Land Grabbing, GRAIN, TIAA-CREF, Africa and Brazil

ImageGen.ashxNew Orleans    Funny how some issues, even very big ones, linger right off your radar and then seem to pop up everywhere. Recently, I’ve felt that way about “land grabbing.” Working mostly in cities and slums around the world, out of sight is too often out of mind. Meeting in France with ReAct, our international partner, and getting a better understanding of their on-the-ground organizing of rubber and palm oil farmers in Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Morocco to force accountability from the French-based transnational, Bollore, I had thought the issue was wages and working conditions, but the more I listened, the clearer it became that the issue was actually land grabbing.

According to Wikipedia, “land grabbing is the contentious issue of large-scale land acquisitions: the buying or leasing of large pieces of land in developing countries, by domestic and transnational companies, governments, and individuals.” Adrien Roux, the coordinator of ReAct is attending a pan-African conference in Nairobi on land grabbing now and meeting with ACORN Kenya’s organizers as an extra benefit to his short visit. We can look forward to understanding the global planning and response when we get his report upon his return to France.

Meanwhile there’s a troubling story in the Times about the US-based giant retirement fund, TIAA-CREF, including a well-documented analysis of its troubling role in land grabbing in Brazil. Their behavior is especially dodgy given the rules Brazil had put in place in 2010 to limit foreign investment in land to prevent such exploitation. TIAA-CREF seems to have tried to play button-button with the new legislation and put the lawyers and its partners to work to concoct a wink-and-nod formation that seemed to follow the letter of the law while trampling the spirit of it and then pouring in even more millions into such land deals. Were they depleting rain forests? Technically no, because they were involved in after-market transactions abetting shadowy, unscrupulous, and often rough handed wheeler dealers who grabbed the land and laundered it for purchase by TIAA-CREF and its partners later.

Having dealt with them on some business for my mother some months ago and finding them pretty reasonable in the rapacious crowd of vultures exploiting the elderly and the infirm, I was sadden to read about their shifty dealings in Brazil. On the other hand it was uplifting to read about the think-and-action tank in Barcelona, called GRAIN, an acronym originally for Genetic Resources Action International. The outfit had begun as a research think tank and took a look at its work and re-engineered itself into an organization designed to support small farmers and social movements on the ground with their research. They also reorganized as a small collective now staffed out by almost half women and eleven different nationalities. Clearly, if their work in uncovering the shenanigans of TIAA-CREF is any indication, the victims of land grabbing have found an effective ally and friend in GRAIN, and that’s good news.

Working in cities we become familiar with all of the ways that crooks steal the houses and properties of lower income families with false deeds, forged papers, and financial mayhem. It’s easy to forget that of course the same thing is operating, perhaps even on a larger scale, in stealing land from poor and indigenous farmers around the world. It’s the story of America and our history after all, but somehow we think we’re past all of that now, rather than still right in the middle of the mess. Wrong!

Life as a Soft Target

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 10.49.42 AM

map of Gun Violence in the United States in 2015 source:

New Orleans    In the age of global and domestic terrorism we all now have a new identity. We’re soft targets. Hard targets have guards, gates, barriers, and buildings. The rest of us are out in the open, on the street, in our offices, at our cafes and coffeehouses, doing work, living life: soft targets.

Mi companera, reading the papers, regularly adds new cities and countries to my “no fly” list. For example Pakistan was a regular during the Al Qaeda years. Nothing against the country. One of our former ACORN Canada board members has regularly reached out wondering when we will organize there. Someday, my brother, someday. New countries go on and off the list regularly. That’s the way of the world for soft targets.

I’m always allowed to come home, but we’re soft targets here as well while sitting in movie theaters, going to school, showing up at work, or whatever.

We can’t expect to live our lives under lock and key or believe that the government or the police can protect us every minute. In New Orleans, I returned from overseas recently and going through the daily papers to catch up, saw the front page headlines over four straight days screaming about the incredible delay in police response time. When you have to schedule a day off to wait for the police to show up when you call for help, you quickly realize that you are on your own in soft target land. A knock on the door at 230 AM on a recent morning in response to a call about a neighborhood problem that morning is just the new normal. I asked the cop if it wasn’t kind of late for a visit, and he answered, “We’re the late shift.” Whatever.

