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In Support of WalMart Strikers on Black Friday: “The Belly Button Theory of Economics” November 23, 2012

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Roger’s note: Several years ago while I was in Los Angeles, workers in three major supermarket chains were on strike because their employers wanted to lower them to WalMart standards of salaries and benefits.  I spent some time at one of the picket lines and had the opportunity to speak with several of the shoppers who were crossing the picket line.  It was disheartening to hear shoppers, working people themselves, complain that supermarket workers had benefits that they lacked and therefore deserved no sympathy.  It reminded me of the world’s oldest political strategy: divide and conquer.  Instead of advocating for higher standards for everyone, employer, politicians and the media play on the emotion of envy to promote the notion of lowering standards to the bottom.  This experience inspired me to write the following essay, which I re-post here in solidarity with the striking WalMart workers.


The Belly Button Theory of Economics


Roger Hollander


Call it the belly button theory of economics, if you will.  Every one knows there are two types of umbilicals: innies and outies.  Well, when all is said and done, all complexities aside, doesn’t one’s economy simply break down into what comes IN and what goes OUT?


Let’s talk about the ordinary working person.  She earns from her job (IN), and she meets her needs and pleasures by making purchases (OUT).  The well-being of her “economy” depends upon there being at least enough IN to take care of all the OUT.


One might be tempted to say that both are equally important, that is income (IN) and the cost of things (OUT).  Here is where I would argue that many economists miss the boat.  I believe that what one does through her work to acquire the means to live (IN) is fundamental, whereas the cost of things (OUT), while important, is secondary.  Think of is this way.  If you are unemployed you sure appreciate a good bargain, but what you really need is a good job.


There can also be a “dialectic” between IN and OUT.  Take health care.  It is something we purchase (an OUT).  However, for millions of Americans, their health care comes as a benefit attached to their work (an IN).  In other words, health insurance as a benefit is an IN that offsets the cost of health care, an OUT.


That is why I believe it is so important for all working people that in the current labor dispute that grocery giants — Safeway, Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons — do not succeed in their efforts to cut drastically the wages (IN) and health benefits (IN) of their workers.  They argue that this is necessary in order to compete with the Wal-Mart super stores, who pay their workers substantially less in wages and benefits[note: cf. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America] Wal-Mart does this by keeping its prices (OUT) lower than anyone else.  Interestingly, and here is that dialectic at work again, Wal-Mart is able to offer such low prices (OUT) by pressuring its suppliers to cut labor costs (their workers’ IN) in order to provide Wal-Mart with its goods at cut-rate prices.


In the end, you see, it always boils down to IN(come).  Of course, the worker is also a consumer and naturally loves low prices.  We all appreciate a bargain, and who can blame us?  But if the price of bargains is that, in the long run, we don’t have a living wage (IN) that meets our needs to provide for our expenses (OUT), then the bargain is, in effect, no bargain.  It is a cruel trick disguised as a bonus.


Human beings are by nature, first and foremost, producing animals.  We produce the means by which we survive and thrive.  Only then are we able to “consume.”  I am no great fan of capitalism because it treats human labor as a commodity, just one more expense for the capitalist along with things such as materials, rents and other overhead costs.  But as long as capitalism exists, working people have no choice but to demand wages and benefits that meet their fundamental needs.  Health care, along with food and shelter, is one of the most basic of human needs.  Because the United States government, the only one in the world of industrial nations, has not seen fit to provide universal health coverage for its people, then this need for most of its working people gets fulfilled through employer health care plans.  It is not an “extra.”


I have spoken with shoppers crossing the picket lines at the supermarkets, fellow working people, who justify their non-support of the grocery workers on the basis that they too must pay part of their health care costs (“If I can’t have it, you can’t have it either”).  This sad lack of worker solidarity is a product of the divide and conquer strategy of the supermarket chains, and it is in contrast to the solidarity the chains themselves have shown by sharing their profits amongst themselves, possibly in violation of anti-trust legislation.  How ironic that the supermarket industry is turning around that famous dictum to read: “chains of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your workers!”


Think of this the next time you are tempted to support them by shopping in one of the on-strike or locked out supermarket chains.



Unions and America fit together like … Legos September 5, 2011

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An author’s message to her grandson: If we don’t love and support the
working men and women of this country, we are in deep trouble. 


Writer Anne Lamott hopes to convey a message to her grandson: If America doesn't love and support labor unions, America is in deep trouble.Writer Anne Lamott hopes to convey a message to her
grandson: If America doesn’t love and support labor unions, America is in deep
By Anne LamottSeptember 5,

I love unions. I love them in the same way I love libraries and redwood groves. They are like churches: sacred. They are what make
this country great. So, besides taking my 2-year-old grandson, Jax, to a library
or to a park with redwoods almost every day, I have also helped him to get to
know a community of union workers. A year ago, I got a huge box of medium-size
Lego blocks and figurines, and we have been holding rallies ever since. Power to the People.
And while we’re at it, Solidarity Forever.

