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Will the red knot bird survive or become another dodo bird?

Posted on November 29th, 2013 in ecology,Nature by Robert Miller
Red knot birds

red knot birds

Several years ago (2010) I wrote an article entitled “The counter-intuitive interconnectedness of species” in which I explained how the red knot (Claidris canutus rufa) bird makes a remarkable, annual journey from Tierra del Fuego (off the southern tip of South America) to the Canadian Arctic where they nest over the short arctic summer and then return home again in the fall. On the way to its arctic stop, the red knot stops along the East coast to feed on eggs laid by the horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus), an ancient, primitive-looking crab, that is indigenous to the shorelines of the East coast. The horseshoe crab has been around for 475 million years, so they have sticking power, despite their seemingly clumsy ways and odd shape. The timing of the red knot arrival coincides with the breeding season of the horseshoe crab who come close to the shore to lay their eggs. The red knot birds have about two weeks to feed on the eggs and build up enough body fat and strength to complete their journey. But the horseshoe crabs are becoming scarce. They not only serve as bait for fisherman in the region, but their blood is used in medicine, as the Limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) is used as a test to detect bacterial endotoxins, for which it is a highly sensitive, unique detection system. Although medical blood-letting is associated with release of the Limulus, a considerable number of the animals die from this experience. A NYT article on the plight of the red knot bird points out that the population of these birds has plummeted by 70 percent since the 1980s. The United States Fish and Wildlife service has proposed to designate the bird as threatened. If the red knot receives this distinction (we apparently will know by Friday), then the government will develop a plan for the bird’s recovery. If so, this will surely involve additional protections for the horseshoe crab, whose diminished numbers have no doubt contributed to the bird’s decline. If use of horseshoe crabs as bait declines through enforcing new limits, the medical use of the crab’s blood is very likely going to increase, given its importance.

Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus)

Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus)

One area where survival improvements could be made is to increase the likelihood that blood letting will be more compatible with crab survival. Some estimates suggest that as many as 20 to 30 percent of the crabs from which blood has been withdrawn do not survive. Since 2004, the demand for horseshoe crab blood has increased by 85 percent.

Given what seems to be a biological event of unique synchronization, biologists worry that global warming mechanisms that may interfere with this dependency (an early spring, such that the birds leave too early, or crabs breed out of sync, the threats of ocean acidity from absorbing carbon dioxide on the life cycle of the crab, changes in the arctic that could effect the breeding grounds of the red knot). One could go on and on with other possibilities. How this interdependency between the horseshoe crab and the red knot got started  is itself a remarkable, but unknown story. If crab shortages continue, will the the red knot be able to find alternative sources of food? Given the huge drop in the red knot population that answer appears to be no.

Another animal impacted by the drop in the horseshoe crab population is the Atlantic loggerhead sea turtle that feed on Limulus: their numbers have been dropping. Harvesting crabs was banned in New Jersey in 2008.

loggerhead sea turtle (from Wikipedia)

The horseshoe crab has played a major role in our understanding of visual physiology; studies of this animal led to one Nobel Prize (1967, awarded to H.K. Hartline, Ragnar Granit and George Wald; Hartline was the Limulus guy).


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What America did to Detroit

Posted on November 23rd, 2013 in Culture,Economy,Government,Politics,Religion by Robert Miller
Dystopian Detroit

