The Trans-Pacific Partnership Endangers Democracy – by Don Nonini

Imagine it’s 2018 and that you are the owner of a small business in North Carolina with 60 employees that produces water filtration equipment used in sewage treatment plants. This year, you were particularly excited to hear of the state government’s new procurement program to help localities finance purchases of new filtration equipment to upgrade their facilities to meet requirements for cleaner water. You know this is necessary for the health of a growing population, and to attract businesses and tourists that count on high water quality.


You think it’s perfectly appropriate that the state’s law has a “buy local” provision requiring at least 60% of the new equipment to be purchased from businesses like yours that are headquartered and operated in North Carolina. After all, you’ve paid state taxes for years, as have your employees, and you know that small businesses are the backbone of job creation in North Carolina. You’re hoping to add new employees once you successfully bid for a new contract.

Imagine your consternation when you open your local newspaper and read that a Japanese corporation has filed suit against the North Carolina government claiming that this buy-local requirement is illegal, and that as a result, Raleigh has rolled back this law to avoid costly litigation. Reading on, you make the startling discovery that this suit has not been filed in any US court, but instead before an arbitration panel which the US government agreed to in a “free trade agreement” called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2015.


The Japanese corporation’s claim charges that North Carolina has violated the “national treatment” provision of the TPP which states that products from a TPP country like Japan must receive treatment “no less favorable” than products of national origin, and that the new “buy local” law discriminates against this corporation. The corporation also alleges that the buy-local law constitutes a subsidy to domestic businesses violating yet another provision of the TPP. In the arbitration, the corporation has demanded that the North Carolina government pay it $2 billion in damages for violating these TPP provisions to compensate it for loss of future “estimated profits.” The state, rather than fight a costly legal battle, has simply conceded, and the State Assembly is rescinding the “buy local” program. For your small business most likely: game over.

Reading further, you become increasingly confused and angry as you learn that the arbitration panel the article mentions is part of a new form of global governance called “Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) in the TPP. You read that the panel has only three members, and that they are not judges appointed by a US court, but private arbitration attorneys appointed by a unit of the World Bank. You ask yourself: isn’t this an infringement of American sovereignty? Since when does international arbitration “law” supersede the US Constitution? And when did North Carolina weigh in on creation of this “law,” which undermines states’ rights under our federal system?

In this future, the bad news is that you would be right to be worried. The “buy local” program which you’d hoped to benefit from, and keep wealth in North Carolina, is very similar to a “buy local” program created in 2009 by the province of Ontario, Canada to support its solar and wind energy industries. But Ontario’s ‘buy local” law was rescinded after a successful 2010 challenge by a Japanese corporation under the ISDS provisions of the World Trade Organization.


The good news is that it’s not 2018, but 2015. Today, Congress has granted President Obama Fast Track Authority to negotiate the Transpacific Partnership, but the treaty is not a done deal until it comes up for a “up or down” vote before the U.S. Congress later this year. Irrespective of your political party, you should be deeply concerned about the violations of US sovereignty that have been tucked into provisions of the TPP. We should all urge the North Carolina congressional delegation to vote against the TPP for the sake of American democracy.


An earlier version of this blog appeared as an Op-ed piece in the Raleigh News and Observer on July 9, 2015.

England’s Remarkable Consumer Cooperatives: Lessons from Capitalism’s Past

By Jim Senter

The 2008 economic crisis has spurred interest in worker-owned cooperatives, but fewer Americans are familiar with consumer cooperatives and their rich history. The cooperative movement played a key role in working peoples’ lives during the difficult years of England’s industrial revolution. Many lessons from this history are relevant to our current struggle to invent a more equitable community-based economy.

Many books discuss the birth of capitalism as a miracle of invention –focusing on the power of the steam engine, and the productivity of new textile factories. Society was indeed transformed as wealth was concentrated and a new middle class emerged. But the new wealth of some was produced through new forms of misery for others.

Working people saw few of the benefits. The Enclosure Act of 1760 shoved peasants off the land, and workers were denied the right to vote, unions were illegal, and competition between mill owners drove down wages to starvation levels.