In Paris, AK-47’s were the weapon of choice. There have been discussions about banning the purchase of such assault weapons in the USA, but, lord no, says the NRA and their toadying political midgets.

Preparing Guns and Kids by Frank Strier for publication in coming weeks by Social Policy Press, Professor Strier makes the point repeatedly that, sadly, AK-47’s get the press, but it’s the simple, cheap, and deadly effective handgun that too often makes targets of us all with mortal consequences. Rifles of any kind are far, far down the list.

Yet, legislating safer sales, distribution, storage, and handling of handguns has become the third rail of red and blue state politics. Hillary Clinton may be soft on Wall Street, but Bernie Sanders is soft on gun control, and that could help him in some states. On the Republican side, no one will touch it. In Louisiana, the Democratic candidate for Governor is so far withstanding huge, vicious attacks from the Republican Senator in the runoff because he can’t be labeled as anti-gun or pro-abortion.

Look around the world and the flowers and tears from Paris to Beirut, and there were more before and more to come. Look outside your door all around the United States.

We have to do better. There can be better gun control without a total ban. There can be better police protection and security without clearing our streets and profiling our people.

In the meantime, we’re all soft targets. Living the life.


Please enjoy Hey Cowboy by the Sugar Ponies.  Thank you KABF.

Crony Capitalism and the Logrolling Culture


“THE LAST ROLL”, by THOMAS NAST, published in “Harper’s Weekly” February 1886.

New Orleans    Logrolling is such a nice, archaic American expression that, excuse the pun, it just sort of rolls off of your tongue.

Wikipedia looks at the expression as a mutual back scratch:


Logrolling is the trading of favors, or quid pro quo, such as vote trading by legislative members to obtain passage of actions of interest to each legislative member.[1] In an academic context, the Nuttall Encyclopedia describes logrolling as “mutual praise by authors of each other’s work”. In organizational analysis, it refers to a practice in which different organizations promote each other’s agendas, each in the expectation that the other will reciprocate.


And, how often does one get to bring the legendary Davy Crockett into a modern conversation, yet here he is, front and center, according to some:


The first known use of the term was by Congressman Davy Crockett, who said on the floor (of the U.S. House of Representatives) in 1835, “my people don’t like me to log-roll in their business, and vote away pre-emption rights to fellows in other states that never kindle a fire on their own land.”[6]


Applied in other contexts, I wonder how different logrolling might be from crony capitalism. Quid pro quo’s are rife there as well, and although generally this is an insult hurled at developing countries and their business dealings, it also is something heard in the Tea Party critiques of Congress and modern American politics. Wikipedia offers:


Crony capitalism is a term describing an economy in which success in business depends on close relationships between business people and government officials. It may be exhibited by favoritism in the distribution of legal permits, government grants, special tax breaks, or other forms of state interventionism.


Hmmm. There do seem to be some similarities between the two, more a difference in degree than distinction.

All of this comes to mind reading the daily papers and opinion setting magazines. All of a sudden, the New York Times will have review of a book in the daily papers, plus the Sunday book review section, and if you are Patti Smith, Mary Louise Parker, or Gloria Steinem, by god you’ll be in the Style section as well and maybe land a profile in The New Yorker to boot and a little something-something in the Wall Street Journal and on down the line. The political philosopher Herbert Marcuse once famously referred to the media as the “flesh-eating machine,” but he may not have had his ear to the cash register for the logrolling “cha-ching!”