I don’t have the time or space
to introduce you to each of these union workers, but let me just mention a

There’s Mavis, a blond Molly Ivins type and the leader of the
International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, and Al, a longshoreman. There are
two matching zookeepers who are older, and brothers, born to the same green
plastic mother (at a hospital where the nurses
are proud union members). There is Phil, the sailor, of Seafarers International;
Libby, who belongs to the California Federation of Teachers; and her wife,
Deirdre, who is a Teamster. Sydney, who dresses like a jungle explorer in a
safari jacket and helmet, is a union rep, working on behalf of all workers to
keep unions strong.

Everyone loves Sydney: He is one of those exquisitely
decent, old-fashioned working-class guys who made this country great. Jax and I
often build him a low platform and podium of Lego blocks from which he talks to
other workers about the fight for workers’ rights, telling them to never give
up, and reminding them that the pendulum always swings back toward fairness and

I have taught Jax all the old union songs that my parents
taught me — “Joe Hill,” “We Shall
Not Be Moved,” “John Henry,” “Bread and Roses.” So sometimes as we play, we also
sing: “Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us

For good measure, I sometimes play him “La Marseillaise” on the
kazoo, and he plays along on a bongo drum.

Why do I do this? Because I
believe that if you don’t love and support the working men and women of this
country, you are in deep trouble. You are going to get a terrible seat in
heaven. Probably a patio chair, with plastic lattice bands, the kind that leave
fat welts on the back of your thighs when you stand up.

Are you hearing
that, politicians? I wasn’t going to name names, but I’m still not over being
appalled with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attacks on unions. Remember his compulsive
trash-talking about nurses and teachers? Nurses and teachers, for God’s sake!
Could he possibly think that God shares his bad opinion of them? Of course not.
It was almost funny to watch him bullying them and their unions. It made me ask
myself something I used to wonder constantly about Dick
: Hasn’t this guy ever heard the word “karma”?

I guess it is a
plank of the Christian right to be anti-union now. But remember, there are still
a lot of us in the Christian left, and we don’t feel that way. When I was
growing up, everyone I knew was pro-union, just like everyone used public
libraries and everyone in California was proud of the public education system
and loved the state’s natural beauty. People would fight and rally and protest
and donate to help preserve it.

Then Ronald
came along, and having seen one redwood, he had seen them all, and it
was pretty much a straight line from there to Arnold’s shaking his mighty broom
at us as he trash-talked the nurses and teachers.

I understand why
politicians want to see labor as the cause of most of our societal and economic
problems. It takes the focus off the banks, the corporations, the
military-industrial complex. But public school teachers? I guess they really are
sort of greedy and grabby — not to mention rich. Especially those greedy-grabby
public school special ed teachers. My younger brother is one of them, and boy,
is he raking it in. Talk about take, take, take.

My grandson and I just
about went crazy watching the unions protest in Wisconsin in the spring. “Those
are our people!” I shouted to the television, although neither of us actually
has a job. He joined the chorus, in his native Latvian. We clapped, and ate
Cheetos, and danced and put all the workers together on the green Lego base
plate. Our pride was contagious: My two union dogs milled around, licking us
enthusiastically and levitating Cheetos right out of the baby’s

The whole world will be bombarding my grandson with messages about
individual and personal success aimed at teaching him to love the almighty buck,
but I want my grandchild to grow up in a family that loves labor, as I did. And
I want him to know that when workers’ rights or libraries or redwood groves are
threatened, it’s incumbent on us to show up with our kazoos and

Otherwise, I tell him, this country is doomed. And then I add,
“But not on our watch, right, dude?” and he claps and cheers.

Lamott’s latest book is the novel “Imperfect Birds.”


Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

From Cairo to Madison: Hope and Solidarity Are Alive February 24, 2011

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Medea Benjamin

Co-founder, CODEPINK: Women for Peace

Posted: February 21, 2011 03:58 PM

Here in Madison, Wisconsin, where protesters have occupied the State Capitol Building to stop the pending bill that would eliminate workers’ right to collective bargaining, echoes of Cairo are everywhere. Protesters here were elated by the photo of an Egyptian engineer named Muhammad Saladin Nusair holding a sign in Tahrir Square saying “Egypt Supports Wisconsin Workers — One World, One Pain.” The signs by protesters in Madison include “Welcome to Wiscairo,” “From Egypt to Wisconsin: We Rise Up,” and “Government Walker: Our Mubarak.” The banner I brought directly from Tahrir Square saying “Solidarity with Egyptian Workers” has been hanging from the balcony of the Capitol alongside solidarity messages from around the country.

