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First Step toward Unionizing Uber?

[ 18 ] May 16, 2016 |

George, 35, protests with other commercial drivers with the app-based, ride-sharing company Uber against working conditions outside the company's office in Santa Monica, California June 24, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT TRANSPORT CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3VKJ9

Since we’ve been talking about SEIU’s now failed deal with Airbnb, this is also very interesting:

Uber announced an agreement on Tuesday with a prominent union to create an association for drivers in New York that would establish a forum for regular dialogue and afford them some limited benefits and protections — but that would stop short of unionization.

The association, which will be known as the Independent Drivers Guild and will be affiliated with a regional branch of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union, is the first of its kind that Uber has officially blessed, although Uber drivers have formed a number of unsanctioned groups in cities across the country.

“We’re happy to announce that we’ve successfully come to agreement with Uber to represent the 35,000 drivers using Uber in New York City to enhance their earning ability and benefits,” said James Conigliaro Jr., the guild founder and assistant director and general counsel at the International Association of Machinists District 15, which represents workers in the Northeast.

The agreement is Uber’s latest attempt to assuage mounting concerns from regulators and drivers’ groups about the company’s labor model, which treats drivers as independent contractors. That model helps Uber keep its labor costs low, but it excludes drivers from coverage by most labor and employment laws, such as those that require a minimum wage and overtime.

That has spurred public disagreements, and many drivers have organized in unofficial groups to gain more rights. The prospect of unionization has loomed at times; lawmakers in Seattle voted last year to approve a bill allowing drivers for Uber and other ride-hailing apps to form unions.

In response, Uber, which is based in San Francisco, has been striking deals to tamp down the problems — with the proviso that the company be able to continue classifying its drivers as contractors and stop short of allowing drivers to unionize.

No doubt some will accuse the Machinists of selling workers short:

The machinists union has also indicated that for the duration of the five-year agreement, it will refrain from trying to unionize drivers, from encouraging them to strike and from waging campaigns to have them recognized as employees rather than independent contractors.

“It’s important to have immediate assistance in the industry and this is the structure that provides that,” said Mr. Conigliaro.

He emphasized, however, that drivers did not waive any labor rights by joining the guild, and that if Uber drivers were found to be employees at any point during the agreement, the union could try to unionize the drivers at their request.

Sounds pretty unstable to me. I think this is probably a good first step toward eventual unionization, even if it takes 5 years. In any case, the sharing economy is not going to go away. I’d rather move toward unionizing those workers than not.


Game Changer!

[ 83 ] May 16, 2016 |


OMG, how did we miss this? I don’t see how Trump loses now!

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) on Thursday endorsed Donald Trump and left the door open to becoming the Republican vice presidential nominee.

“He is not a perfect man. But what I do believe is that he loves this country and he will surround himself with capable, experienced people and he will listen to them,” Perry told CNN. “He wasn’t my first choice, wasn’t my second choice, but he is the people’s choice.”

Perry had harsh criticism for Trump early on in the presidential race while the Texas governor was still a presidential candidate. He blasted Trump’s “toxic mix of demagoguery and nonsense” in July.

But on Thursday, Perry praised Trump and his presidential bid.

“He is one of the most talented people who has ever run for the president I have ever seen,” Perry told CNN.

When asked whether he would consider being Trump’s running mate, the former Texas governor did not rule it out.

“I am going to be open to any way I can help. I am not going to say no,” Perry said. “We can’t afford the policies and the character of Hillary Clinton.”

A Trump-Perry ticket would truly be unbeatable. As a Democrat, I am very scared. I’d invest heavily in Tito’s and Ambien stock right now. That’s a hot stock tip from your LGM money managers!

Brazil’s Cabinet

[ 53 ] May 16, 2016 |

Brazil's Chief of Staff Minister Eliseu Padilha, interim President Michel Temer, Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles are seen during the first ministerial meeting at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, May 13, 2016. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino - RTX2E6L4

So Dilma Rousseff was finally evicted from the Brazilian presidency by her right-wing opponents. What does the new cabinet look like? Oh dear.

Brazil’s interim President Michel Temer has pledged to build a “bridge to the future,” but the 75-year old lawyer has shocked much of the country by assembling a Cabinet that appears to have emerged from a previous century.

Of the 22 members of his new conservative Cabinet, 22 are white men. In a country of more than 200 million people, more than half of Brazilians identify as black or dark-skinned, and over half are women. This is the first executive government since the fall of Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1980s to not have a woman in the Cabinet.

For whatever Dilma did, her opponents are old-school hard rightists: This should be very worrying to those who do not want the oppression of the 1970s to return to South America.

