Archive for September, 2010

It’s not true what they say about teachers

September 29, 2010

I have too many friends who are teachers in the public schools to accept the prevailing ideas about the school system being ruined by lazy, incompetent teachers and their greedy unions, but I have accepted more than I should the prevailing wisdom that our public school system is a complete failure.

Recently I’ve started reading a web log called The Daily Howler by a standup political comedian named Bob Somerby.  Like Senator Al Franken, he is a comedian who is better informed than supposed experts.  He formerly was a teacher in the Baltimore public schools and then a reporter specializing in educational testing.

His blog is in the form of a daily critique of stupid statements made by journalists, commentators and politicians. He covers politics generally, but of late he has put up a lot of extremely informative material about public schools and student testing.

You need to read his web log to get the full picture, but his main points are:

1.  Scores in basic reading and math tests have been improving for both black and white students in U.S. public schools.  The gap between blacks and whites has remained, but that doesn’t mean that black students aren’t progressing.  Presumably at some point both black and white students will be performing as well as they’re capable, but we’re a long way from that point.

2.  The reasons that American students tests scores are below middle-class European nations is that we have (1) a large population of students descended from slaves who were forbidden to learn to read and then from people who were deliberately consigned to inferior schools and (2) a large population of students from immigrant families whose mastery of English is none too good.

The top nations in terms of student test scores, such as Finland, are countries with strong unions, and the worst-performing U.S. states are states without strong unions, so union-bashing isn’t an answer.

I don’t deny there are bad teachers, bad schools and bad urban school systems, as well as indifferent parents, but there also are good teachers, good schools, good urban school systems, and parents who are deeply concerned with their children.  It’s easy, and lazy, to lump them all together, but then you can’t tell the difference, and you can’t accomplish anything.

Charter schools have a place, even though only one in five outperform the public schools.  The benefit of charter schools is that they provide a way to try out new ideas, so that the new ideas that work can be duplicated in the schools at large.  They are not a replacement for public schools. Giving up on public schools is giving up on educating poor children.


It’s true what they say about property taxes

September 29, 2010

I have long questioned conventional wisdom about property taxes, but an article in this morning’s Democrat and Chronicle and a little checking of my own shows I am wrong and the conventional wisdom is correct.

The conventional wisdom is that New York state has exceptionally high taxes, and the driving force is not so much state income and other taxes as it is local property taxes.  My question always was: Does this apply to where I live?  The bulk of New York’s population is in New York City and its suburbs, but upstate New York is so different as to be like a whole different state.

Our property tax rates are high in terms of assessed value, but my guess is our assessments are low compared to equivalent properties in places such as Boston and San Francisco.  The real estate bubble that inflated house prices in so much of the country largely bypassed my part of New York state, so I may well be paying less in taxes than places where tax rates are lower.

Unfortunately my speculation does not stand up to facts.  The data collected by the Tax Foundation does show a huge range in what New Yorkers pay in county property taxes.

In Westchester County, the affluent New York City suburb, median homeowners paid $9,004 last year in property taxes, which was 1.66 percent of the median $547,700 assessed value of their homes and 8.74 percent of their median $109,692 income.  In St. Lawrence County, in the rural North County, median homeowners paid $1,613 in property taxes, which was 2.01 percent of median $80,300 assessed value and 3.08 percent of $52,389 median income.

Even in St. Lawrence County, a relatively poor county, taxes were none too low compared to the United States as a whole.  The Tax Foundation reports that median U.S. homeowners paid $1.917 in property taxes last year, which was 1.04 percent of median $185,00 assessed value and, more to the point, 3.03 percent of median $63,369 income.

Here in Monroe County, median homeowners paid $3,891 in property taxes last year, which was 2.89 percent of median $134,500 assessed value and 5.86 percent of median $66,369 income.  That’s a lot.  Even though the assessed value of our property is below the national median and even though our income is only slightly above the national median, we still pay twice as much on average in property taxes.