It’s not just a matter of reporters and papers currying favor, friends, and sales among authors, entertainers and cultural icons that seems so much like mutual backscratching that we wonder if we’re getting the real lowdown. Getting ready to recycle some magazines, I noticed a copy of Trout, published by Trout Unlimited last spring that I had forgotten to haul off to Montana this summer. Flipping through the pages from the back I found myself doing a page turn because the giant advertisements were accompanied by a 12-page spread on their buddy corporate partners in clothing, gear makers and the like, that was supposed to not be advertising. Was there any line between the two? Was this logrolling or crony capitalism disguised as thanks for financial support, and was there a difference? Are they really good and true environmentalists and conservationists or are they just passing the buck over to Trout Unlimited?

If you’re just Joe Sausagehead like most of us around the country and not walking the runway, living in Manhattan, or catching the train underneath the Capitol, how do you get the straight scoop anymore? How do you separate the stories from the sales pitch, no matter how subtle and avoid mutual handwashing and backscratching? Logrolling and crony capitalism seem to be something blind to the eye of the beholder.

I’m probably just grumpy today. I’m sure we’re all just supposed to take a deep breath and remember that this is just the “way things work.” Unless of course, you are “them,” and not “us.”

Popping the Bubble on Tech Utopians and the Law of Amplification

Kentaro Toyama, author of Geek Heresy, with his 10-year-old Nokia phone. (Erynn Rose photo)

Kentaro Toyama, author of Geek Heresy, with his 10-year-old Nokia phone. (Erynn Rose photo)

New Orleans    Every once in a blue moon there is a piercing needle that bursts the bubble of hucksterism, no matter how well-intentioned, and brings its wild claims based on hope and hustle down to the hard ground of reality. In this case, the sound of the pop is louder because the sharp points are delivered from an insider, Kentaro Toyama, a tech company veteran with the years in grade and degrees to prove it, in his book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. Right from the title, I knew this was a book worth reading, and Toyama delivered time and time again. Spoiler’s alert: it’s one thing when working stiff organizers points out that the tech emperors of our times are naked as the day is long, day in, day out, but when it’s the geek speaking the heresy to comrades in wealth and power, its rich with the flavor of truth and justice.

The backstory on Toyama is that he started on the path of Silicon Valley privilege with the degrees from Harvard and Yale and the big job at Microsoft and all was going swell. Then he was recruited to go with a respected and senior colleague to open up the Microsoft research center in Bengaluru. They did this and that, and he was responsible for some bit of gee whiz niftiness, but there was a problem. Rather than being the usual LED screen potted plant, he had tried teaching calculus in Ghana before going total geek, and though he didn’t go native in India, he did actually visit the schools where they were working and take a good look. Worse for many other sacred cows of international development and research from microfinance to high flying randomistas, like the widely touted Poverty Lab, who argue for data and metrics as the benchmarks for all development work, he actually went into the field, met the folks, and dug deeper, and despite preambles full of praise for the big whoops, his bubble bursting is categorical and indisputable.

Not because Toyama and Geek Heresy are on a mission of destruction and global depression, but because he is a realist unable to become a true believer of the utopian claims of the modern day tech babblers. He just can’t help saying what he’s seen on the ground. He argues for what he calls the Law of Amplification as an antidote to the utopian claims. In plain English, his law holds that nothing will change just because of technology if the necessary support system of people, training, resources, and infrastructure are not in place to take advantage of the technology. To organizers on the ground, this is so obvious that it should be gospel, but from the partnership of Silicon Valley and Wall Street is so powerfully steering the hype machine, that it’s hard not to drink their Kool-Aid.

Toyama has spit it out though. His examples are endless, but time and time they are of the kind that gently points out that cars are great inventions, but without roads, gas, or people who are taught how to drive, they really won’t get you too far. Tools are really just tools, no matter how high faluting. We all know this, but still have to sometimes catch ourselves and stop from nodding about the outrageous claims for computers, the internet, Twitter, Facebook, and the like, all of which are wonderful, but none of which can change the world without “amplification,” roads, gas, drivers and the like. Microfinance, as we have pointed out repeatedly is not the silver bullet to end poverty, and Toyama is devastating on this as well. He also takes down the data freaks and randomistas worshipping at the altar of testing and metrics, by reminding that the local partners with years of experience, staffing, resources, and pure and simple competency essentially have their fingers weighing heavily on every measuring scale. He introduces another law, the Iron Law of Evaluation and Other Metallic Rules, which heartbreakingly points out that “The expected value of any net impact assessment of any large scale social program is zero,” which before any of you jump off the cliff is a helpful reminder that because something works well locally or in one context, does not mean that it will automatically work well when scaled up in others. Wisely, Toyama also pops the pretense of philanthropists who claim one-and-done to a grant as if that ensures success rather than failure as it goes to scale.

