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The Breakfast-Industrial Complex

[ 190 ] May 25, 2016 |

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While I enjoy most standard breakfast foods to various degrees, the American fetish for breakfast is completely out of control. This is especially true for bacon, a vastly overrated meat. But really, the fetish is for the whole experience. There are multiple parts to it. One of course is the bacon thing. The second is idea of eating a big ol’greasy meal that supposedly provides us with joy. The third, and really the most ridiculous, is that not eating breakfast is somehow unhealthy and therefore those of us who don’t eat breakfast are hurting ourselves and should be lectured about it. Personally, I find eating a large meal in the hours after waking up repulsive. Perhaps a yogurt or an egg, maybe a bagel if I am feeling indulgent, but that’s it until at least noon if not 2. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m doing it right. It just means that I’ve figured out the combination of how much I can eat to maintain my weight and enjoying own aesthetic preferences. There are however days, when I’ve had a large meal for dinner, that I don’t take in a single calorie until 4 or so. The point is that you have to read your own body and act accordingly. At least now those of us who eschew breakfast have some hard evidence that the breakfast-industrial complex is behind our demonization.

It does not take much of an effort to find research that shows an association between skipping breakfast and poor health. A 2013 study published in the journal Circulation found that men who skipped breakfast had a significantly higher risk of coronary heart disease than men who ate breakfast. But, like almost all studies of breakfast, this is an association, not causation.

More than most other domains, this topic is one that suffers from publication bias. In a paper published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2013, researchers reviewed the literature on the effect of breakfast on obesity to look specifically at this issue. They first noted that nutrition researchers love to publish results showing a correlation between skipping breakfast and obesity. They love to do so again and again. At some point, there’s no reason to keep publishing on this.

However, they also found major flaws in the reporting of findings. People were consistently biased in interpreting their results in favor of a relationship between skipping breakfast and obesity. They improperly used causal language to describe their results. They misleadingly cited others’ results. And they also improperly used causal language in citing others’ results. People believe, and want you to believe, that skipping breakfast is bad.

Good reviews of all the observational research note the methodological flaws in this domain, as well as the problems of combining the results of publication-bias-influenced studies into a meta-analysis. The associations should be viewed with skepticism and confirmed with prospective trials.

Few randomized controlled trials exist. Those that do, although methodologically weak like most nutrition studies, don’t support the necessity of breakfast.

And who is behind this?

Many of the studies are funded by the food industry, which has a clear bias. Kellogg funded a highly cited article that found that cereal for breakfast is associated with being thinner. The Quaker Oats Center of Excellence (part of PepsiCo) financed a trial that showed that eating oatmeal or frosted cornflakes reduces weight and cholesterol (if you eat it in a highly controlled setting each weekday for four weeks).

Fight the Man. And Tony the Tiger! Don’t give in to Big Breakfast!

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Why We Need the Liberal Arts

[ 295 ] May 25, 2016 |

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Danielle Allen has a long essay on the attack on civic education by proponents of vocational education who think STEM fields are the only legitimate fields. There are of course an endless number of problems with STEM-only education. One of them is that it undermines political participation and an understanding of the world in which we all live together. That’s one of the most powerful parts of the essay.

To make judgments about the course of human events and our government’s role in them, we need history, anthropology, cultural studies, economics, political science, sociology, and psychology, not to mention math—especially the statistical reasoning necessary for probabilistic judgment—and science, as governmental policy naturally intersects with scientific questions. If we are to decide on the core principles that should orient our judgments about what will bring about safety and happiness, surely we need philosophy, literature, and religion or its history. Then, since the democratic citizen does not make or execute judgments alone, we need the arts of conversation, eloquence, and prophetic speech. Preparing ourselves to exercise these arts takes us again to literature and to the visual arts, film, and music.

In other words, we need the liberal arts. They were called the free person’s arts for a reason.

