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djw got a slow cooker for Christmas

[ 50 ] January 30, 2016 |

I’m horning in on bspencer’s territory here, but after a couple of ‘meh’ slow cooker experiments, this one turned out too good not to share. It’s loosely based on some adobo recipes I’ve used in the past, but I think I like it better than how any of those turned out:

The night before: soak about two cups of black beans and marinate a 2 lbs piece of pork shoulder in: a mix of equal parts soy sauce and water, 6-8 smashed cloves of garlic, a healthy dose of black pepper and a few shakes of red pepper flakes, 3-4 bay leaves, a touch of ginger powder, a couple of rough-chopped jalapenos (whether to de-seed or not is your choice, but this doesn’t turn out particularly spicy either way), a couple tablespoons of brown sugar and half a fistful of cilantro (omit if cilantro tastes like soap to you.)

Morning: drain beans, place in slow cooker. Remove pork from marinade and cut into roughly bite-size pieces, add to slow cooker. Strain marinade, add what’s left to the slow cooker (edit: to be clear(er): the garlic/bay/cilantro, not the liquid). Add another 3/4 cup of soy sauce, a 12-oz bottle of strong, sweet beer (I used an unbalanced, oversweet barleywine I foolishly bought a 4-pack of, and didn’t particularly want to drink anymore; if you don’t have that on hand I expect anything in the stout or strong ale family would work), 2 cups of water or broth (I used one cup of each because I had a cup of leftover chicken broth, but I don’t think it’ll make a big difference here), and a couple more tablespoons of brown sugar. Cook for around 8 hours on low/medium.

Later that day: after 6 hours or so start checking to make sure it isn’t drying out; if it is, add more water/broth. When the beans are basically done and the pork is falling apart, chop up a good-sized onion and saute until soft, while seasoning w salt and pepper. Add the cooked onion and a generous 1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar to the slow cooker. Put on some rice, or some other grain of choice (I think this goes particularly well with short-grain brown rice, but I’m a brown rice partisan). Cook another ~30 minutes. Turn off, wait a bit, discard bay leaves (some might want to discard the garlic cloves as well, but I am not among them) and serve over rice with more cilantro to garnish. Season if necessary, of course, but the soy sauce rendered additional salt unnecessary for me. Indeed, if you’re sensitive to saltiness, reducing the soy sauce:other liquid ratio might be a sensible alteration.

Edit: as someone new to slow-cookers, let’s call this an open thread for what works and what doesn’t with these contraptions.


Tales from the Corporate University

[ 58 ] January 16, 2016 |

The story of the chocolate milk ‘study’ at the University of Maryland shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone paying attention, unfortunately. There are two things I find particularly striking about it, though. First, the shamelessness of it; there didn’t seem to be much of an effort to make this look like serious research or otherwise disguise what was going on:

The first problem here is that the research itself is breathtakingly suspect. There was no comparison group or treatment in the study. The scientists didn’t even test another brand of chocolate milk. They only looked at a Fifth Quarter Fresh, which its maker claims comes from “super, natural cows.”

Worse, the scientists didn’t even bother to publish their results before publicizing them, according to an excellent probe of the release by the health news watchdog Health News Review.

Despite all these red flags, the university touted the study: “Fifth Quarter Fresh, a new, high-protein chocolate milk,” the release reads, “helped high school football players improve their cognitive and motor function over the course of a season, even after experiencing concussions.” The milk manufacturer also featured the “findings” on its own website.

The second element to the story I find particularly striking is the bargain-pricing strategy for their integrity:

As it turns out, the maker of Fifth Quarter Fresh chocolate milk — which comes from a dairy cooperative in Hagerstown, Maryland — funded 10 percent of the study, and the university funded the rest.

Checking in on Bertha

[ 38 ] January 14, 2016 |


Last month, I noted the second anniversary of the day “Bertha,” the deep bore tunneling machine that was supposed to carve out a tunnel beneath downtown Seattle that is to replace the decrepit and dangerous Alaskan Way viaduct, ceased drilling barely 10% of the way through the project. As I noted with some skepticism then, tunneling was scheduled to resume in late December after a 2+ year delay.

The good news is that my pessimism regarding the late December start date proved unwarranted–drilling did in fact resume, and over the last few weeks around 200 feet have been added to the 1000 or so feet that had been completed in 2013. The bad news, unsurprisingly, is considerably worse: tunneling was abruptly halted today by order of Governor Jay Inslee. The reason?

Bertha began tunneling again Tuesday evening. About two hours after the machine started boring again, a sinkhole developed in its wake — about 100 feet south of the machine’s current position. The sinkhole occurred in an area where crews mined last week.