Doctors Without Borders

[ 30 ] May 15, 2016 |


A nice and depressing post for Sunday night.

Doctors Without Borders announced that it will not be participating in the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit, calling it a mere “fig-leaf of good intentions” that will not actually hold states accountable for their failure to address the humanitarian crisis in the world today.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon previously called on world leaders to attend the first World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), which will be held in Istanbul later this month, in order to send a message to the world that “we will not accept the erosion of humanity which we see in the world today.” The summit aims to help countries, U.N. agencies, and international organizations like Doctors Without Borders prepare and respond to crises.

But news that Doctors Without Borders will not be attending the summit reveals how little faith some international aid organizations have that the summit will bring about true change.

“We no longer have any hope that the WHS will address the weaknesses in humanitarian action and emergency response, particularly in conflict areas or epidemic situations,” Doctors Without Borders announced in a statement on Wednesday. “As shocking violations of international humanitarian law and refugee rights continue on a daily basis, WHS participants will be pressed to a consensus on non-specific, good intentions to ‘uphold norms’ and ‘end needs.’ The summit has become a fig-leaf of good intentions, allowing these systematic violations, by states above all, to be ignored.”

The announcement comes mere days after a Doctors Without Borders-supported hospital in Aleppo, Syria was attacked, killing at least 50 people, including one of the last pediatricians in the city. It also follows recent news that 16 U.S. military personnel involved in the horrific bombing of a Doctors Without Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan in October 2015 received “disciplinary measures,” but no criminal charges were made. These cases are not new. According to the organization, 75 hospitals managed or supported by Doctors Without Borders were bombed last year.

Not sure what to say except that the world is terrible sometimes.

How Victorians Eroticized Mormons

[ 112 ] May 15, 2016 |


This is super fascinating:

The appeal of this kind of story, and the public prudishness we often associate with Victorian society, didn’t come out of nowhere. The era, with its widespread industrialization and accompanying growth of big cities, left people worried that the social fabric created by small-town life was disappearing. Clergy and reformers responded by publishing self-help literature stressing religion and clean living. And yet, Victorians were also enjoying a big expansion of the arts, particularly English-language fiction, which was just emerging as a popular form.

Foster writes that one socially acceptable form of semi-pornographic media in the Victorian era was moralizing fiction. Descriptions of sex acts were acceptable so long as they condemned the sinful behavior. The stories were often told in first person, featuring an exotic, sexually powerful villain and a victim who usually dies in the end. Foster notes this plot point functions by “not only heightening the pathos and stressing her passivity but tidying up any loose ends quickly.”

Some anti-Mormon tracts followed this formula, describing innocent women dragged into plural marriages. Authors imagined salacious temple ceremonies, incest, torture, and murder. Stories emphasized the “sexual magnetism of the Mormon male, the hypnotized passivity of his innocent victim.” The tracts might feature rape, but often the men were portrayed as being in league with Satan, “using evil arts” to deceive and seduce their victims. The women in the stories were “generally both attracted to and repelled by these ‘demon-lovers.’”

The combination of attraction and repulsion, of course, could also describe Victorians’ attitudes to these stories—not to mention our own modern relationship with porn.

Poultry and Pampers

[ 30 ] May 15, 2016 |


I talk all the time about horrible working conditions in the developing world. Many of those workers are producing goods for American companies, but usually through a supply chain. But American companies producing within the United States want to replicate those conditions domestically. Sometimes they can, especially in the meat industry.

A new report by Oxfam America, an arm of the international anti- poverty and injustice group, alleges that poultry industry workers are “routinely denied breaks to use the bathroom” in order to optimize the speed of production. In some cases, according to the group, the reality is so oppressive that workers “urinate and defecate while standing on the line” and “wear diapers to work.” In others, employees say they avoid drinking liquids for long periods and endure considerable pain in order to keep their jobs.

The findings are the result of hundreds of interviews with line workers from some of the largest poultry processing companies in the United States, including Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, and Perdue. And they bring the current state of the poultry industry into serious question. Competitive forces, they suggest, are driving poultry processors to produce as much meat as possible, as fast as possible, leading companies to mistreat their workers, even if unknowingly.

Today, poultry processing plants are allowed to funnel chickens through their assembly lines at a rate of 140 birds per minute, a rate which the industry recently lobbied to increase by another 35 birds per minute. The speed has been great for business, but for those working on the line, it has made for extremely taxing shifts. Just ask Debbie Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project who used to work with the government agency that oversaw industry practices. On Wednesday, she published a piece in response to the new report. This is how she described the conditions:

In my work at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, I witnessed the dangers: poultry workers stand shoulder to shoulder on both sides of long conveyor belts, most using scissors or knives, in cold, damp, loud conditions, making the same forceful movements thousands upon thousands of times a day, as they skin, pull, cut, debone and pack the chickens. The typical plant processes 180,000 birds a day. A typical worker handles 40 birds a minute.