Glenn Greenwald asks a question

September 28, 2010

President Obama has ordered the assassination of Anwar Awlaki, a Muslim cleric in Yemen who reportedly supports, and recruits for, al-Qaeda.  He is a U.S. citizen, he has not been charged with any crime and his father has filed a lawsuit asking for a court injunction against his son being summarily killed.  The Washington Post reported that the Department of Justice asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit without a hearing, on the grounds of “state secrets.”

If the President has the power to order American citizens killed with no due process, and to do so in such complete secrecy that no courts can even review his decisions, then what doesn’t he have the power to do?

via Glenn Greenwald –

What doesn’t the President have the power to do?  He doesn’t have the power to take action on global climate change.  He doesn’t have the power to enact a stimulus program sufficient to make a dent in 9 percent unemployment.  He doesn’t have the power to carry on the routine business of government.  He doesn’t have the power to get confirmation of appointments to key governmental positions or federal judgeships.  The Federal Reserve Board lacks a quorum, key positions such as director of Office of Management and Budget are unfilled, and vacancies in federal judgeships go unfilled because the Republican minority in the Senate obstructs votes on confirmations.

The Republican Party leadership and the Tea Party faction say that requiring all Americans to buy health insurance is tyranny.  But the Obama administration, even more than the Bush administration before it, gets a pass on actual acts of tyranny – torture, assassination, universal Big Brother-type surveillance of private citizens.


20 warning signs of a closed mind

September 27, 2010

This list is from economist Robin Hanson’s Overcoming Bias web log.

Robin Hanson

1. You find it hard to be enthusiastic for something until you know that others oppose it.

2. You have little interest in getting clear on what exactly is the position being argued.

3. Realizing that a topic is important and neglected doesn’t make you much interested.

4. You have little interest in digging to bigger topics behind commonly argued topics.

5. You are less interested in a topic when you don’t foresee being able to talk about it.

6. You are uncomfortable taking a position near the middle of the opinion distribution.

7. You are uncomfortable taking a position of high uncertainty about who is right.

8. You care far more about current nearby events than similar distant or past/future events.

9. You find it easy to conclude that those who disagree with you are insincere or stupid.

10. You are reluctant to change your publicly stated positions in response to new information.


Why tax cuts for the rich won’t expire

September 27, 2010

A majority of the American people favor allowing Bush-era tax cuts on incomes above $250,000 to expire and tax cuts on incomes below $250,000 to continue.  This is the position taken by President Barack Obama, House Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

So why was a tax law vote postponed until after the November elections?  It was a mystery until I read a post by Jonathan Zasloff on The Reality-Based Community web log.  He noted that Pelosi and Reid had these options.

1)  Bring up the middle-class tax cut bill free-standing in the House.  The Republicans would offer a “Motion to Recommit” to the Ways and Means Committee with instructions to include the tax cuts for the rich.  With Blue Dog support, it would have won.  No go.

2)  Bring up the middle-class tax cut bill freestanding in the Senate.  The Republicans would offer an amendment to include the tax cuts for the rich.  It could have won:  41 Republicans plus Lieberman, Lincoln, Pryor, Landrieu, Ben Nelson, Bayh, Hagan, Dorgan, Baucus, Conrad, and then maybe Bill Nelson, Webb, or Warner.  Then where would you be?

3)  Bring up the middle-class tax cut bill free-standing in the House under a “Suspension of the Rules,” which requires a two-thirds vote and is not subject to the Motion to Recommit.  My favorite option, because theoretically, the Republicans would be in a bind.  Either they would vote no, in which case they would have voted no on a tax cut, or they would have voted yes, in which case the Dems win and they tick off their base.  BUT — they probably would have split, meaning that the Dems would not have not gotten a win AND the partisan difference would have been muddied.

In other words, there was no way to get an actual win under these circumstances.  You could only get a loss that would muddy the partisan split.