To say that we need all these disciplines in order to cultivate participatory readiness is not to say that we need precisely the versions of these disciplines that existed in the late eighteenth century. To the contrary, it is the job of today’s scholars and teachers, learning from the successes and errors of our predecessors, to build the most powerful intellectual tools we can. Where their versions of the tools were compatible with preserving patriarchy, enslaving black Africans, and committing genocide against indigenous peoples, ours must not be. This revision of the liberal arts curriculum is controversial but necessary, for we want to retain the purposes and intellectual methods of the liberal arts, if not all of its content. We still need to cultivate capacities for social diagnosis, ethical reasoning, cause-and-effect analysis, and persuasive argumentation.

Given that the liberal arts are especially useful for training citizens, it should come as little surprise that attainment in the humanities and social sciences appears to correlate with increased engagement in politics. There is a statistically significant difference between the rates of political participation among humanities and STEM graduates. Data from the Department of Education reveal that, among 2008 college graduates, 92.8 percent of humanities majors have voted at least once since finishing school. Among STEM majors, that number is 83.5 percent. And, within ten years of graduation, 44.1 percent of 1993 humanities graduates had written to public officials, compared to 30.1 percent of STEM majors. As college graduates, the students are generally of similar socioeconomic backgrounds, suggesting that other distinctions must account for the difference in political engagement.

Of course, the self-selection of students into the humanities and STEM majors may mean that these data reflect only underlying features of the students rather than the effects of teaching they receive. Yet the same pattern appears in a study by political scientist Sunshine Hillygus, which controls for students’ preexisting levels of interest in politics.

Hillygus also finds that the differences in political engagement among college graduates are mirrored in K–12 education. High SAT verbal scores correlate with increased likelihood of political participation, while high SAT math scores correlate with decreased likelihood of participation. Again, since socioeconomic effects on SAT scores move both verbal and math scores in the same direction, this difference between how high verbal and high math scores affect the likelihood of participation must be telling us something about the relationship between attainment in specific subject domains and participatory readiness. Moreover, the SAT effect endures even when college-level curricular choices are controlled for. Just as Glaeser, Ponzetto, and Shleifer conclude, it is attainment in the verbal domain that correlates with participatory readiness.

Of course, there are probably zero non-STEM professors who argue that we don’t need engineers and chemists and biologists and computer scientists. We definitely need all of these people. However, a society that trains people only for these sorts of professions is a barren society, devoid of generations of human knowledge and understanding, one with real consequences for our politics and society.

Modern Heroes

[ 34 ] May 25, 2016 |

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I still maintain that some of the greatest heroes in the United States are those in the deepest red states fighting for reproductive rights.

Opening an abortion clinic in the United States is never easy, and it’s especially difficult in a state hostile to abortion rights. That’s one of the reasons no one has attempted to open a clinic in Oklahoma since 1974 — at least, not until now. With the state down to just two clinics since the closure of Outpatient Services for Women in December 2014, Julie Burkhart decided to bring back abortion services to Oklahoma City, the largest metropolitan area in the country without a provider.

Just a month from opening her doors, Burkhart, CEO of Trust Women and owner of South Wind Women’s Center in Wichita, Kansas (which faced its own contentious opening in 2013), now finds herself facing a state legislature that’s not only anti-choice, but just approved a radical, headline-grabbing bill that would make the act of performing an abortion a felony.

This will be the first abortion clinic to open in Oklahoma in 40 years.

You may not be surprised that Julie Burkhart is not patient with the idea that the 2016 election does not matter so we might as well vote for true leftist Jill Stein.

Every Crisis is an Opportunity to Punch Hippies

[ 41 ] May 25, 2016 |

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I love Republicans. Every crisis is an opportunity to tear down the safety net and push forward a pro-corporate, pro-polluter agenda.

The House voted along party lines Tuesday to approve a bill that would loosen pesticide regulations in the name of fighting the Zika virus.

Democrats almost unanimously opposed the bill, which was recently retooled by House GOP leaders as an effort to prevent the spread of Zika. The final tally was 258-156, with all but 23 Democrats opposed to the bill.

The bill, which loosens environmental protections on pesticides and other chemicals, was called the Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act until earlier this month.

Democrats have accused Republicans of seizing on the Zika virus to pass a years-old bill that would make it easier for corporations to skirt regulations.

Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio), the bill’s sponsor, said it would help to eliminate a “duplicative and unnecessary permitting regulation” that has made it more difficult for some local governments to spread for mosquitoes.

In a statement opposing the bill on Monday, the White House said nearly all state and local officials spraying for mosquitoes are already allowed to use chemicals “as needed to respond to Zika virus concerns and do not require any additional authorization.”

Makes sense though since we all know Rachel Carson is the greatest mass murderer since Hitler.

Book Review: Michael Todd Landis, Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis

[ 63 ] May 24, 2016 |

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Michael Todd Landis has no tuck for the doughfaces, northern Democrats who worked to expand the slave power in pre-Civil War America. He blames them directly for the Civil War, sharply rejecting previous histoirans who have placed the blame for the war on abolitionists. In this book, Landis details a generation of utterly feckless, spineless, submissive northern Democratic politicians who fully served their southern masters, even though their own actions angered their constituents and decimated their party in northern states.

Landis chronicles northern Democrats from the Compromise of 1850 through the election of 1860, demonstrating how the aggressive Southern nationalists bent on turning the United States into a slave nation demanded increasing fealty from their northern allies they needed to hold power in the United States. Although the South had an unfair advantage because of the Three-Fifths Compromise, the growing northern population meant that to hold the House and win the presidency, the South had to have a successful Democratic Party in North. That became increasingly harder when to be a prominent Democrat meant to hold extremist positions and not compromise, even with other elements in the northern Democratic Party. The South had plenty of northern Democrats willing to play along, not only Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, who would serve their interests in the White House, but senators, congressmen, and those who controlled state political machines.

After the Mexican War, which deeply angered northerners, the South could not run its own politicians for the presidency and expect to win. They needed northerners to do what they said. The first was Lewis Cass of Michigan, who effectively believed in nothing except his own political fortunes and southern rights. Cass took the Democratic nomination in 1848, defeating the young and ambitious Stephen Douglas and the powerful James Buchanan. Cass’s nomination led to northern Democratic splitters nominating Martin Van Buren under the Free Soil Party, helping to doom Cass and elect the Whig Zachary Taylor to the White House. Congress was a mess because of the war’s aftermath and the House could not pick a speaker. Landis credits Stephen Douglas much more than Henry Clay of solving these problems through the Compromise of 1850, but perhaps “credit” isn’t the right word. Rather, it was Douglas promoting his own pro-Southern agenda and unquenchable ambition by forcing though the Fugitive Slave Act. Landis states “Northern Democrats were clearly responsible for the Compromise of 1850” (32) because the critical Senate votes came from people like Douglas, Cass, Indiana’s Jesse Bright, who was actually kicked out of the Senate for treason in 1862, and other northern Democrats. This law infuriated northerners but Democratic politicians went ahead with it anyway, the first of many times in the next decade they would risk their own political careers to serve the South. Moreover, northern Democrats like James Buchanan took the lead in defending the law, urging for its instant implementation and punishing free soilers like David Wilmot by targeting their districts to send the first slave catchers.

In 1852, the Democrats hoped to nominate someone more capable than Cass, who still wanted the presidency. They didn’t get anyone more capable, but they did get someone who was more than willing to serve southern interests in New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce. Landis dismisses Pierce’s abilities entirely, noting, “His tenure in Congress was notable only for his public drunkenness and his eagerness to please the Southern leadership.” (60) Through the various machinations and infighting in the Democratic Party, Pierce rose into the nomination. During his four years, he signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, gave plentiful cabinet positions to southern radicals (including Jefferson Davis as Secretary of War), recognized the pro-slavery adventurer William Walker as the rightful president of Nicaragua, pressed for the U.S. acquisition of Cuba, and supported the Gadsden Purchase, a naked land grab from Mexico specifically in order to build a transcontinental railroad that would serve southern interests.

