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The Subway

[ 77 ] July 1, 2015 |


It’s amazing the New York subway system works at all.

But the fundamental reason the MTA is so hard to fix, say transit experts both inside and outside the authority, goes back to those antediluvian switches. The MTA runs one of the largest transit systems in the world on a budget that’s dependent on the whims of elected officials in City Hall and Albany. It’s the equivalent of trying to change the engine and tires on a 1930 Studebaker while driving cross-country at top speed and hoping you can find enough spare change between the seat cushions to buy parts.

“We’re trying to address three or four decades’ worth of disrepair and disinvestment,” says MTA planning director Bill Wheeler. “The last time people sunk money seriously into the subway system was before World War II. It’s taken us a long, long time to come back, and that’s why much of the capital program is about rebuilding.”

“New York started off behind a lot of other places, because most other places haven’t let their physical plant deteriorate to the extent that New York has,” agrees Richard Barone, director of transportation programs for the Regional Plan Association (RPA), one of the local groups that has pushed hardest for improved transit infrastructure. It’s a problem that started in the 1950s and 1960s, when local budgets got tight and subway service for a shrinking (and increasingly nonwhite) city populace no longer seemed like a priority.

“New York really just ignored investing in its infrastructure,” says Barone. “So it took decades to rebuild what we had lost because of neglect.” And while the MTA has spent more than $100 billion on improvements since its first capital plan in 1982 — almost every subway car has been replaced in that time, for starters — Barone says the agency remains in “catch-up” mode.

And of course there’s huge parts of the city the system does not touch. Yet it’s still reasonably reliable. In my limited experience, it seems more functional than that of Washington. I’ll find out more about that in the next few weeks as I’ll be in the nation’s capital for most of July researching a new project and enjoying that sweet, sweet DC weather.

Why Honoring Jefferson Davis Is Unacceptable

[ 109 ] July 1, 2015 |


The discussion that starts here raises a very important point. There’s one defense of monuments to Confederates that runs something like “sure, Davis was a slaveholder, but we have slaveholders on the $1 and $2, a white supremacist on the $5, a slaveholder and ethnic cleanser on the $20, and so on. Why is Davis different?”

I think the answer to this should be clear. There’s a difference between honoring a slaveholder or white supremacist from the 18th or 19th century and honoring them for their support for slavery and white supremacy. Washington isn’t on the $1 because he was a slaveholder, but because he was the first (and still one of the best) presidents and also a major leader in the Revolutionary War. Lincoln is widely honored because of his crucial role in preserving the union and smashing the slave power, not because of the belief he held for most of his life that a multiracial democracy was impossible. The Constitution protected slavery, but its sole purpose was not the protection of slavery. (And we should also remember that the options the framers had in 1787 were a Constitution that provided some protection for slavery, or no deal. The idea that Virginia or Georgia or South Carolina would have agreed to an antislavery constitution with better bargaining is Green Lanternism that makes “Obama could have made Joe Lieberman vote to nationalize the American health care industry” look plausible.) The Revolutionary War and the Constitution were both the product of a combination of admirable motives, immoral motives, self-interest, and practical politics. One can admire the sentiments of the Declaration of Independence while also being mindful that the “all mean are created equal” part was observed in the breach to disastrous effect. Evaluating these things involves complicated judgments.

The Confederacy is a different story. Protecting slavery was its sole reason for being. Confederate leaders aren’t honored in spite of their commitment to treason in defense of slavery; in 99% of cases they’re being honored because of it. (Nobody would be naming highways in Washington state after Davis because he was Pierce’s Secretary of War.) As I said in the previous post, the idea that people like Robert E. Lee are being honored because they were fine gentleman or fathers (except for, you know, the slaves) is absurd even if you take the assertions at face value like you shouldn’t. I have great parents and you probably do too, but nobody’s building statues of them or naming schools after them. Confederate leaders are honored because of their role in the Confederacy. And the purpose of secession was 1)protecting slavery, and 2)that’s it.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that tributes to non-Confederate leaders shouldn’t be assessed critically. (Personally, I’m OK with Washington and Lincoln on the currency, but would remove Jackson with all non-deliberate speed.) A norm may emerge that honoring slaveholders in any way and no matter what else they did is unacceptable, and that would be OK with me. Norms could develop against naming things after political leaders in general. But those are complicated questions. Confederate leaders are an easy case.

