Archive for August, 2011

Hurricane Playlist
August 27, 2011

Bob Dylan – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

Jayhawks – Save It For A Rainy Day

The Hold Steady – Hurricane J

Thom Yorke – And It Rained All Night

Black Mountain – Stormy High

Tom Waits – Goodnight Irene

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Ain’t Gonna Rain Anymore


Demonizing Labor
August 21, 2011

Strike leader (man on balcony) at Gary, Ind., ...

Image via Wikipedia

Matt Yglesias has had his differences with teachers’ unions in the past, so I was especially pleased to see him push back on this notion that breaking the unions should be one of the primary goals of the education reform movement. Matt writes:

There are a lot of reforms that K-12 education needs in the United States. Since strong teacher’s unions do in fact exist, they often take a prominent role in avoiding these reforms. But that’s a question of union leaders not liking reformers and reform proposals. Some people turn this around through a process of resentment and decide that breaking the unions should be the goal of reform. Not only is there little evidence to back this up, it doesn’t make any sense as a matter of logic. You can’t have an education system without having providers of education services. And the fact that the interests of service providers and the interests of the public are sometimes at odds has nothing in particular to do with labor unions. Unions act as a kind of red cape for some people in some contexts, just like for-profit colleges do for other people in other contexts, and federal contractors do for other people in yet other contexts.

The same holds in other sectors and industries. When some union or another supports a policy that enriches its members at the expense of the broader public, there’s a tendency for organized labor’s critics to point to this as proof that unions are malevolent entities that must be destroyed.

But of course it’s not the job of the unions to represent everyone’s interests. They need only represent the interests of their workers. That these interests might occasionally run counter to broader considerations is no reason to blanketly condemn institutions that, on balance, do far more good than harm. Nor does acknowledging that the interests of unions will occasionally run counter to the public interest undermine the principled argument for more unionization. Unions are good and important because workers need the institutional resources to check employer domination. That doesn’t mean that workers will invariably hold the moral high ground in conflicts between labor and capital; it just means that they have a right to voice their concerns and not get steamrolled.

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Globalizing Labor’s Struggle
August 9, 2011

Those of you with so much as a casual interest in labor issues have no doubt heard about the recent unionization of IKEA factory workers in Danville, VA. It was a big victory for organized labor, especially considering the unfavorable conditions in which it occurred — Virginia is a right-to-work state, and you might have noticed that things are not going super great for unions as a whole in the United States.

Fortunately IKEA has considerable interests in its motherland of Sweden, a labor stronghold. Josh Eidelson writes:

While workers were organizing for a union in Danville, the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) labor federation, of which IAM is an affiliate, was working to pin responsibility for Virginia anti-union tactics on Ikea headquarters in Europe. Ikea workers and supporters engaged in global solidarity actions, including thousands of phone calls and emails and an informational picket line in Australia. The workers’ struggle in Virginia for the benefits that are assumed in Sweden drew repeated Swedish media coverage, including a segment on the country’s top-rated news show.

Street says that pressure paid off in the months before the union vote, as Ikea corporate concluded that protecting their brand in Europe required getting Jackson Lewis to scale back its anti-union tactics in Virginia.


The Swedish example also strengthened workers’ sense of what was possible in Virginia. In the month before the election, a leader of Sweden’s Ikea manufacturing union flew to Danville and met with workers to describe the wages, benefits and respect they had won. BWI also organized to send the 335 Danville workers messages of support from workers around the world, including hand-written letters and videos.

If American labor is ever going to get back on its feet, it needs more of this. Multinational corporations may be extraordinarily powerful, but they’re also vulnerable to pressure on their international holdings. Americans trying to organize in the shadow of a global behemoth, take note: odds are that company is also trying to preserve its bottom line in some much more heavily unionized country.

The Best College Essay Money Can Buy
August 7, 2011

You could base an entire blog around the demented class dynamics that play out in New York Times lifestyle features.* Take this past Friday’s “For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers,” and its utterly dismaying nut graph.

Students preparing to apply to college are increasingly tailoring their summer plans with the goal of creating a standout personal statement — 250 words or more — for the Common Application in which to describe “a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.” Specialized, exotic and sometimes costly activities, they hope, will polish a skill, cultivate an interest and put them in the spotlight in a crowded field of straight-A students with strong test scores, community service hours and plenty of extracurricular activities.

