Labor Day — Point-Counterpoint

Guest Columnists



Point: Thanks to Labor Law Reform, Our Strong Economy Is Strong

By Glenn Spencer

As Labor Day dawns, the American economy is in good health. Unemployment remains under 4 percent, more than 2.4 million jobs have been created since Labor Day last year, and GDP has expanded briskly. While there are many factors responsible for our current state of affairs, regulatory reform must be included on the list.

This has been particularly true in the area of labor law. Take, for example, the Department of Labor. During the previous administration, the department imposed numerous mandates on employers, and there was a general tone implying that businesses were bad actors. An entire strategy was built around “shaming” employers and attempting to punish them even before allegations were fully adjudicated.

This attitude has changed under the Trump administration, giving businesses more opportunity to expand and helping serve as a catalyst to our country’s record economic growth.

Here are some highlights that illustrate how improved regulatory reform is working for America’s employers. First, the department repealed two guidance documents from the Wage and Hour Division, one that expanded joint-employer liability to hold businesses at fault for workplaces they don’t own or manage, and another that sought to limit strictly the use of independent contractors.

The Labor Department also withdrew an OSHA policy that allowed union organizers to accompany government officials on inspections of non-union worksites. It also fully repealed the Obama-era persuader regulation that sought to prevent employers from getting legal advice regarding unions.

In addition, the department is drafting a new overtime rule to replace the Obama-era regulation that was struck down by the courts, and the Wage and Hour Division is once again issuing opinion letters to ensure that employers understand how to comply with the law. While these are just a few examples, it is clear that the Labor Department is now emphasizing a common-sense approach to regulation and enforcement.

One can also look at the National Labor Relations Board, where the new majority has taken important steps to restore balance to labor law. In the previous administration, the NLRB repeatedly tossed out policies that had been in place for decades under both Republican and Democratic administrations, skewing the law to favor union interests above all else.

For starters, the board is working on a rule to reform the expansive and sweeping joint-employer standard established by the 2015 Browning-Ferris decision. Like the Labor policy, the NLRB’s joint-employer standard imposed new liabilities on businesses for workplaces they don’t own or manage and workers they don’t employ.

The board is also reviewing the Purple Communications decision, an Obama-era ruling that could essentially take away an employer’s ability to control his or her own e-mail systems. It has already overturned the Specialty Healthcare ruling that allowed unions to form small, fractured bargaining units, even in workplaces where a majority of employees has rejected unionization.

In addition, the NLRB has done away with the Obama-era policy of scrutinizing employee handbooks, under which the board could create labor law violations out of common-place and common-sense handbook policies. These included, for example, requiring courtesy in the workplace. Somehow the previous administration considered requiring professional behavior at work against the law.

Finally, the board has begun looking at changes to the “ambush” election rule. This was a regulation that sought to hold union elections as quickly as possible — even before it was determined who is eligible to vote.

These positive trends have unleashed new growth and opportunities for nearly all sectors of the economy, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urges Congress and the administration to continue to enact pro-growth policies and effective regulatory reform. However, a few clouds remain on the horizon as illustrated by legislation recently introduced by Senate Democrats that would undermine the strong economic growth we are now seeing.

These bills, given benevolent sounding titles like the Workplace Democracy Act and the Workers’ Freedom to Negotiate Act, would eliminate right-to-work laws in 27 states, once again forcing employees to pay union dues or lose their jobs. Both bills would strip away the democratic protections of a secret ballot during union organizing elections, exposing workers to coercion and intimidation. They would impose mandatory, binding arbitration for first contracts — potentially sticking workers and employers with unworkable contract terms. And most damaging, they would repeal the ban on secondary boycotts, meaning that a labor dispute with a single company could suddenly involve dozens of other businesses, giving unions a license to shut down entire segments of the economy.

While these bills will not be going anywhere in the current Congress, these radical proposals must not be ignored.

