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How long will people born in 2015 actually live?

[ 25 ] September 1, 2015 |


The answer to this question depends on being able to determine the probable life expectancy of a birth cohort, rather than the cohort’s life expectancy at birth. The difference between these two numbers is that life expectancy at birth (LEB) isn’t a prediction: it’s a statistical fact, that is, it’s a statement of the mean number of years that will be lived by members of the cohort if the current age-specific mortality rates in the population as a whole remain steady over the cohort’s entire lifespan. Of course to the extent that age-specific mortality rates change over that time, life expectancy at birth won’t reflect the actual life expectancy of the cohort.

To give a concrete example, LEB in the US was 47 in 1900, but it’s certain that the actual average life span of people born in the US in 1900 ended up being quite a bit higher, because age specific mortality rates have dropped pretty much continually since then (they are currently dropping most sharply among the oldest members of the population). But how much higher?

If one is trying to predict how long the average American born today will live — which, for practical purposes, is a much more important number than LEB — how would one do it? Did people in 1900 end up living 10% longer than their LEB? 15%? More? And whatever the spread between LEB and actual life expectancy was, how likely is it to be replicated for people born in 2015? (In the developed world, the increase in LEB has been remarkably steady, with exceptions for a world war or two, for nearly two centuries now).

Anyway, a 15% increase between LEB and actual life expectancy would mean the average American born today will live to be 91, which probably means that in a few decades Zombie Robert Samuelson will be arguing that the social security retirement age should be raised to 83.

Tianjin, Texas

[ 11 ] September 1, 2015 |


Above: The 2013 West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion

There’s been a lot of media discussion over the past week about Chinese workplace safety conditions because of the Tianjin explosion that killed more than 150 people and spewed toxic material into the air. The problem is a lack of regulatory control, corruption, and a culture of indifference to the general public. And this is a major problem in China, with another blast in another city yesterday killing someone.

But it would be nice if these reporters noted that a mere 2 years ago in Texas, a very similar incident happened in the town of West, where a fertilizer plant exploded and killed 15 people. Governor Rick Perry’s response was to declare Texas open for business, ensuring that nothing would change. And with OSHA so understaffed that it would take 129 years for the agency’s inspectors to visit every workplace in the United States, very little has improved. Moreover, Tianjin and West is the America libertarians want to embrace. The freedom of factory owners to site factories where they want, store chemicals how they want, and not be responsible for the forthcoming disaster is central to conservative philosophy. So while we should be talking about Tianjin and these problems in China, casting an eye on the United States is also important for journalists, for the comparisons are not as far-fetched as one might hope.

Hugos/Sad Puppies Guest Post by Jameson Quinn

[ 160 ] September 1, 2015 |

Hi folks! Please enjoy this guest post on the Hugos!:

Hi, I’m Jameson Quinn, the guy who came up with the basic idea for the E Pluribus Hugo proposal to fix the Hugo Award voting so that minorities like this year’s Sad and Rabid Puppy slates can’t take over the nominations. I’m also a board member of (the Center for Election Science) and doctoral candidate in statistics at Harvard. Regular readers of this site will probably recognize me from the comment threads here, where I post using a Kafka/Martin inspired nym. I’m using my real name for this post, and ask that you refrain from using my nym in comments please. I also have to say that the political views expressed below are my own. I speak for only when it comes to the voting theory.

Regular readers here are probably also already familiar with the basic outlines of the Hugo/Puppy affair. Here are the basics:

    • The Hugo Awards are important awards in science fiction, which for over 60 years have been both nominated and given by fans attending or supporting the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon). This year’s WorldCon was last week/weekend in Spokane, Washington.
    • For the past 3 years, conservative authors have been promoting slate voting in Hugo nominations. They coyly called their slate the Sad Puppy “List” and denied it was more than “recommendations”, but still explicitly pitched it as a counterweight to fan votes that “skew toward literary (as opposed to entertainment) … [and] skew ideological” based on a “popularity contest”.
    • This year, the nominally-within-the-lines Sad Puppies were joined by the outright-trolling Rabid Puppies, led by troll incarnate Vox Day. Day expanded the list to ensure it had 5 things in most categories (so that it would push out all non-puppy works), adding himself and works he published in many cases. He explicitly called for slate voting from his followers, and asked them to vote whether or not they were science fiction fans at all.
    • The puppies were successful in taking over most of the nominations, including all finalists in 7 categories, though this later dropped to 5 when some of their unwitting nominees withdrew upon realizing how they’d won.
    • However, it was always clear that the puppies were a minority. Indeed, when winners were announced, the only winner on the Puppy slate was Guardians of the Galaxy (which had received more than enough non-puppy nominations that it would have easily been a finalist even without any puppy support). In order to deny the puppies any wins, voters gave “No Award” in 5 categories, using that option as many times in one year as they had in over half a century of history.
    • Fans rallied against such minority takeover tactics. A group including yours truly developed a proportional voting system proposal called E Pluribus Hugo over the course of over four thousand comments on Making Light (and let me say that SF nerds rock; it may have been my idea but it would have gone nowhere without the sophistication, skills, and energy of the community at that blog). At WorldCon, after a grueling business meeting stretching 11 hours over 4 days, the proposal passed by a 3:1 margin; if it passes again next year in Kansas City, the system will be first used for the Helsinki 2017 Worldcon. Also, the controversy meant that there were more Hugo voters than ever; almost 6000 of them. The flagship Best Novel award went to a translated work for the first time: The Three Body Problem.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of these events (aside from getting to meet some of my favorite writers, fictional characters, and even a Dalek) was the dynamics of the Puppies; specifically, the love-hate symbiosis between the halfheartedly-trolling Sads and the fullthroated Rabids.

In order to understand this, it’s important to see that the Sads actually did have the germ of a valid grievance: in past years, many Hugo nominators have been from a pretty small and insular group of authors, editors, and hardcore fans, who often know each other personally and whose vote is probably influenced to some extent by factors extraneous to the work itself. Writings from authors who are personally well-liked, or whose overall body of work is stronger than the individual writing, probably have had a bit of an unfair advantage in getting nominated.

Of course, that’s not to endorse the Sad Puppy point of view. Of their three complaints — that the Hugos have been too artsy-fartsy, that they have been too political, and that they have involved logrolling — the first two are sour grapes, the second two are hypocritical, and the relationship between the three exists only in their heads. Only the third could be even slightly legitimate as cause for organized action; but certainly not for the action they took, which was basically to vandalize the awards as a whole, without any hope of actually accomplishing their objectives.

Still, next to the Rabids, the Sads look positively reasonable. And that set up exactly the kind of environment where trolls thrive: one where they could shift at will from “debaters” to provocateurs to hate-hydrants. So, even though there were initially more Sads than Rabids — my analsis of the numbers suggests that in the nominations there were about 100 party-line Sad Puppies and only about 40 party-line Rabid Puppies, with those numbers inflated 30%-100% by partial sympathizers depending on the candidate — the Rabids quickly managed to spread their poison over that entire side of the debate, and probably picked up to over 500-strong by the time of the second round voting.

The obvious analogy, of course, is with the Republican presidential candidates, with Trump making his rabid pronouncements, and the rest of them watching sadly.

And that brings me to what you knew was coming: voting systems. Because with both the Hugos and the Republican primaries, flawed voting systems end up feeding the trolls. The non-proportional Hugo nomination system enabled a minority with less than 15% in certain categories to take over those categories entirely. And similarly, the vote-for-one primaries enable Trump to be a clear and enduring frontrunner with just 30% of the Republican voters on his side, and higher negatives than any other candidate.

Better voting systems are, of course, available. In the case of the Hugos, it was E Pluribus Hugo. This system gives 1 point to each nominator, so if you nominated 5 works, they would each get 1/5 of a point from you. The points are totalled, and the two works with the lowest points go up for elimination. Of those two, the one nominated by the fewest people is eliminated. This means that in comparing the two, your nominations count at full strength, and a “bullet voting” strategy of nominating only your favorite work could not help it at that point. Then, points are redistributed (so that if one of your 5 nominations had been eliminated, the remaining 4 would now be getting 1/4 of a point each from you), and the process is repeated until only 5 works remain. The result is that slate works end up eliminating each other until just 1 or 2 remain, while non-slate nominators points naturally concentrate onto the strongest works.

At the convention, I was handing out “E Pluribus Hugo” ribbons every time I made that spiel, so I can say with certainty that I made it to over 250 people. When I initially offered the ribbons, the biggest source of skepticism was that the proposal was too complicated. But once I’d explained, people shifted to merely worrying that it might be too complicated for other people. As you can imagine, it felt pretty good to see that when the chips were down, those “other people” turned out to make up less than 25% of the people who cared to vote on the proposal.