My travels from Cairo to Madison seem like one seamless web. After camping out with the students and workers in the Capitol Building, I gave an early morning seminar on what it was like to be an eyewitness to the Egyptian revolution, and the struggles that are taking place right now in places like Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. Folks told me all day how inspiring it was to hear about the uprisings in the Arab world.

Some took the lessons from Cairo literally. Looking around at the Capitol Building that was starting to show the wear and tear from housing thousands of protesters, I had mentioned that in Cairo the activists were constantly scrubbing the square, determined to show how much they loved the space they had liberated. A few hours later, in Madison’s rotunda, people were on their hands and knees scrubbing the marble floor. “We’re quick learners,” one of the high school students told me, smiling as she picked at the remains of Oreo cookies sticking to the floor.

I heard echoes of Cairo in the Capitol hearing room where a nonstop line of people had gathered all week to give testimonies. The Democratic assemblymembers have been giving folks a chance to voice their concerns about the governor’s pending bill. In this endless stream of heartfelt testimonies, people talk about the impact this bill will have on their own families — their take-home pay, their health care, their pensions. They talk about the governor manufacturing the budget crisis to break the unions. They talk about the history of workers’ struggles to earn living wages and have decent benefits. And time and again, I heard people say, “I saw how the Egyptian people were able to rise up and overthrow a 30-year dictatorship, and that inspired me to rise up and fight this bill.”

Solidarity is, indeed, a beautiful thing. It is a way we show our oneness with all of humanity; it is a way to reaffirm our own humanity. CODEPINK sent flowers to the people in Tahrir Square — a gesture that was received with kisses, hugs and tears from the Egyptians. The campers in Madison erupted in cheer when they heard that an Egyptian had called the local pizza place Ians Pizza and placed a huge order to feed the protesters. “Pizza never tasted so good,” a Wisconsin fireman commented when he was told that the garlic pizza he was eating had come from supporters in Cairo.

Egyptian engineer Muhammad Saladin Nusair, the one whose photo supporting Wisconsin workers went viral, now has thousands of new American Facebook friends. He wrote in his blog that many of his new friends were surprised by his gesture of solidarity, but he was taught that “we live in ONE world and under the same sky.”

“If a human being doesn’t feel the pain of his fellow human beings, then everything we’ve created and established since the very beginning of existence is in great danger,” Muhammad wrote. “We shouldn’t let borders and differences separate us. We were made different to complete each other, to integrate and live together. One world, one pain, one humanity, one hope.”

From the trenches of Madison’s State Capitol Building, hope — and solidarity — are alive and well.

Medea Benjamin is co-founder of CODEPINK (www.codepink.org) and Global Exchange (www.globalexchange.org).


Follow Medea Benjamin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/medeabenjamin

Worker Solidarity, the Toronto City Workers Strike, and Words to Remember July 18, 2009

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Every once in a while (not often enough) a statement is made that is so succinct and to the point that it merits being carved in stone.

First some background.  Locals 79 (inside workers) and 461 (outside workers) of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (C.U.P.E.), which represents nearly 25,000 municipal workers at the City of Toronto, are on strike.  The City has provoked the strike by offering substantially lower cost of living increases than have been approved recently for other civic workers (fire, police, library, etc.) and by demanding concessions of previously gained benefits.  The City and the uncritical media have made much of a benefit gained many contracts ago whereby workers can bank unused sick leave and collect a lump sum on retirement (a benefit for which the workers would have made concessions in other areas to achieve).

Since the City workers collect garbage, run day care centers, approve permits and licences, etc., the strike has had an impact on the daily lives of most residents and is generally held to be unpopular.  Interestingly, it is both the City (mainly its Mayor, David Miller) and the Union that are being held responsible by many.  But the workers have taken the brunt of the hostility.

The recently elected President of C.U.P.E. Local 416, Mark Ferguson, a veteran paramedic and student of Eastern religion, has received mountains of e-mails ranging from critical to outright hateful (along with some supportive ones).  In response to one of the critics, he wrote the following memorable lines (which are so important that I will put them bold in caps):


Starbucks spars over union February 19, 2009

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starbucks-daniel-grossMary Altaffer / AP Daniel Gross, a founder of the Starbucks organizing efforts, says low wages and insecure work hours make it tough for baristas to make ends meet.

Drives to organize build to tense legal disputes


February 16, 2009

The scene: An off-duty Starbucks barista lounges at the East Ninth Street store in Manhattan, wearing a union button. A customer, who happens to be a manager at another Starbucks store, enters to buy a drink, sees the button and asks about it.