This administration deserves credit for giving businesses new opportunities, which have allowed our economy to prosper. Given the right circumstances, and continued regulatory reform, it should continue to do so.


Glenn Spencer is senior vice president of employment policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He wrote this for

Counterpoint: Labor Rules Are Rigged Against Workers

By Heidi Shierholz

The U.S. workforce comprises 156 million workers ― men and women, young and old, of every race and ethnicity. This workforce is the source of our economy’s strength; it is America’s workers who work hard, day in and day out, to generate the goods and services that move our country forward.

But even though these workers devote a huge part of their waking hours to the labor market, the labor market simply does not deliver for many of them. For most of the last four decades, the United States has suffered from rising inequality and anemic wage growth for most workers. While these trends have a number of causes, the common thread that binds them is the degradation of bargaining power of low- and moderate-wage workers.

This suppression of workers’ bargaining power has been so profound that even today’s 3.9 percent unemployment rate ― quite low compared to historical averages ― has not been enough to spur robust real wage growth for most workers.

This situation of weak economic leverage for most workers is not the unfortunate-but-inevitable result of natural trends in technology and global integration. Instead, it’s the product of decades of attacks on workers’ leverage by policymakers, either through direct action or through a failure to keep pace with evolving employer practices that wrest leverage from workers. The result is that the rules governing work in this country are rigged against working people from their first day on the job, leaving low- and moderate-wage workers with little bargaining power to demand their fair share of the growing economic pie.

The best guarantee for a fair workplace for workers is union representation and a collective bargaining agreement. And strong unions improve the wages and working conditions of all working people ― both workers in unions and workers who aren’t in unions ― since unions help raise standards. Unsurprisingly, a recent poll found that 60 percent of adults have a favorable view of labor unions.

However, as of 2017, only 10.7 percent of wage and salary workers were union members. This disconnect is the result of decades of fierce opposition to unions, with employers exploiting loopholes in outdated labor law to defeat workers’ organizing efforts while corporate lobbyists block attempts at reform.

Policymakers should stand up for U.S. workers and act now to put policies in place to help close the gap. For example, policies should be enacted to ensure that workers who want to form a union are able to do so free from employer intimidation and retaliation. This would include instituting meaningful penalties against employers and who illegally interfere with workers joining together to improve their wages and working conditions, and prohibiting employers from requiring workers to meetings designed to persuade them against voting in favor of a union.

Given that employers often cause long delays ― often years ― in the collective bargaining process when workers do overcome existing hurdles and successfully vote to form a union, policies should also be enacted to help ensure that when workers join a union they are able to reach a contract successfully by creating a mandatory mediation-and-arbitration processes. The law should also prohibit companies from permanently replacing striking workers, and these protections should also be extended to include workers engaged in “secondary strikes” or other protest actions in solidarity with striking workers.

In addition, policymakers should ban states from passing so-called “right to work” laws, which are intended to undermine the finances of private-sector unions by preventing them from being able to require that non-union bargaining-unit members — people that unions are required by law to represent — pay their fair share of the cost of that representation. Workers who want a union must be able to effectively finance the organization to ensure that they have a meaningful voice in the workplace.

We know how significant a force for a fair economy unions are by looking at how much their decline since the 1970s has contributed to inequality between middle- and high-wage workers: union decline can explain one-third of the rise in wage inequality among men and one-fifth of the rise in wage inequality among women from 1973 to 2007.

The kinds of policies described above will help halt and reverse the trend of declining union coverage and rising inequality. These are the types of reforms that are needed to help unrig the system and ensure fairness on the job for working people.


Heidi Shierholz is policy director at the Economic Policy Institute. She wrote this for

The Conversation

US prisoners’ strike is reminder how commonplace inmate labor is – and that it may run afoul of the law

August 30, 2018


Ruben J. Garcia

Professor of Law, Co-Director of UNLV Workplace Law Program, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Disclosure statement

Ruben J. Garcia does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


University of Nevada, Las Vegas provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

Prisoners in 17 U.S. states went on strike on Aug. 21 by refusing to eat or work to call attention to a number of troubling issues, including dilapidated facilities, harsh sentences and other aspects of mass incarceration in America.