Under a voting system like EPH which doesn’t give an outsized voice to minorities, I don’t think that the rabids’ outright trolling would have gotten the same traction. And I’m not the only one who feels that way; in the final debate over E Pluribus Hugo in the Worldcon business meeting, one of the speakers in support was a Sad Puppy who liked how EPH would have prevented the Rabid Puppy takeover. Remember, according to my best analysis, there were about 100 committed Sads and about 40 committed Rabids, yet because the sad slate had fewer than 5 candidates in many categories, there were a number of rabid-but-not-sad finalists, giving an exaggerated impression of Rabid strength. Under EPH, the Rabid ballots would have spent their strength nominating cross-listed candidates, and probably no Rabid-only candidates would have made the cut. Furthermore, when it came to the vote on whether to adopt EPH itself, the rabid puppies’ trollishness was actually the best ally of proposal supporters like me. In such a simple up-or-down vote, any voting system is fair and majoritarian, the depth of bile that their hateful rhetoric inspired was clearly no match for the breadth of the backlash.

In the case of presidential primaries, too, there is a way of voting that wouldn’t “feed the trolls”, and where outright hate would tend to backfire. I’m talking about approval voting, where each voter could approve as many candidates as they wanted. Instead of throwing away ballots voting for more than one, we could just count them normally. Anti-Trump voters could approve the candidates they consider more serious, and Trump, with majority disapproval, would probably be well down the list of frontrunners. While he would still have made a splash, his racist rhetoric would lack some of its triumphant appeal. Any way of avoiding fanning those flames is a good thing.

Epilogue: I wrote some of this on the train home. It turns out that about a dozen fans decided to extend the convention onto the train, calling it “TrainCon”; though I missed it on the way in, I was with them on the way back. One night, they had a sing-along in the snack car, and they invited me to give a quick lecture on E Pluribus Hugo beforehand. At the beginning of the sing-along, two singers from the group Sassafrass sang several songs, including one beautiful piece that expressed their patient, clear-eyed optimism about the long term prospects for space flight. To me, the prospect of better democracy through reforms such as E Pluribus Hugo fills me with that same kind of optimism; though I know that the way forward is not short or easy, it gives me a reason to believe tomorrow can be better. Listening to their beautiful singing, and remembering the inspiring success of the proposal, is an experience I will always remember with pride and hope.


[ 287 ] September 1, 2015 |


Ruth Marcus has an exciting HOT TAKE on the prospect of a white guy with Hillary Clinton’s views making a late, half-assed challenge to Hillary Clinton. The exciting twist: Joe Biden could run as a one-termer, and therefore ignore those pesky “voters” and cut deals with the Republicans! I find this prospect less than exciting:

The most serious problem with Marcus’ analysis is the idea that if Biden preemptively declared himself a lame duck he “wouldn’t have to worry about satisfying constituencies.” A president always has to worry about this, at least to the extent that he wants to accomplish anything. Contemporary presidents, by definition, lead national coalitions and all presidents need collaboration with Congress to get legislation passed, to staff the legislative and executive branches, etc.

For that matter, it’s not true that Biden wouldn’t have to worry about re-election; presumably he would care who wins the White House in 2020, and the popularity of the incumbent is certainly pertinent to this result. If Biden genuinely didn’t care about the next election, this would in itself be a disqualifying factor.

One suspects that what Marcus really has in mind is the possibility that a one-term Biden would be in a better position to fight the one constituency she opposes: the strong majority of the public that is against Social Security cuts. I have no idea if a one-term Biden would be more likely to reach a substantively and politically disastrous “Grand Bargain” to cut Social Security, but if so that’s another reason to oppose his candidacy.

…see also Traister.

McKinley Hot Takes

[ 132 ] September 1, 2015 |


Above: Conservative hero of the New Gilded Age

Proving there is literally nothing President Obama can do that won’t threaten their whiteness and send them into spasms of uncontrolled fury, conservatives are going ballistic over the official name of change of Mt. McKinley to Denali. There’s no reason to spend any real time explaining this because it’s nothing more than pure, unadulterated wingnuttery. David Graham actually does usefully explain it however, noting that this is another battle in the culture wars for people who see everything they love about this nation destroyed by the Kenyan usurper.