How to be rich and miserable

September 26, 2010

1.  Accumulate a very large amount of debt.

2.  Decide to care deeply about what people who are a lot richer than you think of you.

3.  Spend all of your money and then some trying to keep up with them.

via Obsidian Wings.

Which do you like better? Yoda or Spock?

September 25, 2010


Why I go easy on the “R” word

September 23, 2010

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was a failed attempt to connect the Potomac and Ohio rivers, as the Erie Canal here in New York state connected the Hudson River with the Great Lakes.  Construction was begun of a canal and towpath along the north bank of the Potomac River, but abandoned before it got further west than Cumberland, Md., in the Alleghenies.

In the course of time the C&O Canal became the property of the federal government.  In the 1960s, somebody proposed that the route be made a federal highway, and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and others led a counter-movement to develop it as a national park and hiking trail.  At the time I lived in Washington County, Md., which included about 78 of the C&O towpath’s 184 miles.  I thought the national park was a good idea, but a lot of people in Washington County didn’t.

I remember a lady from the District of Columbia suburbs asking why so many western Marylanders were opposed to the project.  I explained that part of the proposal involved the possible taking of land through eminent domain, and many western Marylanders had a highly-developed sense of property rights.  They basically believed that property-owners had an absolute right to do anything they wished with their land except post it against hunters.

The lady said that, no, the reason must be that they were afraid that black people would be hiking the canal.  I said that wasn’t the case, but she wouldn’t listen.  By imputing racist motives to people she disagreed with, she was able to ignore their rights and their point of view with a clear conscience.

Later came the 1964 and 1968 Presidential elections, in which  “law and order” was a big issue.  Liberals said “law and order” were “code words” for being anti-black.  Next came the uproar over mandatory busing of children to non-neighborhood schools to achieve racial integration.  Opponents were branded as racist.  So were opponents of affirmative action.  Now you are considered anti-Hispanic if you are concerned about stopping illegal immigration from Mexico.  And of course the Tea Party movement has been widely denounced as racist.

But what if you are sincerely concerned about crime or illegal immigration?  Is it out of bounds even to take about such issues?  If you can’t talk about a problem, how can you resolve it?  Maybe there should be some place you could go to get a certificate of non-racism so you can get credit for arguing in good faith.

I’m sure that if I had the power to see into the hearts of Tea Party members, I would find a certain number have racial prejudices.  But the same would be true of white mainstream Republicans or white liberal Democrats. For that matter, the same might be true of me.

I’ve been called a racist.  Possibly other people saw things about me that I didn’t, but being called a racist did not make me more inclined to self-examination.  It only made me defensive.  That’s why I go easy on using the “R” word.


Graef Crystal and the question of CEO pay

September 22, 2010

When I reported on business for the Democrat and Chronicle here in Rochester, N.Y., one of my favorite news sources was Graef Crystal.  He was one of the architects of the system of corporate compensation we have today – not just a salary, but the maze of incentive bonuses, stock options, pension benefits and other complexities that make it so difficult for the lay person to figure out what corporate executives actually get.

At some point Crystal stepped back from what he and his colleagues had done with a sort of “what have I done?” reaction – something like some of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project.  When I had contact with him, he had started a new career as a researcher, lecturer and writer on the abuses of corporate executive compensation.

Graef Crystal

What he concluded from his research is that there was no relation – not even a negative relation – between what CEOs and other corporate executives got, and the performance of their companies.  Some high-performing companies had high-paid CEOS and some had (relatively) low-paid CEOs; some low-performing companies had (relatively) low-paid CEOs and some had high-paid CEOs.  It was all random, he said.

As a reporter, I liked Crystal because he always gave me a pithy quote.  He once did a study comparing the compensation of British and American CEOs who headed comparable companies and delivered comparable results.  “You would always want to hire the Brits,” he said.  “They deliver the same results for less money.  And besides, they speak better English.”

