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Music Notes

[ 79 ] July 16, 2016 |


Time for another Saturday evening music conversation. A few notes:

Rob Wasserman has died. Best known for his work with Bob Weir, Wasserman was a truly great bassist.

Pop Matters is ranking the top 100 alternative singles of the 1990s. These sorts of lists are good for nothing but an argument, which is of course the point.

Here’s an interesting essay on how the ubiquity of headphones is transforming how we listen to music.

One of the more interesting revelations included in the Sol Republic survey is the news that empowerment anthems—like Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” Katy Perry’s “Roar,” Kanye West’s “Stronger,” and (no joke) the “Chariots of Fire” theme—are especially popular among headphone devotees. People like to stomp around to jams that instantly position them as scrappy and determined underdogs, overcoming tremendous odds. (The original music video for “Eye of the Tiger” features the members of Survivor marching down the street in combat formation, their collective gaze unblinking, their strides assured; it turns out they’re simply walking to band practice in a garage.) These days, people seem to be perpetually gearing themselves up for the epic battle of merely existing. At the end of the day, jogging up to our front doors, we are all Rocky, reaching the summit, conquering that last step: “Just a man / and his will / to survive!” We rip our headphones off, triumphantly. We did it! Another day closer to death!

As more and more people choose to listen to music on headphones—and we are now nearly forty years deep into portable audio; I have a friend who claims he only listens to music on headphones—it seems silly not to wonder how that technology might be beginning to dictate content. If headphones allow for more introspection, do headphone users favor introspective sounds? If there’s been a thematic through line in the past several years of pop music, it’s been messages of self-reliance and liberation, songs that place us at the center of our own heroic arcs. Obviously, that’s hardly new terrain for pop, but I’d argue that it has reached a noticeable apex this decade. Are headphones partially responsible for the shift?

I’ve seen one live show since the last time I did one of these, which was Wussy at the Beachland Tavern in Cleveland. That’s my 3rd Wussy show. As always, it was great. They are a fantastic live band. Unfortunately however, they do not mix up the setlist. That’s always a little disappointing, to know exactly what songs you are going to hear when you walk into the show, and often in what order. My understanding is that this is basically because Chuck Cleaver thinks of a set of songs as something that improves over time they more they are played so when they hit the road, they will play the same ones repeatedly. They’ve basically come to the point where there are two songs on Strawberry that will ever be played again, one off of Left for Dead, even only three or maybe four off Attica. Given all the good material they have, I wish they’d play more of it.

Now some reviews of recent albums:

Lake Street Dive, Show Pony

Listening to Lake Street Dive caused me to think a lot more than the music intends one to think. This is a band of New England Conservatory of Music graduates making retro soul of the Aretha Franklin and Supremes style. The musicians are good and Rachael Price has an excellent voice that she uses effectively. The lyrics are reasonably witty. That said, this music lacks any sort of edge or grit at all. When I first listened to this, I thought I might be missing something in a band a lot of people think is pretty great. But then I realized that everything they do, other bands do better. The problem isn’t that they are retro–Charles Bradley, among others, does an overtly retro style quite well. It’s certainly not that this is a white band playing soul–Alice Russell or Amy Winehouse make (or, sadly, made) some pretty great music. And a band doesn’t really have to push the envelope musically or conceptually, but boy does Janelle Monae and Shamir make more interesting music. Finally, I just came to the conclusion that I don’t think Lake Street Dive is a very interesting band. They are capable and this is perfectly pleasant and some of you may find it quite enjoyable. It would work fairly well at a cocktail party or a little dance party in your house. Still, they are playing in Providence in October and maybe I will go to see if I am missing anything.


Chris Stapleton, Traveller

The former lead singer of the bluegrass band The Steel Drivers and a long-time Nashville songwriting hand, Stapleton’s solo release took the country music world by storm last year. He is a very talented singer, a good songwriter, and a charismatic performer. He plays on the outlaw country tradition without trying too hard. He does a great version of “Tennessee Whiskey” that David Allan Coe and George Jones had hits with in the 80s. My only hesitation about this album is that it is too long. Few albums need to be 65 minutes and pretty much no country albums need to be that long. That’s not some arbitrary standard. It’s really hard to write 14 good songs without filler and in a genre where the arrangements don’t really value experimentation, 65 minutes means some bloat. The back half of the album drags at times and occasionally Stapleton over-relies on vocal pyrotechnics where a more subtle approach might be better. This is good stuff and I look forward to his next project, but Traveller is not quite as great as has been advertised.