For non-Rovians, what makes Obama’s “Denali” decision sting is the symbolism. One of the key stories of the Obama presidency is the sense among white, conservative Americans that their country is disappearing. Though seldom couched in directly racial terms, the issue of racial identity always lurks beneath the surface. The sense that white America is fading is not irrational, and it’s not just about the black president in the White House. Census projections have Caucasians becoming not a majority, but merely a plurality, of the population within a couple decades.

The reaction to Dylann Roof’s massacre in Charleston is an example of how this plays out. Even some people who were horrified by the shooting and supported South Carolina’s decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state-capitol grounds felt uncomfortable with the sudden rise of demands to erase other symbols of the Confederacy or of white-supremacist leaders of yore—statues of Jefferson Davis, college buildings named for racists, and the like. These changes are just and overdue, but they’re also understandably disorienting, and for people who already feel their heritage and way of life are under siege, they seem a step (or several) too far. Conservatives complain, using a phrase Obama himself employed in October 2008, that the president is in the process of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”

As for the Rovians reference at the beginning, again, Karl Rove loves William McKinley because that’s the America he wants in this nation, so he has a new hagiography coming out about the Gilded Age imperialist.

We could play a game and find the most ridiculous take. But why bother when you have Ben Shapiro in the house?

Assassinated in 1901, McKinley, who presided over an economic boom and massive growth in American power, once stated, “We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California. It is manifest destiny.” Regarding the Spanish-American War, McKinley explained that Cuba “ought to be free and independent.” Obama would have opposed both moves.

As Obama stated in Dreams From My Father, he spent his college years discussing “neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism.” And President Obama has obviously attempted to undo many of McKinley’s accomplishments. In kowtowing to the Castros in Cuba, Obama has ensured that America’s Spanish-American War victory ends with perpetual communism in a country America once granted its freedom; in 2014, the Obama Department of the Interior sought to give Hawaiians the same status as Native Americans, forcing separate governance for them based on ethnicity.

The only question now: when will President Obama change the name of the American Southwest to Aztlan?

So much to love here. Fanon fears! Rewriting the history of Cuba to make it look like the U.S. is its long-time friend! Good old fashioned redbaiting! “Forcing separate governance” on native Hawaiians! Why that’s far more oppressive than overthrowing the native Hawaiian government in the name of sugar companies and American naval interests!!! But really it’s the Atzlan reference that wins. Because this is right at the heart of the conservative fears. It’s the reconquista caused by hordes of Mexicans crossing the border and facilitated by those fifth columnist liberals and their illegitimate president from the colonies.

I dare you to find a better Denali hot take! Although anyone with the bravery to dive into the waters of the conservative blogosphere just might be able to do it…

Music Reads for Your Tuesday

[ 8 ] September 1, 2015 |


Above: Oum Khaltoum

This is a great read taking you on a tour of the first recorded music from spots around the world in the mid to late 1920s. Well worth your time.

And a discussion on the evolution of the cheating song in country music.

Creeping Lochnerism

[ 102 ] September 1, 2015 |


Above: The victims of the Triangle Fire, i.e., the libertarian vision of America’s future

Brian Beutler’s piece on libertarians’ goal to return the U.S. to the Lochner Era through the courts should scare you. It’s hardly news to political junkies that libertarians seek to destroy a century of regulations that created what was great about the United States in the twentieth century. But because a lot of seemingly smart people take libertarianism seriously as an intellectual idea, their actual nefarious goals are often muted. Libertarians want to return this nation to an era of workplace deaths, of unlimited working hours, of low wages, of industry polluting wherever they want with whatever substances they choose, etc. They openly say that the nation went off the rails with the Progressive Era (Karl Rove and Glenn Beck have said this on top of the libertarian crew) and hope to return us to the Gilded Age. They’ve gone a long ways toward succeeding, as I have documented on this blog for the past four years.

They are also really close to the big coup. That would be a Republican victory in 2016 and the replacement of a couple of elderly Supreme Court justices with Thomas and Alito-types who are happy to do the bidding of corporations.

All libertarians want to fight federal regulations in Congress and the executive branch. But Barnett and his allies think courts should be empowered to throw regulations out even if political majorities support them. These Lochner revivalist professors have established beachheads at law schools across the country. In 2002, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh founded a blog, The Volokh Conspiracy, as a hub for libertarian ideas, including Lochner revisionism. Today, it has become the most prominent academic legal blog in the country and now publishes under the auspices of The Washington Post. It boasts nearly two dozen contributing professors and mainlines detailed and informed libertarian legal arguments to thousands of the nation’s top lawyers, law students, clerks, judges, and opinion-makers every day.