The sinkhole developed in the work zone behind Bertha’s path at South Main Street, which is about 35 feet north of the access pit.

WSDOT has not stated how large the sinkhole was, but did say that tunnel crews have filled it in with 250 cubic yards of concrete.

In the first round of troubles, WSDOT and STP (the contractors, “Seattle Tunnel Partners”) did a pretty good job of presenting a united front. Now that we’ve entered the “everyone sues everyone” phase, such niceties have been abandoned:

In its announcement detailing the sinkhole, WSDOT said that certain protocols, which Seattle Tunnel Partners used for enhanced monitoring, were only used during the first 1,000 feet of excavation. WSDOT said that it is disappointed that those protocols were not being used after Bertha began boring again in December.

Five and a half years ago, just before the Seattle City Council give its stamp of approval to this disastrous plan, Dominic Holden published an article entitled “What could go wrong.” The second of that article on boring machines getting stuck has already more or less come to fruition. Holden also foresaw our current difficulty:

The ground caves in

Because we’re dealing with loose soil, there is a chance that the ground could cave in behind the tunneling machine. This isn’t as likely as a TBM breaking down, but it can and does happen. In fact, it happened last year north of Seattle on the Brightwater project. A 30-foot-wide, 15-foot-deep sinkhole swallowed up Pauline Chihara’s driveway in Kenmore. Tom and Jan Glithero, who live above another one of the Brightwater tunnels in Bothell, found cracks in the brickwork in their home, their patio, and their driveway—all attributed to settling caused by the tunnel’s excavation underneath the couple’s home.

In 2003, a sinkhole opened up near a tunnel being bored in London, and people had to evacuate their homes. On March 3, 2009, a tunnel collapsed in Cologne, consuming the city’s historical archives building and killing two people.

“I’ve seen overexcavations open up 300-meter tall caverns over the TBM, and all that dirt fell right on the machine,” John Turner, chief engineer of TBM builder the Robbins Company, told Machine Design in 2001. “And the cave-in can go all the way to the surface, which is a real disaster.” In the same article, Marco Giorelli, a product manager for another TBM builder, said, “Overexcavations can be particularly harmful in cities… They lead to settlement, and it doesn’t take much settling to damage buildings.”

The loose soil in downtown Seattle doesn’t have driveways or single-family homes sitting on top of it. It has the historic buildings in Pioneer Square, new condo towers and hotels, and the tallest buildings in the state.

It’s worth noting here that while the project doesn’t seem lucky, both the location of the machine getting stuck and the sinkhole are extraordinarily lucky, given that nothing of significance was blocking the rescue tunnel/on top of the sinkhole. Looking at Bertha’s path, it’s going to take us under some of the oldest and densest parts of downtown Seattle. As bad as this project has gone, it could have been (and may still be) much worse.

The initial plan was to stop long enough to make sure this particular sinkhole wasn’t an immediate threat to the project or any structures (the vacant location is a stroke of luck, given the roads and buildings the tunnel is theoretically about to go under) and plough ahead. Inslee wants to know *why* this happened, and assurances it won’t happen again, before tunneling resumes. It’s far from clear to me STP is up to this task, and whether such assurances can plausibly be made at all–STP and WSDOT’s public statements about Bertha’s problems have historically amounted to little more than vague assurances that everything will be fine and a whole lot of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

As a reminder, unlike the many boondoggle transit projects such as the big dig, this tunnel would have been a staggering waste of money had it been on time and under budget: it would be useless for most viaduct users today as it contains no downtown exits. It’s doubling down on a car-centric transit future (it’s difficult to imagine any public transit applications for the tunnel, except perhaps a few specialized peak-only express routes) at a time when the region’s voters have, sensibly, made clear that they want to invest in public transportation. The foolishness of the project, and the extraordinary risks it entailed, were well understood before it began. I’ve long speculated that one of the possible end-games for this project is that, if the public turns on it with sufficient fury by the summer or early fall of 2016 and Inslee’s reelection campaign isn’t going well, he advocates abandoning the project in his effort to get re-elected. I still consider this scenario a longshot for a variety of reasons, but it’s more likely than is was 72 hours ago.