The dialogue grows hot. Starbucks employees don’t need a union because they get health benefits, a 401(k) plan and stock options, the manager says.

Things then start “to happen really fast and get really loud,” the barista recounts at a trial. “He was in my face, and basically we started having an argument. He got into my face and raised his hands up.”

The barista tells the manager, “You can go f*** yourself, if you want to f*** me up, go ahead, I’m here.”

This drama is part of an 88-page ruling that illustrates the ongoing tension between Starbucks Corp. and the Starbucks Workers Union.

In December, a National Labor Relations Board judge ruled that Seattle-based Starbucks Corp. violated federal labor law by trying to stop union organizing at four Manhattan cafes. Starbucks is appealing the decision.

That trial, which took place between July and October 2007, produced a decision that reads at times like a reality-TV script, revealing Starbucks baristas and managers yelling at each other, mishandling blenders and cursing.

Union sparring at Starbucks cafes? It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

Both sides

In the 1980s, Starbucks unionized before Howard Schultz took over as chief executive officer in 1987. He gave baristas health care plus a share of the profit. When the AIDS epidemic was at its height, Starbucks paid for terminal illness care for employees for 29 months until the government took over.

By 1992, the company was union-free.

“I was convinced that under my leadership, employees would come to realize that I would listen to their concerns,” Schultz wrote of that time in his book “Pour Your Heart Into It.” “If they had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union.”

To this day, the company prides itself on its treatment of workers — baristas receive the same health benefits as headquarters employees with business degrees.

So how is it that a perceived latte-sipping lefty company finds itself in legal disputes with union employees around the country? In recent months, Starbucks has tussled with the Starbucks Workers Union in cases in three states: New York, Michigan and Minnesota. The company has settled three unfair labor practice complaints.

The union says that the Starbucks reality has never been as shiny as its image.

“It’s always been a difficult place for baristas to make ends meet at Starbucks with the insecure work hours and low wages,” said Daniel Gross, a founder of the union organizing efforts who was fired in 2006. (A judge found his termination was unfair.) “The American people were deceived by Starbucks and Howard Schultz.”

Starbucks counters that it treats employees well, that a union wouldn’t necessarily do things better and that union participants make up a tiny portion of a 170,000-“partner” company.

“Starbucks is a pro-partner organization,” said Jim McDermet, senior vice president for Starbucks’ Northeast Atlantic Division. “We really view ourselves as listening to our people and creating an environment where our partners can communicate directly to us.”

Progressive activist Kim Fellner, author of the 2008 book “Wrestling with Starbucks,” said “the truth is somewhere in between.” In her book, she noted that Starbucks treats workers better than many other restaurant companies do and spends substantially on environmental sustainability. She gave the corporation a stamp of “above average.”

Hard economic times will make Starbucks more susceptible to union organizing, said Joseph Michelli, author of “The Starbucks Experience.”

“They’ve really been an amazing company in the way they treated employees,” said Michelli, who studied the company for two years.

Nontraditional union

The Starbucks Workers Union is part of the Wobblies, the nickname for the Industrial Workers of the World union. The IWW doesn’t operate like traditional unions, which focus on contract negotiations and formal bargaining. Instead, it focuses on what it calls “direct action” to win gains for workers.

The IWW says it is anti-capitalist and pro-worker. According to its constitution, “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. … Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.”

Since Starbucks employees began organizing with the group in 2004, that struggle has played out on company turf.

In April 2006, the IWW started a “nutritional initiative” and hired scientists to assess the dietary value of menu items. In June 2006, the union issued a news release on nutrition that generated worldwide publicity.

“The model we’re using is quite different than the mainstream model; it’s a model called solidarity unionism,” Gross explained.

When union member Anna Hurst, a single mother from the Bronx, suffered heat stroke on the job in August 2008, her store manager took her off the schedule for two weeks.

“Anna brought this to the union, and we discussed it as co-workers and began to carry out our action plan,” Gross said.

A dozen baristas and supporters marched in during peak hours to hand a written demand to the manager that Hurst be compensated for the two weeks she was not permitted to work. The union also leafleted customers and picketed on New Year’s Eve.

At the 2007 trial in New York, Starbucks testified that union demonstrations have intimidated customers and employees. The IWW supporters “at times engaged in conduct such as spitting at managers, name calling, various acts of vandalism and blocking access to the stores. In addition, the leaflets distributed by the IWW frequently contained the phone numbers of managerial personnel,” court documents say.

The union denies allegations of spitting and vandalism.

The documents don’t paint Starbucks as innocent — the company developed a national response to the union, collected information on what unionized workers did in their spare time and kept a list of which employees were union sympathizers.

