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The Elite Discourse of Higher Education Reporting

[ 98 ] April 3, 2015 |


The other day, Stanford got a ton of publicity for offering free tuition for all students whose families make less than $125,000 a year. My response. Fine, but it’s not a big deal. Three thoughts came to my mind. First, if you are going to take out debt to go to college, doing it at Stanford is far, far more likely to pay off than at almost any other school in the country. Second, while there is certainly nothing wrong with Stanford doing this, in the larger discussion of higher education costs in this country, it is statistically meaningless. The few thousand (tops) this will affect each year at Stanford are dwarfed by the millions of young people at colleges around the nation. Until we deal with their rising debt loads, the problem remains. Third, why does so much higher education reporting focus on elite schools, even though the number of students attending them are so small?

Incidentally, Corey Robin had the same question recently, citing an article discussion conditions of education in prisons that aren’t all that different than a lot of our colleges. Yet they are shocking to the writer.

The reason for this disconnect is clear enough to me. Most reporters come from elite schools. It’s what they know. Their friends and coworkers came from elite schools. Community colleges, Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, or even a good but not elite state school like the University of Rhode Island is basically terra incognita for most of the people reporting on higher education in this country. Like so much else in our society, unquestioned class privilege allows for the reproduction of conversations about higher education that know the millions of people going to college at non-elite institutions exist, but without any real comprehension of their lives or ability to write about them usefully.


Rent Control

[ 233 ] April 3, 2015 |


The usual discussion among people interested in cities is that rent control doesn’t work. I don’t know the literature enough to have a strong opinion on the matter. But I thought Jake Blumgart’s piece an interesting defense of the practice:

But a comprehensive review of literature by New York housing lawyer Timothy Collins found that the received wisdom regarding rent regulations is overly simplistic—partially because hard ceilings on rents are often imagined, while the reality is more often (as in New York’s case) a more measured approach meant to discourage landlords from dramatically raising rents and displacing tenants.

Collins argues that New York’s two largest building booms took place during times of strict rent controls: the 1920s and the post-war period between 1947 and 1965. (He is not arguing that the regulations provoked the building, just that they didn’t restrain it in the same way strict zoning codes did in the mid-1960s.)

“New York’s moderate rent regulations have had few, if any, of the negative side effects so confidently predicted by industry advocates,” Collins writes. “More important, rent regulations have been the single greatest source of affordable housing for middle‐ and low‐income households. I should note that many of these findings came as a surprise to me. When I first joined the Rent Guidelines Board staff in 1987, I believed that rent regulations in New York City probably did have some long‐term harmful effects. I was proven wrong.”

Outside the city, one economist found that housing construction in New Jersey fell by 52 percent in cities that enacted rent control regulations in the early 1970s—but fell 88 percent in those that didn’t. The policy also did not affect the landlords’ desire to keep their properties in good condition. One study from 1988 found that “there is no basis for economists’ strongly-held belief that rent control leads to worse maintenance.”

Again, I don’t know. Citing “one study from 1988” does not inspire a ton of confidence. But at least it’s an argument worth having and perhaps reconsidering or at least reevaluating the consensus that rent control is always a terrible idea and that it is a major factor in restricting the building of new housing in cities where it exists.


[ 10 ] April 3, 2015 |


I love this campaign by the Canadian Fair Trade Network that plays on country of origin labels to describe the working conditions in those nations.

“100% cotton. Made in Cambodia by Behnly, nine years old. He gets up at 5:00 am every morning to make his way to the garment factory where he works,” reads the label on this yellow sweater. “It will be dark when he arrives and dark when he leaves. He dresses lightly because the temperature in the room he works reaches 30 degrees.”

That’s the equivalent of 86 degrees Fahrenheit—a temperature most of us would find difficult to work in for an entire day. The effects of the heat on Behnly are compounded by the room’s atmosphere. “The dust in the room fills his nose and mouth. He will make less than a dollar, for a day spent slowly suffocating. A mask would cost the company ten cents. The label doesn’t tell the whole story,” the tag reads.

