Archive for July, 2011

Labor Scarcity and Social Democracy
July 28, 2011

One thing I like about Erik Kain’s blogging is that he’s not afraid to change his mind, and he always has a compelling reason for doing so. That’s why I’ve liked watching his brief fling and subsequent breakup with union solidarity: both his support and his criticism is valuable for organized labor advocates. And it’s why I’ve spent the past week or so thinking about this post and especially this part:

Organized labor creates a labor cartel, restricting the supply of jobs and wages and limiting the opportunities of non-union workers. The argument against this is essentially ‘a rising tide lifts all ships’. Non-union workers, the argument goes, benefit from the competitive wages at union firms. I think this is true to some degree, but I think it’s also true that in order to create a system wherein organized labor has clout, artificial labor scarcity has to be created. To do that you have to limit the number of slots. This was traditionally done by excluding women and minorities from many jobs. In other countries it has been politically feasible to push full-employment policies. I doubt that it is either politically or culturally feasible in this country.

Artificially limiting the number of slots by excluding otherwise capable candidates is one thing. Institutional racism and sexism are the most obviously horrible ways to do this, but even the less retrograde alternatives — such as imposing overly burdensome certification requirements on newcomers — are pretty unpalatable. So Erik and I agree there.

On the other hand, full employment sounds pretty great. And while Erik’s probably right that there’s no politically feasible way to bring about full employment right now, that strikes me as an argument for, not against, supporting and building up organized labor. If we think full employment is a good thing, and we recognize that unions have a strong interest in encouraging the policy, why not strengthen their hand in that debate?

But that’s just setting myself up for the obvious response from labor critics: If arbitrarily excluding otherwise qualified workers from the workforce — and if full employment is, at best, a distant pipe dream — then there’s no mechanism for creating the scarcity of labor that would make unions relevant. So why even bother with them? Why not just accept organized labor’s inevitable demise?

Because Erik’s left out some other important ways we can create labor scarcity. Trying to boost employment through good monetary policy is one, as Matt Yglesias has repeatedly pointed out. Yesterday Peter Frase made another proposal: lower the cost of being unemployed through a better social safety net. If people are guaranteed some minimum level of income, and if they don’t have to worry about losing their health care coverage, then many of them will voluntarily opt out of the labor supply. Some might become freelancers, artisans, or small businesspeople. Others might choose to raise their kids while a spouse brings home the bacon. Either way, that’s a solution that allows non-union labor to pursue their own interests without competing against union workers for the same jobs.

Granted, expanding the social safety net on the federal level sounds pretty implausible right now. But that doesn’t mean good things can’t happen on the state level — recall that Vermont just recently became the first state to institute a single-payer health care system. Recall also that in regions where unions still have some clout, they can lobby for social welfare expansion. There’s little that can be done on the federal level for now, but local strongholds of both organized labor and general social democracy could have a positive ripple effect.

If you broadly favor one or the other — the social safety net or organized labor — it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to exclude the other from your agenda. Clearly, we need to reconceptualize and refine both: that’s why I’ve used this space to push for open source unionism and address the welfare state’s “shameful revelation” problem. But institutional problems don’t negate first principle moral imperatives. Certainly not when those institutions can be reformed.

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Open Source Unionism
July 27, 2011

Joel Rogers and Richard B. Freeman have a plan to restore the American labor movement:

Under open-source unionism … unions would welcome members even before they achieved majority status, and stick with them as they fought for it–maybe for a very long time. These “pre-majority” workers would presumably pay reduced dues in the absence of the benefits of collective bargaining, but would otherwise be normal union members. They would gain some of the bread-and-butter benefits of traditional unionism–advice and support on their legal rights, bargaining over wages and working conditions if feasible, protection of pension holdings, political representation, career guidance, access to training and so on. And even in minority positions, they might gain a collective contract for union members, or grow to the point of being able to force a wall-to-wall agreement for all workers in the unit. But under OSU, such an agreement, which is traditionally the singular goal of organizing, would not be the defining criterion for achieving or losing membership. Joining the labor movement would be something you did for a long time, not just an organizational relationship you entered into with a third party upon taking some particular job, to expire when that job expired or changed.