In that era Eastman Kodak Co.’s board of directors in the 1990s replaced Kay R. Whitmore, the last of the CEOs to be promoted from within, with George Fisher, who was hired away from Motorola.  At the end of Fisher’s tenure, Crystal noted that in terms of return on investment to stockholders, Kodak actually performed better under Whitmore than under Fisher.  “You paid a Cadillac price for a Chevrolet,” he said, “and the Chevrolet turned out to be a lemon.”

Fisher, in addition to his multi-million-dollar salary, was given an “incentive bonus.”  In his first year, he received a “guaranteed incentive bonus.”  I asked a corporation compensation expert (not Crystal, I forget who it was) why somebody at that level needed an “incentive bonus.”  It seemed to me that most corporate executives had a good work ethic and didn’t – and shouldn’t – need to be bribed to do a good job.

The expert said the purpose of the incentive bonus was to remind the CEO of his priorities – which is not to create jobs, not to serve the community, but to deliver the maximum possible return to stockholders.


The ultra-rich, the rich and the rest of us

September 21, 2010

What ought to be the biggest issue in American politics is how to stop redistribution of income – redistribution upward, which has been going on for more than 30 years.

The average working man earns less today (adjusted for inflation) than a working man of 30 years ago. But from 1979 to 2007, the share of national income going to the rich – the highest 1 percent of income earners – has more than doubled, and the share going to the ultra-rich – the highest 1/10 of 1 percent – has quadrupled.  An estimated 80 percent of gains in income by Americans from 1980 to 2005 went into the pockets of the rich.  The rich are doing more than moving ahead faster than the rest of us.  They are moving ahead at our expense.

This process goes on through Democratic and Republican administrations, and it is still going on.  There is no limit on how concentrated wealth will become if things go on as they are.

Economists have done many studies of this.  Their figures are all slightly different because they draw data from different sources and use different starting and ending points, but the broad story is the same.  The most recent is a series of articles that Timothy Noah wrote in Slate magazine.

He polled economists as to the reasons.  They told him computerization has no measurable effect on inequality.  Neither do racial inequality or the gender gap.  There is a gap between what black Americans get and white Americans get, but it isn’t growing and therefore is not a factor in the growth of inequality.  There also is a gap between what American women get and American men get, but it is narrowing.

Globalization of trade, immigration and tax policy are minor factors.

The main reasons for growing inequality, he concluded, are Wall Street and corporate boards catering to the ultra-rich, various failures in our educational system, and the decline of organized labor.

I would blame the lack of a full employment economy, which we now call a “tight labor market.”

All of these things, as Noah notes, are affected by government policy.  Immigration is regulated, at least in theory, by the federal government. Tax policy is determined by the federal government. The decline of labor is in large part the doing of the federal government.  Federal law tightly regulates activities of labor unions, while corporate executives are given free rein.  Trade levels are regulated by the federal government. Government rules concerning finance and executive compensation help determine the quantity of cash that the ultra-rich take home. Education is affected by government at the local, state, and (increasingly) federal levels.  And the federal government and the Federal Reserve System have decided reducing unemployment is less important than controlling inflation.

Why, then, is this not a political issue?  Why are we instead debating whether a Muslim community center should be opened in lower Manhattan, or what a Republican senatorial candidate once said about masturbation?  I doubt if 1 in 100 Americans, certainly not 1 in 10, knows the facts presented in the graph above.  How could they?  Who is telling them?


Is the country shifting to the right? or left?

September 20, 2010

Chris Powers writes on the Daily Kos web log that the United States is moving to the left, not to the right as so many people assume.

As evidence, he points to growing tolerance of interracial marriage, growing tolerance of same-sex marriage, the narrowing of the male-female wage gap, growing tolerance of marijuana legalization and increased spending on social programs as a percentage of gross domestic product.