Amazingly, this was not good enough for the South. Because Pierce gave some major patronage positions to more moderate Democrats and tried mollify different factions of the party, and because he respected Stephen A. Douglas’ popular sovereignty position in Kansas, for the southern leadership, he was not only a disappointment but a traitor. A real leader for them would indeed invade Cuba, would do whatever it took to make Kansas a slave state.

James Buchanan harbored no such reservations about moderate northern Democrats. Hating Stephen Douglas and fully believing in the southern cause, Buchanan did whatever the South wanted. He continued to support Latin American expansionism to the extent that Nicaragua and Costa Rica, fearful of American takeover, issues the Rivas Manifesto, denouncing Buchanan’s slavery expansionist politics. Buchanan even fired a commodore for trying to catch the privateers like David Walker still operating in Central America. He also called for more land from Mexico, saying in his Second Annual Message, “Abundant cause now undoubtedly exists for a resort to hostilities against the Government.” (173)

By 1857, the core issue for southern nationalists was ensuring that Kansas was admitted at a slave state. Dred Scott killed Douglas’ popular sovereignty arguments and the South would stop at nothing. Buchanan agreed. The famously undemocratic Lecompton Constitution, which pro-slavery forces created without allowing a vote among the anti-slavery majority, became Buchanan’s one number policy goal. Many northern Democrats in the House and Senate were reluctant to vote for it because they rightfully feared for their political careers. But Buchanan pushed it through by bribery and corruption. Simply buying votes, Buchanan and his allies managed to get it through Congress, only to see Kansas voters reject it, Democrats to get swept out of office in the North in 1858 by an outraged populace, and Congressional investigations into the bribery. Southern Democrats were depressed that their northern allies lost, but saw it as a symbol that the North was the enemy, not that their own policies were bankrupt. Instead, they moved closer to secession.

At the heart of all of these actions is that Calhounism had spread throughout the Democratic Party. These people by the 1850s simply had no respect for democracy as an institution. To be a nationally prominent Democrat in 1860 was to be a follower of Calhoun’s ideology. This helped destroy the party in the North and Landis follows key states and their political machines, including Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New York, to demonstrate the slow decline of the party on the critical state level. Landis makes it clear that Lincoln did not win in 1860 because the Democratic Party divided between Douglas and Breckinridge. The North was so disgusted with the Slave Power by then that a Republican victory was almost inevitable. Landis argues that the split actually helped the anti-Lincoln forces by making Douglas and John Bell seem more moderate than they actually were. Douglas had basically been read out of the Democratic Party by 1860 because the South despised him as a traitor, so his being able to play off that allowed him to win some votes from Lincolln.

Landis also has a strong historiographical argument to make. He accuses previous historians of not only downplaying the role northern Democrats played in disunion, but also of being so enthralled by southern speechifying that they took their side. Specifically, he accuses David Potter, author of The Impending Crisis, long the standard overview of the 1850s, as being “hopelessly infatuated with Southern orators and seems bent on justifying secession and placing for the war on abolitionists.” This is as close as one can come to putting Potter as Dunning-curious. A harsh charge and I’d be curious what you all think of it, as it has been at least 15 years since I’ve read Potter and don’t quite remember the argument.

Northern Men with Southern Principles is a very good and infuriating book. If you ever had any respect for Pierce and Buchanan, you won’t anymore. These were absolutely awful leaders. It’s very much a political history and Landis doesn’t provide much of the social context in the states as to the details of the northern rejection of the Democrats in the 1850s, but that’s an exceedingly minor critique. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in these issues.

An Unfortunate Mural

[ 65 ] May 24, 2016 |

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Oh dear:

The artist behind the Elgin mural that depicts a portion of a famous photo of a 1930 lynching of two black men in Indiana said the piece was intended to get people to ask questions, think about issues and consider their own place in history.

“The idea here was talking about lynching, asking questions, the history,” artist David Powers said.

“You don’t want to be on that wall with these monsters. Anywhere. In any town,” Powers said. “You don’t want to be on this wall murdering someone because you don’t like them.”

The 66-year-old Elgin artist said he has been pushing boundaries since he began creating art. He said his family has always believed in standing up for the little guy, the immigrant, and people of all races.