The contributors to The Volokh Conspiracy teach at the University of Minnesota, Northwestern, Emory, Duke, and elsewhere. Several hold positions at George Mason University’s law school, which is famous for its conservative faculty and, in 36 short years, has rocketed to prominence as one of the 50 best law schools in the country. In 2011, GMU law professor and Volokh Conspiracy contributor David Bernstein published a book titled Rehabilitating Lochner, and that’s exactly what he, Barnett, and their contemporaries have been attempting to do.

Again, it drives me crazy that people respect what happens at Volokh Conspiracy because these are horrible people. They aren’t hiding it either:

To dismiss the debate between libertarians and traditional conservatives over Lochner as an academic sideshow is to misunderstand the stakes. “A full-fledged return to Lochner would put a constitutional cloud over a whole host of laws that we all take for granted today,” said Sam Bagenstos, a liberal constitutional scholar at the University of Michigan who has argued cases before the Supreme Court. “Laws guaranteeing workers the right to join a union without being fired, and the right to earn a minimum wage and receive overtime if working more than 40 hours a week, laws protecting worker safety, and laws protecting workers and customers against discrimination based on race or other protected statuses, just for starters.”

I asked Barnett whether the social welfare laws on the books today would be permitted under his reading of the Constitution. “Probably not at the federal level,” he said.

That’s why Barnett and his contemporaries prefer to root their arguments in specific injustices rather than categorical abstractions. Why shouldn’t bakers be allowed to work more than 60 hours a week, or individuals be allowed to remain uninsured? Why should the government be allowed to regulate out of existence my right to hail a driver or your right to rent a stranger’s house for a weekend?

These are people who actually want to return us to the the Gilded Age. Let’s look at the past to get a glimpse of the libertarian paradise. Allow me to quote from Empire of Timber.

Both camp and mill workers felt the pain and shock of severe injury in a dangerous and highly mechanized working environment and saw workers die horrible deaths. These technologies made logging a more dangerous and deadly job. Cables and machines broke, becoming deadly whipsaws. The flying logs of high-lead logging crushed workers’ heads. The state of Washington began collecting data on workplace injuries in 1912. Between that date and 1929, between 124 and 261 loggers died every year in the timber industry. In 1914, 63,350 people worked in the timber industry, thirty-five per cent of the state’s workforce. In the first five months of that year, there were 4,928 reported accidents that injured or killed timber workers.

Working in the region’s watery environment contributed to this death toll. The Northwest’s cold rain and snow made workers sick while the workers toiling on floating logs in log ponds or river drives risked their lives. At least nine loggers drowned on the job in 1906, including J.W. Roth of Springfield, Oregon and Ralph Leedy of Hoquiam, Washington who died in separate incidents on log ponds and J.K. Lynn who fell into a river near Hoquiam while rafting logs. Alfred Aasen fell into a cold river while working in the spring of 1916. He did not drown, but he caught pneumonia while riding on a rail car the ten miles back to camp in soaking clothes and soon died.

Machines killed far more workers than water and cold. On August 28, 1905, Clise Houston reached to clear an obstruction from his saw. He fell into it and died. Finnish immigrant John Koski found a job with the Simpson Logging Company in a camp near Matlock, Washington. On June 18, 1904 nearby tree fallers shouted “Timber!” He did not move and the tree landed directly on top of him, crushing him beyond recognition. Koski had no family in America and his co-workers had no way to inform his relations in Finland of his demise. The company paid for the burial. Karl Carlson worked in the Middleton mill in Aberdeen, Washington. In 1905, a belt fell off its course and Carlson tried to guide it back on to the pulley with a shovel. The shovel became entangled with the belt and he lost control of it. The machine tore the shovel from his hands and plunged it, handle first, through his body. Carlson lingered for a day before dying, leaving behind a wife and child.