As we approach Labor Day, the strike places a spotlight on the questionable practice of putting prisoners to work for very low or no wages. Examples of what incarcerated people do or have done include answering customer service phone calls, fighting wildfires, packaging Starbucks coffee and producing consumer goods such as lingerie.

But this practice may run afoul of several U.S. legal commitments – including the 13th Amendment ending slavery – and even violates voluntary codes of conduct of some of the companies involved.

I belong to a group of scholars of U.S. constitutional law, labor law and history from several universities, who see the 13th Amendment as about more than 19th-century slavery, even if that was its primary genesis.

Rather, we consider it a continuing obligation on governments and private companies to root out all forms of economic exploitation, even when it is done within prison walls.

Prisoners at work around the world

Prison labor is widely used in many countries throughout the world on every continent, involving an estimated 36 million people.

Proponents of forcing inmates to work justify it as a way for prisoners to repay their debt to society and to provide skills that will be useful at the end of prison sentences. They say it also partially offsets the high costs of mass incarceration, recently estimated at US$182 billion a year nationwide.

The U.S. government has often admonished other countries such as Burma and China for using forced labor to build pipelines or make goods or in times of national emergency. Yet the truth is, it’s just as prevalent in the U.S. as elsewhere, with the Department of the Navy and Minnesota among the governmental entities sued for minimum wage violations in prisons.

In fact, a 2004 economic analysis of labor in both state and federal prison estimated that in the previous year inmates produced more than $2 billion worth of commodities, both goods and services.

And many private businesses have used prison labor, such as Victoria’s Secret, Starbucks and Microsoft.

Even immigrants awaiting deportation proceedings were forced to do janitorial and clerical work for $1 a day at the private detention facilities where they were held, according to recent litigation. Inmates have claimed in lawsuits that they earned as little as 12 cents an hour – or nothing as all, as is legal in some states.

The 13th Amendment

Unlike other countries, however, forced prison labor in the U.S. must be reconciled with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is most famous for forbidding the practice of slavery.

The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, states in full:

“Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime for which the person has been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to its jurisdiction. Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this Article by appropriate legislation.”

The first section of the amendment makes clear that people convicted of a crime can be forced to work as punishment but says nothing about whether they have to be compensated.

And according to the second, Congress clearly has the power to regulate inmate labor in federal prisons but has not done so. Lawmakers have, however, passed other laws that may already apply to prisoners with jobs, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which guarantees a minimum wage and overtime to all of those employed in the U.S.

While some U.S. courts have suggested that prisoners working for private companies be paid like other employees, there’s been no definitive decision on this issue.

Expanding its meaning

The group to which I belong, known as the Thirteenth Amendment Project, aims to find ways to use the Amendment to reduce economic injustice in the U.S. and tackle problems such as minimum labor standards and mass incarceration.

In our view, the meaning of “involuntary servitude” in the amendment has a wider reach than simply the abusive arrangements that were in place in 1865. We believe it should also include modern conditions facing immigrant workers, detainees and workers bound to abusive contractual work arrangements – the kind that the Supreme Court struck down in the 20th century.

In addition, the Reconstruction-era drafters of the Amendment sought to prevent the newly freed slaves from becoming unfair competition in the labor force. So they instituted labor protections into the infrastructure of the Freedman’s Bureau, which Congress set up in 1865 to help former black slaves as well as poor whites in the South in the aftermath of the Civil War.

The Freedmen’s Bureau offers evidence of the role that Congress envisioned under the amendment to protect freed slaves and others against exploitation and unfair competition – which, in my view, are both at issue today in the context of unpaid prison labor.

International obligations

Beyond domestic law, there’s the issue of the United States’ obligations under international human rights conventions.