Beatrice Potter described this time in The Co-operative Movement in Great Britain: “Whole districts were transformed from a country of homesteads, bordering commons and scattered far and wide among pastures and corn-fields, into a land thickly planted with cities, towns and suburbs: a whole class of middling folk, small owners and tiny capitalists, had been changed into opposing armies– the rich and the poor…. Mobs of starving factory hands paraded the manufacturing towns; secret societies honeycombed with sedition and conspiracy sprang up with amazing rapidity among the better paid artisans.”

While investors organized money to build textile mills, working people organized themselves to address needs- primarily the need for healthy, affordable food– the for-profit wage system was unable to meet. They got together with their neighbors, pooled their pennies and bought what they needed- tea, sugar, bread, butter- in bulk at the lowest price they could. Many ran into problems with the wholesale merchants they bought from, who routinely sold bread laced with clay and sawdust, and shorted them on weights. Because of this, a number of these early co-ops built bakeries and mills to produce bread and flour for their own use.

Despite the problems, co-ops grew in number, and spread around the country. Many failed. Lessons were learned. The Rochdale Principles, on which many co-ops today are built, came out of that learning process. In the 1850s, the co-ops had become so numerous that they began to compete with each other for wholesale purchases.

To address this issue, the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) was formed in 1863 to provide purchasing services for the nation’s co-operatives, and to organize and run the productive enterprises the local cooperatives had set up earlier. The Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society (SCWS) was founded five years later.

Local, retail co-ops were their members. When the manager of the retail needed to buy 20 pair of work boots, he would place an order with the Wholesale. By collecting orders from around the country, the CWS and SCWS maximized purchasing power.

When demand for a certain kind of product, furniture for instance, became great enough, the Wholesales invested in setting up production facilities for those goods. In that way, things made for sale in co-op stores were made in co-op workplaces.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the CWS and SCWS were collaborating in the operation of a steamship line that carried tea from co-op tea plantations in India and Sri Lanka, wheat from Canadian farms, and fruit from Australia.

Through this system, funds which would otherwise be siphoned off into for-profit enterprises to pay for goods sold through the co-op, remained in cooperative hands, and this helped “close the loop” of co-operative finance. Production for use maximized the excess cash flow available to fund education and outreach, to expand membership, as well as to expand production into new product lines. It produced a not-for-profit marketplace whose stability was notable for over 75 years, building an engine whose power has rarely been recognized.

When Glasgow cattle merchants tried to shut co-op buyers out of the market by refusing to sell to them, production for use gave the SCWS the financial and organizational heft to buy land, and herds of cattle, and provide co-op butchers with co-op cows. This was militant co-operation.

Because English law made labor unions illegal for most of the nineteenth century, English co-operation focused on consumer cooperation By the end of the 1930s, co-operative production facilities were making everything, from furniture to barrels, all sorts of clothing and many other consumer goods. The Wholesales ran coal mines and print shops, as well as a daily newspaper and an engineering department to design factory and store buildings.

In the United States, things developed somewhat differently. The Workingmen’s Protective Union developed retail/consumer cooperatives in the late 1840s and at its height had some 1200 stores spread out from Massachusetts to the Illinois frontier. These stores failed in the hard times of the Civil War, and were replaced by workplace cooperative organized first by the Sovereigns of Industry and then by the Knights of Labor.

At their height, worker/owners operated factories producing cigars and tobacco products, shoes, boots, barrels, shirts, wagons. Union members operated laundries as well. When the Knights of Labor disintegrated in the depression of the 1890s, these enterprises lost their customers in the union, and competition among themselves and with for-profit enterprises forced them to close their doors.

While the CWS exists to this day- as the Co-op Group- there are no surviving remnants of the nineteenth century industrial workplace cooperatives in the United States.

Durham’s Initiative to “Repower our Schools” with Solar

I’ve often heard the advice “play to your strengths and manage your weaknesses”. We have a chance to do that here for NC public school students. We all know the weaknesses:
• Lack of funds results in our being 47th in teacher pay and 48th in per student spending
• Over 50,000 students miss school due to asthma resulting at least partially from air pollution
• Math and science classes often fail to connect to real world issues leaving students disengaged and confused
• High drop-out rates leave many youth ill prepared for the work force.

