The old, the filthy, and the decrepit

U.S. Steel has facilities in several locations around the Pittsburgh area, mostly along the Monongahela River, but the two major ones I see are the Clairton Coke Works and the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock and North Braddock. These plants frighten me; they are huge, old, filthy, and decrepit. They look horrible, like something out of a nightmare.

There’s another one closer to where I live that I can’t see much of even as I drive by; the Irvin plant is hidden from my view by terrain and trees. Geographically, it lies between the other two plants. It has a sign that always offers jobs. Frankly, it scares me too, in part because of what I see of the other two, in part because I suspect the worst dangers are the ones I can’t see.

The one in Clairton belches enormous quantities of, I hope, mostly steam. The one in Braddock, a little ways downstream along the Monongahela River, never looks like anything is happening in it but I’m pretty sure such appearances are misleading. Update, February 25, 2020: I finally got a view of the one in Braddock from across the river. From that vantage point, I could see that it was pumping plenty of (like the plant in Clairton), I hope, mostly steam into the air.

Paradoxically, the plants in Clairton and Braddock are emblazoned with signs that say “CITE,” spelling out the acronym as “Continuous Improvement To Environment.”

Once again, the air near U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works has hit a Code Red, meaning particulates and ozone are in excess of 150 on the federal air quality index and deemed unhealthy for all who breathe it.

While it’s especially bad in the Mon Valley, since Saturday morning, people in Greenfield, Squirrel Hill and throughout the city have been reporting bad-smelling air on Carnegie Mellon’s Smell Pittsburgh app.

“A lot of frequent reports are saying it smells like rotten eggs, and that’s usually associated with hydrogen sulfide that is associated with burning coal of coke making,” [Matthew] Mahalik said.[1]

These plants also offer some of the few well-paying jobs for the working class in Pittsburgh. People take them, however, at no small risk to their health.

This is a pattern I’ve seen over and over: Capitalism hires bodies—not minds—and treats those bodies as expendable resources. When the bodies are broken or worn out, the people—bodies and minds together—are cast out, often with only the loosest weave of a threadbare social safety net to rely on.

That treatment bares more than a passing resemblance to how we treat dairy cows and egg-laying hens.[2]

Meanwhile, neighbors suffer the consequences, particularly around Clairton. This plant is the one I mostly hear about in the time I have been back here and it attracts national coverage.[3] Apparently both the plants in Clairton and Braddock will be covered by the settlement with Allegheny County, so improvements should be on the way,[4] but I’m not surprised that folks are skeptical.[5] Because these are the sort of facilities that, at least to my California eye, shouldn’t even exist.

But they do exist, of course, in places where poor people live, where many Black people live.