Mount Moriah, How to Dance

When I first heard this, I would never have thought it was released by Merge, except that like almost everything else that label puts out, it’s excellent. This is a country band made up of indie rock singer Heather McEntire and guitarist Jenks Miller of the metal band Horseback. Does such genre hopping mean this isn’t an “authentic” band? Only if one thinks authenticity is something real or something to strive for. How to Dance is just a very solid country album with good tunes, good vocals, and good lyrics. Mount Moriah is less ambitious than Chris Stapleton but I can’t help but believing they have the better album.


Parquet Courts, Human Performance

In one of these threads awhile ago, someone suggested I listen to Parquet Courts. I realized that a friend had given me one of their albums so I did. I loved it. So I bought their new album, Human Performance. I love this too. Parquet Courts is just a great rock band. These are really interesting songs lyrically and like all their albums, there’s a great deal of variance in their arrangements, including the length of songs. It’s arresting music from a very productive band.


And now a couple of older albums I had long forgotten about.

John Cale, 1919

I’ve always felt I should like John Cale’s post-Velvet Underground material more than I do. I like his experimental side and of course I love VU. But although I really love a few of his songs (“The Ballad of Cable Hogue” especially) I still can’t get into his albums, even though I just tried again with 1919. Basically, I don’t think he’s a consistent songwriter and the arrangements are surprisingly boring. It’s a smart enough album, but I guess I will just never be a Cale fan.


Burning Spear, Marcus Garvey

For years, I basically hated reggae. I confess that this was without really sitting down and listening to it hard. When you go to college in Eugene, at least in the 1990s, reggae gets associated with white dreadlocked hippies getting stoned and listening to boring music. And that’s basically what they were doing. Then, doing a bit of traveling over the years, but especially during my year in Asia after college, you can’t enter a restaurant or bar catering to tourists in many nations without hearing “No Woman No Cry.” All of this is a bit unfair to the music itself. Over the last few years, people have snuck in a reggae album or two in stuff they have given me. I slowly started to realize there was a bit more here than I had recognized. So I put on Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey, really listening to this for the first time. And I have to say that it is pretty great. Yeah, reggae is still repetitive, while also being slow and mellow, making the repetition harder to listen to than, say, North Africa’s trance-like music traditions. But if you turn it up loud enough you can really hear the great horn arrangements. The politics on the album are of course fantastic without being trite. Reggae is a form of modernized folk music, at least in its early days before it became the music of stoned white dreadlocked hippies, and I don’t know how many albums do it better than Marcus Garvey. I mean that in a literal way–maybe there are a lot that do and I don’t know them. But I actually enjoyed this a lot.


As always, this is an open thread on all things music.


Law Professor with Unearned Platform Cranky that Historians Have Opinions. News at 11.

[ 111 ] July 16, 2016 |


Does anyone read Stanley Fish and think, “Wow, I can really see why he has a column at the Times. This is brilliant work”?

Today, Fish is outraged that historians are expressing concerns about Donald Trump. I guess this is a breach of decorum as crushing to the nation’s standards as Ruth Bader Ginsburg also expressing concerns about Donald Trump. What will the nation do?

PROFESSORS are at it again, demonstrating in public how little they understand the responsibilities and limits of their profession.

On Monday a group calling itself Historians Against Trump published an “Open Letter to the American People.” The purpose of the letter, the historians tell us, is to warn against “Donald J. Trump’s candidacy and the exceptional challenges it poses to civil society.” They suggest that they are uniquely qualified to issue this warning because they “have a professional obligation as historians to share an understanding of the past upon which a better future may be built.”

Or in other words: We’re historians and you’re not, and “historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable.” Therefore we can’t keep silent, for “the lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.”

Professors are at it again, taking to newspaper columns to complain about other professors they don’t agree with. A truly responsible professor would write concern trolling columns in the nation’s paper of record!