For example? [Emphases and annotations my own.]

A dizzying array of summer programs have cropped up to feed the growing anxiety[1] that summer must be used constructively[2]. Students can study health care in Rwanda, veterinary medicine in the Caribbean or cell cloning at Brown University, or learn about Sikkim, India’s only Buddhist state.

Let’s talk about anxiety[1]. Anxiety over what? Some neurotic compulsion to help one’s fellow man? Discover one’s true calling? Better one’s self? Nope: as the nut graph makes clear, this all about one’s need to have a sparkling college application.

Now let’s talk about constructively[2]. If your goal is to get into a good university, what’s constructive about studying veterinary medicine in the Caribbean? Sure, there’s value in studying veterinary medicine if that’s the sort of track you intend to follow in college — but why the Caribbean? What does that signal?

A personal statement about one’s sumer internship in the Caribbean (or Rwanda, or India) might very well signal to admissions officers that the author possesses an unusual amount of intelligence, eloquence, maturity, or civic virtue. But the one thing it is guaranteed to signal is the author’s affluence. Because that shit is expensive, yo.

So basically this is an incredibly costly way to circumvent the ostensible need-blindness of so many elite American universities. Just another competitive advantage for the advantaged. And oddly, the New York Times article on this trend — like so many similar New York Times articles — seems to exist in an alternate universe populated solely by those advantaged and no one else.

Take this gem of a sentence: “Suddenly, the idea of working as a waitress or a lifeguard seems like a quaint relic of an idyllic, pre-Tiger Mom past.” As a matter of fact, working as a waitress** or a lifeguard is still the norm for hundreds of thousands of American teenagers who can’t afford to hit up their parents for textbook money, much less a trip to Nanjing. Lots of people wait tables after college, too. In fact, there are waiters and waitresses working in your home town, at this very instant, who will never attend college. Crazy, right?

If the Times is going to keep feeding its audience wealth porn (and hey, I don’t judge, because there’s clearly a market for that stuff) then it would be nice of them to at least acknowledge the existence of the other 98%.

*In fact, maybe I’ll make a regular thing out of it! 20 points to whichever commenter comes up with the best name for the ongoing post series.

**Aside: dig the unnecessarily gendered noun.

Eat, Pray, Spend
August 4, 2011

Travel Guides

Image by Evil Yoda via Flickr

Bookslut‘s Jessica Crispin, writing for The Smart Set, dismisses the popular narrative of travel as a guaranteed path to self-discovery:

People love to talk about how certain things rewire the brain, now that we can track these sorts of things with neuroimaging. Inevitably we must qualify which of these things are good and which are bad. (Violent pornography rewires the brain: bad. Travel rewires the brain: good.) But our brains are rewiring themselves all the time. Our brains rewire when we eat a peanut butter sandwich.

There are things that extensive travel teaches you, such as how not to be afraid, or at least how to tell the difference between times you should have fear and times there’s no need for it. It teaches you how to discard things you don’t need, whether that be a couple of shirts so you can bring back all the books you bought, or your need for security and certainty. Using that information in everyday life is the tricky part. I’m not saying it should not be done, that it’s a worthless exercise. Travel is a choice. You go or you don’t. Staying at home offers as many opportunities for growth and transformation and brain rewiring and whatever other trademarked terms you’d like to use here. If you’re the type of person who is more scared of staying home than wandering back out there, it perhaps holds more.

A girl goes out into the world to find herself. Only she finds she’s the same person in Argentina as she is back home, with all the same flaws, the same obnoxious behaviors, the same judgmental nature. Now she just happens to have some pictures of herself standing next to Eva Perón’s tomb. That’s not as good of a story. It probably won’t sell any books, or plane tickets. But it’s more honest.

Seneca actually made a related point 2,000 years prior in the 28th letter from Letters from a Stoic:

Do you think you are the only person to have had this experience? Are you really surprised, as if it were something unprecedented, that so long a tour and such diversity of scene have not enabled you to throw off this melancholy and this feeling of depression? A change of character, not a change of air, is what you need.