The lucky workers were merely maimed. Morris Campbell worked in J.E. Nichols’ sawmill in La Conner, Washington. In the last days of 1899, he caught his arm in a mill saw. It was amputated at the shoulder. In 1900, Frank Lang lost most of his left hand running a band saw in the Centralia Shingle Mill in Centralia, Washington. In 1901, Martin Boyer’s foot got caught in machinery in a Centralia mill. Doctors amputated. In a nation without a social safety net, injured workers often fell through the cracks into a lifetime of poverty. Workers like Campbell, Lang, and Boyer faced grim futures as disabled persons, as did many people disabled on the job before the passage of the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act in 1920, which provided occupational training and job placement for those injured on at the workplace. Many workers chose self-medication. Joseph Gillis of Seattle lost a leg while working at the McDougal and Jackson logging camp near Buckley, Washington. He sued for $10,000 but overdosed on the laudanum he used for pain the day before he lost his suit.

This was the reality of Lochner-era America. Workers could do little to nothing about these working conditions because the courts said they had agreed to work under those conditions and thus protecting them would be violating their freedom of contract. Things got so bad that during the years after Lochner, judges, juries, and politicians began pushing back against it. That’s why workers’ compensation was enacted in the 1910s, because juries began awarding benefits to workers and ignoring the freedom of contract ideas and this scared corporations into protecting themselves while still paying as little as possible to injured workers.

This is the America where Volokh writers hope to take us Even if they say that’s not what they foresee, that’s the reality. In calling for a return to Lochner-era policies, there is no guarantee the Supreme Court won’t rule, say, OSHA unconstitutional.

This future, which sounds hopelessly dystopian, is entirely possible if Republicans win the 2016 presidential election. And we need to be calling out libertarians for what they are–people who think dead workers is a form of freedom. People who think working 84-hour weeks in a steel mill is totally acceptable. People who want you to experience another Donora Smog in the name of liberty. People who want to eliminate OSHA and the EPA. People who want to tear apart everything that makes this nation livable. And they are this close to succeeding.

West Point Also Apparently a Fifth Column in the War on Terror

[ 56 ] September 1, 2015 |


You may remember William C. Bradford for such articles as “there are too many academics who disagree with me, please arbitrarily detain and execute 40 of them,I am not a crackpot.” He has now resigned from West Point, and apparently he’s not just a crank but a serial liar about his credentials:

Bradford had represented himself in academic papers as an “assistant professor” at the Defense Department-run National Defense University. But he was not a professor there, nor even a staff employee, according to NDU representatives. He is said to have worked for a Waynesboro, Virginia-based translations and business consultant, Translang, which had a contract with the university.

Before referring further comment to an attorney, Beatrice Boutros, Translang’s president, told the Guardian Bradford was not an employee of NDU.

Bradford has had a checkered academic career. In 2004, he quit a job teaching at the Indiana University School of Law after allegations emerged that he had exaggerated his military service, portraying himself inaccurately as a Gulf War veteran, an infantryman and a recipient of the prestigious Silver Star, an award for gallantry in action.

The army provided Bradford’s releasable service history to the Guardian on Monday. Bradford was commissioned into the army as a second lieutenant – the same rank West Point cadets hold upon commissioning – in 1995 and served the majority of his six-year service in military intelligence in the army reserve. He neither deployed nor earned any awards.

In 2005, the Guardian has learned, Bradford took a visiting professorship at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, teaching property law. A former student who wished to remain anonymous said Bradford’s behavior included “doing push-ups in class [and] making students stand and give answers in a military-like manner”.

Bradford, the former student said, ended up leaving his class – and ultimately the college – without grading the final exam.

The story behind his getting the West Point job would also be interesting.

“Aside from Carolyn, my four children, and my immediate family, I consider you to be the best friend and the best person I have met in my long life”

[ 47 ] September 1, 2015 |


The Hillary Clinton email “scandal” is a whole lot of nothing. But there are limits to how mad I can be about it, because at least it gave us this. Nobody can do greasy kiss-ass like Lanny Davis.

Organizing Against Lincoln

[ 26 ] August 31, 2015 |


It’s almost hard to believe Abraham Lincoln survived until 1865 given the hate he engendered among northern racists. While we can certainly argue that Lincoln was not that radical compared to Charles Sumner or Thaddeus Stevens, moving a white supremacist nation to eliminate its most dominant white supremacy institution through means of a war and mobilizing a general public who often did not believe in that cause until close to the end of the war was pretty radical governance. It’s hardly surprising that underground movements would try and develop to counter the threat they felt to an activist government they believed threatened their racial status and that was even going to make them fight for it. And while sleeper cells might not have been for everyone, the Ohio Democrats nominating an open traitor like Clement Vallandigham for governor in 1863 shows how powerful this hatred of Lincoln was during the war.

