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What Should Labor Law Do?

[ 1 ] July 5, 2015 |


Today is the 80th anniversary of the National Labor Relations Act.

Of course, the NLRA is hardly working for workers these days, with regulatory capture and unfriendly court decisions creating a regime that keeps all the restrictions on workers and eliminates all the benefits. The extent to which labor should hope to keep using the old legal regime is a big debate within labor circles. Lane Windham weighs in, going over the basics and concluding:

The best way to fix the Wagner Act and to restore workers’ freedom to form union is to lighten the work we expect this 80-year-old law to do. All workers need a guaranteed basic annual income, all workers need full access to health care, and all workers deserve to retire with guaranteed dignity—whether they have a union or not. Once our nation guarantees universal social wage benefits for our workers, employers will have less incentive to wage war on unionizing efforts, and the Wagner Act may once again be a potent tool for bringing democracy and worker empowerment to the nation’s rapidly changing workplaces.

OK, but can I have a pony too? I mean, sure, it’d be great to have universal basic income, Swedish-style health care, and great retirement benefits. But to say that we should quit worrying about labor law until we get these things means that we will never worry about labor law again because these goals will probably never happen in American society. Or it will take decades if we are being optimistic. A scenario of New Deal-esque social legislation before getting to these other issues is, to say the least, not a realistic one. At the very least, Windham should have laid out some framework for when this was going to happen and I’m surprised the editors of the piece didn’t push her on this.

Sex Offender Registeries

[ 25 ] July 5, 2015 |

Sex offender registries are a great injustice and need to be stopped. While there is some value in tracking real sex offenders, a lot of these people have done nothing more than had sex with a slightly underage woman when they were themselves young men or, as in the case linked above, hooked up with a woman online who was lying about her age. To damn these people for life is a horrible crime, leaving people unable to find work or a home, stigmatized for decades. The registries are another example of the overreaction to crime in the 1980s and like drug crime sentencing and three strikes laws, need to be severely revised.


[ 29 ] July 4, 2015 |


So I finally watched Selma. A few observations long after the debate has dissipated.

1. The main issue in the Selma debate was the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. Critics said the portrayal was too cynical and didn’t give LBJ his due. Phooey. First, this isn’t a documentary. Second, at the core of the LBJ defense was pointing out how much he did and how much we should honor him. That’s fine, but it also borders on the hagiographic. LBJ was a politician with a lot on his plate who really would have preferred not to deal with any of this, as the film effectively shows. By thinking of Johnson as a hero of the civil rights movement, it reinforces the unfortunate way progressives look at political leaders (Obama primarily) as the people who should guide us and then are disappointed when they don’t. That’s our problem, not the politicians. The film effectively shows how politicians respond to intense political campaigning. That’s the lesson of the film. And it’s a valuable one. No politician will ever be a solution.

2. The film does an effective job of delineating the factions developing in the civil rights movement by 1965. But it does give short shrift to the radical SNCC ideas that will quickly become prevalent under Stokely Carmichael’s leadership.

3. The film really underplays the amazing grassroots work of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth in Selma and that’s unfortunate.

4. The film also could have done more with Diane Nash and the role of women in the movement.

5. I thought the film actually soft sold the hatred of whites, largely making the violence look like an official response than a popular one. The only time the word “nigger” was actually spoken during the film was when the white priest from Boston was beaten to death. This was telling. The film did pull some punches in making connections to the present as well.

6. As a U.S historian with a pretty deep, although not expert-level background in the civil rights movement, I was frustrated early in the film by the characters saying so many obvious things that the actual people would have already known. But then my wife, a Latin American historian with a reasonable background in these issues, didn’t know all the details. So it’s hard being an Americanist watching films about American history. But what can be done?

7. David Oyelowo was very good as MLK. And I’m glad the casting went to a relatively unknown actor.

8. I laughed out loud when Tim Roth was playing George Wallace. Great casting. Had I seen it in the theater, it’s unlikely my fellow patrons would have laughed alongside me.