But there’s very little acknowledgment of limitations and subjectivity in what follows, only a rehearsal of the now standard criticisms of Mr. Trump, offered not as political opinions, which they surely are, but as indisputable, impartially arrived at truths: “Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is a campaign of violence: violence against individuals and groups; against memory and accountability, against historical analysis and fact.” How’s that for cool, temperate and disinterested analysis?

Like my cool temperate analysis of other scholars…

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that this view of Mr. Trump is incorrect; nor am I saying that it is on target: only that it is a view, like anyone else’s. By dressing up their obviously partisan views as “the lessons of history,” the signatories to the letter present themselves as the impersonal transmitters of a truth that just happens to flow through them. In fact they are merely people with history degrees, which means that they have read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays, often on topics of interest only to other practitioners in the field.

As opposed to someone who merely has an English degree, having read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays on topics that provide just the right amount of conventional wisdom to get a permanent Times sinecure! And Fish is always highly concerned with academics stepping outside their area of expertise, which is why he didn’t decide to defend Kim Davis or anything like that.

I would have no problem with individuals, who also happened to be historians, disseminating their political conclusions in an op-ed or letter to the editor; but I do have a problem when a bunch of individuals claim for themselves a corporate identity and more than imply that they speak for the profession of history.

Of course they aren’t speaking for the profession. There are professional organizations that do that. They are speaking as a group.

Were an academic organization to declare a political position, it would at that moment cease to be an academic organization and would have turned itself — as the Historians Against Trump turn themselves — into a political organization whose arguments must make their way without the supposed endorsement and enhancement of an academic pedigree. Its members would be political actors who share the accidental feature of having advanced degrees. But it’s not the degrees, which are finally inessential, but the strength or weakness of the arguments that will tell in the end.

Ah, whining for the good ol’days of “objectivity,” when professors only talked from moderate perspectives that reinforced the political status quo, wore ties to class, and, of course, were a bunch of wealthy white men.

I have no idea if being a historian gives me special insight into Donald Trump. But I do know that Stanley Fish is effectively decrying the very thing he himself does all the time, with the caveat that he does it all on his own and without help from others. Why he feel the needs to scream into the wind on this topic of all things is completely unknown except that concern trolling is something he feels a compulsion to do.

I wonder if Stanley Fish was this outraged when Arthur Schlesinger Jr was stepping outside his area of expertise and advising JFK on how to kill communists in Bolivia? I think we all know the answer to this.

GOP Officially Approves of Bundyism

[ 66 ] July 16, 2016 |


The Republican Party has basically made Cliven Bundy Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Interior:

The Republican platform committee met this week to draft the document that defines the party’s official principles and policies. Along with provisions on pornography and LGBT “conversion therapy” is an amendment calling for the indiscriminate and immediate disposal of national public lands.

The inclusion of this provision in the Republican Party’s platform reflects the growing influence of and ideological alliance between several anti-park members of the GOP and anti-government extremists, led by Cliven Bundy, who dispute the federal government’s authority over national public lands.

“Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to the states,” reads the adopted language. “We call upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the transfer of those lands identified.”

The provision calls for an immediate full-scale disposal of “certain” public lands, without defining which lands it would apply to, leaving national parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, and national forests apparently up for grabs and vulnerable to development, privatization, or transfer to state ownership.

Racial Unity?

[ 202 ] July 16, 2016 |

People take part in a rally on April 29, 2015 at Union Square in New York, held in solidarity with demonstrators in Baltimore, Maryland demanding justice for an African-American man who died of severe spinal injuries sustained in police custody.    AFP PHOTO/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez        (Photo credit should read EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Stacey Patton convincingly argues that Hillary Clinton speech about racial unity was wrongheaded.

Beyond that, Clinton’s call for everyone to “do the work” to unite against hatred overlooks the fundamental fact that it’s whites — and only whites — who must work to fix the racist structures in our society.

To quote another historical figure, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The thing wrong with America is white racism. … It’s time for America to have an intensified study on what’s wrong with white folks.” Clinton could have spoken about racial justice.

Instead, like so many others, she focused on the rhetoric of unity. And calling for unity places yet another burden on black people.

