Monday, October 31, 2011
A little early for a lunch appointment a couple of weeks ago, I went into a bicycle shop near the restaurant, to check out new models. I had bought a Trek 720 in this same shop more than twenty years ago. Since then, I tend to get used models and fix them up, so I wasn’t in the market. But I was curious. Bicycles have evolved in some ways, with disc brakes, and a variety of frame models. But the basic concept hasn’t changed much in a hundred years or so.
The store still sold Treks, but also carried a Gary Fisher line. I have an old Gary Fisher that I turned into a touring bike, and was interested to see that they were now sold under the Trek name. The owner said that Trek bought them out about ten years ago. One of the reasons I originally bought a Trek was that it was made in the U.S. I wondered if that was still the case. The shop owner said that Trek had one manufacturing facility left in the U.S., and it only made bicycles in the $5,000 range and above. I guess I should not have been surprised by this.
Bicycles were one of the mainstays of global manufacturing during the late nineteenth century. In fact, during the 1890s, more patents were taken out for bicycles than for any other product. Skills and knowledge developed in the production of bicycles, in terms of precision machining, gearing, tires, wheels, and brakes, provided a foundation for automobile development. Bicyclists, moreover, demanded paved roads. Bicycles were crucial to the first wave women’s movement, providing mobility as well as the demand for more comfortable clothing.
America’s first great contribution to bicycle development may have been the kids’ bike, the manufacture of which began in the 1930s. These sturdy, but flashy, models revived the flagging bicycle industry, which had now been displaced by cars. The U.S. was a world leader, with versions made by Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and, eventually, of course, Schwinn. Later, American bicycle fanatics, including Gary Fisher, created the first mountain bikes, which again revived the bicycle market.
Having owned a Schwinn, a Trek, and a Gary Fisher, I found it somewhat disheartening that so few bicycles are now manufactured in the U.S. As with other goods, part of this has to do with labor costs. But it also has to do with industrial policy. Taiwan made it a national effort to turn Giant into a leader in the global bicycling industry. It now promotes itself as a bicycle friendly tourist destination.
It turns out that there are still a few bicycles made (or at least assembled) in the U.S. They are nearly all high end models, handmade or custom built. Bike Friday, the foldable bicycle company, still makes its cycles in Eugene, Oregon. Berskerker tricycles are made in Santa Barbara. Da Vinci tandems are manufactured in Denver. As with other specialized commodities, the skills needed to make these products are high, but the employment base is small compared to with the mass produced models that still dominant American and global consumer markets.
Monday, October 24, 2011
I attended a meeting on Friday night at the Danby Town Hall. The featured speaker was Ruth Tonachel, a resident of Bradford County, just across the line from New York, and one of the most intensively gas drilled regions of Pennsylvania.
Like a lot of folks around here, I've been very skeptical of the rush to frack. But as a resident of the City of Ithaca, my concerns have been more grounded in a sense of environmental and public interest, than a sense of immediate self-interest. In truth, I felt I would be somewhat insulated from the process's effects. I don't think that anymore.
Somewhat surprisingly, to me anyway, when asked the main problem generated by fracking, Ruth said it was the noise. Gas drilling creates a constant din in the areas in which it operates. The noise comes largely from an army of very large trucks that now populate the roadways of the county. Twenty trucks a day used to run through the borough of Towanda. Now it's over seven hundred.
Noise is also generated from blasting operations, drilling operations, and helicopter traffic. And the trucks don't just bring noise. The also generate larges amounts of dust, as mud falls from their tires, and diesel fumes. Residents of Ithaca will not escape these impacts.
Beyond that, the economic and social life of the area has been transformed. Two new hotels have been built. A third, now under construction, is booked three years in advance. These provide housing for the gas industry workers, who come in primarily from Oklahoma and Texas.
Local bars are now crammed late into the night. Drunk driving incidents have increased astronomically. There has been a general increase in crime. Divorce rates have risen. Horrendous accidents have occurred on local roadways. Sometimes these are reported in the local paper, sometimes not. Ruth described being a virtual prisoner in her house.
Bradford County, is, in other words, in the midst of a natural gas boom. Most of the problems created from it would have occurred whatever method of extraction was used to get at the gas. Vertical drilling and fracking just intensify them. Ruth compared her situation to a military occupation, one that industry officials project will last 50 years.
Ithaca is college town. Where will alums stay during Homecoming? Or where will parents stay during Parents' Weekend, not to mention graduation, if all the hotels in town are booked into the indefinite future for industry employees? Rents have tripled in Bradford County. Will student renters in Ithaca be displaced by industry employees?
Will parents, considering Ithaca College or Cornell University, be dissuaded from sending their children here, when, on the drive in, they are surrounded by a flank of gas mining trucks? Will college officials still be able to promote the area as a idyllic educational setting, when the peaceful countryside has been turned in to an industrial mining zone? Will faculty still find this an attractive place to settle and raise their families?