Abandoned Packard Plant in Detroit, but it could as well be America’s future

Detroit, America’s greatest industrial city, is currently going through bankruptcy, unable to meet its $ 18-20 billion public debt. If you saw the 60 Minutes piece on Detroit recently, you have some idea about the eery, dystopian city Detroit has become, except perhaps for the immediate downtown region, where financial interests, led by Quicken Loans, helps maintain the illusion of a functional city, adding to the stark differences between the streets of financialized America and those of main street USA. But more than any other American City, the Detroit of today was created by America’s own version of the ‘Four Horseman of the Apocalypse’—no not conquest, war, famine and death—but racism, obsessive fear of communism, conservatism and government participation in the destruction of unions—these four factors have become embedded in America’s past history, though few Americans today understand how and why we destroyed one of our own great cities. It is a classical lesson in American Amnesia (AA), the art of American destruction attended by the complete lack of any public discourse about what we did or why we did it, or connecting some of the more obvious dots. We are best known for American Amnesia through the conduct of our wars—lose and forget or blame the loss on failures at the home front.  But you might think that the destruction of a major American city would get someone’s attention beyond 60 Minutes that is, but so far only the lawyers that handle the bankruptcy proceedings are privy to this history and we can surmise where their interests begin and end. The Detroit of today is a lot like the Korean war of the 1950s. Americans believe that the history of Korea began and ended with the Korean war, the “Forgotten War,” the “Never Understood War,” when in reality it was the first “War of American Amnesia.” Just as the Korean war is a good parallel to America’s treatment of Detroit, it is highly relevant that both histories began at about the same time. The primary American sins that created the Detroit of today, include i) American racism against the black migration during WW II, accompanied by white flight from the city with race riots thrown into the mix; ii) the country’s irrational fear of Communism that took the form of an antilabor movement which emerged during the Cold War in which black progressivism was equated to Communism, iii) the beginnings of a conservative reaction against the New Deal of FDR, stimulated by the business community of America with its epicenter in Detroit and iv) Federal government policies, operating under the anticommunist banner, allowed cheap foreign cars (Japanese to begin with) entry into our automobile market and helped destroy the grip that Detroit had on American automobile manufacturing and sales and with it, their tradition of strong labor union representation. As Ronald Reagan destroyed the New Deal of FDR, he converted the Federal government from pro-labor to anti-labor, such that today the union representation in the private sector has been reduced from 45 to 7 percent of the work force. When foreign automobile manufacturers were forced to build cars in America, they chose right to work states which further eroded union representation among workers and just this year Michigan became a right to work state, which will further erode union representation among the autoworkers, who have already made major concessions to the industry to insure its survival.

Perhaps Detroit might have survived any one of these forces, just as many other cities in America did,  but the collective weight of these policies and the fact that Detroit’s reason for existence was as a manufacturing center (we all know what happened to manufacturing in this country), all these forces converged into the perfect storm which destroyed what was once the fourth largest city in America. Detroit was crushed without any dialog about what was going on with the city and why. The Detroit of today is America’s failure, not the failure of a city poorly run. The debt that Americans owe to Detroit must be repaid by bringing back good-paying jobs and rebuilding a once-great city. If America’s Amnesia includes amnesia towards it domestic destructive power, which, judging by what we see in Detroit seems to make the case then we stand little chance of rescuing other cities which are also in decline for similar reasons. Which cities will be next? Oakland? Gary, Indiana? Cleveland? Are they already there? Detroit’s current bankruptcy proceedings, were shaped decades ago and reside in how America emerged from the Second World War, the defining moment for America in the 20th Century. There was a brief period of hope at the end of WW II, that the world might emerge as a more unified and peaceful planetary place. Fascism had been defeated, the United Nations was formed and, at least initially, the Victors of WW II had an understanding of what the post-war world would look like (even though Churchill wanted to reinstate the British Empire). Indeed Henry Wallace’s concept of the “Century of the Common Man” was hugely popular throughout the world at that time and might have served as the template for recovery from the war if he had been the Vice President when FDR died (he was VP from 1940-44).  Wallace was strongly anticolonial, and very opposed to letting French and British interests restore their empires. But with the reactionary Truman as the Vice President, the sudden death of FDR in 1945, gave Truman free reign to exercise his innate hostility and fear of Communism. Within two weeks following FDR’s death, Truman started the Cold War which quickly mushroomed into McCarthyism and the Korean war and set the table for the Vietnam war that began once the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Truman’s abrupt reactions were against the policies that FDR had in mind towards Russia, but the hawks he surrounded himself with (including James Byrnes as Secretary of State and James Forestall as the first Secretary of Defense), ruined any chance of putting our ship of state into something like a reverse: the die was cast for the rest of the century and beyond. Only JFK tried to put our ship in reverse and he didn’t live long enough to get much traction.  With the development of the atom bomb, and the belief that the Russians would never be capable of developing a similar weapon on their own, we created a bomb culture for the country, which survives to this day, lurking in the background and always haunting our foreign policy options: we continue to view ourselves as the invincible guardians of Democracy, when in fact we never promoted Democracy as one of our foreign policy objectives and we have not won many wars since WW II (we didn’t win WW II—the Russians did!). We are not the invincible Americans, but try telling that to most of our national politicians.