This is absolutely reprehensible and is the result of a massive regulatory failure in this country. For all the good Tom Perez has done as Secretary of Labor, it will take years, not to mention a major increase in department funding from a recalcitrant Congress, to fix the poor regulatory regime. This isn’t even a clear violation of labor law but it’s quite clearly a violation of human rights. These are the wages of cheap chicken. Those low prices come at the cost of workers urinating themselves. Don’t accept this. Demand changes.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 31

[ 43 ] May 15, 2016 |

This is the grave of Ambrose Burnside


Ambrose Burnside, Rhode Island’s gift to the Civil War and to the history of facial hair, was born in Indiana, the son of a South Carolina planter who freed his slaves and moved north. He went to West Point and graduated in 1847 and was sent to Mexico but arrived there after the cessation of hostilities in the American war of conquest of expand slavery. In 1852, he was assigned to Newport, Rhode Island. There he married and made the state his home for most of the rest of his life. He left the Army in 1853 and started his own firearm company. He became close friends with George McClellan in the 1850s when he briefly worked for the Illinois Central Railroad, where his future commander also worked. He ran for the House from Rhode Island as a Democrat in 1858 but was crushed.

When the Civil War began, Burnside raised the 1st Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry and was named a colonel. In August 1861, he was promoted to brigadier general. He had some success as a commander in eastern North Carolina. He was then moved to Virginia where he participated in the disastrous Peninsular Campaign. When George McClellan was canned after that disaster, Burnside was offered the command of the Army of the Potomac. Loyal to McClellan, he refused. After John Pope received command of the Army of Virginia and then failed miserably at the Second Battle of Manassas, Burnside once again received a command offer. Once again, he refused. At Antietam, Burnside moved so slowly, even McClellan lost patience with him. After that battle, McClellan was finally relieved for the last time and this time Burnside reluctantly accepted the offer of commander, only accepting it because he hated Joe Hooker and didn’t want to fight for him.

This was an unfortunate choice, although it’s not like Lincoln had good options in 1862. Lincoln ordered Burnside to be aggressive and move on Richmond. This led to the Battle of Fredericksburg. This was not a good day for the Union.

The Butcher of Fredericksburg offered to resign. That offer was refused. He was relieved of his command in January 1863 and replaced by Hooker. He was exiled to the Department of the Ohio, a backwater without any action. But Burnside took it upon himself to crack down on those he thought treasonous. He famously arrested the anti-war Ohio Democrat Clement Vallandigham for treason in 1863, forcing Lincoln to figure out what to do with war opponents the military arrested. Lincoln was not happy about Burnside creating a martyr for antiwar Democrats.

Burnside was brought back to Virginia under Grant’s command in 1864. There he had an idea. Let’s dig a trench under Cnfederate lines during the siege at Petersburg, blow the soldiers up, and then attack. The resultant disaster wasn’t entirely his fault because George Meade gave a last minute order not to use the black troops trained for this action (trained in fact because their lives were considered worth less than whites). Burnside then chose a regiment by chance to attack after the blast. Unfortunately, they marched straight into the crater. The Battle of the Crater was a massacre. At this point, Grant put Burnside on extended leave and his participation in the war ended.

Burnside became a very conservative Republican after the war, serving as a three-time governor of Rhode Island and then as senator until he died in 1881. Much to my amusement, during Occupy, which in Providence took place in Burnside Park, the activists draped the Burnside statue in an anarchist flag, but must have made him roll over in his grave.

Ambrose Burnside was a truly terrible general. But he is the only general to lend his name to a style of facial hair. Pretty much worth Fredericksburg and the Crater.

Ambrose Burnside is buried in Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, Rhode Island.

Music Notes

[ 13 ] May 14, 2016 |



A very busy week so I didn’t read a lot of good music pieces. However, last Friday, I saw Waxahatchee at the Columbus Theater in Providence. It was just Katie Crutchfield and the bass player so it’s a bit less of a band effect as this video, but those are some great songs and I was very happy to be there.