Look at what happens in the wake of a shooting by police like the ones last week in Minnesota and Louisiana and Texas: The relatives of the victims are clearly grieving and traumatized, yet they are pushed to extend empathy and forgiveness to those who killed their loved ones, and to the system that profits from these tragedies. Routinely now, we encounter scenes of black folks hugging racists, praying with and dancing with police officers, being asked to do the additional work of teaching white folks how not to be racist and help them find solutions to a racist system we didn’t invent — while we struggle to keep ourselves and our loved ones alive.

Talk of unity, reconciliation and restoring trust is a diversion from the raw, ugly, excruciatingly painful work of addressing the systemic racism that is tearing our nation apart. In their rush to avoid the real work in favor of a kumbaya fantasy comfort zone, they refuse to confront history and the truth about present moment.

Asking black people to participate in this reconciliation process — one that centers on Lincoln — suggests that we bear responsibility in this mess. But we didn’t invent the concept of race. We didn’t create and don’t sustain institutionalized racism. And we surely don’t benefit from it.

Rhetorical calls for unity won’t address the fundamental sources of inequality: mass incarceration, employment discrimination, militarized policing, the school-to-prison pipeline, divestment in communities of color, political disenfranchisement, displacement of poor and working-class people of color from gentrifying cities. The emphasis on unity makes no room for discussion about growing white resentment and feelings of victimization, and it presumes that black folks bear responsibility for the entrenched problem of a “colorblind” white America that denies racism even exists.

And while Clinton may not have intended it this way, what the message of unity winds up doing is blaming communities of color for failing to assimilate, rather than acknowledging that the very fabric of this nation is built upon a diabolical, calculated and constantly evolving system of racism. That has the same effect as when Republicans blame President Obama for dividing the nation and making race relations worse, or when the media chastises Black Lives Matter protesters for alienating liberals with its “violent tone.”

All that said, I don’t really see what else a presidential nominee is going to say four months before the general election.

The NRA is a Racist Organization

[ 51 ] July 16, 2016 |


The National Rifle Association, the nation’s most morally abhorrent organization and producer of vile children’s propaganda, does not actually support unlimited gun rights. It supports unlimited gun rights for white people. It’s worth remembering that the NRA was originally just a hunting rights organization and that in the 70s it was on the verge of closing its Washington offices and moving its headquarters to Colorado to focus on its core mission. But then new leadership took over that connected gun rights to white backlash to the civil rights movement. Ever since then it has been a front line organization in the culture wars, which of course have always been more than tinged with racism. So it’s hardly surprising that it has nothing to say when the police kill black gunowners.

Jessica Jones

[ 162 ] July 15, 2016 |

Actress Krysten Ritter was on the set of the new TV show 'AKA Jessica Jones' on March 24 2015 in New York City.  |

I recently completed a bit of an experiment. What if I, someone who has never read a comic book in my life, even when I was a kid, and who is openly hostile to superhero stories, watched a superhero show. How would it stand up? Does it work despite my hostility to the genre? Does the story stand up for those who bring absolutely nothing of the comic book universe to the table.

So I watched Jessica Jones, it part because it was only sort of superhero-y, without the ridiculous costumes. The film-noir aspects seemed intriguing and it seemed like a good entry point.

Last night, I watched the final two episodes. So spoilers ahead and the like if you care about these things.

Basically, I thought it worked OK. The show itself was mostly fine, not great. It gets by on great performances from the three lead actors and a great concept, although I worry where it goes from here. As many others have said, the Kilgrave story is fantastic because it shows not an evil genius or a tortured soul but just a reprobate sexual abusing asshole using his powers to do that. Combine that with David Tennant and it’s one of the most truly evil characters of all time. The scene chewing was significant and enjoyable. Several of the sub-plots worked generally well–the vile lawyer and the relationship between Trish Walker and the mother at the end.

But there were also some problems. Some of them are fairly standard–Jessica’s neighbors are universally horrible and I always cringed when they were on the screen. And while this was a fairly compelling season of television, how do you follow up on that season? The Kilgrave arc seems a lot more fitting for a Season Two. I understand going in this direction–the series wanted to be renewed after all. But since so little of the detective side of the character was revealed in Season One, it went from 0 to 60 in a second. What then is the story next season and how does it match this? I imagine part of it is going to be exploring the revelation of the secret company that had something to do with her superpowers, but that seems pretty banal. So we’ll see. Turning the gore up to 11 as it does at times, especially in the last few episodes, was pretty gratuitous as well, but whatever.

