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Today in Apparel Industry Disasters

[ 5 ] May 15, 2015 |


Another horrible disaster in the global apparel industry. This time it was in the Philippines where at least 72 are dead after a fire burned a slipper factory. There might not have been many deaths, despite the fact that the sparks set off chemicals used in making the slippers, had the owners not put bars on the second floor windows. It does seem that this factory was producing strictly for the Philippine market. But that doesn’t mean the types of global labor standards I argue for in Out of Sight could not have an impact in a situation like this. Since I advocate the U.S. to more strongly regulate the goods entering the country and the factory conditions of American companies operating abroad while empowering workers to have the power to take these matters into their own hands, these standards would have a race to the top effect by making it harder for companies with substandard conditions and unsafe factories to operate. If workers could leave for safer factories, they would and other companies would presumably have to improve conditions to play catch-up. Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn’t be as effective as I think, but we have to ensure that apparel made by American companies or for American consumers is produced ethically. Hopefully it would have cascading effects.

Game of Thrones podcast: Season 5, Episode 5 — “Kill the Boy”

[ 8 ] May 15, 2015 |

kill the boy


Purchase the new essay collection — Tower of the Hand: A Hymn for Spring – containing essays by Attewell! Because believe it or not even after everything else he’s written and 55 hours of putting up with me in this podcast, Steven has even more to say about Game of Thrones.

The image-based Game of Thrones recapper I mentioned can be found here.


B.B. King

[ 21 ] May 15, 2015 |

One of the really great ones. R.I.P.

No, faculty salaries have not actually gone up, part infinity

[ 44 ] May 14, 2015 |


There’s really no excuse for this kind of thing in the age of the internet, when you can look stuff up in five minutes that 20 years ago would have taken weeks to track down:

Sarah Maslin Nir’s extraordinary two-part exposé, in the Times, of the rotten pay and terrible working conditions in New York’s nail-salon industry is full of revelatory and shocking details. Who, for instance, would believe that, in 2015, there are businesses in the city running classified ads advertising that they pay a mere ten dollars per day? But one of the most surprising, and economically telling, facts in the piece is also among the most mundane: namely, that the price of a manicure hasn’t budged much, if at all, in the past two decades.

This wouldn’t be surprising if we were talking about, say, personal computers, or even automobiles. In those industries, businesses get consistently more productive over time, thanks to things like automation, better information technology, and incremental innovation. Such advances mean that workers in those industries can make a lot more stuff per hour than they could two decades ago. The number of hours it takes to build a car, for instance, has plummeted since the nineteen-seventies. This allows companies to pay workers more (and/or to increase their profits) without raising, and often while cutting, prices.

There are many industries, though, that don’t experience this dynamic. These include labor-intensive service businesses, like nail salons, in which it’s hard, if not impossible, for workers to become more productive over time. After all, it takes as long to cut hair, tailor a suit, or give a manicure today as it did twenty years ago.

The economic problem that companies in these industries typically face is that, in order to attract workers, you need to pay them roughly as much as they could earn doing other kinds of work. If you don’t, they will, in theory, take other, better-paying jobs. In effect, the rising wages of workers in industries where productivity is rising set a relative benchmark for workers in all industries. (That’s why the average tenured professor is paid considerably more today than he would have been twenty years ago, even though he isn’t any more productive.) So companies in the service sector have to raise wages, and the only way to do that while keeping profits steady is also to raise prices. This is what economists call “Baumol’s cost disease.” You can see it in many service businesses: look at the rising cost of education or health care, or even the price of a haircut, which has risen faster than inflation over the past thirty-five years.

This is James Surowiecki in the New Yorker, the magazine’s resident economics writer. He’s a big fan of citing Baumol’s cost disease, and indeed I hear this rationale all the time for why the cost of higher ed keeps skyrocketing, despite increasing rates of per student subsidization. You have to pay the faculty a lot more or they’ll go start a literary theory factory or something.

Except, on average, the people who do the teaching in American higher education are getting paid far lower salaries than they were several decades ago, back when cars were still built by teams of UAW workers instead of robots (BTW is it true that car companies actually pay production workers more, in real dollars, than they did in say the 1970s?).