Racism in Detroit  In the 1920s the city of Detroit was the fourth largest city in America: its largely white population was drawn from immigrants and migrant workers. Two-thirds of the city’s residents in 1920 were either foreign born or the children of immigrants. They were attracted to the jobs provided by expansion of the automotive industry.   Once WW II began an infusion of blacks took place who largely came from the South, attracted by better paying jobs created by the wartime boom in the economy. It was not surprising to see racial hostilities break out, which they did in 1943 in Belle Isle, where more than a hundred thousand blacks and whites crowded into a popular recreation park. The riot spread throughout the city and when it ended thirty four people had been killed, twenty-five of whom were black, 675 suffered serious injuries and nearly 2000 had been arrested. Racial tension was also generated in the hiring practices in the automotive shops. Since the labor unions were controlled by whites, blacks were given menial jobs with lower pay. By 1968 entire UAW locals supported George Wallace’s bid for the Presidency. Eventually, many of these workers would become the Reagan Democrats. In time the city was victimized by white flight, and a subsequent drop in housing values. Today Detroit is 83 percent black. In 2009, the unemployment level in Detroit was 28 percent; today it is 18 percent, more than twice the national average. The final blow for declaring bankruptcy for the city, came as a result of too little income for a once great city in America, high unemployment rates, low paying jobs for those that have them, loss of good paying manufacturing jobs which were transported overseas and a failure of the United States government to understand and their complicity in creating the Detroit of today. Detroit is a disaster that should never have happened.

Unions in Detroit In the 1920s, before the Great Depression, Detroit was an antiunion, open shop city, controlled by the automobile manufacturing interests. But when FDR was elected in 1933 and began to transform the country through his New Deal policies, things began to tilt in favor of labor union creation. The Wagner Act, passed in 1935, promised Federal protection for workers to organize unions. Communist party members were among the most effective union organizers and many workers at that time joined the Communist party in support of the party’s organizational skills. The pivotal event took place in 1937 when autoworkers formed the first sit-down strike, an ingenious departure from previous strikes, because instead of leaving the manufacturing plant and making it possible for ownership to bring in replacements (scabs), the occupation of the plant eliminated that possibility. After the first lengthy sit-down strike, General Motors, at that time the largest corporation in America, signed a union contract with the UAW-CIO. This was followed shortly by union contacts with Chrysler, Ford and other smaller car manufacturers. Members of the Communist party played an important role in union organization work and helped manage union formation. But while members of the Communist party had important influence in union organization, party membership remained small. By the late 1930s the Communist party in Michigan had about 2600 members and was the country’s third largest Communist party, while nationwide membership was 50,000 to 75,000, hardly a significant threat to overthrow the U.S. Government. But once the anticommunist hysteria in America began, numbers didn’t really matter.

The Cold War Begins It may seem surprising to learn, that more than any other city, Detroit was the focal point of the Cold War. As WW II came to a end, and Truman abruptly started the Cold War, it was initially aimed at the Soviet Union and the unresolved borders in the Eastern bloc states that had been overrun as the Soviets reversed the German invasion and began marching towards Germany. But incrementally, the focus of the Cold War on Soviet Russia began to change as McCarthyism took root and in 1947, Truman introduced loyalty oaths to insure that Federal employees were not subversives. i.e., Communists. This soon spread to virtually every state: loyalty oaths were not struck down until the 1960s when the Supreme Court began ruling against them. Our irrational fear of Communism had taken root and we began to cannibalize our own people. The fall of China to the Communists was another factor that helped McCarthy and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) become prominent forces in American life, where the mere charge of being a Communist was sufficient to blackmail you and your future or have you fired without providing any evidence against you. All McCarthy had to do in that era was to wave a white paper he claimed was a list of Communists in the State Department for example and careers would be over, with replacement jobs hard to find. This period was America at its ugliest, cannibalizing our own people, many of whom had fought in WW II.  It was not surprising that Detroit fell under the radar beam of the anticommunist hysteria. The labor union movement owed some of  its success to the influence of members of the Communist party and now that influence was interpreted as a plot to overthrow the U.S. government. There were many heroes who stood up to McCarthyism and the HUAC in those days, one of whom was Coleman Young, who would become mayor of Detroit (1974-1994). His defiant appearance before HUAC which came to Detroit in 1952 to identify Communists in the labor movement, made him a genuine hero, but at that time liberals and progressives were so intimidated by the national hysteria against Communism that his appearance before the committee was not published in local newspapers. He was a hero only in the streets of Detroit among those that listened to the broadcast on radio.