The company transferred employees it labeled as “pro-Starbucks” (least likely to join the union) to keep stores from being too heavily weighted toward the union, court documents say.

The IWW has “learned what Howard Schultz dreads, which is when you use Starbucks’ name, you get a kind of instant publicity effect,” Fellner said.

“I personally think that we progressives would be better served by targeting those corporations that have a much more negative impact on our communities and the global economy. You know, Wal-Mart does spring to mind,” she said.

But Fellner also said Schultz’s pro-partner mantra comes across as benevolently paternalistic.

“It’s a problem because it means that whoever runs the company believes they know what’s better for their workers than their workers,” she said.

Starbucks says it surveys workers to gather their views.


A 1999 attempt to unionize Starbucks roasting-plant workers in Kent led to a two-year struggle for a contract.

“They were doing union busting,” said John Thompson, current president of International Union of Operating Engineers local 286. “All of the HR department that was hiring, their questions were, ‘Have you ever belonged to a union, has any of your family members belonged to a union, or has any of your friends belonged to a union?’ If you said yes to you or your family, at any time, you were never even considered for employment.”

That bargaining unit dissolved. Thompson said Starbucks was the “worst employer we ever had. They basically did anything and everything in their power to keep the unions out.

“We haven’t gone back after them.”

In fact, no union besides the IWW has tried to organize Starbucks in the U.S. in recent years, the company says. The IWW Starbucks union says it has some 300 members.

Gross, 29, began working for Starbucks in 2003 and had been involved with the IWW before.

He said that he did not choose to work at Starbucks just so he could organize it. Variable work hours are one of the union’s major points of contention, Gross said. An employee must work 20 or more hours per week to be eligible for health coverage at Starbucks. Seventy-one percent of Starbucks employees are eligible, and 65 percent of those in the U.S. take advantage, the company said Thursday.

Starbucks uses an automated scheduling system, where employees indicate which hours they are available. Someone who wants full-time work of more than 32 hours weekly must be open to work at least 70 percent of a store’s operating hours.

“Starbucks can schedule you on any day, at any time within those hours,” Gross said. “How are you supposed to get a second job or plan for child care if you have to be available 80.5 hours?”

Union in a big way

Employees tend to care most about respect and dignity — and they tend to unionize when they’re not getting it, said Mark Theodore, a Los Angeles-based labor law partner at Proskauer Rose LLP.

“It’s rarely about the money,” Theodore said. “It’s usually about giving a person a voice in the workplace. Most people decide for themselves whether they are treated the right way or not.”

Unions, which have diminished in relevance for years, are about to become a lot more relevant, experts say. President Barack Obama won major endorsement from the nation’s labor unions, and he appointed union-sympathetic Hilda Solis as labor secretary.

She supports an Employee Free Choice Act, which would eliminate private ballot voting and make union organizing easier.

“We’re about to go union in a huge way in this country,” said Clarence Belnavis, managing partner at the Northwest office of the national labor and employment law firm Fisher & Phillips LLP.

And Starbucks, with centralized management rather than franchisees, is an easy target, he said.

“Name me one state where there’s not a Starbucks. Wouldn’t you want to be the union handling those issues?” Belnavis said.

“Wouldn’t you want to be the entity in there? They’re everywhere.”

P-I reporter Andrea James can be reached at 206-448-8124 or

Questioning Authority: A Rethinking of the Infamous Milgram Experiments February 13, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Science and Technology, Uncategorized.
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By Liliana Segura, AlterNet. Posted February 12, 2009.

A famous 1970s experiment was recently replicated, revealing what it takes for us to question and resist those in positions of authority.

Between 1963 and 1974, Dr. Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments that would become one of the most famous social psychology studies of the 20th century. His focus was how average people respond to authority, and what he revealed stunned and disturbed people the world over.

Under the pretense of an experiment on “learning” and “memory,” Milgram placed test subjects in a lab rigged with fake gadgetry, where a man in a lab coat instructed them to administer electrical shocks to a fellow test subject (actually an actor) seated in another room in “a kind of miniature electric chair.”

Participants were told they were the “teachers” in the scenario and given a list of questions with which to quiz their counterparts (the “learners”). If the respondent answered incorrectly to a question, he got an electric shock as punishment.

The shocks were light at first — 15 volts — and became stronger incrementally, until they reached 450 volts — a level labeled “Danger: Severe Shock.” The actors were never actually electrocuted, but they pretended they were. They groaned, shouted, and, as the current became stronger, begged for relief. Meanwhile, the man in the lab coat coolly told the test subjects to keep going.