The Foolishness of Post-Work Utopianism

[ 176 ] July 1, 2015 |


Every now and again, you see some essay about the utopia of a post-work society, suggesting that the disappearance of traditional paid labor (a lot of which is not much fun) will allow people’s real passions to flourish. Derek Thompson wrote a very long Atlantic piece exploring these ideas in a very positive way. I was not pleased. There is no utopian end of work. What follows the end of work is poverty. And such articles undermine what we actually need–motivating people to political action for economic justice and good jobs. The threat of automation creating mass unemployment is real enough, as I have discussed here repeatedly. But there’s nothing positive at the end of that process. Moreover, I felt like, although I can’t know, that all the people Thompson talked to as examples of people already engaging in a post-(traditional) work economy are relatively well-educated white people–the PhD who decided to start a foundry where people like mixed media artists and engineers come to labor/leisure, the bartender in Youngstown who is also a PhD student at the University of Chicago, the writer with two master’s degrees working in a cafe. Where are the African-Americans in Youngstown or Native Americans on the reservations already suffering from long-term unemployment? Do they have a place in this post-work future? They sure don’t seem to in Thompson’s article.

Luckily, I’m not the only person rolling their eyes at this sort of thing. Mike Konczal:

There’s been a consistent trend of these stories going back decades, with a huge wave of them coming after the Great Recession. Thompson’s piece is likely to be the best of the bunch. It’s empathetic, well reported, and imaginative. I also hope it’s the last of these end-of-work stories for the time being.

At this point, the preponderance of stories about work ending is itself doing a certain kind of labor, one that distracts us and leads us away from questions we need to answer. These stories, beyond being untethered to the current economy, distract from current problems in the workforce, push laborers to identify with capitalists while ignoring deeper transitional matters, and don’t even challenge what a serious, radical story of ownership this would bring into question.

But what is the impact of these stories? In the short term, the most important is that they allow us to dream about a world where the current problems of labor don’t exist, because they’ve been magically solved. This is a problem, because the conditions and compensation of work are some of our biggest challenges. In these future scenarios, there’s no need to organize, seek full employment, or otherwise balance the relationship between labor and capital, because the former doesn’t exist anymore.

This is especially a problem when it leaves the “what if” fiction writings of op-eds, or provocative calls to reexamine the nature of work in our daily lives, and melds into organizational politics. I certainly see a “why does this matter, the robots are coming” mentality among the type of liberal infrastructure groups that are meant to mobilize resources and planning to build a more just economy. The more this comforting fiction takes hold, the more problematic it becomes and easier it is for liberals to become resigned to low wages.

Because even if these scenarios pan out, work is around for a while. Let’s be aggressive with a scenario here: Let’s say the need for hours worked in the economy caps right now. This is it; this is the most we’ll ever work in the United States. (It won’t be.) In addition, the amount of hours worked decreases rapidly by 4 percent a year so that it is cut to around 25 percent of the current total in 34 years. (This won’t happen.)

Back of the envelope, during this time period people in the United States will work a total of around 2 billion work years. Or roughly 10,000 times as long as human beings have existed. What kinds of lives and experiences will those workers have?

Worker power matters, ironically, because it’s difficult to imagine the productivity growth necessary to get to this world without some sense that labor is strong. If wages are stagnant or even falling, what incentive is there to build the robots to replace those workers? Nothing is certain here, but you can see periods where low unemployment is correlated with faster productivity gains. The best way forward to a post-work atmosphere will probably be to embrace labor, not hope it goes away.

And if you actually were going to promote a post-work utopianism, you’d think you would go so far as to endorse the one policy that might alleviate a few of these problems, which is universal basic income. But nope, not a word about that. Just a vague of sense of fulfillment and belonging through artisanship and a sort of government funded online-WPA type proposal. So the policy recommendations here really fall short of even beginning to think about how to deal with unemployment in the present or in the future.

Finally, Thompson’s story ends with a 60 year old going back to get a master’s degree so he can become a teacher. He writes, “It took the loss of so many jobs to force him to pursue the work he always wanted to do.” Except that where are the jobs for 60 year old teachers?!? Thompson just leaves this here as if personal fulfillment somehow leads to economic stability. And anyone who knows anything about the current state of education and employment knows that even if you do love teaching, the realities of being in a classroom in a Rheeist society of extreme testing and attacks on teachers’ unions is not some glorious result. Rather, Thompson is engaging in a sort of romanticizing of teaching (a long tradition) to avoid real conclusions and a strong basis in the realities of work and labor policy in the United States.