But here’s a surprising strength:
NC has abundant wind resources and ranks tenth in the nation in solar installations.

Renewable energy is the strength that could manage all of these weaknesses.
A coalition of NC groups is spearheading a campaign to “Repower Our Schools” with 100% renewable energy and Durham is one of two target cities for this initiative.

While most of our wind energy is located at the mountains and the coast we in the Piedmont have plenty of sun and if we play to our strength it is estimated we could save a million dollars over 30 years on school energy costs, freeing up those funds for teacher pay and classroom needs. We’d be improving air quality and student health by replacing dirty, unhealthy coal energy while providing an on-site resource for the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) curriculum helping students see real applications of what they are learning and building a future work force of engaged, inspired learners. This project would also help further Durham’s goal of reducing its carbon footprint which we signed on to as part of the Cool Cities campaign.

We have a real choice. We can continue to spend increasing amounts every year for electricity for our schools generated by coal which causes devastation to the areas it is mined in through mountain top removal (blowing up mountains), devastation to our health by releasing mercury and other toxins into the air, and devastation to our water from coal ash spills. It keeps us subject to the choices of the largest corporate source of carbon pollution on the planet (Duke Energy) and at the mercy of their often unreliable grid. Or we can choose now to invest in a clean energy solution that will improve our air, our water, our health, our schools and ultimately our economy.

Repower Our Schools is a win- win- win for students, Durham and our planet. You can help make it a reality by attending the public meeting at the Main Library on March 7 from 10:30 a.m. – 12 noon. For more information see .

Betsy Bickel is a resident of Durham and interested in alternative energy issues.

Syriza and the Solidarity Economy in Greece – Lessons to Be Learned

by Don Nonini

Most progressives here in the United States know little about Greece, a small country of 10 million people, with approximately the same population as North Carolina. They know even less about Syriza, the new party now in power whose leader Alexis Tsipras has become the Prime Minister after the January 25 elections of this year. Why should we pay attention to Syriza, and what’s going down in Greece today?

Prior to the January 25 elections, Syriza has become best known in the world press for its anti-austerity policies in which it demanded the renegotiation of the onerous loan conditions imposed on Greece by fiat by the Troika of the IMF, European Central Bank, and the European Commission with the compliance of conservative Greek governments beginning in May 2010. Five years of such loans by these neoliberal transnational loan sharks have led to massive unemployment (26% of the Greek workforce and 50% of Greek youths are unemployed), wages have fallen by 38% since 2009 and pensions by 45%, the GDP has gone down by 25%, 32% of all Greeks fall below the poverty line and 33% have no national health insurance. There have been huge cutbacks in government benefit programs in pensions, healthcare, and education. During the winters, Athenians who can’t afford to pay for heating oil have cut down and burned trees within the city to keep warm (New York Times February 3, 2013). Huge privatization projects forced through by the Troika in Greece like the Canadian-owned El Dorado Goldmine in Halkidiki have led to widespread despoliation of the Greek environment.


As a result, there has been almost universal misery among Greeks. The only exceptions have been the few extraordinarily wealthy Greek oligarch families and the political elites of past Greek governments who together played a major role in bringing about the debt crisis through systematic tax evasion, capital flight, and corruption. The large initial debt burden brought about by these abuses has been multiplied several times over by the Troika and conservative Greek governments who have imposed such austerity measures on the Greek population, which has led to an economic depression. To claim that most ordinary Greeks had any role in making these decisions would be an outlandish libel. For its part, Syriza promises to end such compliance with Troika demands, which the new Greek Minister of Finance, Yanis Varoufakis, has aptly called “fiscal waterboarding,” by insisting on the renegotiation of these loans and requiring a haircut for wealthy European, especially German, creditors, while allowing the Greek population to recover. What happens to Greece under Syriza government matters to us in the US for several reasons.