9. The only explanation for Ava DuVernay not getting a best director nomination in the Academy Awards is the racism/sexism combo. You have got to be kidding me.

10. I would love to see a movie about King after Selma. The failures of the Chicago campaign, the growing tension in the movement, coming out against Vietnam, the move toward economic justice, and the final days in Memphis, could, in the hands of the right director, make a fantastic movie. Not sure it would supply the myth-making American audiences require though.

Happy Independence Day!

[ 3 ] July 4, 2015 |
USS Maryland, July 4, 1924.  Courtesy of

USS Maryland, July 4, 1924, Tacoma, Washington. Courtesy of

Incidentally, this is a thing. And BATTLESHIP is a code. More details later.

Independence Day

[ 91 ] July 4, 2015 |


On this July 4, I embraced the fruits of this great land. Well, technically the fruits of our salt marsh ponds as I gorged myself on this pile of fried whole belly clams from the Clam Shack in Falmouth, Massachusetts, where the real July 4th tradition is sitting in traffic. Please note that while there is ketchup in upper left hand corner providing by the shack, it remained unopened. Which is what all good Americans did with the substance today.

Let me also recommend Dylan Matthews’ piece on why the American Revolution may not have been such a great thing
. I’ve been saying this for years. I know, I know, such inspirational language. And I hold no real animus against most of the Founders, although I hate the term “founding fathers.”

But let’s be clear on two things. First, the American Revolution was horrible for African-Americans. Second, the American Revolution was catastrophic for Native Americans. Any celebration of the day has to reckon with these two incontrovertible facts. Both groups acted in their own self-interest during the Revolution, with African-Americans fleeing to the British lines and Native Americans largely fighting on the British side. On the former, I really recommend this collection of primary source documents by African-Americans during the Revolution to get a sense of how they responded to these events. The American Revolution was a war that significantly pushed ahead the cause of white supremacy at the cost of minority rights. I am presently reading Greg Grandin’s latest book (which is the next book I’m reviewing here) and he notes that the Latin American revolutions were essentially also white supremacist rebellions, in this case to liberalize the African slave trade. I do believe that there was nothing unique about the United States that would have created widespread resistance unlike the rest of the British colonies had slavery been abolished in the 1830s here under British rule. And while the future for Native Americans was unlikely to be shining bright under continued British rule, it literally could not have been worse than it was under the Americans.

I’m somewhat less convinced by the 3rd piece of Matthews’ argument, that the government would be more functional had the Americans lost. Maybe. Certainly our government is designed for dysfunction and the Senate is disastrous and highly undemocratic as an institution. But other systems are not necessarily all that much better or per se lead to more progressive outcomes. After all, what torpedoed most progressive reform in U.S. history was not problems with the government necessarily as it was widespread opposition from the South.


William Bloomquist

[ 21 ] July 4, 2015 |


Two days ago, the Seattle Mariners designated William Bloomquist for assignment, replacing him with Chris Taylor on the active roster. To me, as a Mariners fan, this is something of a relief; not because this move is likely to make a significant difference in the Mariners 2015 season, but because Bloomquist serves as a painful reminder of the current front office’s poor choices in allocating resources. Bloomquist is 37 years old, and has been on a major league roster in every season since 2002, accumulating over 12 years of total MLB service time. If this is the end of the line for Bloomquist as an major league player (and I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t) he will have played in 1055 games, accumulating 3136 plate appearances. He logged 200 innings as a first baseman and over 2,000 innings as a shortstop, the other five non-catcher positions he’s played between 600-1000 innings. Curiously, he started two games as a designated hitter. When he collects the 1.5 million dollars the Seattle Mariners owe him for the remainder of 2015, he will have earned, by my count, just shy of $18 million dollars as a major league baseball player.