In conclusion, I really have to wonder how many of these people who write about a post-work society in a hopeful way have ever actually experienced poverty or even basic working-class life. Not having employment is a terrible thing. And even if everyone else isn’t working either, it’s not like that leads to some universal acceptance of the situation and everyone getting over their Protestant work ethics. Rather, we can see what a bit of a post-work society looks like. It looks like Youngstown or it looks like southern West Virginia. And that’s not a vision anyone remotely progressive should want to replicate. If Youngstown is someone our national future because all the jobs are gone, there’s nothing to celebrate. There’s no positive endgame to that scenario.

The Confederacy Won the Peace

[ 143 ] July 1, 2015 |


The statistic at the end of the second paragraph says it all:

The Confederates won with the pen (and the noose) what they could not win on the battlefield: the cause of white supremacy and the dominant understanding of what the war was all about. We are still digging ourselves out from under the misinformation that they spread, which has manifested in both our history books and our public monuments.

Take Kentucky. Kentucky’s legislature voted not to secede, and early in the war, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston ventured through the western part of the state and found “no enthusiasm as we imagined and hoped but hostility … in Kentucky.” Eventually, 90,000 Kentuckians would fight for the United States, while 35,000 fought for the Confederate States. Nevertheless, according to historian Thomas Clark, the state now has 72 Confederate monuments and only two Union ones.

Another excellent example is the fact that if you drive from Seattle to Vancouver you do so in part on the Jefferson Davis Highway. Given that Washington not only didn’t secede, but didn’t exist, during Davis’s brief period heading the treasonous slave state I think we can safely chalk this up to 100% hate, 0% heritage. A bill was proposed to get rid of it in 2002, but it generated intense Republican opposition and was ultimately killed in the Senate:

The opponents describe the highway change as a needless affront to Davis, who remains revered in some quarters and for whom plenty of schools are named in the South.

Now Representative Thomas M. Mielke, a Republican from Battle Ground, has taken up their cause and is opposing the bill, expected to come up for a vote on Thursday.

Mr. Mielke circulated an e-mail message to his colleagues on Tuesday night, attaching a biography of Davis and calling him ”an outgoing, friendly man, a great family man who loved his wife and children and had an infinite store of compassion.”

“Sure, he was a traitor who believed that slavery was a cause worth dying for and supported the establishment of apartheid police states in the South after the civil war, but he was a nice guy.” Hey, maybe Mohamed Atta remembered to call his mother every birthday, we could start naming roads after him too! I’m afraid when it comes to public monuments I’m in the “Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you, go home and play with your kids” school. The fact that Republican legislators in states that had nothing to do with the Confederacy are willing to make such transparently silly arguments to preserve the monuments to the slave power is highly instructive.

Returning to Loewen:

Perhaps most perniciously, neo-Confederates now claim that the South seceded for states’ rights. When each state left the Union, its leaders made clear that they were seceding because they were for slavery and against states’ rights. In its “Declaration Of The Causes Which Impel The State Of Texas To Secede From The Federal Union,” for example, the secession convention of Texas listed the states that had offended them: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa. These states had in fact exercised states’ rights by passing laws that interfered with the federal government’s attempts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Some also no longer let slaveowners “transit” through their states with their slaves. “States’ rights” were what Texas was seceding against. Texas also made clear what it was seceding for: white supremacy.

And there are plenty of other illustrations. Uniform support of the Fugitive Slave Act by the slave power in itself reveals the “states’ rights” argument as a con. Any “strict constructionist” would look at the wording of the Fugitive Slave clause and its placement in Article IV and construe the return of fugitive slaves as a state, not federal, responsibility. And perhaps the single most important issue in the dissolution of the Democratic Party was the unwillingness of Congress to impose a proslavery constitution on Kansas that its citizens didn’t want. The Confederate Constitution did not permit states to abolish slavery. 99% of arguments about “federalism” are really arguments about policy substance, and attempts by Confederates and their apologists to claim they were motivated by “states’ rights” are particularly fraudulent.

Always for Pleasure

[ 27 ] July 1, 2015 |

I had a whole bunch of stuff to write about today and then it didn’t happen for a number of reasons. But I still found time to watch Les Blank’s 1978 film about the culture of New Orleans, Always for Pleasure. It’s not available as a whole film on YouTube; I watched it on Fandor. But there are a couple clips available. It’s pretty great. I know the New Orleans of 1978 is not the New Orleans of 2015 in many ways. But it still made me want to go to New Orleans again.

The only thing to say after that second clip is NOT ENOUGH CAYENNE!!!!