OSU would engage a range of workers in different states of organization rather than discrete majorities of workers in collective-bargaining agreements. There would be traditional employer-specific unions, but there would likely be more cross-employer professional sorts of union formations and more geographically defined ones. Within any of these boundaries, the goal of OSU would not be collective bargaining per se but broader worker influence over the terms and conditions of work and working life. Because OSU unions would typically have less clout inside firms or with particular employers, they would probably be more concerned than traditional unionism with the political and policy environment surrounding their employers and employment settings. They would be more open to alliance with nonlabor forces–community forces of various kinds, constituencies organized around interests not best expressed through work or even class (here think environmental, feminist, diversity or work/family concerns)–that might support them in this work. As a result, labor as a whole would likely have a more pronounced “social” face with OSU than it has today.

That article was first published nine years ago, but it’s well worth revisiting post-Wisconsin; especially given that the non-organized workforce is shockingly ripe for open-source unionization. As University of Oregon’s Gordon Lafer writes, “For nearly three decades, opinion polls have consistently shown that roughly one-third of non-union workers wish they had a union in their workplace. If creating a union simply followed the will of workers, an additional 40 million Americans would have union representation.”

Is the movement really going to leave those 40 million workers twisting in the wind just because most of them work in places where a vote to unionize would probably fail? Union members from non-union shops — called direct affiliation members — still pay dues, and they can educate their coworkers, loved ones and neighbors about workers’ rights and labor issues. Throwing the doors open to direct affiliation members could very well be the first step to majority representation in workplaces where that was once inconceivable.

It’s worth a shot, anyway. With private sector union density at 6.9 percent and falling, it’s not like the movement has a whole lot to lose.

Dwarf Fortress As Art
July 25, 2011

A graphical version of tileset for Dwarf Fortress

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It’s been some years since I’ve sat down and devoted some serious time to a computer game, and I doubt that Dwarf Fortress will be the game to break that streak. The time commitment required to figure out the basic mechanics, let alone play a full game proficiently, looks pretty daunting. But I still read the New York Times Magazine profile of Tarn Adams, the creator of the game, with a great degree of interest — especially those passages that describe how the mechanics of the game reflect Adams’ philosophy of design. By taking that philosophy seriously, I think reporter Jonah Weiner effectively resolves the debate over whether or not computer and video games can be art.

Dwarf Fortress, as Adams describes it, is a “story generator” — character and narrative are constructed by the gamer, but Adams sets the boundaries within which these things may be constructed. How Adams creates and details these boundaries is his art. His craft may seem fundamentally different from that of the novelist or the film director, but I would argue that the distinguishing features are all either superficial technical details or matters of degree and emphasis. The novelist also demands some constructive effort from her audience — it is the reader’s imagination that renders words into action, thought, and sensory experience. What is not written is no less significant.

Omission is also a crucial element of game design. By setting limits on his game world, Adams tells you something about how he views the world — what he thanks can and cannot be achieved. Dwarf Fortress emerges as an astonishingly rich and complex world in which small decisions can change the course of history. But there is no option available to the gamer that would grant him an escape from the hard logic of the game, much less a repreieve from the inevitability death.

If you have five minutes to spare and you want to see the principle I’m describing in action, try downloading Passage. The limitations designer Jason Rohrer imposes on you within the context of that game are absolutely essential to his vision. That vision needs to be experienced to be understood; but I will say that he successfully forces players to experience some basic truths on a visceral, even wrenching, level. Isn’t that exactly what most art is supposed to do?

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The Tricameral Hail Mary
July 24, 2011

The western front of the United States Capitol...

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This “Super Congress” proposal is really a thing of beauty. It is, after all, one thing for the Senate’s majority leader and its minority leader to jointly admit that Congress is incapable of governing; it is quite another thing for them to do that and then offer up a “solution” that is really no solution at all.