Still managed to squeeze in some new albums this week. Reviews:

Oneohtrix Point Never, Garden of Delete

The way I feel about electronic music is I think something like a lot of people feel about jazz. I recognize the talent and the noise that moves in interesting ways but I just can’t really get into it. Probably the closest band to something I like that I know of is Oneohtrix Point Never, which is the performance name of Daniel Lopatin. He’s an interesting guy, even writing essays on Kenny G that are well worth reading. Lopatin’s compositions densely swirl around in some genuinely interesting ways. I’d almost listen to this a bunch of times. But I probably won’t. It’s my fault, I admit it.


Algiers, Algiers

Now this is interesting. Algiers is an indie rock/punk band with an African-American singer who has a powerful voice that channel slave chants and gospel into some pretty heavy music and heavy lyrics that force the listener to confront the racist past of America. It’s noisy and about slavery. What’s not to like? This is definitely deserving of additional listens.


Bill Fay, Who is the Sender?

Bill Fay had a couple of good albums in the 70s and then disappeared. I used to have one of those albums before it was lost in the Great House Robbery of 2014. He was one of those many weird folkies from the 60s and early 70s making some pretty decent music, in his case rather religiously oriented. In 2012, he put out an EP and in 2015, a full album, Who is the Sender? His voice isn’t what it was in the 70s but this is a very solid album of good quality folk music. He’s still singing religious songs, which might annoy if they weren’t really interesting. Bigger production than you’d expect, but it mostly works well.


Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

Price is a Nashville lifer who finally got an album made after a decade trying. Interesting, it’s the first country album put out on Jack White’s label. She has an interesting back story, including a dead baby and the depression and self-medication that led to a DWI and a weekend in jail. She doesn’t shy away from any of this in her songs. The album itself has a great lead about herself and some other quite good songs about various parts of her life. It’s not a great album as a whole, as there are a few average tracks and she doesn’t really veer away from a pretty basic Nashville sound. But I’m glad she’s received a lot of buzz (even played Saturday Night Live!) and the financial success she deserves. A quality talent and I look forward to her next album.


Eszter Balint, Airless Midnight

Louis C.K. fans know Balint as his love interest in the last season of his show or they know her from her role in Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise. She’s worked a lot of television and film and made a few albums as well. This is her first in a decade. Working with Marc Ribot among others, Balint surrounds herself with interesting musicians that make a more compelling palette of sounds than the usual singer-songwriter material. As for the songs themselves, they are eminently listenable, but not something that changed my life.


As always, let this serve as your open thread about all things musical.

Could Obama Unilaterally End the Interest Tax Loophole?

[ 27 ] May 14, 2016 |


This is certainly an interesting assertion:

In one deft move, Mr. Obama could instruct officials at his Treasury Department to close the so-called carried interest tax loophole that allows managers of private equity and hedge funds to pay a substantially lower federal tax rate on much of their income.

Forcing these managers to pay ordinary income taxes on the gains they reap in their funds would accomplish two things. It would take away an enormous benefit enjoyed almost exclusively by some of the country’s wealthiest people. And, tax experts say, it would generate billions in revenue to the government each year, though there are wide differences over exactly how much.

But doesn’t changing the carried interest loophole require an act of Congress? Not according to an array of tax experts. Just as Mr. Obama’s Treasury Department recently changed the rules to curb corporate inversions, in which companies shift their official headquarters to another country to lower their tax bills, the Treasury secretary, Jacob J. Lew, and his colleagues could jettison the carried interest loophole.

Alan J. Wilensky is among those urging such a change. He was a deputy assistant Treasury secretary in charge of tax policy in the early 1990s when the carried interest loophole came about.

“This is something President Obama can do and should do,” Mr. Wilensky said in an interview. “This is not an impossible thing to get done.”

Now a lawyer in Minneapolis, Mr. Wilensky recently wrote an article on this topic for Tax Notes, the definitive publication on national and global tax issues.

Victor Fleischer, a law professor at the University of San Diego, is another who has recommended that the Treasury get rid of the unjust tax treatment on carried interest. Mr. Fleischer, a contributor to The New York Times, has also estimated how much money such a change would bring to the Treasury.

“It’s something that Obama could accomplish and, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure why the Treasury hasn’t taken an interest in it,” Mr. Fleischer said in an interview. “In fact, there is quite a bit of revenue at stake. And doing this on carried interest would cement Obama’s legacy in substance as well as symbolically.”

I wonder if Obama hasn’t done this because he so holds the idea of a Grand Bargain near and dear to his heart and this would be a chip he could use in that deal. That’s sheer speculation of course. In any case, eliminating this would be a major boost to Obama’s legacy and he should do it yesterday.

America’s Climate Refugees

[ 8 ] May 14, 2016 |


The United States now officially has climate change refugees that the government is paying to move.