Lefty Purity For Thee…

[ 94 ] June 30, 2015 |


What does Harper‘s publisher Rick MacArthur do when he’s not publishing poorly reasoned and anti-factual screeds about the perfidy of the Democrat Party? Why, bust unions of course:

MacArthur may have once defended U.A.W. as “the country’s best and traditionally most honest mass labor organization,” but he contested his staff’s right to unionize, contending that the literary editor and senior editors served as supervisors and hence failed to qualify for protection under the National Labor Relations Act. He hired veteran employment lawyer Bert Pogrebin to advocate on his behalf before the National Labor Relations Board, but the federal agency denied his appeal. The day before staffers held elections and formally joined UAW Local 2110 on Oct. 14, MacArthur wrote a letter assuring them the union would neither give them a voice in the selection of the next editor in chief—he believed Metcalf was angling for the position—nor “solve the financial problems of the magazine or get us more subscribers, newsstand buyers or advertisers.”

Added MacArthur, with a touch of irony: “It will, of course, be able to collect initiation fees and dues from you.”

In January 2011, the magazine laid off union instigator Metcalf and pro-union ally associate editor Theodore Ross, a move that the union interpreted as retaliation and that MacArthur defended as an effort to “cut expenses.”

Of course, one way you can ensure you have the money to pay anti-labor lawyers is to pay your interns a big fat goose egg to work full time in Manhattan.

While MacArthur’s magazine has been unreadable for a while, I was wondering if perhaps there was a commercial justification for what has been intellectually ruinous. Maybe there’s a large market out there that really wants to read the same terrible leftier-than-thou article with a nominally different byline about how Barack Obama betrayed his campaign promises by failing to unilaterally turn the American political economy into Denmark’s every month? Nope: in fact, their circulation is cratering. It’s really a shame what’s happened to what was not that long ago a terrific magazine, but at this point it’s probably never coming back.

On the Search for the Clubhouse Guy

[ 60 ] June 30, 2015 |

Roy Thomas. Licensed under PD-US via Wikipedia.

Some interesting thoughts from Russ Carleton on how you would go about searching for clubhouse “chemistry”: (subscription)

I have a feeling that if I surveyed even the most hardcore sabermetricians out there, they would all acknowledge that ideas of chemistry and clubhouse presence aren’t silly. They’d probably push back against the common narrative that Team X won the World Series based on the shining light of justice that came from Smith’s locker. (After all, there were probably veteran guys on all the other 29 teams who did not win the World Series.) They’d probably say that it’s hard to measure. (It is.) But if Smith sits down with Jones, shows him a trick he’s learned over the years on how to hit a curveball and Jones turns from a one-win player to a three-win player, don’t we have to give some of that credit to Smith?

I’m going to start with the assumption that chemistry and clubhouse presence exist and that they can have real, tangible effects on players, making them either better or worse. We don’t know how it works. We don’t know who’s who. We don’t know what the effects are. But what if we could at least make some reasonable assumptions about what those effects might be? Actual data-driven ones. For example, we know that some managers seem to have a special talent for keeping their players from burning out over the course of a year, and that the effect might be as big as 30 runs from the best to the worst.

So, how much could these soft factors actually be worth?

I’d be interested in coming up with a list of things that we assumed-away-because-we-couldn’t-measure, then realized-had-an-impact-when-we-developed-better-tools. I’m guessing that the list would be longer in football and basketball than in baseball, but of course it would also be interesting to track down some examples from politics.


Progressives Should Weigh In on de Blasio vs. Cuomo

[ 46 ] June 30, 2015 |

It’s not every day that a sitting mayor of New York accuses the governor of New York of governing out of spite and a desire for “revenge for some perceived slight,” but there you have it. And there’s not much that Governor Cuomo can say about it, given that he’s just admitted in a press conference that he’s been anonymously trashing de Blasio in the New York Daily Press.

Now, all of this might seem like complete inside baseball and not really something that non-political professionals should care about, but the stakes in this feud are quite real. Cuomo’s ongoing feud with de Blasio has had major impacts on public policy from preventing New York City from taxing its wealthy to pay for universal Pre-K, to blocking renewal (let alone reform of) of rent control for millions of New Yorkers, to mandating that developers include affordable housing that’s desperately needed, to the fight for public education against the privatization agenda, to a higher minimum wage for hundreds of thousands of NYC workers, and on and on.

Read more…


[ 67 ] June 30, 2015 |

As Lennie Briscoe would say, nothing good comes from this:

In an expected but potentially devastating blow to public sector unions, the Supreme Court announced on Tuesday that it will hear a case called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association in its next term. Friedrichs, as Justice Elena Kagan explained in a similar case last year, asks the justices to “impos[e] a right-to-work regime for all government employees” throughout the country, and it does so based on an aggressive reading of the First Amendment that could have absurd consequences for the government’s relationship with its own employees. Should this case prevail, moreover, that decision could be an existential threat to many public sector unions, potentially draining them of the money they need to operate.