Under a plan put forth by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his counterpart Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), legislation to lift the debt ceiling would be accompanied by the creation of a 12-member panel made up of 12 lawmakers — six from each chamber and six from each party.

Legislation approved by the Super Congress — which some on Capitol Hill are calling the “super committee” — would then be fast-tracked through both chambers, where it couldn’t be amended by simple, regular lawmakers, who’d have the ability only to cast an up or down vote. With the weight of both leaderships behind it, a product originated by the Super Congress would have a strong chance of moving through the little Congress and quickly becoming law. A Super Congress would be less accountable than the system that exists today, and would find it easier to strip the public of popular benefits. Negotiators are currently considering cutting the mortgage deduction and tax credits for retirement savings, for instance, extremely popular policies that would be difficult to slice up using the traditional legislative process.

This is both the logical endpoint of Washington’s fetish for bipartisan committees and an absolutely masterful display of deck chair shuffling. As parody, it would be hilarious; as self-parody, it’s appalling.

Consider the math of the Super Congress: it would include an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, regardless of the relative strength of each in Regular Congress. In other words: democratic elections would have absolutely no effect on the balance of power in Super Congress, ever. Not only that, but the twelve members of Super Congress would presumably need to be palatable to the leaders of both parties, and close enough to the middle to be capable of achieving consensus — otherwise, there’s no reason to believe that Super Congress wouldn’t face the same intractable gridlock that has paralyzed the Senate.

What this means is that Super Congress would fundamentally reflect a center-right Washington consensus in favor of austerity, against the social safety net, against labor, and (should, god forbid, they ever be expected to craft legislation related to national security) against civil liberties. If this is the cure to congressional gridlock, don’t act so surprised when you find yourself feeling nostalgic for the disease.

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Small-R Republicanism and the NeoL-word
July 20, 2011

social welfare maximization

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Many, many blog-years ago Dylan Matthews and I had a back-and-forth over abstract philosophy’s role in concrete political debates. I argued that philosophy could play a bigger, more active role in public discourse, whereas Dylan insisted that first principles are “largely irrelevant” in real-world politics and only “emphasizes differences that, in the trenches, are hardly relevant.”

But if there’s one thing we should learn from the progressive blogosphere’s ongoing debate over neoliberalism, it’s that these intramural differences over fundamental values can have significant implications. I was reminded of this when I grabbed a drink with Dylan just the other night, and we got to talking about his “neoliberalism”* versus my more traditionalist leftism. The more we explored the subject, the more we came to realize that our political differences reflected a deeper philosophical disagreement: I’m a small-r republican who equates justice with the maximization of non-domination, and Dylan is a utilitarian who treats non-domination as an ancillary concern to general well-being or flourishing.

My problem with utilitarianism in a public policy context is this: when it comes to accurately measuring and maximizing a phenomenon as fuzzy and nebulous as “well-being,” we’ve got a serious knowledge problem on our hands. On the other hand, Philip Pettit’s book on Republicanism includes a lengthy and fairly rigorous account of freedom as non-domination. And while the book — being, first and foremost, a work of analytic philosophy — does little to unravel the full policy implications, you can draw a direct line from my republican leanings and to emphasis on redistribution of power through workplace democracy, just as you can draw a line from Dylan’s utilitarianism to his preference for centrally-directed technocracy.

*I’m using scare quotes here because Dylan has a reasonable case that the term “neoliberal” is not really all that useful when explaining left/center-left divisions in American politics.

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Worker-Wonk Synergy
July 12, 2011

Earlier today I tweeted to Mac McClelland’s reporting on the abysmal working conditions at one Ohio warehouse and @MacMcClelland piece makes the case for why we need organized labor.”