  1. [1]Andy Sheehan, “Air Quality In Mon Valley Once Again Hits Unhealthy Levels,” KDKA, February 24, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/02/24/mon-valley-air-quality-unhealthy-levels/
  2. [2]Greta Gaard, “Vegetarian Ecofeminism: A Review Essay,” Frontiers 23, no. 3 (2002): 117-146.
  3. [3]Jessi Quinn Alperin, “Clairton, PA, wants to be clear: Residents demand accountability from U.S. Steel,” Environmental Health News, May 13, 2019,
    https://www.ehn.org/clairton-coke-works-air-pollution-2636784943.html; Ollie Gratzinger, “Allegheny County issues another fine to US Steel for air pollution violation,” Pittsburgh City Paper, January 17, 2020, https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/allegheny-county-issues-another-fine-to-us-steel-for-air-pollution-violation/Content?oid=16576925; KDKA, “Allegheny Co. Health Department Joins Federal Suit Against U.S. Steel,” June 18, 2019, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2019/06/18/allegheny-county-health-department-suit-against-us-steel/; KDKA, “‘It’s Making Clairton Sick’: Poor Air Quality Impacting Clairton, Liberty Areas,” December 23, 2019, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2019/12/23/air-quality-impacting-clairton-liberty-areas/; Kris Maher, “U.S. Steel Suffers New Fire Knocking Out Pollution Controls in Plant Near Pittsburgh,” Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-steel-suffers-new-fire-knocking-out-pollution-controls-in-plant-near-pittsburgh-11560795102; Andy Sheehan, “Air Quality In Mon Valley Once Again Hits Unhealthy Levels,” KDKA, February 24, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/02/24/mon-valley-air-quality-unhealthy-levels/; Teghan Simonton, “Health department: Air pollution in Mon Valley exceeded federal levels over Christmas,” TribLive, December 27, 2019, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/health-department-air-pollution-in-mon-valley-exceeded-federal-levels-over-christmas/
  4. [4]Jamie Martines, “U.S. Steel to hold info sessions about Clairton, Braddock plant upgrades,” TribLive, January 27, 2020, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/u-s-steel-to-hold-info-sessions-about-clairton-braddock-plant-upgrades/; Jamie Martines, “U.S. Steel, Allegheny County finalize Clairton Coke Works emissions settlement,” TribLive, February 10, 2020, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/u-s-steel-and-allegheny-county-finalize-clairton-coke-works-emissions-settlement/; WTAE, “U.S. Steel, health department have deal to settle 2018 air pollution violations at Clairton Coke Works,” June 28, 2019, https://www.wtae.com/article/us-steel-reaches-agreement-with-health-department-to-resolve-enforcement-orders-at-clairton-coke-works/28221648
  5. [5]Andy Sheehan, “Air Quality In Mon Valley Once Again Hits Unhealthy Levels,” KDKA, February 24, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/02/24/mon-valley-air-quality-unhealthy-levels/

Academic meritocracy and the U.S. presidential campaign

In an article superficially about Pete Buttigieg, Oliver Traldi makes a number of interesting points about the meritocracy at the heart of academia. None of this reflects well on anyone, except perhaps Traldi himself, for calling it all out.[1]

It’s a little harder to say what’s actually at work here. Because Traldi works from the commentaries of folks who have achieved some measure of success themselves, and then criticizes them for highlighting that measure of success:

One popular Twitter user tweeted some months ago: “Pete Buttigieg reminds me of every reason I decided not to apply to Harvard in spite of being both a legacy and a recruited athlete.” (Her bio mentions that she attended Princeton.) A fellow Harvard graduate now working at a prestigious magazine and lecturing at Yale commented on a specific essay about Buttigieg: “My favorite part of this Buttigieg Bildungsprofil is the throwaway paragraph about taking a holiday from McKinsey to go to Somaliland as a tourist in 2008, and talking to officials there as part of his vacation. I went there in 2002, but instead of talking to officials I performed Tuvan throat-singing on Radio Hargeisa, and instead of writing about it for the IHT, I wrote for a magazine published only in Basque. Here you see why Mayor Pete summitted [sic] the meritocracy ziggurat and I did not.” Tuvan throat-singing and writing fluency in Basque — talk about a throwaway paragraph![2]

One problem is immediately apparent. Our Basque-fluent Tuvan throat-singer has a cultural experience that is somewhat different (I’ll leave to Basques and Tuvans the question of authenticity) from Buttigieg’s conversations with elites. Yes, the former calls attention to that distinction, but Traldi falsely equates the two.

Traldi isn’t entirely wrong. Academia is meritocratic and hierarchical to its core. Grades, for example. The sequence from freshman to senior to post-graduate, for another. Adjuncts to assistant professors to full professors to deans to provosts to college presidents, for yet another. The sequence of degrees, from the high school diploma, to an Associate’s, to a Bachelor’s, to a Master’s, to a Doctoral, and within the latter, any other terminal degree to a Ph.D.

That false equivalence, however, is what ultimately undermines Traldi’s essay:

Supporters of other candidates and commentators at large have found a lot of reasons to dislike [Pete] Buttigieg — his rhetoric, his record, and so on. But, among professors on Twitter and media personnel, no motive seems to be as widespread as this: He reminds them of someone they hated in college.[3]

Why did “we” hate them? Because their achievements lack a certain sense of real life that “we” have lived. But Traldi dismisses that experience as as a “throwaway paragraph.”

