a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Nailing down the new normal: Walmart, Obamacare, and part-time, low wage America

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 7th December 2012

Last week the Huffington Post’s Alice Hines reported,

Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, plans to begin denying health insurance to newly hired employees who work fewer than 30 hours a week, according to a copy of the company’s policy obtained by The Huffington Post.

Under the policy, slated to take effect in January, Walmart also reserves the right to eliminate health care coverage for certain workers if their average workweek dips below 30 hours — something that happens with regularity and at the direction of company managers.

As several experts contacted for the story noted, the story is of a piece with other corporate actions responding to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with labor cutbacks, such as the Papa John’s, Applebee’s and Olive Garden/Red Lobster announcements (discussed a couple of weeks ago on this blog) that the companies intended to move workers from full-time to part-time status to take advantage of provisions in the ACA.

“Walmart likely thought it didn’t need to offer this part-time coverage anymore with Obamacare,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “This is another example of a tremendous government subsidy to Walmart via its workers.”  […] 

For Walmart employees, the new system raises the risk that they could lose their health coverage in large part because they have little control over their schedules. Walmart uses an advanced scheduling system to constantly alter workers’ shifts according to store traffic and sales figures.

[…] in recent interviews with The Huffington Post, several workers described their oft-changing schedules as a source of fear that they might earn too little to pay their bills. Many said they have begged managers to assign them additional hours only to see their shifts cut further as new workers were hired.

The new plan detailed in the 2013 “Associate’s Benefits Book” adds another element to that fear: the risk of losing health coverage. According to the plan, part-time workers hired in or after 2011 are now subject to an “Annual Benefits Eligibility Check” each August, during which managers will review the average number of hours per week that workers have logged over the past year.

As Marcy Wheeler (“emptywheel”) pointed out, she had already seen in late 2009 that “incenting s#!t plans” was an advertised feature of the developing health care “reform”, not a bug.  Writing that the proposal was “a Plan to Use Our Taxes to Reward Wal-Mart for Keeping Its Workers in Poverty,” she explained in 2009,

…if Wal-Mart wanted to avoid paying anything for its employees under MaxTax, it could simply make sure that none of them made more than $14,403 a year (they’d have to do this by ensuring their employees worked fewer than 40 hours a week, since this works out to be slightly less than minimum wage). Or, a single mom with two kids could make $24,352–a whopping $11.71 an hour, working full time. That’s more than the average Wal-Mart employee made last year. So long as Wal-Mart made sure its employees applied for Medicaid (something it already does in states where its employees are eligible), it would pay nothing. Nada, zip. Nothing.

The upshot?  Congratulations, America: you’re “subsidizing the gutting of our local economy so that the descendants of Sam [Walton] could continue to get disgustingly rich.”  Read the rest of this entry »

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How many more “Our Virginia” textbooks are there?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 27th October 2010

Last week, the Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff reported that William and Mary professor Carol Sheriff had discovered a blatant, “Lost Cause” Civil War lie in her daughter’s 4th grade history textbook written by one Joy Masoff:*

In its short lesson on the roles that whites, African Americans and Indians played in the Civil War, “Our Virginia” says, “Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.” […]

No they didn’t
The assertion is patently false, Sheriff told the Virginia Gazette:

There is no credible evidence that two battalions of African American soldiers fought under the command of Stonewall Jackson. After consulting with three of my William and Mary colleagues who also teach and research Civil War history, who also had never encountered any such evidence, I wrote to James I. Robertson, a Virginia Tech professor who is the foremost scholar of Stonewall Jackson, and asked him if he had ever seen any evidence to corroborate this point. He stated categorically that no such evidence existed. Prof. Robertson explained to me, “Had there been Confederate black units surely some officer in an official report would have mentioned it. Yet the 128 volumes of the mammoth Official Records [of the War of the Rebellion] are completely silent on the subject.” I also contacted Prof. Joseph Glatthaar, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor, who has written a highly claimed book called General Lee’s Army. He declared the claim “simply wrong.”

The “blacks fought for the South” claim has obvious attractions for Confederate apologists, eager to advance the claim that antebellum and wartime relations between slaves and masters were amicable and mutually loyal.  “Lost Cause” loyalists seem to have inflated the mere consideration of the idea of arming Southern slaves — and isolated incidents of slaves protecting themselves or their masters — as proof that a policy was actually implemented.