Elsewhere: djw on rationalism, pluralism and democracy

[ 4 ] January 13, 2016 |

The bleedingheartslibertarians blog is currently doing a book event on Jacob Levy’s fantastic new book Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, and they invited me to contribute. My contribution is now up, as is that of friend of the blog Russell Arben Fox. (I don’t really rehearse the core idea of the book, the introduction is here.) While it wasn’t the intention of the book–indeed, it’s a theme the book deliberately avoids–it’s an important book for democratic theorists, as well as those concerned with freedom and liberalism’s conceptual tensions. The tendency to treat intermediate groups as de facto individuals, de facto states, or some mix of the two, is deeply ingrained and naturalized in ways we’d do well to avoid. The whole range of “should X be democratized?” (where X is some form of intermediate association) stand to benefit from the conceptual intervention provided here: Contra Josh Cohen, the questions of how and whether firms should be democratized ought not be conflated with the question of whether they’re sufficiently state-like.

How the deck gets stacked against urban living

[ 69 ] December 22, 2015 |

In the Silicon valley thread the other day, some commenters expressed a view that, while common, I think misdiagnoses the ills of our current situation with respect to housing. Newishlawyer:

As much as I am a supporter of dense living, it just seems to go against the American grain and the fact that the United States has a lot of damn space. Dense living is better for the environment and better for the American working and middle class. But something like half the U.S. (or more) wants single-family living.

When confronted with this view I pretty much always reach for Christopher Leinberger. According to his research, the American public, is roughly evenly divided between three groups–those who prefer dense, walkable environments, those who prefer autocentric suburban living, and those who don’t have a strong preference either way. Around 80% of the available housing stock is suburban, autocentric single family housing. Many millions of Americans live this way, at great expense to public health and the environment, despite an explicit desire to not to. I tend to focus a lot on the forces that prevent urban housing from being built, in particular, the pernicious, outsized political influence of incumbent property owners preserving the scarcity of urban living for their own selfish economic and aesthetic preferences. But the challenges to urban living extend well beyond that, as the chain of events in the last few years with Metro Transit demonstrate.

Through 2014, King County Metro avoids any serious cuts associated with the recession, despite serious revenue cuts, though spending down the rainy day fund, some emergency temporary funding, administrative cuts, and deferred maintenance and capital investment. By 2014 revenue has covered, but cuts appear to be necessary. A ballot measure to fund the gap through a .1% sales tax and MVET is hastily put together for an emergency Spring vote. It fails, but passes easily in Seattle. By November, the revenue forecasts have improved (along with a rule change allowing the agency to contribute less to rebuilding the rainy day fund). Meanwhile, a Seattle-only version of the failed initiative, which would fund Seattle’s purchase additional service hours, and increase service on Seattle-primary routes without the rest of the county’s permission, went to the ballot in November 2014. Last year I expressed some optimism about this model, on the grounds that it could allow us to retain the advantages of large, integrated agencies, while giving local communities the capacity to invest in greater service (and have some say in what that service looks like) without the costs, confusion, and inevitable competition/duplication of starting a competing local agency. (The Seattle-only version of Prop 1 passed easily, as did a huge, transit-centric transportation levy this year; between the two of them Seattle is making a major investment in more and better bus service it’s not clear the rest of the county is interested in making.)

News today about changes to Metro’s service revision guidelines dampens my enthusiasm. Background: one of the challenges of any transit agency that covers many jurisdictions is determining how to distribute service. The three most obvious principles here are fairness (the share of service an area gets is based on the amount that region pays through taxes to subsidize the agency), efficiency (put the buses where people use them most) or comprehensiveness (make sure as many people in the service area as possible have access to some route, even if infrequent).

How Metro has balanced those three principles would require several long and boring posts, but suffice it to say that at present the service allocation represents a mix of the three, and that the existing service revision guidelines, circa 2010, give slightly greater weight to efficiency, relative to the previous (ad hoc, highly political) approach to service revisions. Seattle Transit Blog has a characteristically detailed, wonky post on the service revision guideline changes. The upshot:

First, the shift of some (but not all) peak-only routes from the “serves Seattle core” category to the “suburban” category will tend to make those routes look more attractive in performance reporting, because thresholds for both top- and bottom-performing status are considerably higher in the current “serves Seattle core” and (almost certainly) new “urban” categories. Second, special peak-service protection will favor long, fast, but expensive-to-run peak express service from the farthest suburbs, which enjoys the greatest time and ridership advantages over local service — such as one-seat routes to Seattle from Duvall, North Bend, Black Diamond, Enumclaw, and Twin Lakes, all of which were fully or partly cut for low productivity under the current Service Guidelines. Finally, inclusion of park-and-rides as a ridership generator will result in higher target service levels on both peak and all-day routes that serve them, most of which are major suburban routes. The process behind the proposed changes helps to explain this tendency.