When social media users began calling for removal of his mural, “American Nocturne” from a downtown Elgin park, Powers was infuriated and talked about the lynching.

“These were vigilantes, criminals, who murdered people in the streets. I find it abhorrent and awful,” he said.

But if people are not reminded of these crimes, if it is not addressed in our art and in our civil discussions, it can happen again, Powers said.

When one group is afraid of the other, if they don’t ask questions and find answers, fear wins, he said.

OK, I guess? But I don’t think you can just paint the famous picture of a lynching, minus the lynched people, and then walk away. I do think the people of Elgin need to confront their past. I’m not entirely sure this is the most productive way to accomplish that. It is racist? Probably not, if the artist says so. Does such a depiction need to be both accompanied by an explanatory sign and part of a community process that includes discussion and education? Yes, definitely.

The original lynching photo is at the link if you want to look at it.

Donald Trump, Who Profits from Outsourcing

[ 35 ] May 24, 2016 |

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Sure, Donald Trump is lying about his opposition to outsourcing and about his caring whether Americans have manufacturing jobs, but if you are Cornel West, at least he’s doing so authentically!

Donald Trump has been tough on American companies that have moved jobs to other countries. That hasn’t stopped the presumptive Republican presidential nominee from investing in them.

Trump has denounced units of United Technologies Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Mondelez International Inc. on the campaign trail — and has received income of as much as $75,000 from bonds issued by all three since January 2015, according to his latest financial disclosure form released Tuesday. He also has invested in Apple Inc.’s stock and bonds even though in February he called for a boycott of the company for refusing to help the Federal Bureau of Investigation unlock an iPhone used by a terrorist in San Bernardino, California.

I mean, sure, we can talk about how bad these companies are. It’s so much easier for me to do that when a piece of their profits are going into my Swiss bank accounts!

Jobs for Those Who Lack College Degrees

[ 179 ] May 24, 2016 |

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As I have stated many times here, the United States has to create dignified work for people who can’t or haven’t earned a college degree. It’s simply terrible policy to blithely claim that education will solve our problems because it completely ignores the fact that some people are simply not cut out for a college education. And that needs to be OK. Those people need jobs too. It used to be that you could not have a college degree and get a factory job that wouldn’t be too exciting but would pay you decently and had a good chance of being around a long time. But now we have committed to moving factories overseas and automating what is left in the U.S. This has created huge corporate profits but has left a whole generation of non-college educated young people without hope for the future.

The outlook for many high school graduates is more challenging, as Vynny Brown can attest. Now 20, he graduated two years ago from Waller High School in Texas, and has been working for nearly a year at Pappasito’s Cantina in Houston, part of a chain of Tex-Mex restaurants. He earns $7.25 an hour filling takeout orders or $2.13 an hour plus tips as a server, which rarely adds up to more than the minimum, he said. He would like to apply to be a manager, but those jobs require some college experience.

“That is something I don’t have,” said Mr. Brown, who says he cannot afford to go to college now. “It’s the biggest struggle I’ve had.”

Most young workers have the same problem as Mr. Brown. Only 10 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds have a college or advanced degree, according to a new study by the Economic Policy Institute, although many more of them will eventually graduate.

And for young high school graduates, the unemployment rate is disturbingly high: 17.8 percent. Add in those who are underemployed, either because they would like a full-time job but can only find part-time work, or they are so discouraged that they’ve given up actively searching, and the share jumps to more than 33 percent.

Younger workers have always had a tougher time finding a job than their older, more experienced counterparts. Even so, the economic recovery has progressed more slowly for young high school graduates than for those coming out of college.

“It’s improved since the recession, but it’s still pretty poor,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, who noted the average hourly wage for high school graduates had declined since 2000 despite increases in the minimum wage in some places.

Ms. Gould is part of a growing chorus of economists, employers and educators who argue more effort needs to be put into improving job prospects for people without college degrees.

“Without question we have failed to pay attention to and invest in opportunities for young people who are not on a path to go to four years of college,” said Chauncy Lennon, the head of work force initiatives at JPMorgan Chase, which has started a $75 million program to design and deliver career-focused education in high schools and community colleges.