Now I bet Surowiecki is at least vaguely aware of the adjunctification of academia, which is probably why he adds the qualifier “tenured.” But he’s still completely wrong. Let’s go to the tape: (All dollar figures are in 2013 dollars, which is the most recent year for which data are available)

Average salary in 1993 of all full-time faculty in American degree-granting post-secondary institutions:


In 2013:


That’s a 5.2% increase. How does that compare to the average American wage earner, who doesn’t have Baumol’s disease to help keep his or her wages up? Not too good, it turns out:

National average wage in 1993:


In 2013:


That’s a 20.4% increase.

Now things are a bit better if you belong to the exalted ranks of the tenured, although not by that much. Full professor salaries were 12.4% higher in 2013 than in 1993, and associate professors were making 7.7% more. But again, those increases are both quite a bit lower than those experienced by the average American wage earner (of course the “average” wage has been pulled up to some degree by huge increases in the wages of the one percenters, but still).

And again, average wages of the people who do the teaching in American colleges and universities — that is, the faculty — are lower in real terms than they were 20 years ago, because a much higher percentage of the faculty are part of the academic precariat.


[ 45 ] May 14, 2015 |


National borders are usually pretty weird and unsettling places. But the story of the India-Bangladesh border is especially odd.

Putting the Progressive Agenda under the Microscope

[ 62 ] May 14, 2015 |

Yesterday in Washington D.C, Bill De Blasio and a bunch of people from the left wing of the Democratic Party announced a Progressive Agenda on economic inequality. It’s essentially a marker being laid down for the presidential primaries in 2016: if a certain major Democratic candidate for the nomination wants to call themselves a progressive, they need to sign onto these 13 points.

As a political strategy for trying to influence the Democratic Party, it…seems to be working? So far, we’ve already seen Hillary Clinton’s policy speeches – on immigration, on criminal justice, and on higher education – coming out markedly to the left of where people might have expected, based on Hillary’s 2008 campaign. If and when we get a speech on economic inequality, I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few parts of this agenda make it in.

So what’s actually in this agenda?

Read more…

Race and Food Injustice

[ 47 ] May 14, 2015 |


One of the reasons I vastly prefer Mark Bittman to Michael Pollan among famous food writers is that Bittman gets that injustice is a major issue whereas Pollan is mostly happy to talk about the glories of foraging for mushrooms and longing for women to go back into the kitchens, blissfully ignoring most issues of poverty and food. Bittman has his own blind spots, no doubt. But at least he tries. Bittman’s good side has come out again. In the wake of the protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Bittman notes how racism and food access intersect:

And — since I’m the food guy, it’s worth pointing out — without access to good food or nutrition education. This is murder by a thousand cuts. The rate of hunger among black households: 10.1 percent. Among white households: 4.6 percent. The age-adjusted rate of obesity among black Americans: 47.8 percent. Among white Americans: 32.6 percent. The rate of diabetes among black adults aged 20 or older: 13.2 percent. Among white adults: 7.6 percent. Black Americans’ life expectancy, compared to white Americans: four years less. (The life expectancy of black men with some high school compared to white men with some college: minus 14 years.)

These numbers are not a result of a lack of food access but of an abundance of poverty. Lack of education is not a result of a culture of victimhood but of lack of funding for schools. And rather than continuing to allow these realities to divide us, we should do the American thing, which is to fix things. Which we can do, together.

Not long ago African-Americans were enslaved; until recently they were lynched. Isolated racist murders still occur, but they are no longer sanctioned or tolerated, and we’re seeing the vestiges of that as both national and local attention is paid to violence by the police against black people.

But oppression and inequality are violence in another form. When people are undereducated, impoverished, malnourished, un- or under-employed, or underpaid and working three jobs, their lives are diminished, as are their opportunities. As are the opportunities of their children.

This is unjust and intolerable. The bad news is that we should be ashamed of ourselves: As long as these things are true, this is not the country we say it is or the country we want it to be.

The good news is that it’s fixable, not by “market forces” but by policies that fund equal education, good-paying jobs, and a good food, health and well-being program for all Americans.