To people’s horror, Milgram discovered that a solid majority of his subjects — roughly two-thirds — were willing to administer the highest levels of shock to their counterparts. This was as true among the first set of his test subjects (Yale undergrads), to subsequent “ordinary” participants as described by Milgram (“professionals, white-collar workers, unemployed persons and industrial workers”), to test subjects abroad, from Munich to South Africa. It was also as true for women as it was for men (although female subjects reported a higher degree of anxiety afterward).

For people who learned of the study, this became devastating proof, not only of human beings’ slavish compliance in the face of authority, but of our willingness to do horrible things to other people. The study has been used to explain everything from Nazi Germany to the torture at Abu Ghraib.

But what if Milgram’s obedience studies tell us something else, something just as essential, not about our obedience to authority, but what it takes for people to resist it? Now, for the first time in decades, a psychologist has replicated Milgram’s famous study (with some critical changes).

The bad news: His results are statistically identical to Milgram’s. The good news: Contrary to popular perception, the lesson it teaches us is not that human beings are a breed of latent torturers. “Actually,” says Dr. Jerry Burger, the psychologist who led the exercise, “what I think is that the real lesson of the demonstration is quite the opposite.”

Replicating Milgram: ‘I Can’t Tell You Why I Listened to Him and Kept Going’

Burger works at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif. Like many in his field, he has long been interested in Milgram.

“Everybody who works in my area has his or her own ideas about why Milgram’s participants did what they did,” he says. And many have ideas about what they would change if they did the study themselves. “I have kind of had ideas like that forever … but it’s pretty much been considered to be out of bounds for research. I think we all kind of assumed no one was every going to be able to do this study again.”

Indeed, Milgram’s obedience study was deeply controversial in its time. His deceptive methodology would later be criticized as unethical, and stiffer regulations concerning the psychological well-being of participants in such studies would follow. Thus, despite its enduring role in the popular imagination — and relevance to the events of the day — Milgram’s study would remain firmly entrenched in its time and place.

Then, in 2004, the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. In the analysis that followed, many pointed to Milgram’s findings as a way to understand what could have led otherwise-average soldiers to act so cruelly. At ABC News, producers decided they wanted to do an investigative report on this question.

“I think what they had in mind at first was some sort of journalistic stunt,” Burger recalls “… to set up the Milgram study themselves.” But ABC was advised not undertake such a project lightly. “Someone told them, ‘If you want to do some sort of exploration of obedience, you need to talk to someone who works in the field,’ ” says Burger. “Somehow my name surfaced in this conversation.”

When ABC called him, “I told them, ‘No you can’t replicate Milgram,’ but I thought it was great that they wanted to explore these questions. … I was not interested in helping them put on some kind of stunt (but), it was something that I always wanted to do. And if ABC would foot the bill …”

It took months to set up the project — recruiting and vetting participants, getting insurance, consulting lawyers, etc. When it came to conduct the experiment, Burger had implemented significant changes to Milgram’s original study. One crucial adjustment had been to establish a threshold that did not exist under Milgram. Burger calls it the “150-volt solution.”

“You can’t put people through what Milgram did,” says Burger. Revisiting descriptions of his subjects, he says, “you see that people were suffering tremendously.” They believed they were torturing people, that people were “presumably even dying on the other side of the wall.”

Thus, based on Milgram’s original data, which showed that the majority of the participants who administered 150-volt shocks to their subjects were willing to go all the way to the highest levels, Burger decided that he would stop participants at the 150-volt mark, “the point of no return.”

When the ABC special aired in January 2007, it took a predictably sensationalist approach. “A Touch of Evil” was the title, and foreboding music provided a dark backdrop.

The segment showed men and women of various ages, ethnicities and professions doing the same thing — administering what they believed were electric shocks to a person in another room.

Often the participants would be startled by the shouts behind the wall, turning to look to the man in the lab coat with nervous expressions. But at his behest, they continued, even amid protests from the actor. (“Get me out of here, I told you I had heart trouble. My heart’s starting to bother me now.”)

In the end, 70 percent of the subjects reached the 150-volt mark — a statistic basically identical to Milgram’s. Unlike in Milgram’s experiment, however, Burger told his subjects immediately after their time was up that the whole thing had been staged.

“I can’t tell you why I listened to him and kept going,” one participant told his ABC interviewer. “I should have just said no.”

In the media and the blogosphere, the response to Burger’s study has played into the notion that Milgram’s findings, as true now as they were a generation ago, point to some intrinsic capacity for evil in human beings. It was more or less summed up by one blog’s headline, which Burger noted, chuckling: “This Just In: We Still Suck.”

‘Under the Right Circumstances, People Will Act In Surprising and Unsettling Ways’

Although Milgram’s research is understood mainly through the lens of “obedience,” Burger believes that authority is actually not the definitive factor in the situation.

Just as important, if not more so, are the combination of factors that make up the scenario and which make subjects so dependent on authority. For example, despite being shown the “learner” strapped in before the experiment begins, participants are operating on relatively little information.