Not surprisingly, these will o’ the wisp notions were never implemented in any scope even resembling Masoff’s claim — drawn, it turned out, from a “Sons of Confederate Veterans” website — and never could have been. According to Bruce Levine‘s “Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War,” it ran afoul of reality — both among blacks, who preferred to flee to Union lines whenever possible, and among whites who were loathe to release slaves to service and contended (rightly) that the war was about keeping slaves, not freeing them or detailing them off to battle.  In his review of the book, Yale professor David Blight explains:

The most revealing feature of Levine’s argument is his analysis of motivation among the advocates of a black soldier policy. Davis and Lee, he contends, were never the enlightened advocates of emancipation their Lost Cause defenders, as well as some distinguished biographers, have fashioned. They were staunch Confederate nationalists, determined to do whatever it took to win a war of southern independence, and in so doing, preserve ultimate control over blacks in the post-war South. […] …as Levine makes clear, those Confederates who supported black enlistment coupled with emancipation did so in the hope of controlling the lives, prospects, and especially the labor of the people they would free. Their best intentions were thwarted by both their own caution and by African Americans themselves, who chose by the hundreds of thousands to flee to and join the armies in blue rather than gray.

What “contributions” black Americans did make to the Confederate cause were, as one might expect, by dint of involuntary slave labor: digging trenchworks, laying rails, and continuing to tend the cotton fields of the South.

So how did this textbook make it into Virginia schools?
Masoff —  who also owns the Five Ponds Press publishing company that published the book — says “It’s just one sentence. I don’t want to ruffle any feathers. If the historians had contacted me and asked me to take it out, I would have.” For her part, Sheriff was at pains to note that “To my knowledge, there is no evidence that would suggest a coordinated effort by state educational officials to rewrite history for the purpose of instilling in children pro-Confederate sympathies, or to confuse them deliberately.”

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The case of the missing half-time teacher

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 21st July 2009

French immersion, Jerry Weast, and the future of the Montgomery County Public School System

Our little girl is not so little any more: she just finished fifth grade in June.  Soon after, like many kids at the end of their elementary school years, she and her classmates went on a class trip.  Unlike most fifth graders, however, this trip was to Quebec, Canada, and my daughter and her classmates conversed in fluent French with the tour guide, hotel staff, and assorted other Quebecois.

Fifth grade class trip to Quebec: future diplomats, businesswomen,
scientists, and scholars understanding and speaking fluent French.
If this is a boutique program, it’s a triumph, and we need more of them.
Video by Madeleine Nephew.

To the right is a video Maddie took while on a guided bus tour of the city.  I took a few years of French way back in junior high school and high school.  But even back then, I think I’d have had next to no idea what the tour guide was jabbering on about.  The kids, by contrast, are understanding the tour guide, answering questions, and likely joking with and about each other — all in French.

It’s all thanks to one of the hidden gems — all too well-hidden, perhaps — of Montgomery County, Maryland’s public schools (MCPS): a French immersion program that comprises about half of the student body at Sligo Creek Elementary School in Silver Spring.  The program is one of seven K-5 language immersion programs in the system. *

Language immersion programs are exactly what they sound like: kids are dropped into a kindergarten setting in which the teacher speaks only French from the time the kids walk into the room until the time they leave for home.  By the end of kindergarten — much sooner, really — they’re doing all the things any kindergartener does: lining up for lunch, singing songs, drawing pictures, starting to read stories — all while instructed in French.  And by the end of fifth grade, they’re doing much more sophisticated projects; for her part, Maddie did one on “la lutte pour le vote des femmes americaines” — a nicely written, five page poster history of American women’s struggle for the vote.

The case of the missing half time teacher
While looking over the MCPS web site one evening in January, my wife came across a “Q&A” exchange (between school board members and MCPS staff about the 2010 budget.  Question 10 read: “Will the reduction of 8.7 elementary special program teacher positions impact the French Immersion classes at Sligo Creek Elementary School?” The answer — unbeknownst to the school administration until my wife told them about it — was yes, but don’t worry about it too much:

Read the rest of this entry »

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Horrors – a deliberate program of bilingualism

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 1st June 2006

Muttering to himself at the Corner, John Derbyshire discovers there’s a Spanish immersion school in his community and decides it’s an elitist plot:

No offense to anyone, but I think this is awful. I wouldn’t mind if it were being done with some other language—-Latin, say, or Hungarian, or Sumerian, or Chinese. Since it’s being done —- and ONLY being done —- in Spanish, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that this is part of a deliberate program of Hispanicization on the part of our political and bureaucratic elites.

Relax, Derbyshire, it’s not necessarily a pro-immigrant conspiracy. In my county (Montgomery County, Maryland), anyway, there are Chinese, Spanish and even — ulp! — French immersion programs in public grade schools as well. The idea is that by challenging very young children to have to understand and speak a second language, they will do so.