He doesn’t pretend that food access is going to solve larger problems, which is an issue among many food writers who see food as a mystical experience. But he notes that we can solve the interconnected issues of poverty, injustice, and food access through good policy. Which is absolutely true and the position that the entire food movement should be taking on the recent uptick in protest against racism.

Some men you just can’t reach

[ 21 ] May 14, 2015 |


Updated below

How much money has the law school reform movement cost ABA law schools?

This is not very difficult to calculate, if we define the law school reform movement as including everyone who has helped bring about more transparency regarding employment outcomes for law graduates: scambloggers, journalists, Law School Transparency, internal critics of the system, internal defenders of the system making arguments that are so bad that they lend yet more legitimacy to criticisms, etc.

If you assume none of the above had done any of the stuff they’ve done over the past few years, it seems reasonable to assume that, conservatively speaking, there would have been no downturn in law school enrollment (actually it seems more realistic to assume enrollment would have continued to climb, but we’ll go with the more conservative assumption that it would have remained where it was five years ago). It also seems reasonable to assume that effective tuition (sticker minus discounts) would have continued to climb at its recent rate of two or three percent a year above inflation, instead of flat-lining as it has over the past couple of years.

On the basis of these assumptions, a legal academic world without any push-back to the carny barking that dominated the information available to students until about four years ago would feature about 147,500 JD students this coming fall, who would be paying about $31,500 per year, on average, in effective tuition. So law schools would be extracting about $4.65 billion in tuition revenue from their JD students during the 2015-16 academic year.

Instead, they’re going to be getting a lot less. This year’s enrollment cycle is almost complete, and at this point it’s easy to estimate within a few hundred students how many people will matriculate this fall. Schools are going to receive applications from just under 53,000 applicants. The quasi-open enrollment policy already in place at several dozen schools means that approximately 80% of these applicants will be accepted to at least one school to which they apply (many applicants won’t apply to schools with open enrollment policies, plus about 10% of the applicant pool won’t be admitted anywhere because their files more or less scream potential litigation exposure risk to any school reckless enough to take them).

Of those who are admitted to at least one school, around 87% will end up matriculating somewhere. That means the first year class is going to be around 36,850 students, which in turn means the total JD population this fall will be about 111,000. (This past fall’s total JD enrollment was a little over 119,000, and the 2015 entering class is going to have about 8,000 fewer students than that of 2012). How much they’ll be paying in average effective tuition is a touch more speculative, but massive tuition discounting at many schools over the past couple of cycles will if anything be likely to intensify, so it would be optimistic to assume that schools will be getting more than the $28,500 per student they were pulling in three years ago. But let’s assume an average effective tuition of $30,000, just to be on the generous side.

That adds up to $3.33 billion in total JD tuition revenue this coming year. So schools are looking at about $1.3 billion less this fall in tuition revenue than they would have enjoyed if only some troublemakers had gotten their minds right. That in turn is about $6.37 million per school, on average, which works out to about $140,000 less tuition revenue per faculty member.

When you put it that way, I almost want to fire myself.

Update: Pace’s law school’s dean — Pace University, which was founded in the 19th century, has its main campus is in lower Manhattan, but the law school, which is 39 years old, is in White Plains — has apparently sent out a Secret Memo to the faculty, which, in the way of such things, is no longer secret. (The secrecy was supposed to be maintained by a secret invisible watermark on the memo, which was designed to identify any potential Deep Throat to a vengeful administration).

The memo announced an immediate 10% salary cut for all faculty, the elimination of summer research stipends and sabbaticals, and a 5% salary cut for some staff. These measures are designed to eliminate $2.1 million of the law school’s current $5 million operating deficit. Interestingly, the administration apparently hasn’t offered to buy out any faculty.

h/t Taxprof

“It is hardly lack of due process for the Government to regulate that which it subsidizes”: The Ballad of Roscoe Filburn

[ 120 ] May 14, 2015 |


Recently, Bijan reminded me in comments that I’ve never quoted some of my favorite passages from the United States Reports here. These quotes from Robert Jackson’s opinion in Wickard v. Filburn aren’t well known because they come from the section dismissing the particularly frivolous due process claim. But they sum up the case and the having-it-all-ways faux libertarianism the case has come to represent in many quarters perfectly:

It is agreed that, as the result of the wheat programs, he is able to market his wheat at a price “far above any world price based on the natural reaction of supply and demand.” We can hardly find a denial of due process in these circumstances, particularly since it is even doubtful that appellee’s burdens under the program outweigh his benefits. It is hardly lack of due process for the Government to regulate that which it subsidizes.