Looks like we might be heading for another failure of the Affordable Care Act.

The Left-Right Coalition Against the ACA

[ 219 ] June 30, 2015 |



The [ACA’s] critics have consistently presented a much louder and more certain attack, and its supporters a more cautious and muted defense, and this has remained the case even though, on virtually every point, the critics have been wrong and the supporters right.

And what’s worse is that it’s not just people on the right who continue to repeat erroneous claims about the ACA. I see Trudy Lieberman is doing the rounds shilling for her disgracefully dishonest Harper’s story on the ACA. Now NPR listeners, and not just subscribers, will “learn” a bunch of lies: that the Medicaid expansion hasn’t reached many people because of the structure of the act itself rather than the Supreme Court and then Republican public officials, that the ACA is increasing the cost of health care rather than making it cheaper, that the current number of uninsured is the ceiling rather than the floor, that the statute passed at the behest of insurance companies rather than in spite of their fervent and expensive opposition. Particularly since the destruction of the ACA would lead to the vastly inferior status quo ante or something even worse than that, Lieberman is collaborating with the ACA’s right-wing opponents, wittingly or not.

Lieberman derides Paul Krugman as a “cheerleader” for the ACA (underlining that the point of her article is not to inform readers or to figure out a way to address the many remaining defects of the American health care system as to congratulate herself for her brave ideological purity.) Only when people read Krugman’s shorter summary of the ACA they will learn much more and what they learn will actually be true.

While we’re here, I don’t think that A.W. Gaffney’s recent Jacobin piece was nearly as objectionable as Lieberman’s. It wasn’t largely devoted to right-wing talking points about the ACA. But it’s still based on two telling related mistakes. First of all, it also yadda-yaddas the Medicaid expansion, a particularly serious problem when you’re asserting that the ACA is devoid of egalitarian commitments. The ACA is neither purely “neoliberal” nor purely left-egalitarian; it’s a compromise between these elements. Which isn’t surprising, since the Democratic coalition is, as it’s always been, a coalition of left-liberals with moderates and conservatives, and federal social programs have always reflected these tensions. Gaffney’s 2014 article is based on a similar mistake: there’s been no “turn” away from support for universal health care. In 2010 as in 1948, there were many Democrats who would have supported a more universal model, and there were Democrats who didn’t, and the votes of the latter were essential to anything passing. Had supporters of more universal care insisted on a more universal model, they would have gotten what their predecessors got under Truman and Nixon: nothing. The left wing of the Democratic Party blowing up the ACA because it was too neoliberal would not in fact reflect a greater commitment to egalitarianism (as I’m sure Gaffney would agree.)

Which brings us to this curious passage:

There are many roads to what is called, often problematically, “universal health care.” Some nations — for instance, Canada — have systems of national health insurance in which a governmental “payer” insures everyone (though the provision of care may remain predominantly private). Other nations have “national health services” — e.g., Britain — where the provision of care is a direct public service.

There is a very curious omission here: hybrid European models that 1)achieve egalitarian health care goals at least as well as British nationalization or Canadian single-payer, and 2)are far more viable endpoints for a better American health care system. If you’re trying to figure out a better path in the United States, policies passed by Westminster-style parliamentary systems is the last place you’d look. If you’re serious about better health care, as opposed to just running down the ACA, you can’t ignore institutional constraints.


[ 32 ] June 30, 2015 |

Speaking of progressive regulatory measures that would have a material impact on millions of workers, President Obama just announced that he’ll be lifting the cap on overtime regulations for salaried workers to $50,000 a year from its previously negligible level of $23,600 a year.

According to the EPI, this means 15 million workers just got a big raise. Congratulations!

Read more…

Today in the New Gilded Age

[ 66 ] June 30, 2015 |


Above: Boeing CEO Jim McNerney

Boeing CEO Jim McNerney is retiring next year. His pension: $3.9 million per year for the next 15 years.

Jim McNerney is the same person who used the threat of capital mobility to force the International Association of Machinists-represented workers in Washington to sign a new contract that gives up their pensions and grants only a 1 percent raise every other year. He said he would move to South Carolina if they didn’t, where workers in Boeing plants only make half of what they do in Washington.

Boeing is a shockingly profitable company that could easily afford to pay pensions to workers.

Jim McNerney is also the same person who was the former Chair of The Business Roundtable, a corporate lobbying group looking to raise the retirement age to 70.

In conclusion, Jim McNerney is a terrible human being. And very emblematic of the New Gilded Age

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