In short: the service revision guidelines enact a priority shift from relatively heavily used core Seattle routes to suburban locals and (especially) long distance peak commuter service.

This isn’t surprising, as the suburban and small town/rural parts of Metro’s service area are over-represented on the board, and they’re simply fighting for their interests. But the risk to the (high-performing, heavily used, high farebox-recovery*) core Seattle routes might be more palatable given that Seattle’s prop 1 funded service hours make Seattle seem flush with service, such that they can afford to give it up. To take Prop 1 money and use it to pay for non-Seattle routes would be flatly illegal, but to achieve the same allocation of service hours through a change to the service revision guidelines isn’t. If this has a significant impact on future service allocations, it’ll be in the direction of reducing frequency in Seattle, keeping the kind of frequency that might support car-free living out of reach, while subsidizing commuter bus service that makes autocentric (for all but commuting to work) sprawl more viable.

*Even when full, the long-distance peak commuter express buses from 20-30 miles out have terrible farebox recovery ratios, because of the massive amount of deadheading they require, and because virtually all riders are travelling 10X more miles than the average urban rider, while paying at most a 50 cent surcharge. The lack of a premium fare for these buses isn’t one of my five most urgent complaints about Metro, but it would probably crack the top 10.

Trump as moderate: yes, and that doesn’t make him any less appalling

[ 159 ] December 17, 2015 |

Doug Ahler and David Broockman make the case at the Monkey Cage. This seems largely correct to me, but I’m seeing a number of people treating it as objectionable. Thoughts:

1) We define moderate as “agrees with Ds and Rs some of the time,” regardless of the moderation or lack thereof with any specific view, which is arguably incoherent, but it’s still the everyday meaning of the term in American politics.

2) Elite moderates and moderates in public opinion don’t actually resemble each other at all, and (some) elite moderates seem to be in some very deep denial about this (Thomas Friedman’s habit of placing his own views in the mouths of hypothetical everyman figures like cab drivers is a paradigmatic case). In broad strokes, elite moderates are pro-immigration, pro-globalization, socially liberal, and strongly in favor of ‘entitlement reform’; the moderates in the actual public aren’t likely to support any of these positions. This adds to the confusion already produced by the lack of analytic precision in (1).

3) This is only offensive if we treat moderation as a political virtue worthy of praise. This is often assumed in American political discourse, but I think it’s worth rejecting quite strongly (this is particularly the case given (1) above). Whether moderation should considered a virtue or vice is entirely situational.

4) Efforts to map ideology on two dimensions aren’t always completely worthless, but it’s a project with very limited informational value. The authors are absolutely correct to observe “ideological moderation just doesn’t mean much.”

…LeeEsq and Rob in CT observe that another source of confusion here is whether the term is characterizing his views or the manner in which he expresses them. This is a good point, and I think relates to (3) above. If moderation is treated implicitly as a virtue, Trump’s nasty demagoguery appears as evidence against his moderation.

Gun ownership, martial culture and interventionist foreign policy

[ 135 ] December 10, 2015 |

My first thought on reading this is that it’s somewhat surprising to see Tyler Cowen make more or less the same argument Michael Moore gestures at in Bowling for Columbine. I saw Bowling for Columbine when it came out, and found its implicit argument rhetorically and emotionally compelling, but somewhat lacking analytically. Cowen tries to turn that around, suggesting that both mainstream liberals (pro-gun control, more or less OK with the general contours of American foreign policy) and his libertarian comrades (vigorously martial/pro-gun in their private lives, pacifist and anti-interventionist in policy) as the fuzzy, emotional thinkers who can’t account for what (to him) is a clear connection between the two faces of a martial culture:

More importantly, if America is going to be the world’s policeman, on some scale or another, that has to be backed by a supportive culture among the citizenry. And that culture is not going to be “Hans Morgenthau’s foreign policy realism,” or “George Kennan’s Letter X,” or even Clausewitz’s treatise On War. Believe it or not, those are too intellectual for the American public. And so it must be backed by…a fairly martial culture amongst the American citizenry. And that probably will mean a fairly high level of gun ownership and a fairly high degree of skepticism about gun control.

If you think America can sustain its foreign policy interventionism, or threat of such, without a fairly martial culture at home, by all means make your case. But I am skeptical. I think it is far more likely that if you brought about gun control, and the cultural preconditions for successful gun control, America’s world role would fundamentally change and America’s would no longer play a global policeman role, for better or worse.