One of those grants, $48 million for Isle de Jean Charles, is something new: the first allocation of federal tax dollars to move an entire community struggling with the impacts of climate change. The divisions the effort has exposed and the logistical and moral dilemmas it has presented point up in microcosm the massive problems the world could face in the coming decades as it confronts a new category of displaced people who have become known as climate refugees.

“We’re going to lose all our heritage, all our culture,” lamented Chief Albert Naquin of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, the tribe to which most Isle de Jean Charles residents belong. “It’s all going to be history.”

Around the globe, governments are confronting the reality that as human-caused climate change warms the planet, rising sea levels, stronger storms, increased flooding, harsher droughts and dwindling freshwater supplies could drive the world’s most vulnerable people from their homes. Between 50 million and 200 million people — mainly subsistence farmers and fishermen — could be displaced by 2050 because of climate change, according to estimates by the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security and the International Organization for Migration.

“The changes are underway and they are very rapid,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell warned last week in Ottawa. “We will have climate refugees.”

But the problem is complex, said Walter Kaelin, the head of the Nansen Initiative, a research organization working with the United Nations to address extreme-weather displacement.

“You don’t want to wait until people have lost their homes, until they flee and become refugees,” he said. “The idea is to plan ahead and provide people with some measure of choice.”

The Isle de Jean Charles resettlement plan is one of the first programs of its kind in the world, a test of how to respond to climate change in the most dramatic circumstances without tearing communities apart. Under the terms of the federal grant, the island’s residents are to be resettled to drier land and a community that as of now does not exist. All funds have to be spent by 2022.

The Louisiana story, which like most things climate change, is an example of how climate change combines with other factors to exacerbate contemporary problems. In this case, climate change combines with the channeling of the Mississippi River so that sediment flows into the Gulf and a century of petroleum companies running channels through the swamps that allow seawater to eat away at the low-lying land to finish off much of southern Louisiana. Given the unique history and culture of the area, not to mention it’s amazingly diverse wildlife, this is a real tragedy. That it is happening to Native Americans and Cajuns shows how climate change, like other natural disasters, will often disproportionately affect the poor. The next group of people likely to be directly affected to the point of relocation are also Native Americans, this time in Alaska. This is hardly a coincidence.

How to Get Drafted as a Quarterback in the NFL

[ 19 ] May 14, 2016 |


Step 1: Be born wealthy:

• 13 of the 15 quarterbacks grew up in homes that were valued near or above the median home value in their respective state, according to public records and online real estate figures. Seven families lived in homes that were more than double the median values: Goff, Hackenberg, Carson Wentz, Connor Cook, Jeff Driskel, Kevin Hogan and Jake Rudock.

• 13 of the 15 quarterbacks in the 2016 draft spent their early childhoods in two-parent homes. (Of note, a majority of the 30 parents hold four-year college degrees.)

Many have debated the value of so-called quarterback gurus for more than two decades, ever since people such as Theder got involved and created a cottage industry. Many college and pro coaches privately lament that quarterbacks are showing up to preseason camps heaving learned bad habits. Other coaches sing the praises of private coaches who can work with athletes during periods when NCAA and NFL rules bar teams from having contact.

It’s become standard for draft eligible quarterbacks to sign with agents who will pay for the athlete to work out with a coach of his choosing before the draft. And the fee will typically range anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000, depending on the prominence of the athlete. In some cases, the bigger the name, the less he pays. Often enough, though, the quarterback coach has had a relationship with the pupil long before the draft process.

One of the major benefits to youth quarterbacks is the progressive effect of empowerment, according to Dr. Elko, the sports psychologist. “All coaches are not created equal,” Dr. Elko says, “but the really good coach will show you how you’re better and convince you you’re better. That’s especially important for quarterbacks, because we know the best quarterbacks have a confidence that’s not really related to anything tangible. They just believe.”

The whole article profiling the current crop of NFL QB draftees is really interesting, but the strong correlation between wealthy parents, stable home lives, and being drafted as a QB compared to the rest of the NFL is really striking.

Civil War Final

[ 53 ] May 13, 2016 |

Take my final in History 365: The Civil War and Reconstruction

Answer 1 of the following 2 questions.

1) In a 7-8 page paper, answer the following question: Are the years 1865-1877 best understood through the process of Reconstruction in the South or better understood as a period leading to dramatic transformations across the country, affecting all populations and regions?

2) In a 7-8 page paper, trace changing ideas and understandings of labor in American society from slavery through and beyond Reconstruction and place these changes in the broader context of the major events/ideas/social changes/etc that help define 19th century America.

OK, you can leave a 1 line comment instead of write 7-8 pages.

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