Only when he threshed, and thereby made it a part of the bulk of wheat overhanging the market, did he become subject to penalty. He has made no effort to show that the value of his excess wheat consumed without threshing was less than it would have been had it been threshed while subject to the statutory provisions in force at the time of planting. Concurrently with the increase in the amount of the penalty, Congress authorized a substantial increase in the amount of the loan which might be made to cooperators upon stored farm marketing excess wheat. That appellee is the worse off for the aggregate of this legislation does not appear; it only appears that, if he could get all that the Government gives and do nothing that the Government asks, he would be better off than this law allows. To deny him this is not to deny him due process of law.

Filburn was not a hobbyist growing a little food for his family. (If he was, there would have been no case; the quotas didn’t apply to farms growing less than 15 acres of wheat.) He was someone with a commercial farm who not only wanted to sell substantial amounts of wheat but wanted to take advantage of federal price supports that allowed him to sell the wheat for more than twice the price it would command on the world market. While he wanted to take advantage of the federal guarantees, however, he wasn’t willing to comply with the federal regulations, which included a production quota that was a crucial element in the price supports. Filburn’s opposition federal regulation of the interstate wheat market applying to him was highly selective.

The only reason to be the slightest bit concerned about the Court’s obviously correct holding in Filburn is the slippery slope. Without it, as one commenter [mds!] astutely noted, you’re left with an argument that the congressional regulation of commercial wheat production is fine, but actually applying the regulation to a commercial entity involved in wheat production just goes too far. But when the facts are no longer carefully sanitized, it’s pretty hard to argue that there’s a direct path between Wickard and JACK BOOTED FEDERAL THUGS seizing the broccoli from your home garden while simultaneously requiring you to purchase it from Big Broccoli. Article I gives the federal government the authority to regulate interstate commodity markets, and doing so requires the federal government to regulate individual commercial entities, even if not everything these entities grow will be sold on interstate markets. It’s really not a complicated question, and Wickard is not a slippery slope to unlimited federal power.

Nail Salons

[ 135 ] May 14, 2015 |

Thuy Vo

You probably read Sarah Maslin Nir’s excellent investigative report on the labor conditions inside New York nail salons, which are brutal and including wage theft, poisoning from breathing in cosmetics, and physical abuse. There are relatively simple answers to solving these problems, which are strong labor enforcement of state and federal law. The report convinced Andrew Cuomo to announce “emergency measures” to help these workers, including more inspections and a multilingual attempt to inform workers of their rights. We’ll see how real this is once people stop paying attention.

Anyway, the unfortunately most common response is what we often see from empowered individualistic consumers, which is “how can I consume ethically.” The question turns the issue from being about the workers to about the consumer. We see this in apparel activism too often from people who think that buying second-hand clothing is an answer to sweatshop labor. Michelle Chen answers the question about what you can do quite simply–support worker organizing–and she provides plenty of information about how that is shaping up. Amanda Marcotte takes on the middle class guilt part of this debate more directly (with plenty of links of this sort of thing if you are so inclined). She writes:

I don’t mean to pick on people,I really don’t. These huge labor and immigration issues can feel overwhelming and I get that people want to know what part, however small, they can play. But that leads to this unfortunate tendency to frame these issues around middle class complicity, as if that were the main problem and not just a sideshow. The problem with that is that these sort of individualized rituals of self-sacrifice in the name of purity do almost nothing to actually improve the lives of marginalized or exploited people. In some cases, it might make it worse—in this case, for instance, the end result will be that a smaller proportion of customers in nail salons will be good tippers who are nice to the workers. Great.

To be fair, some writers cleverly used the “how to assuage your guilt” click bait headlines to compel people to take real action, such as calling the authorities when they discover a salon is breaking labor laws or to surreptitiously distribute materials informing workers of their rights in their native language. These are still small actions, but they are actions that might actually help a real person who actually needs help, and that’s not nothing. But most of what I saw out there was focused on how you personally can feel better about yourself. That’s not helpful to people who actually need help.