It works — my little girl, now in 2d grade, has been in a French immersion program since kindergarten and speaks French quite well now (at least as far as I can tell: better vocabulary and much better accent than mine). To answer a common concern, there’s also been no perceptible impact on her ability to read English — she just picked up that up in passing, possibly either because we read to her a lot, because she’s bright and figured out the skill wasn’t all that different, and/or because most children have a knack for learning stuff they’re interested in. Who knows? I was never all that worried about it.

Derbyshire continues:

The logical end-point of this path will be the situation in Quebec, where a person not bilingual — in our case, in English and Spanish — will be at a disadvantage in the job market. Is this a thing Americans actually want? Did anyone ask us?”

“The situation” in Quebec — saints preserve us! To answer his questions: yes; yes. (Of course, perhaps no one specifically asked you how to educate the young, John; I can’t imagine why.) I admit I sometimes talk about “poor monolinguals” when I’m at home, but that’s just my particular elitist sense of humor.

But seriously, it’s hard to know what to make of this, other than that maybe it’s a joke. While Derbyshire seems to prefer relatively useless languages — Sumerian? Hungarian? Latin? — if a real-world school district in this country could afford only one such program, it would stand to reason it would be Spanish. And as Matthew Yglesias remarks,

Speaking a foreign language well is, after all, a useful skill which is precisely why there are so many people on the planet who know more than one. … It’d be good to have more people who know foreign languages better, just like it’d be good to have more people who know math better, and to have a better educated, more knowledgeable population generally.

To be fair and balanced — always a goal here at “newsrack” — distaste for bilingual education can cut across political divides. Back when we were deciding whether to try to enroll our girl in the French immersion program, you could sometimes pick up the impression from other parents in our (relatively liberal) neighborhood that we were selling out on values like “diversity” or “neighborhood schooling” by seeking out a more distant school and a program that didn’t emphasize diversity per se.

The common thread is that enriching the education of our child is deemed to be some kind of luxury — and one that’s supposed to take a back seat to whatever political agenda is being peddled. Sacre bleu, Dummkoepfe! Schools are where kids should learn as much as they can. The rest is gravy at best, and a distraction at worst.

UPDATE, 6/2: A followup e-mail clues “Derb” in about “dual immersion” programs — half in English, half in Spanish, for half native English and half native Spanish speaking students. The correspondent describes it as an “upscale” and a “Yuppie” thing (I wish), and Derbyshire seems not to like it, either. Whatever.

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Toyota spurns richer offers from U.S. to build in Canada

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 5th August 2005

Toyota has announced it will be building a 1,300 worker car factory in Woodstock, Ontario. But the reason it picked the Canadian location over American ones isn’t just the $125 million kicked in by the Canadian and Ontarian governments. Steve Erwin of CBC News explains:

Several U.S. states were reportedly prepared to offer more than double that amount of subsidy. But [president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association] Fedchun said much of that extra money would have been eaten away by higher training costs than are necessary for the Woodstock project.

He said Nissan and Honda have encountered difficulties getting new plants up to full production in recent years in Mississippi and Alabama due to an untrained – and often illiterate – workforce. In Alabama, trainers had to use ‘pictorials’ to teach some illiterate workers how to use high-tech plant equipment.

Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada president Ray Tanguay confirmed that the expertise of Canadian workers was a factor in the decision, and Canadian industry minister David Emmerson asserted that Canadian workers are actually $4 to $5 cheaper to employ than American workers because of the taxpayer-funded Canadian health care system. Via Facing South, where Chris Kromm adds,

…now companies are waking up to the limitations of locating in a state that cares more about handing out tax breaks than investing in its people.

Unfortunately, state leaders haven’t caught on — indeed, states like North Carolina expanded their corporate give-away programs in the last legislative session.

For more on the issue, see also Kromm’s article in the Independent Weekly, “The Great NC jobs scam,” where he discusses Greg LeRoy’s recent book, “The Great American Jobs Scam.”

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Its time!

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th May 2005

Its time to wake up! Its time to gete dressde. Its time to wace (walk) to school. No run! cwik its time! Be on time! No!!!!! Were late! Relly late! Time to go bake home! Kids are waking (walking) out of school! Were too late to learne today! To bad! I can’t learne math my:, fevorit! To bad says a boy making fun of me! He was a 5th Grader being mine (mean). Ugwel. (Usual.) Normel. To bad for me!

— from “Poems/sas”, (essays… and/or short fiction) written and read to me with gales of laughter by Maddie, age 7

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Man Ray?! Okay

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th February 2004

“…there’s not enough art in our schools,” this ad for Americans for the Arts concludes.