What has Bloomquist been worth to his employers? He had one legitimately outstanding baseball skill, as a baserunner and basestealer. He overall success rate at stealing bases (133 steals, 51 time caught) is solid, but has been brought down considerably by a lower success rate the last six years, and perhaps underestimates his skill in this area, given his fair number of high-stakes, everyone knows your running SBs as a pinch runner. Looking for clear positives on his resume beyond this gets a bit murky. He can legitimately claim defensive flexibility as a positive, but that positive value is limited somewhat by his inability to play any position particularly well. He made contact well enough, keeping strikeouts reasonably low and putting the ball in play, resulting in a generally respectable batting average. His utter and complete lack of power and low walk rate combined to make for an offensive skill set you can live with from an elite defender at a premium position, something Bloomquist was most decidedly not. His career ISO of .073, despite his ability to occasionally stretch singles into doubles and doubles into triples with his speed, is remarkably low.

What does it all add up to? Depending on which system you prefer, he’s been worth either exactly 1 win above replacement, or 1.9. There’s a decent case to be made that his defensive flexibility might make him more valuable in terms of smart roster construction. He makes the most sense on a team with a few excellent hitters who are poor baserunners and defensive liabilities. “Arguably a non-stupid way to fill the 25th roster spot on some teams” is pretty much the tagline you’d expect for a replacement level player. But how many replacement level players get to enjoy such long careers? Very few, I’d imagine; since they’re pretty much interchangeable, once you’re on the wrong side of 30 it becomes tempting to go with the younger player, who could still plausibly become something better. Most shuffle around the minors, getting maybe a couple of full years, and a handful of other short stints after injuries or trades until fading away by their early 30’s. Yet Bloomquist didn’t just get jobs, he consistently stuck on the major league roster all year, and got guaranteed major league contracts, including multi-year contracts on three separate occasions.

There are lots of potential explanations for his career; he a classic scrappy white guy who works hard, managers like both his attitude and the flexibility his skill set affords him, etc. But I want to flag another possible explanation: September 2002. Even as the Mariners playoff hopes were fading, he played very well. In 38 plate appearances, he walked five times and hit 11 singles and 4 doubles. That was good enough for a 455/526/576 slashline. That single month constitutes less than 2% of his career, but it’s responsible for either 38% or 70% of the WAR value of his entire career. It also served to convince the Mariners, who are as an organization very good at convincing themselves of dubious things they want to believe, that he held real potential. Now, obviously anyone who understands the role of chance in short-term outcomes in baseball would extrapolate no lessons whatsoever from those 38 plate appearances, but that’s now it worked out. As I’ve watched his career chug along, I’ve often wondered what his career might have looked like, had he merely performed at his true talent level in September of 2002, or worse yet had a bad month. That his ground balls were twice as likely not to find a fielder’s glove as they usually were for a month may very well have given him a career, and been worth  10-15 million dollars to him. To many fans, Bloomquist represents how far someone can go with hard work and a positive attitude; to me, he represents the staggeringly large role luck and random chance play in the outcomes of our lives.


David Attewell: Putting the Greek Referendum in Context

[ 178 ] July 4, 2015 |

(Once again, we turn to my brother for some expert analysis on the state of play on Greece)

The Greek crisis has been through at least ten iterations at this point. Time and time again, negotiations have deadlocked and the media has reached a fever pitch as a supposedly decisive deadline approaches. Yet every time, we get a classic EU fudge: nobody leaves happy, all the fundamental problems remain unresolved, but the can is kicked just far enough to avert a real blow-up.

With Europe on edge over a Greek referendum being cast as a choice between the Euro and the drachma, this time looks different.

Read more…

Inside Out‘s Restricted Range

[ 49 ] July 4, 2015 |

This post contains spoilers for Inside Out.