And then she says what you actually can do, which is to make this a political issue and call your politicians to demand they do something about it. Like just about everything else when it comes to workers, the way to solve these problems is to give workers power. That means actively taking power from employers. The nail salon workers are the modern version of immigrant sweatshop labor a century ago and while we’ve outsourced that work to people we can exploit far out of our sight, the need for service labor means there are still workers who we do see. We can demand the rigorous inspections of these agencies with shutdowns and heavy fines for employers who violate the law.

Of course, if you are a libertarian, your hot take on all this is that there’s no way we should do anything about these workers. After all, how can we know what they want since we are not them? Of course we could ask workers what they want but that would mean libertarians talking to real people and I mean, c’mon. Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown:

Getting more government involved when it’s not at the behest of these workers, however, is only going to lead to more hardship for those most marginalized. When state investigators find a bunch of undocumented immigrants working as unlicensed manicurists—yes, being a manicurist in New York technically requires a state permission slip—for under the minimum wage, do you think they’re going to stop with forcing employers to institute a pay hike? Do you think salon owners under more investigative scrutiny from government agents are going to be more attune to requests from their underground employees?

I don’t want to diminish the concerns of workers in these communities. But this top-down, outsider, progressive, law-and-order view concerns me. Would workers be better off with no jobs or means to support themselves? Living back in their home countries? Maybe in some cases, yes, but we don’t know because we are not them. And I tend to believe that immigrant salon workers, being as intelligent and rational as the rest of us, are capable of weighing their own interests and situations and acting accordingly.

This of course is nothing more than the same Gilded Age arguments conservatives have always loved, that workers make rational decisions and that if they didn’t think it was in the interest to work in dangerous jobs, they wouldn’t do so. Nevermind that government can actually make that work less dangerous or that the unions these people inevitably oppose can do the same or that workers don’t actually have choices if the “choice” is work or starve. For conservatives, this is all a fun theory they can sit in their comfy houses and pontificate about. They aren’t interested in actual workers and their lives.

Then there’s this:

Increased FDA oversight can’t educate nail workers about the importance of leaving the job when they’re pregnant, or help make doing so financially feasible; it can’t instill simple best practices, like wearing gloves, that could mitigate skin problems; it can’t encourage salon owners to install work on better ventilation systems. These sorts of education and outreach efforts are best undertaken by public health nonprofits and people in these communities. And they would have a much more immediate effect than the years or decades it could take to get accomplish similar feats via federal regulation.

Actually increased oversight can do those exact things. Maybe not through the FDA but through OSHA. OSHA can educate workers. OSHA can instill best practices and mandate wearing gloves. OSHA can fine employers for not installing ventilation systems. And if there’s a reason that it is hard to make federal regulation work on these issues, it’s because people like Brown and her plutocrat masters spend money opposing these regulations.

Quite the hot take there.

A Centrist Weepy

[ 62 ] May 14, 2015 |


This Robert Draper profile of a Democratic Party supposedly in turmoil because its base is demanding politicians stand up for values outside of Beltway centrism is ridiculous. Note that the only non-politician who gets any major play here is Jonathan Cowan, president of Third Way. And that’s what this whole article is–a lament that the Democrats are stepping away from Broderism. There’s little that causes more concern trolling among the Washington press corps than Democratic voters demanding that Democratic politicians stand up for liberal values, especially on economics. Certainly when the most inane journalism awards of the 2016 elections are held there are going to be worse articles than this. But it should at least get an honorable mention.

The FBI and Keystone

[ 22 ] May 14, 2015 |


Above: Obvious environmental extremists

It’s ridiculous that the FBI was violating agency protocol by going to rather extreme measures in monitoring those protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline. Calling the opponents “extremists” (because nothing screams extremist, near-terrorist activity like Bill McKibben…), the FBI cultivated informants and connected its monitoring of the protesters to anti-terrorism investigations. This is pretty bad. But it also suggests how law enforcement sees basically all protestors as enemies and essentially serves not as a neutral agent in society but rather as one defending power.

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