The U.S. is a member of the International Labor Organization, which as a core principle requires the elimination of forced and compulsory labor within its borders.

The organization also established a convention on forced labor in 1930. It makes clear that while governments in some circumstances can use forced labor, the work cannot be “hired or placed at the disposal of private individuals, companies or associations.”

The U.S. is one of only nine countries that have not ratified this convention, putting it in the company of countries like Afghanistan, China and Brunei. The reason often given is that the 13th Amendment already covers forced labor. But as I’ve shown, the question of compensation is an open one.

The strike’s legacy

The prisoners currently protesting their poor treatment and conditions probably may not expect that it will lead to the end of prison labor.

And whether or not the 13th Amendment or international conventions ultimately limit or end the practice – or at least require fair compensation – will likely depend on the United States Supreme Court.

The real success of the prison strike, set to last through Sept. 9, may be whether consumers become more aware that some of the coffee, clothing and even school supplies they buy may have passed through the hands of inmates, who were paid little to nothing for the work.

Meet Haiti’s founding father, whose black revolution was too radical for Thomas Jefferson

August 30, 2018


Julia Gaffield

Assistant Professor of History, Georgia State University

Disclosure statement

Julia Gaffield receives funding from the American Council of Learned Societies. She is affiliated with the Democratic Party.


Georgia State University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.

Crowds cheered as local lawmakers on August 18 unveiled a street sign showing that Rogers Avenue in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn would now be called Jean-Jacques Dessalines Boulevard, after a Haitian slave turned revolutionary general.

When Dessalines declared Haiti’s independence from France in 1804 after a 13-year slave uprising and civil war, he became the Americas’ first black head of state.

Supporting the French colonial perspective, leaders across the Americas and Europe immediately demonized Dessalines. Even in the United States, itself newly independent from Britain, newspapers recounted horrific stories of the final years of the Haitian Revolution, a war for independence that took the lives of some 50,000 French soldiers and over 100,000 black and mixed-race Haitians.

For more than two centuries, Dessalines was memorialized as a ruthless brute.

Now, say residents of Brooklyn’s “Little Haiti” – the blocks around Rogers Avenue, home to some 50,000 Haitian-Americans – it’s time to correct the record. They hope the newly renamed Dessalines Boulevard will burnish the reputation of this Haitian hero.

Opposition to Dessalines

Other New Yorkers aren’t so sure.

The New York City Council’s vetting committee labeled Dessalines a “possibly offensive historical figure,” tacitly referencing the massacre of French citizens that followed Haiti’s revolution.

Just after declaring independence, in early 1804, Dessalines discovered that local French colonists were plotting to overthrow his new government. He ordered all remaining French citizens in Haiti, except for a few French allies, to be killed.

My research indicates that between 1,000 and 2,000 white landowners and their families, merchants and poor French were executed, always in a very public fashion. Some estimates are as high as 5,000.

Dessalines, who protected all British, American and other non-French white people living in Haiti, justified the killings as a response to acts of war by France. Despite Haiti’s declared independence, French imperial forces continued to threaten invasion from their military outpost in Santo Domingo, modern-day Dominican Republic.

To his critics, however, Dessalines’ massacre amounted to ”white genocide.“

The limits to Jefferson’s vision of equality

In researching Dessalines for the biography I am writing, I found that that he was in many ways cut from the same cloth as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and other American revolutionaries.

Dessalines was an Enlightenment thinker who espoused life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And he was willing to use strategic, bloody violence to free his people from colonial rule.

But in his commitment to black equality he was far more radical than America’s founding fathers, who freed the U.S. from England but let black Americans stay in chains for another nine decades.

In June 1803, when Dessalines began planning for independence, he wrote to President Thomas Jefferson.

Like Americans, he reported, Haitians were “tired of paying with our blood the price of our blind allegiance to a mother country that cuts her children’s throats,” he said. They would fight for their freedom.

