicide by jumping off the roof. Presumably, the robots won’t and the riffed workers can find their own roofs to jump off. What an opportunity for savings. The BBC continues:

“We are applying robotics engineering and other innovative manufacturing technologies to replace repetitive tasks previously done by employees, and through training, also enable our employees to focus on higher value-added elements in the manufacturing process, such as research and development, process control and quality control.

“We will continue to harness automation and manpower in our manufacturing operations, and we expect to maintain our significant workforce in China.”

Define significant. Meanwhile, here at home:

McRobots are not coming to a McDonald’s near you just yet, according to Steve Easterbrook, the company’s chief executive officer.

His comments came two days after one of the fast-food giant’s former US chief executives suggested that a minimum wage of $15 an hour could lead to McDonald’s replacing its workers with robots. Easterbrook was speaking at the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting when he said that technology is not likely to lead to “job elimination” at McDonald’s.

“It’s a topic of discussion right now,” he said, when asked by one of the shareholders if the higher minimum wage would lead to shift to more automated services. McDonald’s is in a service business and “will always have an important human element”, Easterbrook said.

Whew! Dodged that bullet.

Two days before the shareholders’ annual meeting, former US boss Ed Rensi told Fox Business that “it’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient, making $15 an hour bagging french fries”.

Efficiency is one of those boardroom fetishes, like shareholder value. When you hear it, update your resume, John Henry.

Selling fries is one thing. But “Pepper” is not so good interacting in an office environment. Still waiting for my jetpack.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

Categories : International, Labor, Science
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Edward Snowden. Photo by Laura Poitras / Praxis Films CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Edward Snowden. Photo by Laura Poitras / Praxis Films CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

The Guardian has a lengthy read about a Department of Defense figure involved in handling DoD whistleblowers. So far, John Crane has escaped the media spotlight surrounding the case of Edward Snowden. Crane worked in the Department of Defense’s inspector general office for handling internal whistleblowers when – ten years before Snowden – Thomas Drake came to report the same illegal activities Snowden revealed to the press. Mark Hertsgaard sets the stage:

Drake was a much higher-ranking NSA official than Snowden, and he obeyed US whistleblower laws, raising his concerns through official channels. And he got crushed.

Drake was fired, arrested at dawn by gun-wielding FBI agents, stripped of his security clearance, charged with crimes that could have sent him to prison for the rest of his life, and all but ruined financially and professionally. The only job he could find afterwards was working in an Apple store in suburban Washington, where he remains today. Adding insult to injury, his warnings about the dangers of the NSA’s surveillance programme were largely ignored.

According to the account Crane gave to Hertsgaard, DoD officials first illegally disclosed Crane’s identity to the Justice Department, then “withheld (and perhaps destroyed) evidence after Drake was indicted; finally, they lied about all this to a federal judge.”

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May
21

Nothing to sea here again

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Chinese Shenyang J-11B. U.S. Navy photo from a 2014 intercept.

Returning to the South China Sea again this morning as world powers play chicken. Reuters from Thursday:

Beijing demanded an end to U.S. surveillance near China on Thursday after two of its fighter jets carried out what the Pentagon said was an “unsafe” intercept of a U.S. military reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea.

The incident, likely to increase tension in and around the contested waterway, took place in international airspace on Tuesday as the plane carried out “a routine U.S. patrol,” a Pentagon statement said.

A U.S. Defense official said two Chinese J-11 fighter jets flew within 50 feet (15 meters) of the U.S. EP-3 aircraft. The official said the incident took place east of Hainan island.

“Initial reports characterized the incident as unsafe,” the Pentagon statement said.

As we have already noted here, here, and here, Chinese island-building in the South China Sea is an effort to exert greater control over both resources and a key shipping lane for $5 trillion in trade. As I wrote a year ago, it is the sort of thing that in the 20th century sometimes led to unpleasantness.

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Categories : International
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In days of yore (pre-Internet), I telephoned the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) about a wall-sized world map I had heard about developed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). When I described what I was looking for, the woman on the other end said the GPO didn’t carry the map from the CIA.

“You want DMAODS,” she said matter-of-factly.

“And that would be?” I asked.

“Defense Mapping Agency Office of Distribution Services,” she said.

Naturally.

Dave Johnson of Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) and Kevin Drum of Mother Jones (MJ) point to a report by the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) on the prospective economic benefits of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The projected economic impact, Drum observes, is “pretty close to zero.” Drum produced a handy chart (at top).

Drum writes:

Generally speaking, I’d say this means you should mostly ignore the economic aspects of TPP. The benefits will be minuscule and the damages will be minuscule. The error bars on a 30-year forecast are just too big to say anything more. Instead, you should focus on other aspects of the agreement. How will it affect poor countries in Asia? Is it a useful bulwark against the growing influence of China? What do you think of extending US patent and trademark rules throughout the world? All of those things are real. The economic impact is basically a crapshoot.

But is it? Jared Bernstein comments that it might seem incredible “that we’ve been intensely wrangling over this trade deal so hard for so long when these are the predicted outcomes.”