Traldi concludes by writing,

And isn’t there something in the very inappropriateness and intimacy of the disdain with which these journalists and professors inveigh against Buttigieg that speaks well of college? That all these different sorts of people have to sit next to each other, competing against each other for grades and internships and romantic partners, before the great sorting mechanisms of adulthood push the future McKinsey consultants to one corner, the future magazine writers to another, and so on? What an institution — and no wonder the rivalries it engenders remain so tender, so primal, even when we’re all grown up and playing at running the world.[4]

The trouble is that these successes are not equivalent. When we speak of the Clintons or of Barack Obama or even of Buttigieg, to say nothing of the high tech assholes who attended Stanford only to network in the way that rich people do,[5] then dropped out to form high tech companies that are arguably ruining our world,[6] we are speaking of power over others, both political and economic, a distinction that is all about the caste system in our society, in which some can achieve that power, and nearly all others are systematically excluded from it.[7]

In his defense of Buttigieg, Traldi not only confounds widely different forms of success, but misses entirely what animates support for Bernie Sanders and disdain for so-called “centrists” in the Democratic Party. It isn’t just that neoliberalism has left so many people behind, sometimes at the expense of their lives.[8] It is that it means to do so.[9]

  1. [1]Oliver Traldi, “Why Academics Love to Hate Mayor Pete,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 21, 2020, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-Academics-Love-to-Hate/248101
  2. [2]Oliver Traldi, “Why Academics Love to Hate Mayor Pete,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 21, 2020, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-Academics-Love-to-Hate/248101
  3. [3]Oliver Traldi, “Why Academics Love to Hate Mayor Pete,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 21, 2020, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-Academics-Love-to-Hate/248101
  4. [4]Oliver Traldi, “Why Academics Love to Hate Mayor Pete,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 21, 2020, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-Academics-Love-to-Hate/248101
  5. [5]G. William Domhoff, “The American Upper Class,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 156-164
  6. [6]Lia Russell, “The Silicon Valley Economy Is Here. And It’s a Nightmare,” New Republic, January 16, 2020, https://newrepublic.com/article/156202/silicon-valley-economy-here-its-nightmare
  7. [7]John Asimakopoulos, The Political Economy of the Spectacle and Postmodern Caste (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2020); C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University, 2000); Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA, Pine Forge, 2006); Thomas M. Shapiro, ed., Great Divides, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005).
  8. [8]Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Oxford, UK: Oxford University, 2013); Amir Fleischmann, “The Myth of the Fiscal Conservative,” Jacobin, March 5, 2017, https://jacobinmag.com/2017/03/fiscal-conservative-social-services-austerity-save-money; Jason Hickel, “Progress and its discontents,” New Internationalist, August 7, 2019, https://newint.org/features/2019/07/01/long-read-progress-and-its-discontents; Daniel Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2012); Robert Kuttner, “Austerity never works: Deficit hawks are amoral — and wrong,” Salon, May 5, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/05/05/austerity_never_works_deficit_hawks_are_amoral_and_wrong/; Dennis Loo, Globalization and the Demolition of Society (Glendale, CA: Larkmead, 2011); Thomas Piketty, Jeffrey Sachs, Heiner Flassbeck, Dani Rodrik and Simon Wren-Lewis, “Austerity Has Failed: An Open Letter From Thomas Piketty to Angela Merkel,” Nation, July 6, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/austerity-has-failed-an-open-letter-from-thomas-piketty-to-angela-merkel/; John Quiggin, “Austerity Has Been Tested, and It Failed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 20, 2013, http://chronicle.com/article/Austerity-Has-Been-Tested-and/139255/; David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, “How Austerity Kills,” New York Times, May 12, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/13/opinion/how-austerity-kills.html; David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, “Paul Krugman’s right: Austerity kills,” Salon, May 19, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/05/19/paul_krugmans_right_austerity_kills/
  9. [9]Amir Fleischmann, “The Myth of the Fiscal Conservative,” Jacobin, March 5, 2017, https://jacobinmag.com/2017/03/fiscal-conservative-social-services-austerity-save-money

A tipping point

Since I’ve moved to Pittsburgh, my mother and I have been comparing notes about the weather across country. It hasn’t been that long since I was in California so I pretty much have that picture already.