“They want to be a good participator, they don’t know, ‘should I stop, should I not,’ ” says Burger, “… Except there’s a person in the room that’s an expert, who knows all about the study, the equipment, etc … and he’s acting like, well, this is nothing unusual … If the only information you have is telling you that this is the right thing to do — of course you do it.”

Participants are also absolved of any real sense of personal responsibility. “I was doing my job,” is a common refrain. Burger notes, “when people don’t feel responsible, that can lead to some very unsettling behaviors.” And then, there’s the high pressure created by the limited window of time participants have to choose whether to shock their “learner.”

“Imagine if Milgram had allowed those people to take 30 minutes and think about it,” says Burger. “They don’t have time, and the experimenter doesn’t allow them time. In fact, if the person pauses, the experimenter steps in and says, ‘Please continue.’ ”

But perhaps the most important enabling factor is the fact that the volts go up in little by little.

“Milgram set this up so that people responded in small increments,” says Burger. “They didn’t start with 150 volts, they started with 15 and worked their way up … That is a very powerful way to change attitudes and behaviors.” Most people, after all, don’t start with extreme behaviors right off the bat.

“People didn’t start by drinking Jim Jones’ poison Kool-Aid,” Burger says. “They probably started by donating money, or going to a meeting … you probably see that in most examples where you’re scratching you head and saying, ‘How can they do that?’ ”

In Burger’s opinion, the significance of Milgram’s findings are widely misunderstood. “The point is not ‘look how bad people are.’ … What we fail to recognize is the power of the situation and [that] under the right circumstances, people will act in surprising and sometimes unsettling ways.”

Indeed, what these factors demonstrate is not how easily people will harm another person, but how quickly people will cede their own authority to another person when they feel isolated, pressured and powerless. The more controlled an environment, the more vulnerable a person is.

What Does It Take to Resist Authority?

Long before his most famous experiment, Stanley Milgram was interested in phenomena showing that people placed in the right situation will often do the wrong thing.

Writing in The Nation magazine in 1964 about a case in which a New York woman named Kitty Genovese was killed within earshot of 38 neighbors, none of whom intervened, Milgram wrote, “We are all certain that we would have done better.” But, he argued, it is a mistake to “infer ethical values from the actual behavior of people in concrete situations.”

“…We must ask, did the witnesses remain passive because they thought it was the right thing to do, or did they refrain from action despite what they thought or felt they should do? We cannot take it for granted that people always do what they consider right. It would be more fruitful to inquire why, in general and in this particular case, there is so marked a discrepancy between values and behavior.”

One lens through which to understand this is politics, a profession notorious for its moral corrosiveness. In his book, Conservatives Without Conscience, John Dean, Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, wrote about the Milgram experiment to explore how members of the Bush administration could be so complicit in the immoral policies of the so-called war on terror.

In a 2006 interview with Thom Hartmann, Dean explained:

“I looked at this because I was trying to understand, how do people who work at the CIA and know that they’re part of a system that is torturing people in the Eastern European secret prisons — and they’re supporting that system, they’re providing information or bringing it out of it — how they do that every day?

“How do the people who work at NSA who were turning that huge electronic apparatus of surveillance on their neighbors and their friends, where’s their conscience?

“And then I realized that this is a perfect example of the Milgram experiment at work. They’re under authority figures. What they are doing is, they’re haven’t lost their conscience — they have given their conscience to another agent, and so they feel very comfortable in doing it.” 

If Milgram’s experiment showed a sort of moral death by a thousand cuts, the decisions, compromises and rationalizations that politicians make on a daily basis from their Washington offices that seem otherwise unfathomable indeed seem easier to explain, if not justifiable. After all, unlike the participants in Milgram’s original study, who were paid $5 for their time (and notoriety), politicians in the White House or on Capitol Hill build their careers on decisions that can destroy human beings. Whether in Iraq or at Guantanamo, the suffering on the other side of those walls is real.

But Milgram has much to teach us, too, about what it takes to resist powerful governments and their destructive policies. It’s not easy, and the stakes can be high.

Writing about war resisters in The Nation in 1970, Milgram noted, “Americans who are unwilling to kill for their country are thrown into jail. And our generation learns, as every generation has, that society rewards and punishes its members not in the degree to which each fulfills the dictates of individual conscience but in the degree to which the actions are perceived by authority to serve the needs of the larger social system. It has always been so.”

But while Milgram so effectively demonstrated the challenge of defying authority, he also showed that subjects were far more likely to do it when they saw other people doing it. He wrote in The Perils of Obedience, “The rebellious action of others severely undermines authority.”