What’s noteworthy about all these is that none of them except maybe the last affects the profitability of corporations or the income of millionaires and billionaires.  And social spending is something that goes up when times are bad.

So is the country shifting to the right, or to the left?  It depends on what you mean by left and right.  If by left you mean more permissive social attitudes, we have moved radically to the left.  If you mean governing in the interests of working people, we have moved in the opposite direction.

“Our century’s greatest injustice”

September 20, 2010

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are husband and wife journalists who jointly won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting on China.  In their book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, they argue that just as slavery and totalitarianism were the great moral issues of the 19th and 20th centuries, crimes against women will be the great moral issue of the 21st century.  After reading the book, I do not think that statement an exaggeration.

Millions of women are targeted for sexual slavery, rape, “honor” killing, and genital mutilation, and tens of millions allowed to die of neglect in childbirth or otherwise, specifically because they are women.  But the struggle for justice for women is a very different kind of struggle than the battles against slavery, fascism and Communism.

Nicholas Kristof was once at the India-Nepal border, and an Indian customs official went through his gear fairly thoroughly, to make sure he didn’t have any smuggled DVDs.  This was on a route where Nepali peasant girls are smuggled into India to be prostitutes, and Kristof asked what success the customs official had in stopping such trafficking.  The customs official said such an effort would be useless.  Young Indian men need access to prostitutes in order to protect the chastity of young Indian women.  The customs official said that if this means Nepali peasant girls have to be forced into prostitution make this possible, this is an unfortunate necessity.

As Kristof noted, the reason the customs official was so concerned about smuggled DVDs is that the United States government put pressure on the Indian government to protect intellectual property rights.  He was not concerned about human trafficking because this is not an issue any government has raised.

The authors are frankly propagandistic.  Reporting mainly from southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, they tell story after story, by turns gruesome and inspiring, about atrocities against women, the courageous responses of some of them, and what philanthropic Americans and other Westerners have done to help.  They throw in enough statistical information to persuade people like me that the stories they tell are not isolated instances.

The authors say that rape and prostitution are worst in countries such as India, Pakistan and Iran where male honor most requires protection of female virginity.  “Honor” requires prostitution to protect “decent” women, and it makes rape an effective tool of humiliation and social control.  Kristof and WuDann tell the story of a village girl in Pakistan who was sentenced by the village council to be stripped and publicly gang-raped to punish not her, but her brother, for some misdeed.  The expectation was that she would commit suicide out of shame, and this would be humiliating to the brother.  But her parents kept watch and prevented her from taking her life, a village Muslim elder denounced the rape as un-Islamic and she went to the police who, surprisingly, arrested the attackers.  With the help of money contributed by Americans, and publicity by Kristof, she founded a girls’ school and then many schools.

The suppression of prostitution, murder and rape is a question of law enforcement.  There are other problems no less serious, but harder to get a grip on.  Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics, wrote an essay in 1990 on “100 million missing women.”  Women live longer than men, and so there are more women than men in much of the world, including Latin America and much of Africa.  Yet in China, India, Pakistan and certain other countries, men outnumber women.  The reason, Kristol and WuDunn say, is that parents don’t try as hard to keep their daughters alive as their sons.  Studies in India show that girls in India don”t get vaccinated as boys do, and are 50 percent more likely to die between ages 1 and 5.


Nine evidence-based study tips

September 19, 2010

The Psychologist, a British magazine, published these study tips in its September issue.

Adopt a growth mindset.  Students who believe that intelligence and academic ability are fixed tend to stumble at the first hurdle. By contrast, those with a ‘growth mindset’, who see intelligence as malleable, react to adversity by working harder and trying out new strategies. These findings come from research by Carol Dweck, a psychologist based at Stanford University. Her research also suggests lecturers and teachers should offer praise in a way that fosters in students a growth mindset – avoid comments on innate ability and emphasize instead what students did well to achieve their success.