I must say my initial reaction is pretty skeptical. Cowen doesn’t do much work here to establish a causal connection, beyond noting some vague similarities. One immediately wonders how his theory would account for France, which as from what I understand lacks our martial/gun culture at home, and has long had a government prone to military adventurism and a public that appears to be largely supportive of such (or, at least, supportive enough.

Which brings me to my main question–What do our political elites elites need from us, the public, to sustain an interventionist foreign policy at roughly the level we find it at? Given the fair amoung of elite consensus here, they’re pretty insulated from public opinion, it seems to me (unless they launch a full-blown war for profoundly and obviously stupid/false reasons, and it turns out disastrously, as in Bush and Iraq, but when that happens even a supportive-in-theory public won’t save you). What else does such a foreign policy need from us? Sufficient volunteers for a military service roughly the size of the one we’ve got now is one thing, and a martial culture surely helps out with that. But with the decreasing economic opportunities and rising costs of college I expect they’ll be able to get the 1-2% of the population they seem to need without too much trouble, and can bring up the enlistment rate through a modest tweak in the incentive structure. It’s not clear to me what else political elites need from the public that a martial, gun-enthusiast culture motivates us to give them.

….as numerous commenters have noted, the conflation of American style “gun culture” (or even just widespread private deadly-weapon-of-the-day ownership) with “martial culture” is sloppy and ahistorical as well; this is perhaps an even more fundamental problem with Cowen’s argument than the one identified in the post.

Happy Bertha-day 2.0

[ 39 ] December 8, 2015 |

Last year I took to these pages to note the solemn occasion of the one year anniversary of the the tunnel-boring machine dubbed “Bertha” getting stuck barely 10% of the way through her assigned task of cutting a 1.7 mile deep bore tunnel underneath downtown Seattle. I’m sure you’ll all be shocked to learn that the then-projected restart date of “March 2015” turned out to just a touch over-optimistic. The new projected date to resume tunneling is December 23rd, a date perhaps strategically selected such that when the next inevitable delay occurs, not many people will be paying attention to the news (bad news about Bertha seems to consistent come out late Friday afternoons).

While Bertha did not resume drilling in the last year, the access tunnel was completed, the machine was removed, discovered to be much more extensively damaged than previously thought for reasons that aren’t well understood, and returned to her previous position. Other noteworthy 2015 events included the “lawsuit phase” beginning in earnest, as Seattle Tunnel Partners was sued by eight different insurance companies as well as WSDOT (and with no clear plan to pay for cost overruns, lawsuit season is assuredly far from over), and more alarming, poorly explained ‘settlement’ of the existing viaduct–the existing highway Bertha’s tunnel is meant to replace, which was originally scheduled to be closed and torn down in 2012. I don’t have the stomach for a full blow by blow of Bertha’s second lost year but Sydney Brownstone has a blow-by-blow for those interested in rubbernecking “one of the wildest infrastructure tragicomedies of our time.”

The other tunnel-related news of the the day comes from Zach Shaner: there’s a proposal on the table to study the removal of a key carrot dangled in front of transit supporters back in 2009 to get them on-board with such a car-centric project. Recall that this tunnel, amazingly, is designed to bypass downtown Seattle entirely, even though a majority of current viaduct trips are either to or from downtown. What about express buses that use 99’s downtown access now? The plan was to build a boulevard from the tunnel’s Southern entrance to downtown that would include dedicated transit only lanes. The new plan under discussion is to remove those lanes, to decrease the width of the new road. In the highly unlikely event that anyone was actually paying attention to my unhinged anti-tunnel rants in 2009, they heard me predict exactly this would occur: dedicated transit only lanes pretty much always face an uphill battle in Seattle, as political forces that would claim that space for other purposes have generally had greater political clout then transit riders. (In this particular case, it doesn’t help that many of the inconvenienced riders would be coming from not the particularly wealthy neighborhoods of White Center and Burien.) It’s not certain this will happen–Seattleites should consider following Shaner’s suggestion of contacting public officials and yelling at them about this–and of course this only matters if the damn tunnel ever gets finished.

Earlier this month, Seattle re-affirmed its appetite for taxing themselves to improve transit with the passage of Move Seattle, a substantial property tax levy that will pay for a variety of bus (and pedestrian and bike) improvements. From what I gather a number of key supporters and insiders convinced themselves this was unlikely to pass, but it won comfortably, despite the low turnout of an off-year election. Unfortunately, a lot of the resources that could be used to help move Seattleites to where they’re actually going will go to a project that, if it is ever completed, which is far from certain, will provide its greatest benefit for people going through Seattle, rather than getting around it.