Jefferson never responded.

Dessalines’ vision of an autonomous black state – a nation founded by enslaved people who killed their colonial masters – alarmed the patrician Virginia plantation owner, Jefferson’s letters show. The U.S. was also being pressured by southern slave states and French and British diplomats to shun Haiti.

Rather than reckoning with the ills of racial oppression and colonialism, most prominent thinkers across the Americas and Europe interpreted Dessalines’ war as an example of African barbarity.

Haiti was run by a “hord of ferocious banditt” and led by “Barbarous Chieftains,” commented one British observer in 1804.

Pushing the Enlightenment further

This racist view of Dessalines persisted for two centuries.

Today, modern scholarship is redeeming Haiti’s founding father.

Dessalines challenged the universalist rhetoric of the 1789 French Revolution, when idealists toppled their monarchy demanding “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” – freedom, equality and fraternity.

Yet the French continued to use enslaved labor to produce sugar, coffee and other crops in the Caribbean. Dessalines said France had shrouded their colonies in a “veil of prejudice.” He insisted that true egalité required black liberty, too.

This radical vision of black empowerment is evident in Haiti’s 1804 Declaration of Independence, signed by Dessalines. In 2010 I located the only known extant copy of this stunning founding document, at the National Archives of the United Kingdom.

The 1805 Constitution that followed reaffirmed the abolition of slavery in Haiti, making it the first free black state in the Western Hemisphere.

It also eliminated official racial distinctions. According to Haiti’s Constitution, all Haitians, regardless of skin color, would be considered black in the eyes of the law. In Dessalines’ philosophy, race was an ideological concept. By securing Haitian citizenship, a person became black.

Under Dessalines’ rule, blackness was to be the source of freedom and equality – not bondage.

Haiti’s rejection on the world stage

Dessalines’ revolutionary fervor earned him international diplomatic isolation.

France refused to accept Haitian independence until 1825, when Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer agreed to pay 150 million francs – equivalent to US$21 billion today – for the loss of human and territorial “property.” To ensure compliance, French warships with loaded canons threatened the country from the harbor of Port-au-Prince.

Things also went badly for the newly independent Haiti in its own neighborhood.

Jefferson imposed an embargo on Haiti, cutting off trade with the country from 1806 to 1808, and the U.S. refused to recognize Haitian independence until 1862.

Dessalines was assassinated in 1806 by opponents within his own government.

A modern black hero

The international smear campaign almost succeeded in erasing Dessalines’ revolutionary legacy.

As one opponent to the Little Haiti street renaming claimed, Dessalines is “obscure to most Americans.”

Even within Haiti, Dessalines is overshadowed by the black Haitian military leader Toussaint Louverture, allegedly a more restrained and diplomatic revolutionary.

But as scholars have revised the long-dominant racist narrative about Dessalines, public interest in the abolitionist has grown.

As the Haitian-American New York Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte said in Brooklyn, the newly named Dessalines Boulevard is “undoing in a concrete and tangible way centuries of the trivialization of our history.”

Anorexia more stubborn to treat than previously believed, analysis shows

August 30, 2018


Stuart Murray

Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco

Disclosure statement

Stuart Murray received funding for this research from the National Institute of Mental Health. Also, he receives royalties from Oxford University Press and Routledge publishers for books relating to the treatment of eating disorders.


University of California provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.

Anorexia nervosa is a psychiatric illness that primarily effects young people during their adolescence. While anorexia is relatively uncommon, affecting about 1 percent of the population, it can be lethal. Indeed, despite its relatively early onset, anorexia can last for several decades for more than half of those afflicted. It can lead to many associated psychiatric and medical risk factors, which in part explains why anorexia has the highest mortality rates of any psychiatric disorder.