First, Syriza members of Parliament and other members of the party have been active in promoting many of the local and regional institutions which are alternatives that progressives support here in the US, but unlike many people in the US, Syriza leaders see these new institutions as part of a national movement. These include more than 400 organizations – worker and consumer cooperatives, food solidarity centers and social kitchens providing food to those who are hungry, free health clinics, legal aid centers, “without middlemen” markets selling discounted farmers’ produce directly to eaters, and many related organizations. Almost all those who lead and staff these organizations are members of Syriza. Since 2012, Syriza’s MPs have voted to give 20% of their monthly salaries to a solidarity fund to support these activities, while many MPs individually have contributed even more. Although many of these institutions have come into existence out of sheer necessity, along with others such as factory takeovers, local currencies and barter exchanges, they could provide the basis of the civil society support which will make possible Syriza’s capacity to sustain the Greek people in the face of what almost certainly will be a ferocious and vindictive onslaught by the Troika to force Greece to maintain the austerity policies that have led the Greek people to pauperization and misery.

Second, what Syriza and its civil society organizations are now attempting to do is providing great encouragement to anti-austerity parties elsewhere in Western Europe, such as the Podemos (“We Can”) party in Spain, which is rapidly becoming an important electoral force with its anti-austerity program. In fact, what Syriza is not only calling for but also attempting to implement is a European-wide political movement against the neoliberal policies of austerity by the Troika, which Syriza correctly sees as not only a violation of human values, but also as having co-opted and destroyed democratic institutions at the popular level in Greece and elsewhere in Europe.

Third, and as a warning to some people in the US who are more alarmed about racist intimidation and xenophobia than they are concerned about class-based social injustice, it is abundantly clear that if Syriza as ruling party fails in in its current efforts to institute the new anti-austerity measures it has promised (e.g., cancellation of a major part of the debt, increase in wage and pension levels, subsidies for rents, provision of free electricity and food for hundreds of thousands of households now going without), then the next predictable step in the political process for Greece and elsewhere where the EU led austerity programs have been imposed is the election of extreme-right governments and the rise of fascism. The Golden Dawn party, the Greek fascist party, came in third in the January 25 elections. In the event of Syriza’s failure, Golden Dawn will be its logical successor, and a very different kind of Europe-wide encouragement of movements – of fascist ones instead – will occur. This is something that should concern all of us.

Syriza has a hard road to follow. In addition to holding off the Troika, and reducing the intense social misery of the Greek population through its civil society programs, it also needs to lead Greece in reforming institutions that have been abused by oligarchs and political elites for years (e.g., tax evasion, corruption in public service) in concert with EU neoliberal policies, if Greece is going to survive as a democracy. Within Syriza the dangers of troika attempts to co-opt the party leadership are real. As one Syriza MP put it, “This means that we need to be careful within the party. In Marxist terms: class struggles are everywhere, even inside the party.”
Nonetheless, the Syriza leadership and the Greek people appear to be up to the challenge, well aware of the risks involved, and of what is at stake. It will be crucial in the weeks, months, and years ahead for American progressives to show solidarity with their efforts.

For more information: see Jon Henley, “Greece’s Solidarity Movement: ‘It’s a Whole New Model – and It’s Working’” at and Greek Independent News at

Don Nonini is a member of Communecos, and a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Standard disclaimer: his views do not represent those of the University of North Carolina (in part because he has better things to do).

Sandy goes dumpster-diving

So it is Monday morning after Duke’s 2013 commencement weekend – and I put on old clothes and running shoes and head for campus. A year ago an outing on this day produced a windfall [3 carloads] of free perfectly good items from student dorm rooms that we rescued from campus dumpsters and sold at Recyclique: fans, books, mirrors, rugs, coolers, etc., whatever did not fit on the plane, had been put in big clear plastic bags and pitched. Many were just stacked outside the dumpsters, which were overflowing.  

So I get to East Campus, and realize that things are different this year. Only one dumpster has useful stuff leaning against it, but most are either emptied or have been replaced with lockable compression type units. West campus too.  Nada. Only one potential target: a gigantic construction-type dumpster on East filled to the brim with big plastic bags of dorm stuff.  So I ease around to the side near the bushes, climb up to the rim and begin to pick out items.  Less than five minutes and a Duke campus policeman appears out of nowhere: “Can I help you?” 

So without hesitation (or reflection) I lied: “I’m looking for a book.” 

“For a book?” he repeated with skeptical eyes, as if to say, tell me another one. So I did.

“Yeah, I threw it away by accident.”