Take a Break

[ 114 ] December 3, 2015 |

I’ve been going back and forth a bit with Erica C Barnett on the subject of this post on facebook and twitter, so I figure I’ll gather my thoughts here. Barnett’s thinking through how, ideally, paid time off from work should be organized, to promote and provide a healthier work-life balance for all. Her view is that general paid time off and parental leave should ideally come out of the same general category:

I’ve been arguing for a while that both parents and nonparents should have paid time off from work, because people’s life choices outside work have value even if they don’t involve parenting. Paid time off, I’ve argued, is equally important if I’m having six kids or building houses for Habitat for Humanity or taking care of my ailing grandma–or sitting on the beach and restoring my mental health. It shouldn’t be up to my employer, or my government, to judge one life choice as more or less valid than another. Currently, our system rewards the life choice of having children. But what if I’m a shitty parent? What if I have kids I can’t afford? What if I spend my paid parental leave on a cruise and leave the children with a nanny? My employer shouldn’t be allowed to monitor those life choices any more than he or she monitors whether I squander my paid vacation time.

When I posted my thoughts about paid time off, and my frustration at the myriad ways we privilege parenting over every other lifestyle choice (which, just like parenting, may or may not benefit society), many readers responded by arguing that there is nothing in the world more difficult or valuable than being a parent. Others added that paid leave is actually about the kids, not the parents–that the only reason to provide paid leave is to allow parents to do the selfless work of protecting and raising the most vulnerable among us.

I call bullshit, on two counts. First, parenting isn’t selfless. Not according to the parents I know who say they really didn’t know what life was about until they had children, and not according to the US government, which rewards its citizens financially, in the form of tax breaks, for reproducing. And second, paid leave isn’t just about the children, nor should it be. Benefits to workers exist because workers have successfully argued, with lawsuits and pickets and walkouts and lockouts and shutdowns, that workers deserve a life outside of work; if the weekend was just about spending time with our kids, the childless among us should really be working seven days a week.

I think this deserves some significant pushback, for a number of reasons. The core of the argument, for me, is that parental leave is primarily a benefit society should provide as a means of discharging our obligations to our fellow citizens who happen to be children. Her rebuttal that it isn’t “just” for children is true, but I don’t understand how that observation erases the significance of that observation.

Beyond that, two further arguments against substitutability:

As a matter of practicality, if I were advocating for a leave policy, I’d be very, very comfortable advocating for pretty much the full Sweden, starting tomorrow, presuming we come up with a good way of allocating the costs. I’m an advocate of a great deal more general paid time off as well, but I think it’s pretty reasonable for the best welfare states in the world to provide considerably more paid time off for parental leave than personal leave. I’m not sure what I’d advocate for as a floor, but the kind of 12-18 months I’d happily advocate for parental leave is a fair bit more than whatever it is.

There’s a reason for this: I simply don’t see the two categories of leave as substitutable. The point of any kind of mandatory leave, it seems to me, is a basic human capabilitities/flourishing argument: people ought to be provided the space to pursue human flourishing on a range of dimensions. A career is one of them, of course, as is having children, as are the range of activities (charitable work, hobbies, relaxation, self-development, etc) that people might use personal time off for. One reason we’re insisting on paid time off in the first place is because we don’t think the pursuit of a career should cut off one’s ability to pursue the other two. When I think about the kind of value the range of activities personal time off might afford people, I can’t for the life of me think of any good reason why parents ought to be excluded from it–why would they be less valuable to parents?

As an aside, I think it’s particularly unfortunate that Barnett introduces the threat of parental leave abuse here. The world’s a big place, and I’m sure someone somewhere is going to hire a nanny and ignore their children on their parental leave. That certainly doesn’t describe any parents I know, and I’m pretty confident it will be vanishingly rare. This kind of worry is corrosive to just about any kind of social welfare benefit being offered without pervasive, costly, privacy-invading surveillance; it’s very frustrating to see a progressive such as Burnett promote this toxic line of reasoning.

I’m also fairly convinced that treating having children as ‘just another lifestyle/consumer choice’ is not going to be consistent with recognizing children as full citizens to whom we have broad shared obligations, many of which are discharged through parents and guardians.

Barnett goes on to make the case that her position is more consistent with feminist commitments:

If we’re ever going to level the workplace playing field between men and women, paid time off needs to become a guaranteed benefit for all workers, regardless of gender or how or whether one chooses to become a parent.

