The Perils of Make-Work

Re Michael Robbins’s review of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs [“Looking Busy,” Dec. 3/10]: When I was in college at age 19 back in the 1970s, I felt I had two choices for a summer job: waitressing or working at the Tampax factory in Rutland, Vermont. Being shy, I chose the latter: second shift, standing for eight hours stuffing two Tampaxes into a plastic “purse container” and then setting the container on a conveyor belt to be pushed into a box of 40.

Apparently, there was a limit to how many “free” purse containers would be included in a box of 40, so I was occasionally reassigned to do “cleanup.” This meant standing at an open bin into which defective tampons were dumped. My job was to separate the components: string over here, cardboard over there, paper and cotton elsewhere.

One day, I was assigned to “cleanup” for eight hours straight and then again on the following day—and on that second day I discovered my limit. I went to my supervisor and announced that I was going home and that she could give me a call when she had some real work for me. Then I went home and wept at my failure. I had lasted four weeks.

I’m glad that David Graeber has called a spade a spade. And the Tampax factory wasn’t the only bullshit job in my working life, just the first or second of many. I’m very glad to be retired.

Katherine Clark
montpelier, vt.

Government Workers, Unite!

In “Banking on Unions” [Nov. 12], Mike Konczal suggests a method to remedy working conditions in banks like Wells Fargo, where workers were pressured to sell customers services that they didn’t need and created fake accounts to meet the required quotas. Konczal’s suggested remedy: unionization. If any employee were ordered or pressured to commit an unlawful or unethical act, the complaint would be addressed by the union so the employee would be protected from retaliation. This benefit would be in addition to the union bargaining for fair pay and better working conditions.

With Wells Fargo in mind, as well as the malfeasance of politically appointed agency directors, how about creating a confederated union of all federal-agency employees? Such a union could counter the illegal actions demanded by directors intent on thwarting the intended purposes of their assigned agencies. It’s critically important to empower those who are asked to bend or break the rules to refuse to do so without retribution.

James Weatherspoon
st. cloud, fla.

The Edible Is Political

As a longtime subscriber to The Nation and the author of Food Politics and other books on this topic, I was dismayed to read the following exchange in Jon Wiener’s interview with Amy Wilentz [“Michelle Obama’s Carefully Scrubbed Memoir,” online Nov. 30]:

JW: I wonder if it’s possible that Michelle Obama actually is not a political person. Maybe the things she cares most about really are childhood obesity and healthy eating. We would like her to be more political, more of a progressive Democrat—but maybe she isn’t.

AW: But remember that, for her, those issues—childhood obesity and the “Let’s Move” idea—are political issues. It’s not like decorating the White House.

Childhood obesity most definitely is a political issue and for everyone, not just Michelle Obama. Childhood obesity is directly linked to the corporatization of America; to discrimination based on race or gender; to income inequalities; to the increasing privatization of what used to be public goods; to depressed wages; to immigration policies; to lack of a decent health-care system; and, not least, to current divisions in Americans’ views of what our society should look like.

If “Let’s Move” seems apolitical in retrospect, it’s because of the intense opposition it faced from those who understood perfectly well that taking on childhood obesity meant, in essence, taking on the entire trillion-dollar-a-year food industry and everything else that backs up our current food system.

I’ve always wondered whether Michelle Obama knew just how political childhood obesity would be when she took it on, or whether she thought it was something that would easily attract widespread bipartisan support. I suspect the latter and am not convinced by assurances that she knew it would be a fight. The White House Task Force Report on Childhood Obesity produced a mixed bag of objectives for “Let’s Move,” out of which she picked two that appeared especially supportable: access to healthy food in low-income communities and healthier school food. But the pushback, especially on school food, was ferocious. That’s why the new school-food rules, compromised and unfunded as they were, seemed like a political triumph.

Marion Nestle
Professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health, emerita, at NYU
New York City

Jon Wiener Replies

Marion Nestle is, of course, right about this. I should have said something like, “Childhood obesity is a political issue, but that’s not the way Michelle Obama presents it in the book.” Sadly, in listing her accomplishments, “Let’s Move” and the White House garden come after commissioning new china for the newly redecorated dining room.

Jon Wiener
los angeles


D.D. Guttenplan’s article “The Wave Hits a Wall” [Dec. 3/10] mistakenly described Colorado Governor-elect Jared Polis’s platform as anti-fracking. In fact, while Polis was once an opponent of fracking, he had reversed that position by the time of the election.

In Rozina Ali’s “Marijuana Comes to Coalinga” [Dec. 17/24], Ocean Grown Extracts was described as cultivating cannabis at Coalinga’s converted Claremont prison complex. So far, the company is only manufacturing cannabis products there.

Also in Ali’s piece, a quote that first appeared in a 2016 article in The Guardian was misattributed to Damian Marley. It was Marley’s manager who gave the original quote to the newspaper.