“What kind of book?”

“It was an art book.”

“An art book?”

“Well I don’t remember the author, but I know it’s in a bag on this side.”

“Do you have any connection with Duke?”

“Yes, I’m a Duke alumnus.  I’m an anthropologist. I teach at UNC. “ (at least that part was true).

At which point, he begins to be nice, explaining that Duke does not allow people to go through dumpsters, but says I can get my book, and he walks away.

So I climb back up, retrieve “a book” and a couple of small items, and slink back to my car.  But I have a plan:  I will come back after 5 pm, I resolve, when this guy has gone home.

So it turned out that Trinity Heights was full of good pickin’s anyway from people moving out of student houses who were leaving piles of furniture and household items on the curb. I score two strong metal shelf units, a wood bookcase, a brass hat stand, a storage ottoman, a floor lamp, and beaucaup small stuff.  Not bad at all.  I unloaded it at the shop and spent the afternoon working on other things.  But that giant construction dumpster was still lurking in my consciousness.

Come 5:30 pm, I resolved to give it another try.  I parked at a bit of a distance from the dumpster, walked around to the side covered by bushes, and climbed up again. Less than two minutes, and snap!  The same campus cop pops up out of nowhere. Must have had the dumpster staked out.  

“Still looking for that book?” he says to me with a glib smile.

So I jump down and tell the truth, my name, that I’m with Recyclique, that I’m completely bummed that my timing was so bad this year, and that he is not going to let me retrieve useful things that will soon be dumped in a landfill. He sympathizes, and tells me TROSA was on campus all weekend reaping donations before stuff got trashed.  He gave me his card – Officer Eric L. Hester – and offered to help me get on a list of charities for next year. I am pleased at least to hear some recycling is happening on campus.  Then Officer Hester tilted his head at me and said, “You’re not really an alumnus are you?”

“I am, in fact, class of “78” and I really teach anthropology at UNC too.” I insist. 

He seems to believe me, but gives me a certain kind of look.  I can almost see the gears turning in there as he ponders what on earth happened to the value of a Duke degree that alumni can be reduced to going through dumpsters.  I wanted to explain.  But it seemed too complicated, so I thanked him and drove home.

Visualizing your Water Usage

Visualizing your Water Usage,   by GKay Bishop


The City of Durham water utility measures your usage in cubic ft.

Your bill shows the equivalent in gallons.

The water bill is calculated over a period of about two months.

How much water do you use every day? Every week?

What if you had to pump your water and carry it a mile, like many women do in Africa?


Here are some rough calculations based on one person’s typical usage.




Tasks per week

Gallons per week

Gallons per year

est gals per day







Load of laundry






Dishwasher load












Surface cleaning






Toilet flush






Wash hands












(your totals here)







45 gallons a day is moderate use for an industrialized country.

But water weighs 8.8 pounds per gallon. 45 gallons is nearly 400 pounds.

How would you haul 400 pounds over a mile or two every day?


Maybe you would decide to use less water?


Note that toilet flushing is about one-third of the total.

One third of your drinking water goes down the toilet. There is something wrong with this picture.

Makes a good case for composting toilets doesn’t it?


Or it would if you had to lift and carry that water yourself.

9 of those 5-gallon water bottles every day, per person? Whew! That is some kind of heavy lifting!

And this does not factor in the need to can food, water livestock or water a garden.


Of course, there is an intermediate way to picture less dependence on petroleum-based water delivery systems.


Suppose we lived in household clusters of 5 to 7 housing units per compound.

                      Cafeteria-style cooking, canning, and dishwashing more water-use efficient and just as convenient.

                      Central laundry facility with industrial-quality washing machines that reduce water use yet process double or triple loads.

                      Greywater from washing machines and dishwashing discharged into tree nursery.

                      Solar thermal steam room and bath house with Japanese-style family bathing pools.

                      Blackwater from bathing filtered by constructed wetlands.


Something to think about.

A Nation That’s Losing Its Toolbox


Michael Falco for The New York Times

Displays at Home Depot and other stores offer quick lessons in home projects. But they may also be a sign that mastering tools and working with one’s hands are receding as American cultural values.