If we force parents to burn their personal time off on parental leave, I don’t see how this leads to any good feminist outcomes. As long as women continue to take on the bulk of childcare duties (if we could change *that* in short order with a simple policy, sign me up, but I’m not seeing it), that’ll simply mean paid time off for other purposes will be much more available to men than women. Furthermore, the countries in the world with many of the best outcomes for women in the workplace are also ones with extensive, paid parental leave of a year or more and only 5-6 weeks of annual vacation time. The people who’ve come the closest to a level playing field in the workplace are very much rejecting the time off model Barnett is suggesting. I’m not at all sure why we should expect better outcomes from her approach on that front. As much of the rest of her post indicates, the division in the workplace this seems designed to address is parents vs. non-parents, not men vs. women. In general, I think the former approach is unfortunate; it’s primarily the pathologies of the American workplace that pit worker against worker in this fashion. I don’t see any good reason to take that bet.

I’m avoiding taking the bait on her efforts to make this an argument about whether parenting is existentially more important or valuable than other pursuits we might pursue with time off, not because I don’t have views on that subject, but because I don’t think they’re relevant or necessary. I don’t think any arguments I make here imply any particular position on that question. It’s a distraction.

“It couldn’t be cut up and then buried because no one wanted to cut it up”

[ 55 ] November 14, 2015 |

Thursday was the 45th anniversary of some very questionable decision-making on the part of the Oregon State Highway Division, but what I assume was a high water mark in the career of KATU reporter Paul Linnman.


[ 162 ] November 14, 2015 |

I peeked into one of the recent long angry threads just long enough to notice a back-and-forth about calls for a return to civility, and the appropriateness thereof. Obviously, of course, context is everything; there rather obviously are some circumstances where a call to civility is a reasonable thing to do. (As an instructor in a college classroom, for instance.) In the context of most heated political discussions, through, such calls seem like a bad idea, for two reasons. Assuming good faith,* it’s just a poor strategy for actually producing more civility in the world. Presumably, the uncivil person is that way for a reason, and scolding them doesn’t make that reason go away, and is as likely to make them angrier than not. A wiser approach, which I aspire to but don’t always succeed in following, is to just be the civility you want to see in the world. If someone is making arguments you deem worthy of engagement, reply to the substance, as if they were making their point civilly. Perhaps this will interpellate them into civility, perhaps it won’t, but that’s largely beyond your control anyway, so don’t fixate on it. If the lack of civility on the part of your interlocutor bothers you to such a degree that you can’t manage to follow this strategy, you probably shouldn’t engage. (Or, if you do engage, recognize that you’ve effectively removed yourself from the role of civility advocate.)

The origin on this conversation, of course, is the video of angry Yale students confronting Christakis. My own first reaction to that video is to very ardently wish the students were being more civil. The reason for this reaction obviously isn’t an ideological, abstract commitment to civility, but instead because I can more easily place myself in Christakis’s position, which is an unpleasant thing to contemplate. But that’s not a good reason to double down on that gut reaction, reaching for a set of arguments about the proper bounds of civil discourse to adorn and bolster it as something more than an identity-driven gut reaction. There are some very good reasons to resist the temptation to double down on that reaction, one of which is that I simply have no idea what it’s like to be part of an institution and a community that is simultaneously and constantly openly sending both the message that you’re a valued member of the community and belong here, and (usually less openly and directly) that you’re not, and you don’t. The less capacity for empathy I have, the less it makes sense for me to sit in judgement of the proper ratio of civility to anger in the response.

*This assumption is probably not warranted in many, if not most, cases. The public call for civility in discourse usually strikes me as an act of image-maintenance; seeking rhetorical advantage from such a call, such as demonstrating to third parties how reasonable you are. It’s usually performative; an act of public identity maintenance.

Slavery book notes I: Slavery in the Cities

[ 26 ] November 9, 2015 |

For a new course I’m preparing as well as a couple of research projects, I’ve been reading lots of books about slavery, primarily American slavery. I thought I’d post some comments here occasionally. Not book reviews, per se, but just whatever thoughts I think are worthy of sharing on a few of the books.

For the first entry: Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820-1860, by Richard Wade (1964). The name was vaguely familiar to me, it turns out for good reason: in addition to being something of a bigwig in the field of urban history, he’s was a Schlessinger-aligned Democratic Party operative.