Inside Out was charming and I cried and everything, but what is really sticking with me is what I found unsatisfying. Among the things I love about Wall-E, flawed though it is, is its willingness and abandon about entering into darkness — literally: that dance by the spaceship is equal parts beauty and existential terror for me. I kept imagining Wall-E or Eve running out of propellant and floating off into an eternity of totally isolated consciousness. The movie opens with earth destroyed. Something bad has been allowed to happen. It was such a relief. I am so tired of fiction for children skirting around real pain and tragedy. Bambi’s mother dies. Charlotte dies. Dumbo is separated from his jailed mother for most of the movie. Kids can tolerate fiction where bad stuff happens. In Inside Out, on the other hand, Riley once lost a hockey tournament and now has had to move into a million dollar Victorian in San Francisco, poor li’l snip. She cries in class and isn’t even bullied for it. Her subconscious contains some stalks of broccoli and one clown. Even given that her life was idyllic, for a movie about emotions, it sure avoids showing a realistic range of them.

I want to watch the movie where her life is not idyllic. What if she had to move because her parents got divorced? Wall-E seemed to promise that Pixar might be willing to tell that kind of story. But now instead we get this story with stakes that are artificially ginned up and totally implausible. The plot of Inside Out is driven by mechanical obstacles to a resolution that basically has to happen: a previously exuberant 11-year-old is not going to sink into permanent anhedonia because she had to move. It’s not only that we predict a happy ending; the unhappy one wouldn’t even make sense. One of the advantages of letting bad stuff happen in stories is that it generates real stakes for the audience — maybe this filmmaker isn’t going to protect me from everything, maybe things won’t work out right in the end, and isn’t that suspenseful? But Inside Out is too obviously sheltering us. I can’t be scared for Riley the way I was scared for Wall-E.

At least some of the mechanical obstacles in Inside Out have some psychological meaning; everyone’s tears, including mine, are jerked when Bing Bong jumps out of the wagon to allow Joy to make the jump out of the memory dump. It’s satisfying that Riley has to give up an imaginary friend and the pretense that anything is possible to come to a mature understanding of loss. That said something true about growing up. But why then does Joy right afterward stack a bunch of imaginary Canadian boyfriends to launch herself towards Sadness, floating by on a cloud, and then on to HQ? There are two climaxes, one that makes sense and one that doesn’t.

And finally, because I can’t resist being an idiosyncratic and absurdly demanding psychology type who has a lot of opinions about emotions: I’m not a fan of basic emotions theories, so Riley’s apparently limited palette bothers me. I know it’s ridiculous to want them to have arbitrarily many characters, and the problems that would pose for the narrative, but still: does she never feel shame? Guilt? I think it might have been possible/funny to have them skulking in a closet, shuffling their feet and peeking out whenever they’re called upon. I even wanted to nitpick a little about Joy’s understanding of Sadness’s purpose; sadness has a broader range of functions than just drawing help and sympathy. But maybe Joy will figure that out later.

Against “Authenticity,” Pea Guacamole Edition

[ 233 ] July 3, 2015 |


Burneko saved me a lot of time by writing this:

The New York Times published a recipe for guacamole with green peas in it. Not to insist that all guacamole must contain peas forever; not to say that people who have made guacamole without peas are dirty heathen swine; not to assert that pea-free guacamoles are inadequate. To suggest a fun variation on a tasty foodstuff. Hey, we think if you try adding some peas to your guacamole, you’ll like it. This has occasioned just such a performance, from too many corners of Twitter to call out here. Swooning and fainting and rending garments. Because somebody said that guacamole with peas in it tastes good.

This is dumb. Guacamole is mashed avocado dip. If it tastes good, it is made correctly.


When guacamole spread to other parts of the world, the familiar ingredients came to be thought of as the right ones because adding them to guacamole made it taste like guacamole made in Mexico. If your favorite guacamole recipe contains those familiar ingredients, that is fine. Make the guacamole that tastes best to you, because its only purpose is to taste good to the people who will be eating it. If it contains peas, that is fine. It is mashed avocado dip; the right way to make it is so it tastes good.