Published: July 21, 2012
Michael Falco for The New York Times

Easy-to-use flooring was stocked at a store in New Rochelle.

Michael Falco for The New York Times

Don Yadda, a sales representative for the Home Depot, visited a job site in Larchmont, N.Y., where windows were being installed.

THE scene inside the Home Depot on Weyman Avenue here would give the old-time American craftsman pause.

In Aisle 34 is precut vinyl flooring, the glue already in place. In Aisle 26 are prefab windows. Stacked near the checkout counters, and as colorful as a Fisher-Price toy, is a not-so-serious-looking power tool: a battery-operated saw-and-drill combo. And if you don’t want to be your own handyman, head to Aisle 23 or Aisle 35, where a help desk will arrange for an installer.

It’s all very handy stuff, I guess, a convenient way to be a do-it-yourselfer without being all that good with tools. But at a time when the American factory seems to be a shrinking presence, and when good manufacturing jobs have vanished, perhaps never to return, there is something deeply troubling about this dilution of American craftsmanship.

This isn’t a lament — or not merely a lament — for bygone times. It’s a social and cultural issue, as well as an economic one. The Home Depot approach to craftsmanship — simplify it, dumb it down, hire a contractor — is one signal that mastering tools and working with one’s hands is receding in America as a hobby, as a valued skill, as a cultural influence that shaped thinking and behavior in vast sections of the country.

That should be a matter of concern in a presidential election year. Yet neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney promotes himself as tool-savvy presidential timber, in the mold of a Jimmy Carter, a skilled carpenter and cabinet maker.

The Obama administration does worry publicly about manufacturing, a first cousin of craftsmanship. When the Ford Motor Company, for example, recently announced that it was bringing some production home, the White House cheered. “When you see things like Ford moving new production from Mexico to Detroit, instead of the other way around, you know things are changing,” says Gene B. Sperling, director of the National Economic Council.

Ask the administration or the Republicans or most academics why America needs more manufacturing, and they respond that manufacturing spawns innovation, brings down the trade deficit, strengthens the dollar, generates jobs, arms the military and kindles a recovery from recession. But rarely, if ever, do they publicly take the argument a step further, asserting that a growing manufacturing sector encourages craftsmanship and that craftsmanship is, if not a birthright, then a vital ingredient of the American self-image as a can-do, inventive, we-can-make-anything people.

That self-image is deteriorating. And the symptoms go far beyond Home Depot. They show up in the wistful popularity of books like “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” by Matthew B. Crawford, in TV cooking classes featuring the craftsmanship of celebrity chefs, and in shows like “This Old House.”

Traditional vocational training in public high schools is gradually declining, stranding thousands of young people who seek training for a craft without going to college. Colleges, for their part, have since 1985 graduated fewer chemical, mechanical, industrial and metallurgical engineers, partly in response to the reduced role of manufacturing, a big employer of them.

The decline started in the 1950s, when manufacturing generated a hefty 28 percent of the national income, or gross domestic product, and employed one-third of the work force. Today, factory output generates just 12 percent of G.D.P. and employs barely 9 percent of the nation’s workers.

Mass layoffs and plant closings have drawn plenty of headlines and public debate over the years, and they still occasionally do. But the damage to skill and craftsmanship — what’s needed to build a complex airliner or a tractor, or for a worker to move up from assembler to machinist to supervisor — went largely unnoticed.

“In an earlier generation, we lost our connection to the land, and now we are losing our connection to the machinery we depend on,” says Michael Hout, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “People who work with their hands,” he went on, “are doing things today that we call service jobs, in restaurants and laundries, or in medical technology and the like.”

That’s one explanation for the decline in traditional craftsmanship. Lack of interest is another. The big money is in fields like finance. Starting in the 1980s, skill in finance grew in stature, and, as depicted in the news media and the movies, became a more appealing source of income.

By last year, Wall Street traders, bankers and those who deal in real estate generated 21 percent of the national income, double their share in the 1950s. And Warren E. Buffett, the amiable financier, became a homespun folk hero, without the tools and overalls.

“Young people grow up without developing the skills to fix things around the house,” says Richard T. Curtin, director of the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers. “They know about computers, of course, but they don’t know how to build them.”