And as an outsider to the story, at times the series makes mistakes by assuming viewers already know these stories. There is the episode fairly early where the people try to kill Jessica because of some alien superhero attack or something that happened before the show started. This makes absolutely no sense if you aren’t familiar with this universe. Moreover, it’s completely unnecessary in the telling of this tale. The show goes nowhere with this history elsewhere. So that was a big misstep. The final episode, where Rosario Dawson shows up out no nowhere to help them, was also more than little too convenience and out of nowhere, but then I come to find out that her character is in some other comic book show and it’s a way to connect them. Well, OK, but just basing on it this show alone, it’s just a random drop-in. Ultimately, a successful adaptation has to properly explain everything to people who are not exposed to the source material. Jessica Jones only succeeds at that sometimes.

And then I wondered, is the superhero schtick really necessary for the show? Not that it’s necessarily any more a ridiculous set up than a western or science fiction show. But one thing I never liked about superheroes was that it seemed like good way to avoid realism, as well as to use really broad plot devices to make commentary about the present without actually engaging the present. So just on a personal level, I wonder if this show really needed the superhero devices. Mostly, the answer is no, although I do get it makes for some cool fight scenes and that has value. Kilgrave’s utter vileness doesn’t have to be expressed explicitly through mind control and Jessica’s powers really aren’t even all that important to the show. No matter though.

Anyway, maybe I’ll experiment with another such show in the future. I might watch Season Two of Jessica Jones, although it may depend on the reviews because I could see this going south real fast without such a compelling storyline to carry it through. It’s certainly no Wire or Mad Men or Breaking Bad or Deadwood–in other words, I don’t see ever rewatching the show.

For now, I am going to continue catching up on The Americans and probably start Justified to replace Jessica Jones. I should watch Season Two of Better Call Saul because I loved Season One and watched the first two episodes of the latest season before I went to Germany, but then fell behind and never bought the season on Amazon (and no, I don’t have a DVR). So I may wait for that to come out on Netflix rather than buying the season. Anyway, I know I’m way behind on my TV and that’s why I am finally going to start Justified, but it seems like my kind of thing.

The Rheeist Scam Goes Global, Part II

[ 13 ] July 15, 2016 |


A few days ago, i talked about Rheeism going global, with Teach for America taking their privatization anti-union schemes around the world. But there’s another side of global Rheeism, which is global capital finding its way to U.S. to profit off of destroying public schools. That’s what is happening in North Carolina, with Chinese investors funding charter schools.

Chinese investors provided $3 million in startup money for Thunderbird Preparatory Academy, a Cornelius charter school that’s fighting for survival.

That’s one of the insights that emerged from last week’s state review of the school’s finances, governance and facilities.

Thunderbird’s network of investors and lenders left Charter School Advisory Board members shaking their heads and palming their faces. “A spider web,” one member dubbed it. “Exceedingly messy and complex,” said board Chair Alex Quigley.

But as North Carolina has opened itself to rapid charter school expansion, a growing number of startup schools are turning to charter-school finance companies to pay for facilities. Some also tap a network of companies and consultants to help them run the schools. That means tax money from North Carolina is flowing across the country and around the globe to repay debts and cover outsourced services.

It’s perfect. Since these charter schools receive public money, when they go under, it’s taxpayers left footing the bill. The article does a very good job at getting into the sketchy finances behind charter schools.

During the first school year, the relationship between Thunderbird and Banyan fell apart. Mojica declined to discuss details, saying the separation agreement prohibits it, and Banyan couldn’t be reached for comment. But the Thunderbird board ended up borrowing $450,000 to pay a penalty for breaking that contract.

It also switched landlords, with Vertex Nonprofit Organization, another Utah-based company that specializes in charter school finance, buying the Thunderbird building from American Charter Development. Vertex leases buildings to charter schools with an option for the school to eventually buy.

The Vertex website says the company charges lease payments that exceed the cost of capital, then returns the excess to the school based on faculty suggestions, “with a focus on maximizing the benefit to students.”