National anticommunist hysteria was used to begin unraveling the New Deal. Those that exploited the rising public fear of Communism, enhanced by McCarthyism and the fall of China to the Communists, knew that the Communist party was not a threat to America because at any one time the party had something like 75,000 members nationwide at its peak: in America most understood that Communism, at least the form being practiced in the Soviet Union, was antithetical to the American way of life. But politicians and business interests used the national hysteria against Communism to begin unraveling the New Deal of FDR.  This effort was supported by the major business interests of America, including the automobile industry. It was push-back from business against the New Deal but disguised as  saving America from a Communist takeover. Then as now, American business interests (including General Motors) helped to fan the flames and spread the false illusion of a Communist threat within the labor unions, because they wanted to see the New Deal unravel:  Ronald Reagan finally made it happen. Conservatism was started in Detroit with the idea that people were afraid of big government and labor unions were becoming too powerful and might lead to a new subversive, Communist takeover of the government:  In 1945 Life magazine ran a cartoon,  created by General Motors and derived from Friedrich Hayek’s popular book, The Road to Serfdom, which argued that “Wartime ‘planners’ who want to stay in power” would encourage the idea of a “peace production board.” The end result would be a loss of personal freedom and a new form of enslavement under government control. This was meant to counter discussions in the UAW which favored a government-centered command economy.

A role played by the Catholic Church in Detroit The reaction from the right against the New Deal policies of FDR began as soon as the New Deal policies were implemented. There was no breathing space given for Great Depression policies to find comfort before reactionary impulses from the right began tearing at the fabric of the New Deal. The irrational fear about Communism in the late 1940s and the belief that it served as a subversive force for changes in American lives was actively promoted by the Catholic church; it was compounded by racial divides within the labor unions as a result of the extensive black migration during WW II. Fed by America’s reactionary fear of Communism, the innate reflexes of racism and the antilabor practices that we as a nation introduced in preparation for our coming titanic struggle against Godless Communism were all messages conveyed by the Catholic Church. Thus, the Catholic church played an important role in shaping Detroit’s dystopian future. We, that is America, did as much to destroy Detroit as any unforeseen force could possibly muster. One fears that America’s future depends on how we handle and respond to Detroit’s problems of today: if so, our own future looks very bleak. The current problems for the people now living and suffering in Detroit, were forced upon the city by the anticommunist, antilabor machinations, and the racial divides that took place during the early phases of the Cold War and thread through the current city bankruptcy proceedings. As America emerged from WW II, the growing strength of labor unions was viewed by many Americans, particularly the Catholic Church, as a growing threat to the future of America as a Christian, God-fearing country. The Catholic church in particular viewed labor unions as the coming source of Godless Communism and even some workers feared that labor unions had become too powerful—they had too many strikes—they were asking for too much.

When Ronald Reagan broke the back of the labor unions by firing the Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO), government policies switched from pro-labor under the New Deal to the anti-labor policies of the Republican party and the minions that followed. Margaret Thatcher teamed up with Reagan to defeat the coal miners and reshape Britain’s policies socialist government. Today, in the interests of maintaining cheap labor, jobs are being held back with continued downward pressure on wages as part of a national policy that Obama has done little to abate.  Thus, instead of favoring the development of unions under the New Deal, breaking unions up became the national policy, which is still in place today. That switch alone placed pressure on the labor unions of Detroit to give back many hard fought labor gains.

An in-depth analysis of Detroit’s debt problem indicates that it is not as bad as it once seemed and a good analysis of the problem is found at the Demos website, from which some of this was taken. “Detroit has been in a state of decline for several decades. The city’s population has fallen from a high mark of nearly 2 million residents in 1950 to just 714,000 in 2010,” and the majority of the current city population is black.  “This long-term decline has also taken a toll on the city’s revenue base, causing both property and income tax revenues to shrink as homeowners and jobs have left the city. Altogether, Detroit’s revenues have decreased by more than 20 percent since FY 2008, declining by $257.7 million.” The current Detroit debt of $18-20 billion way overestimates the current problem facing the city of Detroit. In order to keep itself as a functional city, it must find about $ 198 million (many analysts consider this value way to high) which is represents the shortage in cash flow. If we hadn’t gone through the Great Recession, Detroit would not be facing bankruptcy. It is worth noting, that contrary to the rumor mill propagated by Wall Street moguls, “The city’s pension contributions in particular did not play a role in pushing it [Detroit] into bankruptcy because they did not contribute materially to the increase in the city’s legacy expenses that added to the cash flow shortfall. While the city’s healthcare contributions did increase, this was largely because of rising healthcare costs nationally, not because the city’s benefits were too generous. In fact, a comparative analysis of Detroit’s retiree benefits shows that its pension and healthcare benefits are in line with those of other comparable cities.” In other words the problem with Detroit is not employee benefits or their retirement package, which they run the risk of losing in these bankruptcy proceedings. A good article explaining how wrong the Wall Street moguls have been in their analysis of Detroit’s problems can be seen in Salon.

For portions of this article, I relied on “Detroit’s Cold War: The Origins of Postwar Conservatism” by Colleen Doody, a highly recommended source of information on the Cold War history of Detroit.


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