Manufacturing’s shrinking presence undoubtedly helps explain the decline in craftsmanship, if only because many of the nation’s assembly line workers were skilled in craft work, if not on the job then in their spare time. In a late 1990s study of blue-collar employees at a General Motors plant (now closed) in Linden, N.J., the sociologist Ruth Milkman of City University of New York found that many line workers, in their off-hours, did home renovation and other skilled work.

“I have often thought,” Ms. Milkman says, “that these extracurricular jobs were an effort on the part of the workers to regain their dignity after suffering the degradation of repetitive assembly line work in the factory.”

Craft work has higher status in nations like Germany, which invests in apprenticeship programs for high school students. “Corporations in Germany realized that there was an interest to be served economically and patriotically in building up a skilled labor force at home; we never had that ethos,” says Richard Sennett, a New York University sociologist who has written about the connection of craft and culture.

The damage to American craftsmanship seems to parallel the precipitous slide in manufacturing employment. Though the decline started in the 1970s, it became much steeper beginning in 2000. Since then, some 5.3 million jobs, or one-third of the work force in manufacturing, have been lost. A stated goal of the Obama administration is to restore a big chunk of this employment, along with the multitude of skills that many of the jobs required.

And there is an incipient upturn in the monthly employment data, although the president will almost certainly finish his first term with the manufacturing work force well below the 12.6 million it was when his administration began. (It was nearly 11.9 million last month.)

“We sit in rooms with manufacturers who tell us that location decisions to move overseas that were previously automatic are now a close call, and that the right policies can make a difference,” Mr. Sperling says.

THAT is particularly the case if federal, state and local governments intervene with generous subsidies, like those seen in China, Germany, Japan, France, India and other countries eager to sustain manufacturing.

Government subsidies are helping to make manufacturing in America more attractive, but the turnaround may be hard to sustain. And it may be too late. Big multinationals already operate factory networks in Europe and Asia, as well as in the United States. Stepping up exports to those markets from the United States, rather than producing in them, is becoming less of an option — short of an international agreement like the Plaza Accord of 1985, which realigned currencies and gave American manufacturers a temporary boost.

As for craftsmanship itself, the issue is how to preserve it as a valued skill in the general population. Ms. Milkman, the sociologist, argues that American craftsmanship isn’t disappearing as quickly as some would argue — that it has instead shifted to immigrants. “Pride in craft, it is alive in the immigrant world,” she says.

Sol Axelrod, 37, the manager of the Home Depot here, fittingly learned to fix his own car as a teenager, even changing the brakes. Now he finds immigrant craftsmen gathered in abundance outside his store in the early morning, waiting for it to open so they can buy supplies for the day’s work as contractors. Skilled day laborers, also mostly immigrants, wait quietly in hopes of being hired by the contractors.

Mr. Axelrod also says the recession and persistently high unemployment have forced many people to try to save money by doing more themselves, and Home Depot in response offers classes in fixing faucets and other simple repairs. The teachers are store employees, many of them older and semiretired from a skilled trade, or laid off.

“Our customers may not be building cabinets or outdoor decks; we try to do that for them,” Mr. Axelrod says, “but some are trying to build up skill so they can do more for themselves in these hard times.”

A version of this article appeared in print on July 22, 2012, on page BU1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Nation That’s Losing Its Toolbox.

What is Odious Debt?

Why Icelanders Have A Case for Repudiating It

No to Odious Debt!

On April 16, 2011, the voters of Iceland, a small country of 320,000 people north of the Arctic Circle best known for its fishing fleet  and sagas literature, rejected by a 60% vote an agreement that the Icelandic government and thus the population itself be held responsible for repaying the debt of Icesave.   Icesave was a scheme in which several billion euros were borrowed by Iceland’s three largest banksfrom British and Dutch creditors.  However, these three big banks collapsed in the wake of the 2008 world financial crisis.   Had Icelanders voted for the agreement, each citizen of Iceland would have owed almost $18,000to British and Dutch banks!Nonetheless, upon hearing of the popular vote, British and Dutch bankers and government ministers were irate.