And, in the end, who will benefit from this? New York Sate has no severance tax, so will experience no direct gain in revenues. Moreover, in Bradford County, only a handful of wells are actually operating. The vast majority have been capped, because no pipeline infrastructure exists. Obtaining land rights has proved much more difficult than originally anticipated. Leaseholders, needless to say, are not paid unless the gas is actually pumped.
The economic lifeblood of much of upstate New York, especially since deindustrialization, has been agriculture, education and tourism. All are now under extreme threat by an invasion from a destructive gas industry that offers few tangible economic benefits in return.
Monday, October 17, 2011
This posting is part of a series that provides a follow-up to my book, NOTORIOUS HIV: THE MEDIA SPECTACLE OF NUSHAWN WILLIAMS. Previous postings have examined other current aspects of the case.
A recent court case in Buffalo involving a young man, who engaged in sexual conduct with a number of young women, provides an interesting, and troubling, contrast to the Nushawn Williams case, as it raises important questions of equity and justice.
Darryl Fortner was accused of having unprotected sex with five young women, one of whom was fifteen years old. Fortner pled guilty to five reckless endangerment misdemeanor charges, for which he received five one-year consecutive sentences. In jail since April, Fortner is expected to be released in December, at which point he will have spent a total of nine months in prison.
Nushawn Williams was also charged with reckless endangerment. Additionally, he was charged with statutory rape (having sex with a woman under the age of 18) and possession of cocaine. Williams, however, was offered a plea deal of four to twelve years in prison (and threatened with 75 years), and he has now spent more than thirteen years behind bars.
Williams was cast as an AIDS monster, a sexual predator, and was the object of a media hysteria. Public officials and journalists labeled him a mass murderer, declared his guilt before trial, and, in some cases, called for his torture and execution.
What explains the differential of treatment here? Court officials said that the reluctance of the young women to come forward, in Fortner’s case, made it difficult to convict on charges of “depraved indifference to human life." But one did come forward, and only two came forward in the Williams case.
Moreover, while Williams and Fortner were charged with the same crime, reckless endangerment, in Fortner’s case there were five counts, rather than two for Williams. In Williams' case, however, they were felony charges. In Fortner’s case, prosecutors chose not to pursue a statutory rape charge.
Williams is still in prison awaiting disposition on his appeal against the state’s attempt to have him confined indefinitely under the state’s sexual predator statute. The state has decided not to pursue such a strategy against Fortner.
In Fortner’s attorney's words, “Given the circumstances, I think we made out okay.”
It’s hard to know the what role race may have played in this case. Both Fortner and Williams are African-American, but in Williams’ case, the young women involved were white. We don’t know the racial characteristics of Fortner’s partners, which may, in itself, be a significant fact.
Interestingly, The Buffalo News carried an article noting the differences in sentencing between Fortner and some other recent cases involving criminal HIV transmission. But it made no mention of the Williams case. Two of the cases that it mentioned involved aggravated sexual assault, and not consensual sex. (All of Williams’ relations were consensual).
This was the same newspaper that carried an editorial, during the Williams spectacle, suggesting that punishment be initiated "involving devices not used since the Middle Ages.”
My purpose here is certainly not to suggest that Daryl Fortner ought to spend more time in prison. Quite the contrary, the sentence does seem altogether reasonable under the circumstances. But obviously something has changed. For one thing, HIV is no longer treated with the same kind of hysteria than it was in the late 90s, when Nuhsawn Williams pled guilty to his crimes.
In fact, in this case, the state’s medical expert noted that a positive HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. In fact, it hasn’t been for many years.
Isn’t it time for the state to end its relentless persecution of Nushawn Williams and let him out of jail once and for all?
Monday, October 10, 2011
The accolades for Steve Jobs have been non-stop, coming from all quarters. This strikes me as especially interesting, given that business leaders aren’t generally in favor at the moment, as is evidenced by the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.
Jobs was praised on MSNBC as a “populist” business leader, and as an “artist.” He was hailed on Public Radio as someone that took ugly, albeit practical, computers, and made them beautiful and user-friendly. There have been some dissenting voices, but not many. My guess is that this can be partly accounted for by the fact that cultural elites tend to be Apple users.
Jobs' capacities for creating beautiful consumer goods cannot be denied. I say this as a MacPower Pro user (on loan from my workplace) and an iPod owner, who has never been completely bitten by the Apple bug. The MacBook is smooth, sleek, and very expensive. Yet my Toshiba netbook works equally well for most functions. Unlike the MacBook, when I wanted to upgrade the operating memory, I just popped the bottom off, and slid in the card. And I still can't use WordPerfect on my Mac.
Personal preferences aside, was Apple as transformative for the American economy as the Jobs accolades suggest? No doubt, Apple had a huge impact on a segment of the consumer market, and indirect effects that ricocheted through the entire personal computing industry. One of Apple’s most significant contributions was through iTunes, which, along with heavy-handed copyright enforcement, contributed to the decline of free music download services, and may have saved what's left of the recording industry.