Sleep well.  A 2007 study covered on the Research Digest found that lack of sleep impairs students’ ability to learn new information. Twenty-eight participants attempted to remember a series of pictures of people, landscapes, scenes and objects. Crucially half had slept normally the previous night whereas the other half had been kept awake. When tested two days later, after everyone had had two nights of normal sleep, Matthew Walker found that the previously sleep-deprived students recognized 19 per cent fewer pictures in a recognition memory test.


The art of the pencil

September 18, 2010

Dalton Ghetti is an artist who creates art not with pencils, but from pencils.

Click on Miniature Art to see what I mean.


Does being white make you privileged?

September 17, 2010

I know I am fortunate to be white rather than black.  A black Phil Ebersole – somebody like me in every respect except skin color –  would face racial prejudice in applying for jobs or bank loans. He would have well-founded fears every time he was stopped by the police. He would constantly have to think about how he was being judged because of his race.  Whenever he encountered setbacks or rejection, he could never be sure whether they were or weren’t due to race.  The doubtful blessings of affirmative action or “diversity” would not have offset this; it would have given prejudiced people a new reason for prejudice.

I remember once I was doing interviews for the business section of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on what people were buying their children for Christmas.  I approached a well-dressed, middle-aged black man in a store, and I could tell exactly what he was thinking from the stricken expression on his face.  He thought I was some kind of security guard or detective about to harass him for “shopping while black.” I thought then, and still think, how glad I am that I can go shopping without having to prepare myself psychologically for things like this.

This is what is meant by “white privilege,” but I don’t think of it as privilege.  A privilege is something you have that you are not entitled to have.  Bankers who collect six-figure bonuses after driving their institutions to the point of bankruptcy are privileged.  Failed CEOs who retire on golden parachutes are privileged.  People who run for public office on the basis of their family names are privileged.  I don’t think I have that kind of privilege.

Everybody ought to be able to be judged on their merits in work and business, to be free of fear in routine encounters with the police, to live their lives without always being on the defensive.  The fact that I have what I ought to have does not take anything away from anybody else.  To speak of  “white privilege” implies that the aim is not to give black people equal rights with me, but to subject people like me to the same humiliations that black people suffer


Soul brothers: Carter, Clinton, Obama

September 15, 2010

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were white men who were Governors of Southern states.  President Barack Obama is a black man who was a Senator from a Midwestern state.  Yet in their politics and policies, they are more alike than they are different.

All three ran for office as outsiders.  They had little or no experience on the national scene, but they turned that liability into an asset.  They said they would break with politics as usual in Washington, and bring about a new era.  Once in office, they claimed to transcend partisanship, and to have got beyond traditional liberal vs. conservative thinking.

In fact, none of them represented a break with the past.  They filled their Cabinets from the ranks of the Washington establishment.  They weren’t exactly failures.  They all had certain accomplishments.  But neither Carter nor Clinton was a transformative President in the way that Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were, and I expect the same will be true of Obama.

Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama have been outstanding in their intellectual mastery of the details of policy and government – much more so than Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush.  But Reagan and Bush knew something more important.  They knew their own minds.  They had guiding philosophies which informed their judgments and the judgments of their superiors.

Carter and Clinton were pragmatists, as is Obama. They rejected “ideology.”  Their aim, like Obama’s, was to support whatever produced the best results.  But in practice, they seemed to flounder.  In contrast to the Reagan and Bush administrations, their administrations lacked direction.  Pragmatism was un-pragmatic.  It didn’t work.

Reagan and Bush met the “elevator speech” test; you could state their principles to somebody on an elevator before the person got off at the next floor.  Their basic principle was that government was evil and its activities should be minimized, except in regard to national security and preserving order, in which case its powers should be absolute.  I don’t agree with this philosophy, but it is understandable.  I could not give an elevator speech explaining Carter’s philosophy, nor Clinton’s, nor Obama’s.