The book is a fascinating read, particularly in light of recent work on the consequences and character of slavery in a capitalist era with respect to the rise of cotton. Not that Wade sets out to say anything in particular about a theme as broad as “slavery and capitalism”; it’s not a theoretically ambitious work. And my understanding is that in the 1960’s, when this was written, the notion that Antebellum slavery was a fundamentally capitalist venture was generally rejected by both economic theory (Marx and Smith are more or less on the same page here) as well as leading historians of the “two distinct economic systems” school. Baptist is particularly useful at demonstrating the folly of this assumption now, but his work is part of a more general turn to think about American slavery as part of a capitalist system. We know, now, that the notion that slavery was a system in decline in the mid-19th century, thus the civil war was unneeded because it was collapsing under the weight of its own inefficiencies, is a species of confederate apologia, and fails to capture the economic vitality of of slave capitalism with respect to cotton. But while the story of the rise of cotton is probably the most important story of slavery and capitalism, it’s hardly the only one. While Baptist tells as story of slavery interacting with capitalism at high levels of international finance, the story in Wade’s work is, at least in part, about the interaction of slavery and local, small-scale capitalism.

Wade’s book examines trends in slavery in American cities, with particular attention to the details of everyday life, in institutionalized slavery’s final four decades. The false narrative of decline regarding slavery generally is less obviously false in the cities he examines here–in most of the cities he focuses on, the slave population is either declining, or growing at a slower rate than the overall population. In the cities included in Wade’s study, slave owners tended to be small scale. In sharp contrast to rural slavery, most slaves were owned by people who had a relatively small number of slaves–plantation-level holdings were quite rare, and a higher percentage of whites owned slaves. Furthermore, there was no one or two general or task slaves, as a rule, performed. This created a number of interesting pressures. As many slave owners were not particularly wealthy, a set of pressures made for a very different dynamic. The use of slaves as domestics was common, but could be an expensive luxury. The demand for slave labor in many enterprises was also less predictable and constant than in some agricultural settings. This all contributed to the frequency of ‘hiring out’ slaves–that is, leasing one’s slave to someone who had a greater need for the labor. Hiring out made slave labor more sufficiently flexible for the labor demands of an urban economy, and in practice created expanded opportunities that seemed to undermine the institution of slavery. It was not uncommon for some slave owners to find it more convenient and profitable to let their slaves arrange for their own employment as well as their own living arrangements (space was a good deal scarcer for urban slave owners than it was on the plantation), known as ‘hiring their own time’: “they gave their master a certain sum each month; and all that they made over that they retained.” (48). Insofar as this sort of arrangement became commonplace, it created a distinctly blurred social line between slaves and free negroes, who lived together, attended the same Churches, intermarried, and so on. It also created the prospect of ‘manumission by self-purchase’–that is, slaves saving surplus earnings and purchasing their own freedom (sometimes through a proxy, in cases where the owner had an ideological opposition to manumission). I did some digging on this, trying to find historical estimates of self-manumission rates, which are hard to come by, but I did find on report (in this book) that around mid-century the self-purchased former slaves made up 26% and 42% of the free black populations of Philadelphia and Cincinnati, respectively.)

Because the evolution of hiring out to self-hire obviously undermined the institution of slavery, cities took pains to restrict the practice, albeit with little success. Wade also tells the story of so-called ‘grog and grocery’ shops, essentially bodega/corner stores that catered to slaves. They sold various goods that slaves would often be sent to pick up for their masters and also illicitly sold them alcohol. These stores were seen as a menace in part because of the alcohol access, but also because they provided a social space for slaves and free blacks to meet, exchange information, and engage in commerce on their own limited terms. Several of the cities discussed in the book went through rounds of crack-downs, but with little seeming success. They were the subject of routine angry denunciations in the local newspapers.

In both of these cases and a few others in the book, the particular way in which the existence of markets fractured white self-interest provided openings for the slave population. One city*, though, provided a glimpse of another possible future for urban slavery, one that, had it been more widely adopted, might have made the cities look more like the cotton-growing countryside: Richmond. Richmond saw less of a decline (the slave population grew only somewhat slower (~3X) than the white population (~4X) from 1820-1860, and they had one of the more stable gender ratios (most cities were seeing an increasing ratio of women to men in the slave population), and more and growing large-scale slave owners. This is in part because Richmond was, compared to the other cities, integrating slave labor into industrial work in a more systematic way, and on a larger scale, in tobacco processing and ironwork. He doesn’t get into it in much detail here, but the intense brutality of industrial slavery has been well-documented. If Richmond, rather than Baltimore or New Orleans, had been the future urban slavery absent the civil war, the tentative steps toward a kind of quasi-freedom urban slaves had managed to take could very easily have been wiped out, bringing the horror of cotton slavery to the city.

*In a fascinating and puzzling omission, Atlanta is not included in this study, and no explanation is given. Given Atlanta’s relatively high level of industrialization, I wonder if a similar dynamic might not have been taking place there.

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