How can novelty of surroundings abroad and becoming acquainted with foreign scenes of cities be of any help? All that dashing about turns out to be quite futile. And if you want to know why all that running about cannot help you, the answer is simply this: you are running away in your own company. You have to lay aside the load on your spirit. Until you do that, nowhere will satisfy you.

I’ll only add that there’s something kind of ugly and narcissistic in an old-fashioned colonial sense about this notion of “finding yourself” through travel; as if all those people on the other side of the world are just sitting around waiting for another white American who they can self-actualize. As if the value of visiting another place is not in seeing another side of history and human experience in all of its richness and inconceivable variety, but in catching a reflection of yourself from a different angle.

If you go abroad that wrapped up in your own head, I wouldn’t hold my breath for any grand spiritual revelation. At best you might construct some shallow, disposable facsimile of revelation, so that it might discharge its narrative obligations and then shuffle off the stage. Maybe when business class pilgrims and couchsurfing conquistadors say they’re looking for themselves, that’s what they really mean: they want the kind of quick and easy enlightenment that they can sum up in an anecdote or a book proposal, that reminds them of why they’re great and should just keep doing what they’re doing.

That sounds more like anesthetic to me than revelation, which strikes me as being a lot harder and scarier. But the good news is it’s a lot more valuable than a week in Prague. Better yet, you don’t even need to be able to afford a plane ticket.

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Unions, Today
August 1, 2011

Replying to an earlier post, Erik Kain writes

In some sense, Ned is making the pity-charity liberalism case here. Using monetary policy and a wicked-good social safety net to ensure that everyone is well-enough off to avoid being mired in poverty and focus on growing the economy sounds like Will Wilkinson or Matt Yglesias. I think Ned’s notion of a sort of positive labor scarcity is pretty compelling, though. Rather than create barriers to entry into the labor pool, create incentives for parents to stay home with their kids and for people to start small businesses, become artists, and so forth. I think something like single-payer healthcare would vastly increase the ability of working Americans to take risks like starting up a business or pursuing a creative career, for instance.

I’m less certain Ned is making the case for increased union density. After all, if markets are free and we have decent growth, and the state is doing the hard work of freeing workers from domination by employers (which, in the American context, would be largely freeing us from employer-based health insurance at least at first) then what is the real compelling need for more unions? If we have something like a negative income tax or a wage subsidy in place for low-income workers, what is the compelling case to have more union density – especially if we work to end corporate welfare and democratize the markets, taking the advantage away from the big corporations and giving it back to a more competitive, fluid and diverse market of innovators and start-ups.

The case for unions is pretty straightforward: we have the economic system we have. Sure, I can imagine a world in which the global economy runs on co-ops, labor scarcity is high enough that even workers in non-co-ops have significant bargaining power, and the unemployed are protected from destitution by a state-mandated guaranteed minimum income. If I woke up and found myself in that world, I’d never sing “Solidarity Forever” again. The work of labor unions would seem to be over, and their continued existence would be either (at best) extraneous or (at worst) a destabilizing force that would place an unnecessary burden on the already cowed forces of capital.

But that world is a fantasy. I might as well write a post meditating on what the replicators from Star Trek will mean for trade unions. Those kinds of posts are cute and all, but they have nothing to do with why I want increased union density on this planet. Which is why, though I have generally warm feelings about this paragraph from Erik, it feels incomplete:

I’m not 100% sure how workers ought to organize in today’s economy to be honest, but I think it’s going to need to go far beyond simply organizing the existing workplace. Workers and citizens should try to – quite literally – take back the means of production, not through violent revolution, but through new technology, open-source manufacturing, and the potential of worker cooperatives.

Look, I think co-ops are great. Open source manufacturing sounds pretty intriguing, too. But these tools aren’t available to everyone. For the non-entrepreneurs, labor unions are a crucial leveraging tool we can use in this economy to combat worker domination. Granted, they are not what they once were. Granted, many of them are flawed institutions. But for those who are at the mercy of their employers, organizing remains the best way to take matters into their own hands.

(By the way: If you want to see what a whole co-op economy looks like, watch this hour-long documentary on the Mondragon experiment.)

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