Those who suffer with anorexia have a powerful fear of weight gain and a cruelly distorted self-perception. As a result, some restrict caloric consumption to fewer than 400 calories per day, which is less than a quarter of what is typically recommended for adolescents. Those with anorexia may quickly become emaciated and lose more than 25 percent of their typical body weight. This rapid weight loss causes cardiac abnormalities, structural and functional brain alterations, irreparable bone disease, and in some instances, sudden death.

The effective treatment of anorexia is therefore very important.

I have specialized in the treatment of anorexia nervosa for 10 years, and my National Institute of Mental Health-funded program of research is exclusively focused on understanding the mechanisms of anorexia nervosa, with a view to informing precise treatment approaches. Colleagues and I recently completed the largest meta-analysis ever undertaken of outcomes for existing treatments for anorexia. Our analysis revealed major flaws in the way people are currently treated for this illness.

Changing the brain, not the body

We pooled the findings from 35 randomized controlled trials between 1980-2017, which cumulatively assessed the outcomes of specialized treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, in over 2,500 patients with anorexia. An important aspect of our study was that it examined outcomes according to both weight, and the core cognitive symptoms of anorexia, such as fear of weight gain and a drive for thinness. This differs from traditional assessments of whether treatments are effective, which have typically only focused on patient weight.

I am sad to say that what we found was bleak. In essence, specialized treatments for anorexia, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, family-based treatment and emerging medication treatments, appear to have few advantages over standard control treatment-as-usual, such as supportive counseling. In fact, the only advantage of specialized treatments, relative to control treatment-as-usual conditions, was a greater chance of having a higher weight by the end of treatment. We found no difference in body weight across specialized versus control treatments at follow-up.

In addition, we found no difference in the core cognitive symptoms of anorexia between specialized versus control treatments at any one point. This means that, even if a treatment helps restore normal weight, a focus on thinness and an unease around eating is common, and a relapse into low weight is likely. Equally importantly, specialized treatments do not appear to be more tolerable to patients, with comparable rates of patient dropout to control treatments.

When we analyzed time trends within these data over the last four decades, we found that the outcomes of specialized treatment are not incrementally improving over time.

More than weight

These findings are sobering. The notion that our best efforts to advance treatment outcomes over the last four decades have failed to move the needle is cause for grave concern.

However, an important outcome of this study lies in giving those of us who study and treat anorexia a better idea of how we might move the needle. We believe these findings speak to an urgent need to better understand the neurobiological mechanisms of anorexia. We can no longer assume that improvements in patient weight ought to be the terminal goal of treatment for anorexia, and will confer improvements in cognitive symptoms. While weight normalization reduces the acute risk of complex medical events, ongoing fear of weight gain and food intake will likely mean future bouts of low weight and starvation.

We have reached a plateau in the treatment of anorexia. Future research endeavors must elucidate the precise mechanisms that underpin cognitive symptoms of anorexia, and altering these mechanisms must become the goal of treatment.

Math shows how DNA twists, turns and unzips

August 30, 2018


Mariel Vazquez

Professor of Mathematics, University of California, Davis

Disclosure statement

Mariel Vazquez receives funding from the National Science Foundation (CAREER DMS 1519375, DMS 1716987 and DMS 1817156).


University of California provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.

If you’ve ever seen a picture of a DNA molecule, you probably saw it in its famous B-form: two strands coiling around each other in a right-handed fashion to form a double helix. But did you know that DNA can change its shape?

DNA molecules, which carry the genetic code of an organism, have to be tightly packed to fit inside a cell. However, every few hours, the cell produces a faithful copy of its genome in preparation for cell division. This replication process puts tremendous stress on the DNA and can change its shape in lethal ways.

As a mathematician and a biologist, I am interested in how mathematics can describe the many shapes of DNA, as well as cellular processes like DNA replication. The answers to these questions inspire new mathematics and possibly a better understanding of the molecule of life.

The shape of DNA

To understand the mathematics of the shape of DNA, you need to consider both its geometry and its topology. These are related but distinct concepts.