Were the Icelanders just free-loaders and cheats who refused to pay the legitimate debt which the Icelandic population owe to the investment banks and high-rolling creditors of Britain and the Netherlands?   Perhaps not!  A case can be made that this debt is odious or illegitimate, and Icelanders have the democratic and  legal right to repudiate it.

What is “Odious Debt”?

Odious debt is a principle of international law that states that no people or its current government should be required to pay debt previously incurred  under  “odious” or illegitimate conditions.   First claimed by the U.S. government in to repudiate the “odious debt”of Cuba to Spain claimed after the Spanish-American War of 1898, it has become an important legal concept.  It was most recently used by the post-apartheid South Africa to repudiate debt  incurred by the  white supremacist and authoritarian South African regime before  its overthrow in 1994.

What are the conditions that make a debt odious?

  • Debt  incurred without the consent  or knowledge of the people who are supposed to owe it, as in the case of loans taken out by an unaccountable or previously undemocratic government
  • Debt taken out for purposes that do not benefit the people or may even harm them, e.g., looting the public treasury or repressing the people
  • How this happens today: debt taken out under conditions of “moral hazard”: where lenders are confident that  they will be “bailed out” by a government at public expense if the principal debtors (e.g., the 3 Icelandic banks) refuse to repay

The Case for the Icelandic People:Repudiating Odious Debt

  • “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” — The debt was incurred through the three large privately held banks (Landsbanki, Kaupthing, and Glitner) through secret dealswith  Icelandic Central Bank officials and government ministers, who with their cronies received generous loans from the banks, andallowed the banks themselves to report on their own financial condition (“the fox guarding the chicken coop” syndrome).   The banks were organized in ways to deceive the  people and hide their own fragility (“the banks established elaborate carousels of co-owned companies in places like Luxembourg, the Isle of Man,the British Virgin Islands, even Cuba, that bought each other’s shares  and leveraged up each other’s balance sheets. “ – R. Wade and S. Sigurgeirsdottir 2010).  Since 2008, criminal and civil charges have been pressed against bank managers and government officials for fraud and corruption.  Thus, most of the details of the debt were concealed from the Icelandic people and incurred without their knowledge or consent.
  • “Raiding the public treasury” — Despite the fragile condition of these banks, the managers of these banks gave themselves huge bonuses in the years leading up to the 2008 crisis.  Knowing the probability that the Icelandic government would have to pick up the bill if the banks failed, this was basically a pre-emptive looting of the public treasury.  Meanwhile during the same years,  bank brokers  criss-crossed Iceland and enticed Icelanders to take on even greater personal debt through speculative currency trades whose risks  the latter could not evaluate for themselves, thus engaging in fraud.  These practices harmed the Icelandic people.
  • “Socialism for bankers, capitalism for everyone else” — Icelandic bankers and government officials, along with the British and Dutch investment banks and ministers who set up the borrowing mechanismof Icesave, assumed that in the event these bank failed, the Icelandic people would be liable for any debt.   (“Governments’ dependence on the financial sector, and mood of self-congratulation, led them to signal that they would use state revenues to bail out large financial organizations that made ill-judged investment decisions.  .  . Financiers became confident that ‘we won’t face the downside if we screw up’. They modeled stress tests for only modest levels of difficulty since, as one British banker put it, ‘the authorities would have to step in anyway’ in the event of trouble’.”  – R. Wade and S. Sigurgeirsdottir 2010).    The assumption by banking and governing elites in all these countries was that if bankers’ speculations failed, the people would be required to pick up the bill – not the banks themselves.

Bringing it All Home

  • Peoples of countries in the Global North  are now joining peoples of the global South in being pressed to  repay odious debt.     Will Icelanders be joined by the Greek, Portuguese, and Italian peoples in refusing to pay for debts incurred by the anti-democratic, secretive and harmful practices of their governments?
  • Question:  Is odious debt limited to the national level?   Can individuals and households also be the victims of odious debt?

To Read More About Odious Debt and Iceland’s Vote

1. Jubilee USA, “The Concept of Odious Debt,”

2. Robert Wade and SillaSigurgeirsdottir, “Lessons from Iceland,”  New Left Review 65, Sept-Oct. 2010

3. “Iceland voters reject Icesave agreement.”