The elephant in the room in all these discussions is the end of manufacturing jobs. Policymakers, including the current president, simply have not devoted any meaningful resources to even think through these issues while at the same time intensely pressing for free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership to send even more American jobs overseas. One could theoretically have those free trade agreements and then robust economic programs for the working class, but of course that is not going to happen. These agreements send profits to the wealthy and leave the working class behind with nothing more than lessons to pull themselves up by their boostraps and go to college for programs which they may not be suited for and for which they take out tens of thousands of dollars in debt. This is not a series of policies that lead to long-term social and political stability.

Is Big Oil Finally Getting Smart on Renewables?

[ 16 ] May 24, 2016 |

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I have long been flabbergasted that more corporate in the fossil fuel industry didn’t realize there was tons of money to be made in renewables and that grabbing hold of those resources early on would mean lots of profits in the long run. Now that the price of renewables is dropping rapidly, maybe some fossil fuel companies are finally going to get smart.

So has the fossil fuel industry finally woken up to the dangers posed to their futures by a move to a low-carbon world, or is this all “greenwash” – relatively insignificant investments designed to shake off critics?

Or does it just make good business sense for Big Oil to do this at a time when oil prices are low, renewable projects look like steady long-term investments, and green businesses can be snapped up on the cheap?

Some of the moves certainly have serious amounts of cash behind them. Total of France, for instance, announced two weeks ago that it planned to spend nearly €1bn on buying 100-year-old battery manufacturer Saft. Chairman and chief executive Patrick Pouyanné said the deal would “allow us to complement our portfolio with electricity storage solutions, a key component of the future growth of renewable energy”.

There’s other good news presented in this piece as well. But of course there’s a lot of reason to be skeptical:

Even Exxon Mobil, often dismissed by climate change activists as the most conservative oil company of them all, has recently unveiled plans to investigate CCS more fully in a new partnership with a fuel cell company.

But some of the sums being invested are quite small: the Shell New Energies, for example, has a capital expenditure budget of just under 0.5% of its total. And oil companies do have form for shouting loudly about moving into renewables only to beat a hasty retreat.

BP in particular was pilloried for promising to go “beyond petroleum” – then running down its alternative energy division. Shell used to have a very big solar business, but this was scaled down several years ago.

Environmentalists are increasing the pressure on oil companies by accusing them of trying to slow the march to low-carbon energy, if not of being the climate-change deniers some were of old.

There are even claims that Big Oil has been deliberately infiltrating renewable energy lobby groups so that it can push its agenda of keeping gas, in particular, as a “transition fuel” of the future – something the companies deny.

So we will see. Someone is eventually going to make a whole lot of money in this industry. Whether it’s the current players in fossil fuels remains to be seen.

Ban Devices in Classrooms

[ 145 ] May 24, 2016 |

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I routinely ban laptops in the classroom because the majority of the students aren’t going to pay attention to the lecture if they have the option to upload photos to Snapchat. I know this to be true, as if I have to attend a boring and pointless campus meeting, I am probably going to be on Twitter or reading the Times or something so that I don’t have to pay attention. But in the classroom, that option then undermines learning.

Now there is an answer, thanks to a big, new experiment from economists at West Point, who randomly banned computers from some sections of a popular economics course this past year at the military academy. One-third of the sections could use laptops or tablets to take notes during lecture; one-third could use tablets, but only to look at class materials; and one-third were prohibited from using any technology.

Unsurprisingly, the students who were allowed to use laptops — and 80 percent of them did — scored worse on the final exam. What’s interesting is that the smartest students seemed to be harmed the most.

Among students with high ACT scores, those in the laptop-friendly sections performed significantly worse than their counterparts in the no-technology sections. In contrast, there wasn’t much of a difference between students with low ACT scores — those who were allowed to use laptops did just as well as those who couldn’t. (The same pattern held true when researchers looked at students with high and low GPAs.)