Vertex gave Thunderbird a short-term, no-interest loan of $150,000 to help pay the Banyan penalty, according to reports presented last week. American Charter Development, the former landlord, loaned another $150,000 at 9.5 percent interest.

The rest came from ALK Angel Holdings of Virginia, which gave Thunderbird a $250,000 line of credit, with interest-only payments of $4,167 a month, or $50,000 a year. That’s the one that really raised eyebrows among state officials.

“That just seems like a bad loan,” said Steven Walker, an advisory board member who is also general counsel to Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. Walker pressed Mojica for details about Angel Holdings, including whether any Thunderbird board members did business with general partner Alex Karakozoff.

Mojica said Karakozoff is a venture capitalist with whom he had done business in the past.

All three of the short-term loans were due June 30, the day the advisory board met to reconsider Thunderbird’s fate. Mojica brought letters from all three lenders saying the loans have been extended through June 2018. The Angel Holdings letter says Thunderbird owes $200,000 in principal as of June.

But hey, at least these schools aren’t infected by the evils of teachers’ unions!

Ecological Personhood

[ 30 ] July 15, 2016 |


Well, I guess if the United States can grant corporations the legal status of persons, New Zealand can do the same thing for the environment.

Can a stretch of land be a person in the eyes of the law? Can a body of water?

In New Zealand, they can. A former national park has been granted personhood, and a river system is expected to receive the same soon.

The unusual designations, something like the legal status that corporations possess, came out of agreements between New Zealand’s government and Maori groups. The two sides have argued for years over guardianship of the country’s natural features.

Chris Finlayson, New Zealand’s attorney general, said the issue was resolved by taking the Maori mind-set into account. “In their worldview, ‘I am the river and the river is me,’” he said. “Their geographic region is part and parcel of who they are.”

From 1954 to 2014, Te Urewera was an 821-square-mile national park on the North Island, but when the Te Urewera Act took effect, the government gave up formal ownership, and the land became a legal entity with “all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person,” as the statute puts it.

“The settlement is a profound alternative to the human presumption of sovereignty over the natural world,” said Pita Sharples, who was the minister of Maori affairs when the law was passed.

It was also “undoubtedly legally revolutionary” in New Zealand “and on a world scale,” Jacinta Ruru of the University of Otago wrote in the Maori Law Review.

Personhood means, among other things, that lawsuits to protect the land can be brought on behalf of the land itself, with no need to show harm to a particular human.

I’ll say this–it’s less antisocial than Citizens United.

Ginsburg Thoughts

[ 96 ] July 15, 2016 |


Since the liberal blogopshere came down as hard (Lemieux excluded) as conservatives on Ruth Bader Ginsburg for saying out loud that Donald Trump was horrible, I guess it wasn’t smart. I’m amazed at how many people I know were offended by this, not only on the internet, but just in conversations I’ve had with other academics. I guess I never had any illusions of the justices being much more than political animals the same as the rest of us. But I am struck at how Ginsburg has now crossed some unacceptable line when Antonin Scalia going hunting with plutocrats or with Dick Cheney when his office had business before the Court or Clarence Thomas officiated Rush Limbaugh’s wedding or Sam Alito openly disrespecting Obama during the State of the Union address evidently didn’t cross the line.

I guess some people still really feel invested in the idea that the Supreme Court is somewhat above the political fray and that there are norms and decorum that must be respected, but it feels a bit childish to me. The more the curtain is drawn back that the Court is as full of political hacks as anywhere else, the more honest, if cynical, our politics will be.

Do Start-Ups Have to Rely on Exploiting Independent Contractor Rules?

[ 57 ] July 14, 2016 |


I confess I don’t really understand why we need a real estate agent start-up company, but the answer to the above question is no, as this profile of Redfin demonstrates.

“I think Silicon Valley is still a pioneer of work force models — but the model we pioneered is the 1099 model,” Mr. Kelman said, referring to the tax form that independent contractors file. “This huge work force of laborers doesn’t get to participate in the wealth that was created.”

Mr. Kelman argues that full-time employees allow him to offer better customer service. Redfin gives its agents salaries, health benefits, 401(k) contributions and, for the most productive ones, Redfin stock, none of which is standard for contractors. Redfin currently employs more than 1,000 agents.