“Enquiring minds want to know” why, if the economic payback is so lean, are international business interests so keen on passage of TPP? Johnson worries that it is not the economic impacts Americans have to worry about:

[The report] estimates a decline in output for U.S. manufacturing/natural resources/energy of $10.8 billion as exports would increase by $15.2 billion and imports would increase by $39.2 billion by 2032. This translates to a loss of even more U.S. jobs in these key sectors.

Keep in mind that this ITC report assumes that there will be a “level playing field” on which other TPP countries will not manipulate currency, suppress labor or other things that hurt American jobs. It also assumes that the countries will buy from us (trade) instead of following national economic strategies to enhance key national strategic industries by selling to us but not buying from us. Of course, this is not what happens in the real world, other countries protect themselves as countries with key national economic interests; we do not.

These are only the economic projections from TPP. They do not take into account that most of TPP is not about the economic results from “trade”; it is about enhancing the power of corporations over governments. Even if TPP dramatically increased economic activity (which all goes to a few at the top now anyway) it would not be worth handing over our democracy and sovereignty to the billionaires behind the giant corporations.

But, “good news.” Public Citizen observes that historically these ITC economic projections tend to be wildly off-base:

Looking back, the USITC predicted improved trade balances as a result of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and 2007 U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. The agency projected only a small deficit increase from China’s 1999 World Trade Organization entry deal and the granting to China of Permanent Normal Trade Relations status.

Instead, the U.S. trade deficits with the trade partners increased dramatically and, as detailed in the text of the new study, manufacturing industries from autos to steel and farm sectors such as beef that were projected to “win” saw major losses. A government program to help Americans who lose jobs to trade certified 845,000 NAFTA jobs losses alone.

That is to say, trade agreements like NAFTA, CAFTA, TPP and TiSA tend to leave American workers USCWOAP.

(cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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May
15

Give us back the lie

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Huntington, Indiana from the air, looking northeast.

Eli Saslow reports for the Washington Post on the decline of manufacturing in northeast Indiana where the American Dream is proving to be just that. Chris Setser stands to lose his $17/hr production line job at United Technologies Electronic Controls (UTEC) in Huntington. Like Carrier air conditioning plant in Indianapolis before it, the company announced plans to relocate to Mexico. Setser’s philosophy of “We can make it work” and “Life always evens out” is being tested:

All around him an ideological crisis was spreading across Middle America as it continued its long fall into dependency: median wages down across the country, average income down, total wealth down in the past decade by 28 percent. For the first time ever, the vaunted middle class was not the country’s base but a disenfranchised minority, down from 61 percent of the population in the 1970s to just 49 percent as of last year. As a result of that decline, confusion was turning into fear. Fear was giving way to resentment. Resentment was hardening into a sense of outrage that was unhinging the country’s politics and upending a presidential election.

Still, Setser believes in the “‘basic guarantees’ of the working class,” Salow writes. That his basic work ethic and work history will guarantee his home, cars, and annual trip to the lake will remain intact. He’s planning on remarrying. And he’s leaning towards Trump:

“We’re getting to the point where there aren’t really any good options left,” he said. “The system is broken. Maybe its time to blow it up and start from scratch, like Trump’s been saying.”

Krystal [his 16 year-old] rolled her eyes at him. “Come on. You’re a Democrat.”

“I was. But that was before we started turning into a weak country,” he said. “Pretty soon there won’t be anything left. We’ll all be flipping burgers.”

“Fine, but so what?” she said. “We just turn everything over to the guy who yells the loudest?”

Setser leaned into the table and banged it once for emphasis. “They’re throwing our work back in our face,” he said. “China is doing better. Even Mexico is doing better. Don’t you want someone to go kick ass?”

Globalization. Financialization. Greed, one of the deadly sins. Nothing a little ass-whupping won’t fix.

Daniel Engber at Slate has a lengthy but worthwhile examination of the state of psychological research pertaining to success. Angela Duckworth’s notion of “Grit” in particular, but other measures as well. Americans tell themselves hard work and perseverance always win out. It’s just not true. While Duckworth began her research looking at which West Point cadets had the “grit” to survive Beast Week without quitting, the quality appears to have had limited applicability:

Even the task of graduating from West Point itself doesn’t really compare to the trials of Beast. When Duckworth looked at students’ grades and “military performance scores” during their first year at school, she found that grit offered little guidance on how they’d handle the rest of the United States Military Academy curriculum. The whole candidate score—that old-fashioned, talent-based assessment—did much better. Considering that three-quarters of the students who fail to finish at West Point flunk during the post-Beast curriculum, those first seven gritty weeks appear to represent a special case, and one of marginal importance.

That is, Engber writes, “Grit matters, but only in specific situations that require strength of will.” Chris Setser might be “gritty.” He might believe Trump is. But grit alone will neither secure the “basic guarantees” to which Middle America once believed it was entitled, nor will it be enough for Trump. He seems to believe he can bully and bluster his way through any challenge, and actually knowing anything about the basic functions of government won’t matter. Trump, a former private military academy student, might have learned the value of grit, but doesn’t seemed to value other qualities that go into making an effective world leader.