These results are a bit strange. We might have expected the smartest students to have used their laptops prudently. Instead, they became technology’s biggest victims. Perhaps hubris played a role. The smarter students may have overestimated their ability to multitask. Or the top students might have had the most to gain by paying attention in class.

Of course this is just one study and I don’t really know why the smartest students would flop the most. Perhaps an overconfidence in their own abilities. But there’s no question that playing on devices in class means students aren’t learning as much. The phone issue is much harder to police, but what can you do.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 32

[ 11 ] May 23, 2016 |

This is the grave of Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg.

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Muhlenberg, a son of the founder of the Lutheran Church in America, was a Pennsylvania minister and supporter of the American Revolution. He served in the Continental Congress in 1779 and 1780 and then in the Pennsylvania House from 1780-83. A big supporter of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Muhlenberg was elected to Congress for the first four terms of the body’s existence. During that period, he is most famous for being the first Speaker of the House, serving from 1789-91 and again from 1793-95. The list of other people to hold that post is highly varied, including Henry Clay, James Blaine, James Polk, the detestable Robert M.T. Hunter, Schuyler Colfax, and Sam Rayburn. Recent holders of the position have included Nancy Pelosi, the Crying Man, a child rapist, a defender of Belgian colonialism in the Congo, and the bought man of Charles Keating. Today, the position is held by The Last Serious Man in Washington.

Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg is buried in Woodward Hill Cemetery, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

When “Public Interest” Means “Oppressing Workers”

[ 102 ] May 23, 2016 |

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Scott referred to this in his post yesterday, but PIRG’s statement opposing the new overtime rule is outrageous and entirely appropriate given its founding, history, and mode of operation. The argument itself is pure Lochner (public interest indeed!)

Doubling the minimum salary to $47,476 is especially unrealistic for non-profit, cause-oriented organizations. Organizations like ours rely on small donations from individuals to pay the bills. We can’t expect those individuals to double the amount they donate. Rather, to cover higher staffing costs forced upon us under the rule, we will be forced to hire fewer staff and limit the hours those staff can work – all while the well-funded special interests that we’re up against will simply spend more.

The logic of the rule, as applied to non-profit, cause-oriented organizations, makes no sense. A person of means – in service of a cause to which they feel deeply committed – can volunteer to work for our organization for free for as many hours as they wish, but a person of lesser means – who is no less committed to the work we do – cannot agree to work for our organization for less than $47,476 without having their work hours strictly limited in order to keep our costs affordable. This raises First Amendment concerns.

Yes, paying people overtime is a violation of their First Amendment rights! If this theoretical and entirely non-existent individual who wants to work for low wages specifically for PIRG and finds themselves limited to a mere 40 hours a week of this work, there are clearly no other outlets for their speech! Of course, this is complete garbage. Said individual could always donate the extra pay she made back to the organization, for instance.

PIRG is an utter disaster of an organization. It identifies an always available source of labor–young people, usually college or immediate post-college students, who don’t have a good job lined up and want to do some good. That’s actually a good thing–I wish other left-leaning organizations could find a way to take idealistic people and put them to work doing some good. But all PIRG uses them for is door-to-door fundraising. PIRG has no interest in building organizing skills in these people, no interest in long-term movement building, no interest in helping these people advance to long-term investment in either the organization or larger progressive causes. You can work there for years and advance no further than supervising other fundraisers. All it does it burn out those idealistic people.

I suspect most of us here have known people who worked for PIRG and many of you have probably considered it yourself or even done it. I considered it at one point, but the idea of going door to door asking for money is incredibly distasteful to me. But the working conditions are awful and the pay is low. The complaints listed by former workers here are almost always the same and would be recognizable for people 25 years ago. PIRG is basically a scam to fund a lobbying organization on the work of self-sacrificing true believers. In other words, it shares a lot in common with a religious cult.

None of this should be surprising because Ralph Nader, founder of PIRG, has always hated unions in his own shop.

As it turns out, Nader as a nonprofit entrepreneur has had his own experience with union organizing — from the employer’s side. In one case, unhappy workers at Public Citizen were persuaded to drop their drive to hold a vote on affiliating with the United Auto Workers, and an in-house union was created that over the years won important benefits and worker protections for employees. But in another case, labor-management relations weren’t so smooth.