Matt Yglesias replied, “It seems more like an argument about why we need full employment.” Later he elaborated in a post:

A strong labor union would certainly improve conditions at this warehouse around the margin. But there’s a real limit here, since the threat of the company losing its contracts and everyone ending up unemployed is going to be extremely severe. The real issue here is that instead of workers threatening to leave this crappy job and get a better one, people are clamoring to work at this warehouse. This is one small glance at why I keep urging progressives to start caring about monetary policy more. Nobody considers themselves a monetary policy activist. But if you’re interested in labor and working conditions, you’ve got to be interested in full employment. Full employment gives workers meaningful leverage. Mass unemployment gives it all to the bosses. In strict dollars and cents terms, I think everyone is better off with prosperity than with sluggish growth. But in terms of power, mass unemployment is a boon to bosses.

Sure, no disagreement there. No reason why a story can’t have two morals! Personally, I’m of the mind that both monetary policy and labor issues are drastically underserved by the progressive community.

It’s just a shame that the Federal Reserve is so reluctant to engage in the sort of practices that Matt says would help lead to full employment. If only there was some network of political coalitions out there that could somehow mobilize workers to lobby for fiscal expansion.

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Not a Crisis, But a Problem
July 12, 2011

Tamany Hall. (Tammany Hall.), from Robert N. D...

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Timothy Lee asks: What crisis in reporting?

Shirky is sometimes criticized for the rose-colored tint of his spectacles, but here I think he’s giving too much credence to the pessimistic conventional wisdom. It’s clear that newspapers are facing a crisis, and obviously if you’re a newspaper employee or shareholder you should be worried. But whether this is a problem for the broader society is far from clear.


The Internet is also reducing duplication of reporting effort. The 20th century newspaper industry had a lot of reporters covering identical beats in different cities. Obviously, each metro area needs its own reporters covering city hall. But a ton of stuff in the newspaper—technology and medicine, national business and politics, movie and book reviews—isn’t tied to any specific metropolitan area. As the Internet eliminates geographic boundaries, there’s no longer a good rationale for having so many people writing redundant content.

Like Lee, I’m not so worried about the future of Washington bureaus or arts desks. To the extent that there is a crisis, it’s not a federal one. The big problem, it seems, is on the state and municipal levels; and while Lee sort of offhandedly acknowledges that national coverage and local coverage are two different animals, I think he also downplays the scale of the reportage deficit in a lot of states and cities.

This American Journalism Review article from a couple years ago paints  a pretty stark picture. There are a lot fewer expendable reporters on the state and city beats, yet we seem to be hemorrhaging them at a faster rate. That means fewer people trying to fill the same amount of column space, which means less room for reporters to do the sort of long-term investigative work that would prohibit them from pumping out copy on a daily basis. And while AJR does note that some new media projects have rushed into the vacuum, as of 2009 nobody really knew how to keep those endeavors funded in the long term. That may have changed since — I certainly hope so.

I’m particularly worried about under-covered state and local beats because state and local politics are where much of the really blatant and grotesque corruption in American government goes down. And when you zoom out a bit, that small-scale corruption and abuse of power helps, in no small part, to sustain systemic corruption at the federal level. The fewer reporters cleaning up this shit, the more it festers.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that things will be worse in the long term — I’m not really a fatalist, at least when it comes to this specific topic. There are some really interesting experiments going on in hyperlocal reporting, like NYU’s own East Village Local, that could point the way towards sustainable small-scale journalism. It’s just not guaranteed that they’ll succeed. And until they do, we’ve got a problem on our hands. Maybe not a crisis, but definitely a problem.

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Shameful Revelation
July 11, 2011

After reading my last post Mike Konczal suggested that I look into philosopher Jonathan Wolff’s argument against what he calls the “shameful revelation.” Wolff first sketched out the argument in a paper called “Fairness, Respect and the Egalitarian Ethos,” and while I wasn’t able to get my hands on a copy, I did find an interview excerpt in which he outlines the problem:

The main argument is that the forms of conditional systems of benefit that appear to follow from theories such as those of Dworkin can create a division in society and undermine self-respect, neither of which sit comfortably with the idea of a society of equals. Very soon after my paper was published, Elizabeth Anderson published her very influential paper ‘What is the Point of Equality?’ which coined the phrase ‘luck egalitarianism’ to describe the views of Dworkin, Cohen, Arneson, and others, and made a number of criticisms which seemed to be closely related to those I had made….