Of course, hiding those working conditions is the goal of corporations so that we don’t think of any of that when we shop. Workers may be dying making our clothing, but the sale is so good! Moving production across the globe makes this far easier. We can’t even find Bangladesh on a map so no Triangle reaction here when 1129 workers die to make our clothes. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see country of origin labels challenged under the corporate rights provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, so we’ll see if even this minor knowledge of where our clothes are made remains five years from now.

Visualizing the Atlantic Slave Trade

[ 14 ] April 2, 2015 |


A cool new visualization of the Atlantic slave trade. Could be interesting/useful to many of you. I’ll probably use it for my U.S. history survey course in the fall.

There’s A Big Price to Pay

[ 124 ] April 1, 2015 |

I believe there are some LGM writers in Las Vegas right now. I hope they are listening to Tom Landry’s sage wisdom.


Dollar General Working Conditions

[ 54 ] April 1, 2015 |


OSHA is cracking down on Dollar General for the terrible working conditions in many of its stores around the nation, fining one Atlanta-area store $83,000 for serious fire risk violations.

Continually exposing their workers to the hazards, blocked exits, locked exits, blocked electrical panels have been found throughout their corporation nationwide. They seem to have not taken the message to all of their workers in protecting them,” said Griffin.

They are all violations that OSHA says are extremely dangerous for their employees and customers, especially when it comes to the emergency exits.

“Electric fire is the worst fire you can have, and somewhere where you shop every day is not good,” said Tay Jones, who is a Dollar General customer.

Really, $83,000 is far too little for this kind of repeated violation, but at least it is starting to get some attention in the media. Walking into a Dollar General is not what I would call a pleasant experience, and it’s an atmosphere where one can almost feel a corporation treating workers badly. Seems to be an endemic problem in its stores.

Norwegian Prisons

[ 161 ] April 1, 2015 |


If you are like me, i.e. a good American, you are outraged by those herring choker Norwegians and their prison systems designed to rehabilitate inmates so they can be productive members of society. Real Americans know prison is meant for locking up black people punishing the evil in hellish ways that leave them a mess of a human being who will probably commit new crimes when they get out thanks to their experiences. But it makes me feel better about myself, knowing I support the institutionalized torture of people through solitary confinement, violent guards, substandard living conditions, and gang violence.

Dead Horses in British History

[ 42 ] April 1, 2015 |


Exciting news on the dead horse front, as intact 2000 year old horse skeleton found in British archaeological dig.

Ice Cream: The Dessert of Revolution

[ 51 ] April 1, 2015 |


Somehow I came to this point in my life without knowing that Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman once owned an ice cream shop in Worcester, Massachusetts before failing miserably to assassinate Henry Clay Frick in the wake of the Homestead strike. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–the fact that Berkman couldn’t off a bloated Gilded Age capitalist while armed with a gun and a knife is proof that you can’t trust anarchists to do anything right. This wonderful, if fictional, reminiscence by S.N. Berhman of visiting the shop in a 1954 New Yorker article is well worth your time.

Sprawl: Terrible in All Ways

[ 273 ] April 1, 2015 |


Suburban sprawl is a horrible thing for so many reasons. The environmental impact is enormous, eating up green space, farm land, and habitat. It reinforces racial and class exclusion and de facto segregation. It also externalizes its costs in all sorts of ways with severe impacts on the economy and our lives.

So take this number as more of a starting point than a final answer: A new analysis authored by Todd Litman at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute concludes that sprawl costs the U.S. economy more than $1 trillion every year.

More than half of that, Littman calculates as part of a New Climate Economy research project lead by the London School of Economics, is borne by people living in sprawling places who have to drive more, among other things. About $400 billion of it is borne by other people, in the form of air pollution or traffic congestion, or costlier public services — all of it created not necessarily by consumer demand for big homes and lots of driving, but also by policies in America that encourage and subsidize sprawl.