Amid a dispute with the staff of one of his flagship publications in 1984 over its editorial content and a bid by staff members to form a union, Nader responded with the same kind of tactics that he has elsewhere condemned: He fired the staff, changed the locks at the office, unsuccessfully tried to have one employee arrested, and hired permanent replacements.

When the fired workers appealed the action to federal authorities, Nader filed a countersuit. Applying a legal tactic that employers commonly use to resist union-organizing efforts, Nader claimed that the fired workers were trying to appropriate his business. Nader spurned efforts by other progressives to mediate the fight, and he refused an offer to settle the litigation by simply signing a declaration that his workers thenceforth would have the right to organize.

But that’s not what Nader said at the time. In a June 1984 article in The Washington Post, Nader said his employees and others at nonprofit organizations don’t have a need to organize. “I don’t think there is a role for unions in small nonprofit ’cause’ organizations any more than … within a monastery or within a union” itself, he said. “People shouldn’t be in public-interest groups unless they believe in it and are ready to work for it.” Early on in his career, Nader said, “I worked weekend after weekend after weekend… Now people come here and say they want to fight polluters and unresponsive agencies, but not after 5 o’clock and not on weekends.”

Many employers, especially those who build small companies from the ground up, feel the same way about their businesses. But U.S. labor law is clear — two or more employees can file a letter with National Labor Relations Board noting their intention to try to form a union, and, in theory, they are immediately protected from firing and other retaliatory actions while the case is pending. In practice, however, years of litigation await workers who pursue these cases, even when management doesn’t pursue a countersuit.

In 1984, Tim Shorrock was exactly the kind of crusading journalist that Nader often attracted to his publications. At 33, he was just beginning a career as a reporter that would see him write about foreign affairs, human rights, labor issues, and progressive causes for The Nation and other publications. (Shorrock and I worked for the same publication in the mid-1990s, which is when I first heard his story about working for Nader. I hadn’t spoken with him for several years before contacting him for this article.) Shorrock considered the top editing job at Multinational Monitor a great opportunity. With a staff of two others — Kathleen Selvaggio and Rose-Marie Audette — Shorrock did everything from writing the stories to supervising the printing.

A son of missionaries, Shorrock had grown up in South Korea and Japan and retained an interest in America’s role in South Korea, which had yet to emerge from decades of U.S.-sponsored dictatorship. This interest led him to what proved to be a big story — the news that federal authorities were investigating whether giant contractor Bechtel had paid bribes to South Korean officials while then-Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger were top Bechtel officials. Shorrock says that Nader, who often read the magazine’s copy in advance, was unreachable when the magazine’s deadline came. Since Nader had also been absent at some deadlines in the past, Shorrock printed the story. Newspapers and television quickly pounced on the news, which portrayed exactly the kind of corporate malfeasance that Nader was targeting, and the attention raised the profile of Multinational Monitor. This was the kind of publicity that was supposed to attract fundraising for Nader’s anti-corporate cause.

But Nader wasn’t pleased. He was furious. Shorrock said that, at first, Nader seemed to be overreacting to what Shorrock saw as a misunderstanding about the final editing on a story that other news stories later validated. But then, Shorrock said, Nader started complaining that the story unfairly maligned Weinberger, who had been general counsel of Bechtel during the period when investigators were looking into South Korean bribes. In 1985, a U.S. News & World Report story on odd friendships in Washington mentioned Weinberger and Nader. The story said that Nader had recommended to Weinberger a former protege who later ended up as Weinberger’s deputy at Defense. Richard says today that Nader was a fearless opponent of the Reagan administration and elsewhere criticized Weinberger along with other Reagan appointees. Richard says that Shorrock willfully defied Nader’s instructions to hold the story. Richard produced an August 14, 1984, letter to subscribers that said that management had offered to bargain collectively with workers.

Threatening Ralph’s friendship with Cap Weinberger sounds like a good reason to crush unions to me.

In conclusion:

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