In California, when I was a kid, and we got to October, we knew it was still fire season, but we could pretty much figure we were in the clear. And we never saw fires like we’ve had in recent years. Read more

Fiction as truth

This is a story that dates back to my Master’s program in Speech Communication, a program that had been taken over by hard, solipsistic post-modernists.

In a lowlight, Grant Kien made a claim that I reduced to “fiction is truth.” I questioned that and Kien warned me not to challenge it, asserting as professors sometimes do when they aren’t really prepared to do so, that he was fully prepared to defend the claim. I, of course, considered the claim ludicrous on its face and sensing that I had made my point, asked, “Why would I do that?” Read more

Ridesharing traffic woes illustrate a defect of (not just) high tech thinking

I have a couple of issues with San Francisco blaming Uber and Lyft for traffic woes, the first being that The City targeted Uber and Lyft drivers for enforcement, thus inflating the statistics they rely upon for blaming those drivers for violations and associated traffic;[1] and the second, applying more generally to survey research that likely has a pathetic response rate[2] but which allegedly informs us as to people’s transportation usage and not just in San Francisco. All that said, the contributions of Uber and Lyft to horrendous traffic in big cities are, by now, old news.[3] Read more

  1. [1]David Benfell, “San Francisco’s war on Uber and Lyft drivers,” Not Housebroken, September 27, 2017, https://disunitedstates.org/2017/09/27/san-franciscos-war-on-uber-and-lyft-drivers/
  2. [2]Courtney Kennedy and Hannah Hartig, “Response rates in telephone surveys have resumed their decline,” Pew Research Center, February 27, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/02/27/response-rates-in-telephone-surveys-have-resumed-their-decline/
  3. [3]Emily Badger, “Is Uber Helping or Hurting Mass Transit?” New York Times, October 16, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/16/upshot/is-uber-helping-or-hurting-mass-transit.html; Laura Bliss, “How Much Traffic Do Uber and Lyft Cause?” CityLab, August 5, 2019, https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2019/08/uber-lyft-traffic-congestion-ride-hailing-cities-drivers-vmt/595393/; Katie Dowd, “Why is San Francisco traffic so bad? Uber and Lyft are to blame, says city,” SFGate, December 13, 2016, http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/San-Francisco-traffic-Uber-Lyft-SFMTA-blame-10791265.php; Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, “SFPD: Uber, Lyft account for two-thirds of congestion-related traffic violations downtown,” San Francisco Examiner, September 25, 2017, http://www.sfexaminer.com/sfpd-uber-lyft-account-two-thirds-congestion-related-traffic-violations-downtown/; Faiz Siddiqui, “A new study says services like UberPool are making traffic worse,” Washington Post, July 25, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/dr-gridlock/wp/2018/07/25/a-new-study-says-services-like-uberpool-are-making-traffic-worse/; Heather Somerville, “San Francisco investigating whether Uber, Lyft are public nuisances,” Reuters, June 5, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-san-francisco-rideservices-idUSKBN18W2F3

The Democrats don’t need ‘election interference’

I have previously commented on what we can now say is a botched count of the Iowa Democratic Party caucuses.[1] That count has now ground to a halt without the Associated Press reporting final results[2] and the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) is reviewing the results from 95 precincts that were flagged by campaigns. None of the campaigns have requested a ‘recanvass’[3] that might actually correct mathematical errors and inconsistencies such as those found by the New York Times. The campaigns would have to pay for it,[4] which is to say that the campaigns would have to pay to correct errors made by volunteers working for the Democratic Party. Read more