“In one variation, three teachers (two actors and a real subject) administered a test and shocks. When the two actors disobeyed the experimenter and refused to go beyond a certain shock level, 36 of 40 subjects joined their disobedient peers and refused as well.”

Put in a political context, this is perhaps the most important lesson Milgram has to teach us. The best hope people have of resisting an oppressive system is to validate their experiences alongside other people. There is no more basic antidote to authoritarianism than support, solidarity and community.

Milgram wrote, “When an individual wishes to stand in opposition to authority, he does best to find support for his position from others in his group. The mutual support provided by men for each other is the strongest bulwark we have against the excesses of authority.”

Not Just Change But Justice: Toward a New Foreign Policy January 13, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Argentina, Barack Obama, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Foreign Policy, Latin America, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela.
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Click here to register for the February 15-17, 2009 Events in Washington, DC
Not just Change but Justice - Towards a New Foreign Policy
Join the February 2009 Events in Washington, DC:

  • February 15: SOA Watch Encuentro (9:00am – 4:30pm)
    Anti-Militarization Program (6:00pm – 9:00pm)
  • February 16: Grassroots Lobby Training (9:00am – 11:00am)
    Arts and Action Workshop (1:00pm – 4:00pm)
  • Feb. 16 and 17: Lobby Days to Close the SOA
    and Street Theater on Capitol Hill.

    Not just Change but Justice!

    Toward a New Latin America Policy

    The election of Barack Obama provides an opportunity for the United States to change its relationship with the other nations of the hemisphere. It is up to us, as advocates for justice in the hemisphere, to push the Obama administration to end the long legacy of using Latin America’s blood and gold for U.S. ends. Now is the time to ensure that the next administration brings to the Americas not just change, but justice. 

    During the presidential campaign, the LASC sent a letter to Obama in which it articulated 11 policy changes we would like to see happen under the new administration. The January/February issue of NACLA Report on the Americas will also feature articles advocating a new U.S. relationship with Latin America. The LASC and NACLA realize that in order to achieve these goals, it will take more than a change in the White House – it will take the kind of hard and persistent grassroots organizing that has brought the victories that we are seeing in Latin America.

    The two organizations have decided to combine their efforts to organize three events featuring activists and scholars aimed at building grassroots power and educating the public and policy makers on three broad topics, tentatively scheduled as follows:

    Topic: Anti-Militarization
    City: Washington, DC
    Date: February 15-17, 2009
    Co-sponsors and endorsing organizations: SOA Watch, CISPES, the Alliance for Global Justice, SHARE El Salvador, ElEnemigoCommun.net, ImaginAction.org, and the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

    Topic: Sovereignty and Democracy Manipulation
    City: Chicago
    Date: March
    Co-sponsors: Mexico Solidarity Network, Chicago Free the Five Committee, Campaign for Labor Rights, Nicaragua Solidarity Committee, and US-El Salvador Sister Cities

    Topic: Trade/Washington Consensus
    City: Bay Area
    Date: April
    Co-sponsors: Marin Task Force on the Americas, Nicaragua Information Center-Community Action, and Nicaragua Network

    We want you to be involved! This is an invitation for your organization, university, Latin American studies department, or student group to sponsor, host, and participate in planning these important events aimed at promoting a new U.S. policy toward our neighbors based on respect for sovereignty and self-determination, respect for democracy and elections, and respect for human rights.

    For more information, contact LASC c/o Alliance for Global Justice at AfGJ@AFGJ.org or NACLA at info@nacla.org.

    To endorse, sponsor, or offer to host one of the events, send an email to info@lasolidarity.org or call 202-544-9355.

    For general information visit www.LASolidarity.org and www.NACLA.org

  • Anti-Militarization
    February 15-17, 2009
    Come to Washington, DC!
    SOA Watch, the Latin America Solidarity Coalition (LASC), and the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) are planning a gathering during Presidents Day weekend in February.
    Join grassroots activists and organizers for a series of events for a new Latin America policy, against empire and militarization.

    The events start on Sunday, February 15 with reflection, discussion, and strategizing around the campaign to close the School of the Americas (SOA/ WHINSEC). The campaign is at a critical stage and we need everyone’s ideas, creativity and energy.

    The SOA Watch Encuentro will be followed by a 6:00-9:00pm Anti-Militarization Program, featuring activists, distinguished academics, and writers. The evening program will be looking at issues of US-Latin America relations specifically in the areas of militarization.

    On Monday, February 16, a Grassroots Lobby Training and an Arts and Action Workshop will take place in preparation for lobby visits and street theater on Capitol Hill on Monday and Tuesday, February 16/17, 2009.

    Click Here to Register Now!

    Click here for Housing in Washington, DC!

    Click here for Travel and Transportation Information

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