As an organizer often in the field, whether India, Kenya, Houston, or Little Rock, who sits side-by-side with brilliant, caring, courageous organizers trying to “amplify” their ability to make the computer a tool, rather than a paperweight, access the internet despite the cost, technical, and training barriers, and do simple research, organizing math, and other tasks for our members, it was great to be Toyama’s partner page to page with the truth that you find under your feet, no matter the sugar plums being fed daily to your brain.

There’s no substitute for doing the real work. Praise be to the heretics, like Toyama, who can speak truth to tech power, and who, wonderfully, still believe in and are committed to social change. Don’t let his voice be unheard!

Loopholes on Employer Mandates of Obamacare Killing Low Wage Workers

ACA-Employer-Mandate1Shreveport    The devil is in the details, and lower waged employers, like large nursing home chains, have figured out a way to be the devil with the details when it comes to making a mockery out of the employer mandate to provide healthcare coverage. Bargaining a renewal contract for Local 100 United Labor Unions at a nursing home in Shreveport that we had represented for almost thirty years was a case study in the travesty of the law and the tragedy for the workers.

In fulfilling the information request and providing details on the health insurance offering for the workers, this company, the second largest nursing home chain in Louisiana, gave us a mishmash of materials forcing the bargaining committee to ask a number of questions hoping for a glimmer of hope that didn’t seem obvious from the materials, but no such luck.

We saw two plans. One that covered some our bargaining unit, including the activities director and maintenance staff. The other for all of the certified nursing assistants.

The first plan was no Cadillac plan, believe me. The deductible was $2500 for an individual in or out of the network. The examples of coverage were cautionary. If you had a baby costing $7540 from the hospital, the plan would pay for $3530 and you would be out $4010. The second plan was from land of Simon Legree. The deductible was a whopping $6350 per person, the highest we have seen or heard of anywhere, no matter the low wage employer! Worse, it covered almost nothing. Having a baby with the same cost would have the plan paying less than a grand and in fact only $940 while the patient paid $6600 with the deductible now stated to be $6400 and something called “exceptions” adding another $200. Managing diabetes was another example where if the cost were $5400 on the first plan, the worker would pay $3280 and the plan $2120. On the second plan we devolve into farce, where on the cost of $5400, the plan would pay a measly $20 bucks and the worker would pay $5380. Yes, $20.

This is more than enough to describe the horrors here, but adding insult to injury, remember that the worker would also be paying for this sorry story. The rate of payment was not fixed which was a first for in our experience, but was calculated to the wage of each individual worker so that the company could squeeze the last penny of the 9.5% allowable for an Affordable Care Act plan from the worker. The cap was $175 per month at the highest worker’s wage and the minimum was around $111 per month figured at the individual worker’s hourly wage times 130 hours for a regular employee times 9.5%. No math shaming here but if you are a certified nursing assistant to elect this plan the employer begrudgingly was providing under the employer mandate of Obamacare, you would be paying anywhere from about $1300 to $2100 for the ability to claim health insurance on your job where you would then have to pay more than $6000 before you got the first dollar worth of health insurance benefit. The math is daunting. These are workers making less than $20,000 per year and closer to $18000 annually who would be paying up to $8000 out of their income to access any benefit from the policy! Incredible!

The employer insisted that the plan qualified, despite our objections, and, frankly, it may. The employer had no answer to the question of why all workers were not put in the first plan which was hardly a gift. The employer pretended not to have available the number of workers who had elected to pay for this travesty of insurance, even as the union asked if it was more than one and less than ten workers.