I support more art in school, but knowing about Man Ray seems like a weird yardstick to measure progress by. I’d settle for kids knowing about Picasso or Rembrandt, or more importantly, having a chance to draw, sculpt, and make music in school. Maybe even more than once or twice a week. On the other hand, maybe “settling” is the problem. So good for these guys after all.

As far as the arguments the organization presents, I don’t doubt there are some tangible benefits to art education, but I’m just as interested in the intangible ones. So something countering the everything-must-have-a-rising-test-score approach to education is fine with me.

Maddie gets one music hour and one art hour per week at her kindergarten, and then sometimes more-or-less canned connect-the-dots type “art” activities connected to other ideas (math, French, etc.) during the day. She makes up for it with practically non-stop drawing, doodling, doll play, story-telling, etcetera once she gets home. Go Maddie go!

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Madeleine va a l’ecole

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th September 2003

Yeah, there are probably a couple of accents missing up there.

The main drama of the last couple of weeks has been Maddie’s jump up from easy-going day care days to the big time of Montgomery County, Maryland public school kindergarten. It’s been an education all around.

There wouldn’t have been any drama to speak of had we not been told two days after classes began that a spot in the “French immersion program” at a different elementary school had opened up. These are classes where the teachers speak only French; we’re told over half the kindergarteners are speaking reasonably well by the end of the school year, and virtually everyone is by the end of first grade.

Maddie’s an old hand at changing schools now, but not after two days. She’d already become attached to the kindergarten teacher and classmates, and there were repeated melt-downs when the subject of the new school came up.

We’re pretty sure the notification could have come before classes started, since the drop-out family had to notify some other county school during the summer that they were coming. Given the predictable hurt to a five year old soul, I wish they’d made more of an effort to not put kids through a kindergarten switch. Dream on, I guess.

With regrets that there weren’t German immersion classes in my area, I was pretty sure I wanted Maddie in this kind of school for a couple of reasons. One is that I’m sold on the benefits of knowing a second language — the wider horizons, the intangibles of knowing there’s more than one way to express something. The other, related a bit to the Gatto article I mentioned on Sunday, is that I hope that both the students and teachers will be challenged and motivated in ways that go beyond the usual classroom experience.

Ironically, it turns out that part of the approach is to emphasize routines and be repetitive even more than in regular kindergarten; at an orientation meeting I went to, the teacher said “we have a song for everything, and we sing them.” It may be repetitive, but it has an educational purpose.

The staff are nice, Maddie’s teacher was nice the one time I’ve met her. But you get the impression they either believe or know that they’re right on the edge of handling the class sizes (22 per class) and programs they’re trying to handle. That may add to the need for routines, I’m afraid. Beyond the language barriers — teacher to Maddie to us — there’s also a practice of keeping parents at bay that takes some getting used to: no access to the classroom, little contact beyond notes with the teacher.

We already look back on the Maddie’s prior situation, the day care provider School for Friends, as a kind of halcyon, happy interlude. The teachers there let kids follow their noses to whatever activity they wanted.

She’s in the program now, and has more or less adjusted. The school is bigger than the first one, which has an impact when kids come to school in the morning. The school has all the kids wait in line until the school doors open, with the kindergarten kids at the front of the line. This has the unintended effect of creating a scary, noisy gauntlet of “big kids” for my gentle little girl to walk through, and just the thought of it can reduce her to tears. There’s no meanness by the older kids, they’re just being regular, noisy kids for a few more precious minutes before order is imposed.

Worry, smile, worry. We had to arrange switching Maddie’s lunch program money to the new cafeteria. Maddie and I walked there with her sweet little voice proudly giving me the directions, her warm hand in mine. We sat down and waited for the manager to arrive; looking around, I saw a poster that said “TEASING HURTS,” and wondered whether it will prompt more “hey! Let’s tease Maddie, that’ll hurt” responses than it prevents. Give it a rest, Dad. She’ll be OK. I hope.

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Against school

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 15th September 2003

…is the title of the quaintly unlinkable feature article in the September Harper’s Monthly. The author, John Taylor Gatto, is “a former New York State and New York City Teacher of the Year.” He is now something of an education gadfly; the Harper’s article is a thought-provoking and sometimes glorious polemic that apparently draws from Gatto’s “The Underground History of American Education.”

In Harper’s, Gatto writes:

…if we wanted to we could easily and inexpensively jettison the old, stupid structures and help kids take an education rather than merely receive a schooling. We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness — curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight — simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids to truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then.[…]

…a considerable number of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln? Someone taught them, to be sure, but they were not products of a school system, and not one of them was ever “graduated” from a secondary school.* […]

… Once you understand the logic behind modern schooling, its tricks and traps are fairly easy to avoid. School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they’ll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology — all the stuff schoolteachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. […]

After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.