Monuments to What?

[ 102 ] August 31, 2015 |

H60566Mixed feelings…

The dull reverberations of the underwater explosions are clearly audible from the surface. The scavengers have returned, laying home-made charges to break up the hulls of two of the most celebrated British warships of the age, sunk in December 1941 and the last resting places of more than 830 Royal Navy sailors.

No-one would countenance such desecration on land. But the wrecks of the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales, just a few miles off the coast of Malaysia, are now being stripped bare for their scrap metal. Recognised war graves, they are disappearing, with the damage intensifying in recent months, according to those who know the wrecks and try their best to preserve them.

It’s obviously unfortunate that the wrecks are being taken apart. At the same time, it’s hard for me to accord too much blame to Malaysian scrap dealers for taking apart a couple of ships that were destroyed when one imperial master fought another imperial master. They are monuments for the British, and possibly for the Japanese, but not for the people of the region.

And of course, HMS Prince of Wales is featured here…

McDonald’s and Franchising

[ 99 ] August 31, 2015 |


You may have some questions about just how McDonald’s runs its franchising operations and why the company is the focus of so much attention with the NLRB’s Browning decision from last week. Of course, franchising can mean a lot of different things with a number of varying arrangements. In the case of McDonald’s, the company seeks detailed control over the franchisee in ways that other fast food companies do not, arrangements that suggest an almost Don Blankenship-level of control over work that makes an argument it is not a joint employer highly dubious. Jeff Spross has more on this.

The funny wrinkle in McDonald’s case is that a lot of the company’s franchisees really don’t like the model. They have to pay the corporate mothership 4 to 5 percent of their revenue for a franchise fee, and then another 4 to 5 percent to go into an advertising fund. The franchises then have to pay another 12 percent to McDonald’s for rent. Meanwhile, the central company gives franchisees a slew of requirements in terms of remodeling, computer systems, and other expenses they must incur to stay in the franchise agreement.

By all accounts, McDonald’s has cracked down on its franchisees in recent years. It controls most of the prices on the menu, and between that and its hefty operating demands, it’s squeezing franchisees so that the way to make the business model successful is to pay the workers less. Dissatisfaction amongst McDonald’s franchise owners is reportedly at an all-time high, so they clearly feel they’re under fire.

But then you have to ask: Under fire compared to whom? The average American worker, or other small business owners pulling down $100,000-plus a year?

Another wrinkle, according to Kalnins, is that McDonald’s is genuinely an outlier in the aggressiveness with which it deals with its franchises. In other chains, franchisees can own hundreds of stores, and sometimes be public corporations unto themselves. But “McDonald’s really wants small owners,” Kalnins explained — somebody overseeing three, four, or five units. “Somebody who’s checking out what’s going on in those units every day.”

The upside for McDonald’s is franchisees who are “much more loyal and will do what you want them to, because of their smaller size.” The downside is a far more aggressive interference on the part of McDonald’s in terms of the running of the stores and its relationships with workers.

Another thing that makes McDonald’s an outlier is it’s one of the few chains that owns the property for every last one of its stores, and thus charges its franchisees the rent. Kalnins said he’s spoken with franchise consultants who figured that while the 12 percent of revenue that McDonald’s charges for rent is high compared to the standard 10 percent small businesses usually face from real estate owners, it’s not extraordinary. But “if you add the rent to it then certainly they’re paying more than for other chains. And that’s relatively unusual.”

Given all of this, how is McDonald’s not the direct employer of the workers? They are of course, even if they’ve offloaded the onerous parts of hiring onto the franchisee. And became McDonald’s corporate so controls all the details of work, this operates in some of the same ways that the apparel industry’s exploitative subcontracting system does–by making sure that the only way the franchisee is going to make any money is to squeeze workers as hard as possible, with a bottom baseline only a federal or state labor law that may or may not be stringently enforced on the ground. This is another reason why we need to push back against these sorts of labor arrangements through holding corporations legally accountable for the workers making their products regardless of whether they are directly employed, subcontracted, franchisees, temp workers, etc. These latter systems exist precisely for the kind of advantages McDonald’s has created here. Hopefully the NLRB will continue bringing this system back under control.

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