One can see dead factory after dead factory stretched out for 75 miles east of here. Some textile facilities, but mostly empty furniture factories. Tens of thousands of Setsers have lost work over the last couple of decades. Hard work and perseverance were not enough to secure their futures. But many may be willing to vote for anyone who will give them back the illusion that they would. The fall elections from the presidency on down may turn on which party makes the better case. Or they might just settle for the guy who promises to kick some nonspecific ass.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katerina Slivinske.

What could be simpler and more intuitive than telling people that countries are just like people, that we have to stand up to this bully or we’ll get our lunch money taken again? — Max Fisher at Vox

Remember the “I don’t think anybody could have predicted” defense Condoleeza Rice used to explain why the Bush II administration failed to stop the September 11 attacks? Look again at the quote in italics. Now ask yourself whether it is predictable that we’ll hear the “stand up to this bully” argument deployed to sell America’s next foreign military adventure.

Foreign intervention is another place where facts don’t matter, according to Max Fisher. In a fascinating article at Vox, Fisher argues that American military intervention is often sold on the false belief that American “credibility” will suffer if we fail to intervene in this or that conflict regardless of our objective national interests. Regardless of the fact that this theory of credibility “does not appear to be real. Political scientists have investigated this theory over and over, and have repeatedly disproven it.”

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Categories : International, National
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Apr
25

Your water’s poisoned? Tellya what I’m gonna do…

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City leaders and a group of organizers here have been fighting state efforts to take over our city’s water system for several years. City of Asheville v State of North Carolina, et al. goes before the state Supreme Court next month. The originator of the bill (an ALEC board member before he lost his state House seat) insisted transferring control to a regional authority was not the first step towards privatization. You know, we just didn’t believe him. The water situation in Flint, Michigan is sure to come up in oral arguments on May 17.

Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D-WI) of Milwaukee is the Ranking Member of the Monetary Policy and Trade Subcommittee that oversees U.S. relations with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. She is not too keen on water privatization either. Privatization opponents in Wisconsin recently fought off an effort led by Aqua America Inc. to privatize water there:

The legislation would legalize purchases of water utilities by out-of-state corporations and change existing law to make public referendums on such purchases optional instead of mandatory.

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Apr
21

Drowned in the bathtub

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Final scene from short film by Jeremy Helal

Why yes, we really do mean to drown the government in the bathtub.

Thanks to Congress slowly drowning the U.S. Postal Service in the metaphorical bathtub, the form I put in the mail to my doctor last week traveled 90 miles south and across a state line for sorting before delivery to his office four miles away. Slow death by mandated prefunding of its retiree health benefits means USPS closed the local mail processing facility last year to save costs, worsen service, and keep government from competing with private firms in the delivery business. Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 be damned. The Market demands human sacrifice. (Strange, but its name appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution, unlike the Post Office. Must remember to look for The Market in the colonial apocrypha.)

It appears The Market now has turned its attention to mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, both government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs, with a “utility-like mandate to keep credit flowing in the housing markets.” Matt Taibbi examines why the Obama administration is invoking executive privilege to keep secret 11,000 communications covering federal conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The administration claims the release would harm financial markets. The federal judge that ordered last week’s release says the government simply doesn’t want to be embarrassed.

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Categories : Corporatocracy
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Apr
15

Derp from above

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As the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill makes its way through the Senate this week, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have been arguing for new rules that would limit cargo pilots’ flight time to nine hours between rests. We don’t want any accidents.

“Fatigue is a killer,” Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who executed the 2009 emergency airliner landing in the Hudson River, told a press conference. Then again, if you are a drone pilot in the business of deliberately killing people, working six or seven days a week, twelve hours a day is not a problem.

The drone program remains controversial and has its detractors and defenders. Al Jazeera English this week published the confessions of former Air Force drone technician, Cian Westmoreland. He and three other former operators last year called on the president to stop the program, calling the strategy “self-defeating,” one that propagates anti-US hatred. Not to mention his own nightmares:

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Apr
14

Incentives for the perverse

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Not all political deflections are bright and shiny. Hyperventilating over public aid to those at the bottom of the wealth curve is an oldie but goody. Is Wall Street defrauding the planet to the tune of trillions? Well, but LOOK! Over there. A poor person. Eating!

Properly incentivizing the poor is a perennial handwringer for Fox News and other watchdogs of personal morality on the right (who otherwise think the government should mind its own damned business). Nicholas Kristof, however, spares some column inches this morning on the incentives driving our beleaguered corporate persons at the top. He gets downright snarky about it:

A study to be released Thursday says that for each dollar America’s 50 biggest companies paid in federal taxes between 2008 and 2014, they received $27 back in federal loans, loan guarantees and bailouts.

Goodness! What will that do to their character? Won’t that sap their initiative?

The study in question comes from Oxfam. The group finds:

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