Now with his company on a stronger footing, Mr. Kelman says he believes his approach has been vindicated. He has even become an informal counselor to other tech entrepreneurs exploring a shift to employees from contractors.

But they are still the exception. The idea of building a large work force of full-time employees, outside of core disciplines like engineering, is not part of the ethos of most companies in today’s tech industry, observers who have studied the industry say.

“They don’t see job security and workplace benefits as something that’s valuable,” said Louis Hyman, an associate professor of labor relations, law and history at the ILR School of Cornell University and author of a forthcoming book on temporary labor in the United States. “What’s valuable is doing cool stuff and scaling up and making a better tomorrow.”

The use of independent contractors is about greed, not about making a better tomorrow, however Silicon Valley libertarians see it. I have no particular love for yellow cab companies. And I have no problem with competitors with those companies. I do have problem with labor exploitation. If Uber wants to classify its drivers as employees, pay them fairly, and provide them benefits, then all my objections to it are gone. But of course not doing that is the whole point of Uber’s existence. However, it does not have to be that way.

Technology and Protest

[ 159 ] July 14, 2016 |


In the last week, the crucial role of technology documenting the shockingly routine murder of black people by the police has again been demonstrated.

According to The Guardian, 566 people have been killed by police in the US in 2016 alone. This week, the videos that have circulated on social media of police brutality make these horrific events at distant places feel real for everyone.

“I wanted to put it on Facebook to go viral, so that the people could see,” Reynolds said of the footage, according to Wired. “I wanted the people to determine who was right and who was wrong. I want the people to be the testimony here.”

Just days prior to Castile’s fatal shooting, Alton Sterling, a black man who was selling CDs outside a convenience store, was shot by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The incident, which is now being investigated, was captured by a bystander on his smartphone.

Such videos channeled on social media are opening up evidence to the public. As we saw with the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and the fatal shooting by police of unarmed black man Walter Scott in South Carolina in 2015, scenarios that might have otherwise been disputed now have the chance to reverberate across the world.

Now, some say, “we have this video and the cops don’t care. They still kill black people with impunity. What difference does it make?” And that’s certainly true. Technology is not going to end racism and it isn’t going to end police violence. However, the police have been routinely killing black people without consequence since the 17th century and it continues today. The major difference today is that everyone has cameras and access to the internet. That is a huge difference. Why were there protests after Ferguson and after Baton Rouge and Minneapolis? It’s because of that technology. The reality is, like we saw after Triangle in 1911 and the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969, that people seeing injustice is the biggest difference maker in whether they care enough to do anything about it. That’s why no one cares when 1138 people die making our clothing in Bangladesh. Corporations have intentionally moved production to places where consumers don’t see the death. It’s why information has become politicized and dangerous to those in power. It’s why North Carolina used the Baton Rouge and Minneapolis incidents to shield the police from the public seeing body cam footage. It’s why Idaho and other states have sought to pass ag-gag bills to make owning footage showing animal cruelty inside food processing plants illegal. So long as we all have these cameras, we have the potential to create change. These cameras are absolutely critical in spurring this change. If the cameras get people in the streets and cause national conversations about racism, then that’s a genuinely good thing. The conversation since these incidents, where even a reprehensible man like Tim Scott is talking about the police pull him over because he’s black and people like Newt freaking Gingrich are acknowledging the open racism of the police, has shown some level of progress. That only happens with this technology. I am hoping that somehow the use of these technologies help spur changes on the conditions of work around the world as well. But whenever we see injustice, we should film it and send it to the world. Use the technology to fight for justice. It’s one of the only weapons we have.

Prison Labor Unions?

[ 23 ] July 14, 2016 |
Inmates from a La Fourche parish jail on a work release program fill giant sandbags in Port Fourchon, Louisiana May 11, 2010. U.S. Army National Guard troops were dropping the sandbags using helicopters on nearby breaks in beaches to protect marshes from the BP oil spill offshore.   REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENVIRONMENT DISASTER)

Inmates from a La Fourche parish jail on a work release program fill giant sandbags in Port Fourchon, Louisiana May 11, 2010. U.S. Army National Guard troops were dropping the sandbags using helicopters on nearby breaks in beaches to protect marshes from the BP oil spill offshore. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES – Tags: ENVIRONMENT DISASTER)

While I remain as skeptical of whatever the modern Industrial Workers of the World is as ever, this is certainly interesting. Should prison laborers organize into unions? Should public sector unions make this a priority?