My guacamole is fairly basic—four avocados, a small fistful of finely chopped cilantro leaves, maybe a big tablespoon or so of minced white onion, some minced fresh jalapeño (or good cayenne powder if I’m feeling lazy), a big squeeze of lime juice, sea salt—because I am fanatical about avocados and only want enough accompaniment to flatter (and not compete with) them. But, I have had good-tasting guacamoles that contained: garlic, shallot, mint, basil, yogurt, sour cream, mango, corn, tomato, pineapple, lemon zest, olive oil, queso blanco, chipotle pepper, and more. A Guyanan coworker of mine once brought to an office potluck a bowl of guacamole that contained enough Scotch bonnet peppers to sizzle a fucking tunnel through the bowels of the earth so that we could deliver a serving of it to people on the far side, and it was delicious, even if a single bite of it prevented me from being able to taste anything else for the entire rest of the day. All of these guacamoles were fine, because they tasted good, which is guacamole’s only job, because it is food and not a fucking Republic of Texas flag.


Here’s what to keep out of your guacamole: the opinions and judgments and performative populism of food-scared internet weenies.

There are many variations of guacamole; Clark’s recipe is well within the family of recipes that can be fairly called “guacamole.” The criteria by which it should be judged are 1)whether it tastes good, and 2)that’s it.

Not Getting the Memo

[ 116 ] July 3, 2015 |

I pretty much agree with Stern on this:

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling that every state in America must grant marriage licenses to gay couples, at least two clerks tasked with issuing such licenses have resigned—one in Mississippi, one in Arkansas. Both will undoubtedly be chastised by the LGBTQ community for their blatant display of homophobia. But I think these clerks should be praised for their integrity. In other states, clerks are begging for a special right to discriminate against gays. At least these two had the courage to admit that their prejudice prevented them from honoring their oath of office.

I obviously strongly disagree with the underlying reason for the resignations. But I can certainly respect their actions more than the Mr. Plow conservatism that tends to be advanced in these cases — i.e. “I don’t want to do my job but I want to be paid anyway.” And when it comes to public officials, as in this case, treating citizens impartially is a core part of your job.

The Majoritarian Difficulty, ACA Trooferism Edition

[ 33 ] July 3, 2015 |

I don’t think the impeachment campaign is going to go well:

For the second time this week, we have polling confirmation that about 3 out of 5 Americans approve of the Supreme Court’s decision in King v. Burwell last week. In findings that closely echo those of an earlier CNN/ORC survey, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s tracking poll on health issues showed approval by a 62/32 margin, with a nearly identical 61/34 margin among self-identified independents. Unlike the CNN/ORC poll, KFF’s also breaks down the reaction by general opinion on Obamacare, showing that 30% of ACA opponents still think it makes sense to offer the same assistance to people buying insurance under the law whether or not a state purchasing exchange was established.

This is one of the oddities of Ted Cruz calling for retention elections as a remedy to judgifying he doesn’t like. It’s a quite terrible idea in itself. But in this case, it’s funny that conservatives think that retention elections fought in the issues at the end of the term would work out in their favor. Obergefell is the even stronger case. As is often the case, the Court was siding with national public opinion majorities against regional outliers. In some cases, this means national public opinion trumping local public opinion; in other cases it means national and local public opinion trumping state legislators. But whatever one wants to say about the two decisions that have eroded the saliva supply of the nation’s conservatives, they’re not “countermajoritarian” when it comes to the national population.


[ 43 ] July 2, 2015 |

I just watched Marjoe, the 1972 documentary about an ex-child preacher turned hippie who supported himself by going back out on the preacher circuit even though he believed none of it. It’s pretty great. If you want to understand why the current wingnut world is a giant grift, this is a good place to start as he gives out all the secrets. This film won Best Documentary at the Academy Awards. He then went on to appear in 17 episodes of Falcon Crest in the 80s. Here’s an excerpt.

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