However, because of the affinities between some of my arguments and those of Anderson and Scheffler I have sometimes been ‘rolled up’ with them as a critic of luck egalitarianism. However, my real target in that paper is not so much the theory of luck egalitarianism but with what would happen if we tried to implement a system of making people bear the costs of their choices when we haven’t yet moved to a full, enlightened, system of equality. Essentially the argument is that the implementing luck egalitarianism requires society to filter out would-be free-riders, but to do this will often have costs (in self-respect) for those already at the bottom of the heap. In some cases they will have to declare that they lack employable talents others have, and this can be humiliating for them. I do not argue that it is necessarily humiliating, or that we couldn’t imagine a society where no one is humiliated by having to admit to themselves and others that they lack employable talents, but that in the circumstances of real societies this is likely to be a fairly common response. In that paper I argued that policies required in the name of fairness can undermine self-respect, and therefore we have to accept that the egalitarian ethos can have conflicting elements which need to be accommodated in some way.

You don’t hear this sort of argument in most of our public debates over welfare. The closest equivalent that springs to mind is the libertarian argument that welfare is injurious to the personal dignity and autonomy of its supposed beneficiaries. But Wolff’s argument is distinctly not libertarian, insofar as he stresses that he is not criticizing luck egalitarianism per se. Or, rather, he’s offering constructive criticism and inviting luck egalitarians and proponents of social welfare to figure out ways around the problem.

If there’s a way for luck egalitarians to escape the problem entirely, I can’t see it. But there are surely ways to minimize the effects. Where welfare programs that provide necessary services also fall into the “shameful revelation” trap, it’s worth considering alternative models.

For example: programs, like single-payer health care or a guaranteed minimum income, that get extended to all citizens regardless of individual need or competence. Or: cooperative models like trade unions, in which citizens — rather than having to supplicate themselves before a higher authority — form powerful coalitions and bargain for aid through their own agency and initiative.

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Shame and the Welfare State
July 10, 2011

Cory Doctorow:

“Reconstituting the Submerged State: The Challenges of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era,” a paper by Cornell’s Clinton Rossiter Professor of American Institutions Suzanne Mettler features this remarkable chart showing that about half of American social program beneficiaries believe that they “have not used a government social program.”

Nona Willis Aronowitz:

Half of people getting federal student loans don’t think they’ve ever used a government social program. Forty percent of Medicare recipients have no idea their health insurance is funded by the state. And 25 percent of the people receiving that emblem of All That Is Bad About Big Government, welfare, don’t connect that paycheck to the “enemy.” Given the fact that one in six Americans use anti-poverty programs alone, there’s a hell of a lot of people who are deluded about how much the government helps them out.

Contra Doctorow and Aronowitz, I don’t think it’s obvious that all — or even most — of respondents who denied they used a government social program believe this to be the case. We need to admit the possibility that at least some of those people, rather than being deluded, are simply not telling the truth.

Liberals should find that possibility considerably more troubling. If welfare recipients only oppose the welfare state because they don’t realize how much it has helped them, then welfare’s proponents can do a lot of good for their cause through effective political communications and voter messaging. But what do you say to people who are already educated but unwilling to admit what they know? Before you can say anything, you must first figure out why they’re lying.

When people lie to pollsters, it’s usually because they’re ashamed of something. And if that’s the case for a more-than-insignificant number of respondents to this particular poll, that’s bad news for the left. It’s one thing to remove the stigma from social welfare by pointing out that many honest, hardworking people take advantage of it. But when it comes to people who both use welfare programs and stigmatize them, the problem is much deeper. Questions of dignity make voter education look easy.

I couldn’t tell you how many, if any, of the respondents are lying. It’s plausible — perhaps even likely — that the percentage isn’t statistically significant. But it seems unreasonable to assume that 100% of those respondents are misinformed. And if that 100% figure is more than, say, 20% off, then that raises a bunch of really tough policy questions.

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