Meanwhile the workers are blocked from the subsidies and cost sharing payments provided under the Affordable Care Act, because their employer supposedly provides health insurance if that is what you call what is described here. And, to pile on since none or next to none are foolish enough to join this so-called plan that means beginning in 2016 the workers will pay a 2.5% penalty on their gross income or $450 to $500 for not having insurance, so their boss can take more money to the bank.

Needless to say there’s no Medicaid expansion yet in Louisiana – and many other states. This is not a health care solution for lower waged workers who desperately need health care protection!

Are California’s Two Bites at the Wage Increase Initiatives Good Tactics?

Demonstrators take part in a protest to demand higher wages for fast-food workers outside McDonald's in Los Angeles, California May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Demonstrators take part in a protest to demand higher wages for fast-food workers outside McDonald’s in Los Angeles, California May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Shreveport     The rush to raise wages sometimes seems feast or famine. While “Fight for $15” was trying to launch another publicity strike at McDonald’s, the only real notice of the workers’ rallies was a question their march in Milwaukee prompted from Fox Business News to the Republican debaters. New York State’s Governor Andrew Cuomo seized all of the big headlines announcing that he was going to raise the starting wage for all New York State public employees to $15 per hour. Meanwhile in the rest of the country, we’re just living the dream of almost any raise in the minimum wage, especially where there is no possibility of a ballot initiative or legislative relief.

Talk about a bounty – in California, unions are promoting two different statewide ballot initiatives that would raise wages to $15 per hour statewide. The Los Angeles Times pitched the story as another schism within the Service Employees International Union because the initiatives are being boosted by two different local unions and their supporters. The spokespeople for both petition drives were reasonable and talked about reconciling their efforts, though the initiative supported by the large and often controversial healthcare union, SEIU-United Healthcare West says it has already exceeded the required signatures and the other effort being announced by SEIU Local 1021 and the SEIU California State Council seems to be just beginning.

There are substantial differences between the proposals. SEIU-UHW’s measure is a straight-up proposal to get to $15 per hour statewide. The other proposal gets to $15 for sure but also increases paid sick leave and extends sick leave coverage to workers previously excluded. Some professors and other experts quoted in the article think two initiatives will doom the effort. Is that true or could this even be good tactics for a victory?

In the recent election in Tacoma, Washington two measures were on the ballot for city voters in the shadow of the victory earlier in Seattle. One would have raised wages in the city to $15 per hour and the other would have gone to $12 per hour. The $12 measure won, and the $15 lost. A measure in Portland, Maine to go to $15 per hour also went down to defeat. My point: none of this is a sure thing.

Consider also that in states like Arkansas, Missouri, and many others are on the list, a statewide ballot initiative can be disqualified from the ballot if it arguably includes two different subjects, because legislators and courts have ruled the measures are too confusing to the voters and the intent of their votes are too muddled. California may be different, but there is no way that wages and sick leave are the same, and common sense and a lot of experience with statewide referenda will teach that keeping it simple is critical to victory, so larding a measure up, no matter how meritorious the effort, endangers any passage.

But, are the potshoters right that two measures would mean defeat or is this just more blah-blah-blah about internecine conflict in the labor movement? Tacoma recently and other elections historically on initiatives would tend to argue that well run and well financed campaigns will in fact encourage voters to support a measure rather than vote “no,” but they will vote for the most moderate seeming measure rather than taking a chance on going too far. Perhaps a split among progressive voters trying to go for more and a mobilized opposition could weigh down both issues, but there is no runoff on referenda, it’s first past the post, so at the least any experienced political worker or bettor knows to put their money on the straight $15 not the $15 plus measure as the one that lead the other. The same is actually true in union elections. No union ever likes another union on the ballot, but when two or more unions are on the ballot, one of the unions will win, not the “no” votes.

Unfortunately, it seems that in California where chances of winning $15 might be best, two measures were probably not good tactics in any deliberate strategic sense, so one may have to step aside or step back, and that is likely the newcomer trying for the feast of wage increases and sick leave in one big gulp.