This spring, the IWW and allied community groups organized prison labor strikes of thousands of incarcerated workers in Alabama, Wisconsin, Texas, Mississippi, and Ohio—all demanding the right to form a union. The IWW Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee has called for a nationwide prison strike on September 9th to mark the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising and claims it has the support of thousands of prisoners throughout the U.S.

“It could really shake things up,” IWW organizer Jimi Del Duca told me. “A lot of working class people are afraid to organize because they have a few crumbs to lose. [Many] prisoners have nothing to lose and that gives them courage. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

However, the barriers to organizing prisoners are high. Communication between prisons is difficult, as most prisoners are not allowed access to email. Even within prisons, inmates are limited in their ability to meet face-to-face. While they are allowed to assemble routinely for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or religious activities, the 1977 Supreme Court case Jones v. North Carolina Labor Prisoners’ Uniondenied them their first amendment right to assemble if a warden feels a gathering is a threat to prison security. As a result, wardens block most prisoners’ union meetings.

However, Elon University Labor Law Professor Eric Fink says that prisoners may have another option. The right of prisoners to form a union has never been challenged in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union certification case, and Fink believes that prisoners could use the NLRB process to push for the right to meet regularly and form collective bargaining units. He argues that prison workers—employed by private contractors in 37 states—should have the same right to form a union as other workers employed by those contractors. According to Fink, if the IWW were to bring a case before the NLRB, then the Board could declare that prisoners are employees who are eligible to join a union.

“I think the Board is capable of saying there are issues that [incarcerated people] have the right to bargain for—such as hours and wages—as any other worker would have the right to do,” said Fink.

As for prison workers who are employed directly by the state, Fink feels they could organize more easily. Under federal labor law, each individual state has a Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) which governs how labor law is applied in the jurisdiction. Often, the leadership of the PERB is heavily influenced by local labor leadership. So, if a public sector union such as AFSCME were to endorse the right of prisoners to form unions, state-level PERBs might be inclined to extend that right.

However, there is a catch: many public sector unions also represent guards, who may be lukewarm to the idea of prisoners forming unions.

“The problem is that insofar as a number of public sector unions have prison guards as members—and sometimes in large numbers—it has an impact on the ability to have that discussion,” said Bill Fletcher, the former education director of the AFL-CIO.

Heather Ann Thompson, Professor of History in the African American Studies at the University of Michigan, believes that guards should see prisoners’ unions as a win for them, too.

“These are workplaces that are deeply unsafe and barbaric,” said Thompson. She believes that giving workers a collective voice may reduce gang violence, because it will give prisoners a structure through which they can advocate for themselves. Unions would also provide guards and prisoners with the means to push together for a safer prison environment.

A few thoughts:

1) Since we as a society have determined to make prisoners work for substandard wages, a situation corporations and states are very happy to take advantage of, we also have to think of them as workers. They are legitimate workers. They are also unfree workers. They make wages that undermine non-prison workers. They work in terrible conditions. They work directly under the supervision of people who can be violent toward them. These are problems.

2) All workers should have the right to a union. That very much includes prison workers.

3) Suits challenging the status of prison labor would be beneficial. This is a project someone should take on.

4) Regardless of the IWW name and history, anyone working to organize workers is a good thing. The Jimmy John’s actions of a decade ago didn’t lead to much, but did help jumpstart the broader fast food workers movement of the present. If the established unions aren’t going to do this, anyone who wants to step into the breach is more than welcome.

5) The challenges here are gigantic, including that the prison guards are going to freak out about it.

6) Those challenges don’t mean it shouldn’t be tried. But this would require a lot of money, which only the established unions can provide, and the energy for a shot in the dark campaign that will anger other unionists, which these IWW activists are going to have to a far greater extent than unions that already represent guards.

So I don’t really know what the path forward looks like, but it’s a path that needs to be walked.

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