“An awful lot of auto travel and sprawl is the result of market distortions,” Litman says. He’s talking about policies like the home mortgage interest deduction that encourages large, suburban housing, as well as the fact that we don’t charge people for the true costs of using roads. In a more efficient market, he says, “consumers would rationally choose to own fewer automobiles, to drive less, to rely more on walking, cycling and public transit, and they’d choose more compact home and work locations simply because that really optimizes everybody’s benefits.”

But wait, there’s more!

You can parse the math behind his big number. It doesn’t include the costs in lower social mobility for children growing up in the most sprawling metros. It doesn’t take into account the higher housing costs many families would pay if they moved closer to the city, or the price tag if we built the kind of public transit we’d need to support a denser population. Economic modeling is by definition imprecise — all the more so when we’re modeling a matter like land use that influences everything from the air we breathe to our quality of life.

The other thing about sprawl is that once it is built, it’s almost impossible to fix to turn into a sustainable, dense city. Decent public transportation is probably never going to come to Rio Rancho, New Mexico or Round Rock, Texas because the number of people who can access any given bus or train stop is so few. And while walking core downtowns can be built in these places, one would still have to drive to get to them. Of course, part of the appeal for many of moving to the sprawl is so they never have to walk. A friend was involved in an attempt to bring a downtown to Rio Rancho. It was a total disaster. Not surprising for a city that called their urban planning department “Developer Services.”

Good Job NYU

[ 9 ] March 31, 2015 |


NYU deciding to open an Abu Dhabi just gets more and more embarrassing for the school. You’d think the school would consider academic freedom and the protections of its faculty in the United Arab Emirates. But of course it didn’t. Because it was always about cashing checks.

Destroying Workers Compensation

[ 19 ] March 31, 2015 |

Orange Man Injured

Workers compensation is under attack. Although the system has never provided benefits at a level that really makes up for the suffering of an injured worker (the only fair system would be 100 percent compensation for lost wages and benefits) and although the system was designed to protect corporations from workers suing them, it still provides at least some benefits to American workers who get sick or injured on the job.

Not surprisingly, in this New Gilded Age, this system, like the rest of American labor law, is under attack. That attack is being led by corporations such as Walmart, Lowe’s and Safeway.

ARAWC’s mission is to pass laws allowing private employers to opt out of the traditional workers’ compensation plans that almost every state requires businesses to carry. Employers that opt out would still be compelled to purchase workers’ comp plans. But they would be allowed to write their own rules governing when, for how long, and for which reasons an injured employee can access medical benefits and wages.

In recent years, companies have used that freedom to severely curtail long-standing benefits.

Two states, Texas and Oklahoma, already allow employers to opt out of state-mandated workers’ comp. In Texas, the only state that has never required employers to provide workers’ comp, Walmart has written a plan that allows the company to select the physician an employee sees and the arbitration company that hears disputes. The plan provides no coverage for asbestos exposure. And a vague section of the contract excludes any employee who was injured due to his “participation” in an assault from collecting benefits unless the assault was committed in defense of Walmart’s “business or property.” It is up to Walmart to interpret what “participation” means. But the Texas AFL-CIO has argued that an employee who defended himself from an attack would not qualify for benefits.

A 2012 survey of Texas companies with private plans found that fewer than half offered benefits to seriously injured employees or the families of workers who died in workplace accidents. (The state plan, which Texas companies can follow on a voluntary basis, covers both.) Half of employer plans capped benefits, while the state plan pays benefits throughout a worker’s recovery.

With a national right to work bill almost certainly coming the next the Republican Party controls all branches of government, we can expect a legislative gutting of workers’ comp to follow. Already the system is severely weakened from what it once was, with huge disparities between states and workers bearing the cost of being hurt. Existing workers’ comp plans cost companies very little, especially those giant corporations like Walmart. But paying anything at all is too much for corporations and we are seeing that principle reenter American life. Workers will regain the right to sue in federal court if employers opt out of workers’ comp. But how confident are you that they will win the sorts of rewards that will force corporations back into the system?

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