  1. [1]David Benfell, “Neoliberal hubris and the Iowa fiasco,” Not Housebroken, February 5, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/02/05/neoliberal-hubris-and-the-iowa-fiasco/
  2. [2]Associated Press, “Iowa Elections Results,” February 7, 2020, https://elections.ap.org/dailykos/results/2020-02-03/state/IA/race/P/raceid/17275; Associated Press, “Iowa Elections Results,” February 7, 2020, https://elections.ap.org/dailykos/results/2020-02-03/state/IA/race/P/raceid/17278
  3. [3]Zach Montellaro, “Iowa Democratic Party reviewing results from 95 precincts,” Politico, February 8, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/02/08/iowa-democratic-party-reviewing-results-112532
  4. [4]Nate Cohn, “New Doubts From Iowa Caucuses: How ‘Satellite’ Votes Are Being Measured,” New York Times, February 6, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/06/upshot/iowa-caucus-satellite-votes.html; Nate Cohn et al., “Iowa Caucus Results Riddled With Errors and Inconsistencies,” New York Times, February 6, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/06/upshot/iowa-caucuses-errors-results.html; Isaac Stanley-Becker, “DNC chair calls for recanvass in Iowa,” Washington Post, February 6, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/dnc-chair-calls-for-recanvas-in-iowa/2020/02/06/0ec4dc4c-4906-11ea-9164-d3154ad8a5cd_story.html

Bipartisan ‘meritocracy’ and ‘vote Blue no matter who’

I’ve already called it “[t]he stupidest impeachment ever, historically notable first for all the offenses it failed to charge Donald Trump with,[1] second for its utterly predictable futility, and third for its transparent (and apparently failed) attempt to protect Joe Biden.[2][3] But here is the final nail in the coffin: Republican senators wailing about how they hope Donald Trump has learned a lesson.[4]

“He was impeached, and there has been criticism by both Republican and Democratic senators of his call,” [Susan] Collins said in a CBS interview. “I believe that he will be much more cautious in the future.” Read more

  1. [1]David Benfell, “The whiteness of impeachment,” Not Housebroken, December 15, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/12/15/the-whiteness-of-impeachment/; Democracy Now, “Law Professor: Trump Could Also Have Been Impeached for War Crimes, Assassinations and Corruption,” January 24, 2020, https://www.democracynow.org/2020/1/24/donald_trump_senate_impeachment_trial
  2. [2]David Benfell, “It’s still a smoke-filled room,” Not Housebroken, December 6, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/12/06/its-still-a-smoke-filled-room/; David Benfell, “How the neoliberal (usually known as Democratic) party may well lose in 2020,” Not Housebroken, December 7, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/12/07/how-the-neoliberal-usually-known-as-democratic-party-may-well-lose-in-2020/; David Benfell, “The whiteness of impeachment,” Not Housebroken, December 15, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/12/15/the-whiteness-of-impeachment/; David Benfell, “The least violent solution,” Not Housebroken, December 16, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/12/16/the-least-violent-solution/; David Benfell, “The sham (pick your partisan flavor) is on,” Not Housebroken, December 19, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/12/19/the-sham-pick-your-partisan-flavor-is-on/; David Benfell, “The asterisk,” Not Housebroken, December 21, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/12/21/the-asterisk/
  3. [3]David Benfell, “One farce down, one to go,” Irregular Bullshit, February 5, 2020, https://disunitedstates.com/2020/02/05/one-farce-down-one-to-go/
  4. [4]Seung Min Kim, “These Republicans said they hope Trump has learned a lesson from impeachment. He said he hasn’t,” Washington Post, February 5, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/these-republicans-said-they-hope-trump-has-learned-a-lesson-from-impeachment-he-said-he-hasnt/2020/02/04/fa68c18c-478e-11ea-ab15-b5df3261b710_story.html

Neoliberal hubris and the Iowa fiasco

The Iowa Democratic Party caucuses ended in a fiasco with the count.[1] At this writing, over 24 hours later, we still do not have final results. Read more

  1. [1]John McCormick and Ken Thomas, “Democratic Caucus Results in Iowa Thrown Into State of Confusion,” Wall Street Journal, February 4, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/iowa-caucuses-to-kick-off-democratic-nominating-contest-11580731200; Natasha Korecki, David Siders, and Alex Thompson, “‘It’s a total meltdown’: Confusion seizes Iowa as officials struggle to report results,” Politico, February 4, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/02/03/iowa-caucus-2020-election-110600