Geometry describes an object at a particular moment in time – frozen rigid in space, like a sculpture. In the cell, the DNA helix coils upon itself, or “supercoils.” The way DNA folds and coils encodes valuable geometric information that can be crucial to control the way genes are expressed.

Topology describes how an object deforms smoothly, as if made out of clay without making new holes or breaks. For example, imagine a rubber band tumbling around in a whirlpool. As the water swirls, the rubber band twists, stretches and shrinks. All of the shapes adopted by the band as it moves are topologically identical, but geometrically different.

Merely copying DNA creates a large number of shape-related problems, but textbook images rarely illustrate this topological conundrum.

During the cell cycle, each chromosome is replicated into two identical copies. In order for that to happen, the DNA helix must unwind, causing stress on the DNA. DNA responds to this stress by supercoiling, just like an old telephone cord. But the cell cannot tolerate too much supercoiling. If DNA contorts too much, the cell will suffer.

A DNA molecule can be linear – as in the case of human chromosomes – or circular. Examples of circular DNA molecules include bacterial chromosomes and human mitochondrial DNA. If the DNA molecule is circular, then cellular processes such as replication may tie DNA into knots or links, like rings in a keychain. DNA knots and links can cause cells to malfunction or even die.

Stabilizing DNA

Consider the bacterium E. coli. Its genetic code is found in one single DNA chromosome. In E. coli and other bacteria, the DNA double helix closes into a circle, like a twisted rubber band.

Replication of the E. coli chromosome can happen in as short as 20 minutes in a test tube. But when a circular chromosome is replicated, the process yields two interlinked chromosomes. That is, the new chromosomes form two rings linked through each other. The new chromosomes must unlink before the cell divides into two cells. Otherwise they would either break on the way to their target cell, or one cell would inherit two interlinked copies of one chromosome and the other one would be missing the chromosome altogether.

The cell recruits enzymes to unlink the DNA. Enzymes called topoisomerases and recombinases act as scissors and glue for DNA. They can change the geometry and topology of DNA, thus maintaining a stable genome. In E. coli, topoisomerases work tirelessly during and after replication to maintain healthy levels of supercoiling and to safely unlink the chromosomes.

When topoisomerases don’t work

When topoisomerases don’t work, the cell eventually dies. This makes them good targets for drug design. But cells have different types of topoisomerases and other enzymes such as recombinases that may be able to come to the rescue. For example, we showed that, in E. coli cells where the topoisomerases in charge of unlinking have been disabled, other enzymes called site-specific recombinases can untie replication links.

Both topoisomerases and site-specific recombinases bind double stranded DNA and can change its shape by introducing breaks. Type II topoisomerases introduce a break along the DNA molecule and transport another piece of DNA through the break before resealing it. Site-specific recombinases attach to two sites along the DNA, introduce one cut in each, then reconnect the ends.

My lab uses mathematics and computer simulations to understand how these enzymes unlink DNA molecules. While the local action is well understood on a biochemical level, how exactly enzymes simplify the topology of DNA is still a mystery.

In one of our studies, we focused on E. coli cells where the topoisomerases don’t work. We showed how to untie a replication link in the minimum number of steps.

In general, there can be many unlinking pathways. We use computer simulations to assign probabilities to each pathway. Our work indicates that, in the case of replication links, the simplest pathway is the one that enzymes most likely take.

Sophisticated mathematical methods can help explain how enzymes unlink DNA. Without mathematical modeling, researchers would be restricted to simplified models suggested by biological experiments.

This 19th-century argument over federal support for Christianity still resonates

August 30, 2018


David Mislin

Assistant Professor of Intellectual Heritage, Temple University

Disclosure statement

David Mislin does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Since taking office, President Trump and his administration have strongly championed religious liberty, but only of a particular kind. At this week’s White House dinner for evangelical leaders, Trump emphasized that the U.S. is a “nation of believers” and promised to protect religious liberty.

Trump’s proposed policies reflect the political goals of conservative evangelicals.