This is on the occasion of my Maddie’s entry into kindergarten — even if it is a special one; more on that some other time, maybe. During our reintroduction to public schools, both my wife and I were taken aback by the long-forgotten atmosphere of drill, lines, announcements over speakers, etcetera that our gentle, brilliant little pumpkin now found herself in. And this in what is widely and no doubt accurately considered a model school in an exemplary county school system.

Maddie adapted quickly to that challenge and more. Adapting is practically her middle name. But adapting to what? As Gatto points out, “…you can’t test for reflexive obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn, and do, foolish and boring things.”

Gatto’s article is more than just polemics, but I don’t know the history involved well enough to judge the rest. Briefly, Gatto sees a direct, conscious, imitative adoption of the Prussian military state’s school system, called for by educators like Horace Mann of the mid 1800s and brought to fruition, or at least recognized for the social engineering it was, by early 1900s educators like Alexander Inglis. Gatto recommends interested readers consult James Bryant Conant’s 1959 book The Child, the Parent, and the State (friendly little title, ain’t it?) to learn more for themselves. Conant credited Inglis’ “revolution” for the 1950s successes, such as they may have been, of American schooling. (Conant helped develop the SAT testing system.)**

I don’t mean to make a little rebel without a cause out of Maddie. But I think her mother and I agree we also don’t mean to force her to adapt to boredom, or to someday enter on exhausting rounds of self-betterment and resume-building after school. I don’t intend to go the private school or home schooling routes with Maddie. But I also don’t intend to measure her by the same yardsticks a school system uses; their purposes and motives may well not be the same as mine, or, more importantly as the years go on, as Maddie’s. I’m glad Gatto reminded me of that.

* Gatto provides plenty of other examples of non high-school graduate American luminaries: Edison, Farragut, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Melville, Twain, Conrad, Mead.
** To be fair, Conant et al would have some rebuttal points to Gatto, I think. For example, it may be that standardized testing has helped create a system of unnecessarily standardized education, but it may also be that’s preferable to the class- and connections-based system prior to ETS and SATs. And while Prussia is a useful bogeyman in Gatto’s account, by the late 1800s its industrial development and scientific prowess were the envy of the modernizing world. Emulating its school system may have indeed been a worthy reform compared to the status quo, whether or not we should stick with all elements of that system today.

Formatting note: Since it’s my convention to use italics when quoting other people’s words, I’ve substituted the use of bold type in the pull quotes above for the author’s use of italics.

UPDATE, 9/18: There are now at least a couple of web sites with the full text of “Against School,” one by Devi Khuit and another by Mary Leue.

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Now you can go to MIT, too, kind of

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 5th July 2003

Via the German news weekly Die Zeit, I came across “MITOpenCourseWare, “a free, open, publication of MIT Course Materials”. The web site explains:

MIT OpenCourseWare is:

A publication of MIT course materials

Free and open to the world.

MIT OpenCourseWare is not:

A degree- or certificate-granting program.

An MIT education.

MIT OpenCourseWare is … pretty cool. The OpenCourseWare folks at MIT have had to get voluntary cooperation from professors. Die Zeit reporter Christoph Droesser writes:

The data collectors face a dilemma: they have a collection targets, but no way of pressuring the professors to release their treasures. Because the professors cooperate voluntarily. That’s why the OCW liaisons boot up [antiquated professors’] laptops, work their way through cartons full of unsorted materials, or copy lecture materials. “It’s our motto that we ask the professors to do as little as possible,” says [OCW faculty liaison] Abe Dane in describing his delicate task. And thus the materials are of quite varied value. In each case, and the project tries to make this clear to the professors again and again, what is made available is raw material that the professors could not use to earn money elsewhere. They’re not losing any business — and if they want, they can turn the scripts into a course book. The copyright always stays with the author.

Among the courses:

  • Congress and the American Political System
  • America in Depression and War
  • Cognitive and Behavioral Genetics
  • Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs
  • Magic, Witchcraft, and the Spirit World (!)
  • Shakespeare, Film and Media
  • Hands-on Astronomy: Observing Stars and Planets

    While I’m at it, let me also point out that several blogging professors make very interesting syllabi or even books available, including

  • Brett Marston: Constitutional Law, Civil Liberties, and more.
  • Mark Kleimann: Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results
  • Tim Burke: The Social History of Consumption

    … and doubtless many others. But my better half says “Come on, wrap it up. Post it — forget about it,” and I hear and obey.

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