But Apple, itself, did very little to contribute to the overall American economy in terms of job creation. One study found that the manufacturing of iPods created 41,000 jobs globally. Practically nothing in the grand scheme of things. Most of these jobs, 27,000 of them, were created offshore, while the remaining 14,000 were in the U.S. itself. (By contrast, General Motors, still employs over 142, 000 people in the United States alone, with millions of others connected through networks of support services.)
Granted most of the income generated, by Apple, was in the U.S. But that indicates the reverse side of the equation, that most of the offshore jobs were under poor working conditions, with low pay. Yet, even in the U.S., the division of labor was pronounced, between high skilled technical jobs and managerial positions, and low end retail jobs, with less than 6,000 are in the former category. While relatively few people actually work at Apple, many of those that do are well-compensated.
Apple then intersects with deindustrialization in a couple of ways: The company did very little to reverse the decline of reasonably well-paying manufacturing jobs U.S. In this respect, it mirrors the digital economy in general, which often creates great wealth, while doing little to redistribute it through job creation. Also, Apple would not have been possible without deindustrialization. Apple products would not have been affordable, even to high-end consumers, without the low-wage manufacturing infrastructure that preceded it, and set the stage for, the digital revolution.
The Apple aesthetic, and Steve Jobs flair for public relations, certainly served the company well. In the 1990s, Nike came under heavy attack for its use of sweatshop labor, which led to a decade long battle with anti-globalization and labor groups. While criticisms have been leveled at Apple for its labor practices, it never experienced anything like Nike’s problems.
My intention here is not to speak ill of the dead, but to point out that the focus on one individual to the exclusion of the structural economic features, diverts attention from larger trends. And keeping an eye on the latter is especially important during a period of economic dislocation, as we are currently experiencing.
We should all celebrate Steve Jobs creativity, imagination, determination, and his equanimity in the face of death. We should recognize and appreciate the important contributions that Apple has made to digital culture. But I think we should also maintain a sense of perspective.
Monday, October 3, 2011
New York had a long connection with the Industrial Revolution. Upstate cities from Schenectady to Buffalo, and all along the southern tier, were participants in the industrial economy that expanded through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The relationship wasn’t always an easy one, as industrial production sewed the seeds of labor unrest and environmental degradation.
But it also fostered diversity, as immigrants, both internal and external to the U.S., moved into industrial cities. It created economic opportunities for millions of people, and a degree of economic stability. Without industrialization, New York would be virtually devoid of large cities, other than New York City itself. The collapse of the industrial economy has been hard on upstate New York. Most of the cities that provided its supports have not recovered from the shifts of capital and labor that resulted from deindustrialization.
Now state political leaders, like Andrew Cuomo, are promising that gas mining and extraction will provide a substitute for the moribund post-industrial upstate economy. This will mean a major shift upstate from an industrial to a mining economy. Mining economies are different than industrial economies, and those that tout the economic benefits of gas drilling ought to think about those differences very carefully.
Pennyslvania, our neighbor to the south, has an historically much cosier relationship with extraction. The first oil well was drilled in Titusville, and there is a long history of gas and oil production in northwestern Pennsylvania. Southwestern and eastern Pennsylvania had (and still have) coal mines. I think this partly accounts for the early embrace of new forms of gas drilling which are being more actively resisted in New York. Mining fosters a different cultural relationship to the physical environment, and, I would assert, one that is less respectful of it.
But, beyond that, the extraction economy is distinct from the industrial economy in other ways. Whereas industrial production organized around cities, and often created them, mining is a more rural pursuit; it’s more dispersed. The result is that it has a much wider physical impact on the landscape. Moreover the infrastructures built to support it are meant to be abandoned.
Industrial production concentrated populations, and while it generated an array of toxics that we are still coping with, it also allowed for flourishing agriculture and the preservation of forests. It left spaces for escape and for tourism. Moreover, while all capitalist economies are unstable, mining economies are particularly susceptible to the boom and bust cycles. Commodity prices rise and fall drastically over short periods of time. And once the resource is extracted, nothing of value remains. The economic benefit entirely disappears. (It now appears that it gas production will disappear much sooner than was originally predicted by its advocates.)
I lived in West Virginia for four years, and while it is an attractive place in many ways, it has long been one of the poorest states in the U.S. It also has a long history of labor violence, fostered because the hardships of mining, and ruthless exploitation by mine owners. Somehow the benefits of the state’s vast coal reserves never translated into prosperity for the large majority of West Virginians. Parts of West Virginia are scarred beyond recognition and will never return to their original beauty.
So my advice to those that believe increased gas production is an economic godsend for upstate New York, is to please look to places where extraction is has been the dominant economic activity. My guess is that you won’t like what you see.