At a summit last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new “Religious Liberty Task Force” in the Justice Department to protect “people of faith” from “unjust discrimination” in all areas of life. Despite Sessions’ inclusive reference to “people of faith,” what was noteworthy was the presence of conservative Christians like Jack Phillips, the baker in the Masterpiece Cakeshop, who spoke at the summit.

Many critics have observed that demands for religious liberty do not extend to all religions, which prevents fair treatment. Others have noted that greater protections might harm women and LGBT Americans.

I recognize the merits of these critiques. However, largely absent from them is an equally powerful argument made over a century ago. Back then, some evangelical Christians argued that demands for government protection for Christianity signaled that their religion had failed.

The decline of Protestant influence

My research shows the late 19th century was a bad time for American Protestants. Agnosticism and atheism became popular, especially among younger intellectuals. Rising numbers of non-Protestant immigrants brought greater religious diversity.

These changes caused Protestants to lose the privileges they had enjoyed in public life, such as their control over many of the nation’s academic institutions. In one notable example, the school board in Cincinnati, Ohio, prohibited Bible reading in public schools. Catholics had objected that schools used a Protestant translation of scripture and officials agreed.

The evangelical Protestant amendment

Fearing similar cases, devout Protestants turned to the federal government. They supported an amendment first proposed during the Civil War that would have placed the language of evangelical Protestantism in the Constitution.

The amendment sought to include references to God and Jesus in the Constitution. It also declared the Bible “the supreme rule for the conduct of nations.” This final point was at odds with Catholic teaching. It made clear that the amendment was intended to placate only Protestants.

Supporters of the amendment had friends in high places. William Strong, a justice on the Supreme Court, led a group advocating its passage.

Much like Jeff Sessions, Strong urged protection for Christianity in the public sphere. The future of the religion was at stake. The justice warned that the Constitution must be made “explicitly Christian.” Otherwise, Christianity – specifically evangelical Protestantism – would be “obliterated” from the nation.

But other Protestants disagreed.

The religious critic

Among them was Washington Gladden. He was a minister who had grown up in a very devout family. Though he would become a leading religious liberal, Gladden was well within the mainstream of American Protestantism at the height of debates about the constitutional amendment.

In the 1870s, Gladden had great influence as religious editor of the New York Independent, one of the most read U.S. periodicals of the day. The paper had strong religious credentials. It proclaimed that in all its coverage it was “bound to the evangelical faith by the firm belief of its editors.”

The case against religious amendment

That belief, however, did not include endorsing government support of Protestantism. In his editorials, Gladden railed against the proposed amendment. The state was “not called to the inculcation or confirmation of religious truth,” he wrote.

Gladden invoked religious liberty – the same rhetoric President Trump and members of his administration have used to reassure modern evangelicals – to demand no special protection be made. Citizens should expect “equal footing for their faith, no matter what it may be,” rather than particular privilege.

Most boldly, Gladden argued that a religion that needed protection from government was a religion that had no reason to exist. He wrote on his editorial page,

“If our Christianity is of such a flimsy texture that nothing but a constitutional amendment will save it, the sooner it is obliterated the better for the land.”

Simply put, he insisted, religious people had to make their own case for their values. If they could not, they certainly did not deserve greater support. This was a controversial argument in what was largely a Protestant country, but other Protestants amplified it. Other Christian leaders came to see support for the amendment as a sign of weak faith.

A lesson for the Trump era?

Despite the backing of powerful men like William Strong, the Christian amendment failed. The nation’s Protestant leaders never came together in support of it.

While the religious critique was not the sole cause the amendment’s failure, Gladden’s line of argument was powerful. It shamed the amendment’s supporters by arguing that their demands were antithetical not only to American values but to Christian ones as well. Demands for government support only confirmed evangelical Christianity’s impotence.

History suggests it is a rhetorical strategy that critics of the Trump administration’s religious liberty policies might do well to revisit.


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