Tough times: the social contract

September 11, 2010

I count myself lucky to have lived and worked in what, in retrospect, was a golden age for the United States.  When I came of age in the 1950s, I took it for granted that each decade would be better than the more before – that progress toward higher wages and more leisure was a law of nature.  There was an implied “social contract” – that if I was loyal to my employer, and did a good job, my employer would do his best to keep me employed at a decent wage.

I didn’t need to read Steven Greenhouse’s 2008 book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, to understand that this belief was an illusion.  Automatic progress is like getting something for nothing.  Things don’t get better unless people are doing things to make them better.

The golden age rested partly on the unique position that the United States enjoyed in the quarter century following World War Two, as the world’s only intact industry economy.  In college, we were taught about the problem of the world “dollar shortage.”  The problem was that the U.S. economy was so rich and productive that the rest of the world had almost nothing to sell that we Americans wanted to buy, and therefore had no dollars with which to buy products of American industry.  In this age of globalization, that seems like another world.

The United States in the earlier era was not only a wealthy nation, but the wealth was spread around.  It was said in wonderment by visiting Europeans that you couldn’t tell an American’s social class by looking at him or her.  Prosperity was spread so widely that working people were well-fed and well-dressed.  This, too, was not a law of nature.  It rested on a balance of power between big business, organized labor and the government.


Industrial labor unions, whose right to bargain collectively was guaranteed by the government, negotiated improvements in pay, benefits and hours with big manufacturing companies.  Because of their position in the marketplace, they could afford to raise prices to pass along the costs.  The union wage tended to push wages up generally.  Few of us newspaper reporters were represented by strong unions, but it would have looked bad if our pay had been much below the members of the International Typographers Union.  Because of high wages, Americans could afford to buy the products of American industry.  It was a benign spiral upward, not a vicious spiral downward.

All this started to come apart in the 1970s.  That was when foreign cars and other products started making inroads into the U.S. market.  It was also when American business decided to once again treat labor unions as the enemy rather than as a combination of junior partner and loyal opposition.  President Ronald Reagan, by breaking the air traffic controllers’ strike, became the first anti-union President since before President Franklin Roosevelt.  All this is described very well in Thomas B. Edsall’s The New Politics of Inequality – a book written more than 25 years ago, but still worth reading because the trends Edsall described are still in motion.

In my experience, American working people, including union leaders, are much less class conscious than business executives.  Labor leaders always act as if they need to justify and explain themselves.  Business executives are confident that they rule by divine right, and they don’t want to share their authority with either their employees or the government.


Tough times: wage theft and other crimes

September 11, 2010

I first learned the term “time theft” when I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, a first-hand account of low-wage work.  Her last job was working for Wal-Mart, and she was told that any time she spent speaking to a co-worker, or going to the bathroom, or just caching her breath was “time theft” from her employer.

Reading  Steven Greenhouse’s 2008 book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, I learned another term – “wage theft” –  which is about how employers coerce employees into working unpaid overtime or falsify their records so as not to pay for all hours worked.

I knew that undocumented workers – illegal immigrants – constituted an underclass outside the protection of U.S. law that could be exploited at will.  I knew that salaried “professionals” – programmers, college instructors, journalists, lawyers – often worked 60 hours or more a week, sometimes voluntarily but often not.  And I knew that companies found ways to redefine employees as managers or independent contractors to avoid having to obey labor laws.

The shocking thing about Greenhouse’s book is how many companies simply violate the law.  This is not just fly-by-night employers, but some of the best-known U.S. companies – Wal-Mart, Taco Bell, Family Dollar, Pep Boys, Toys “R” Us and others.  Sometimes they require employees to work after they’ve clocked out, or before they’ve clocked in.  Sometimes employees are given workloads that a normal human being can’t complete in the hours allotted, and have no choice but to work through their breaks and lunch hours. Sometimes managers simply alter the computer records.

The risk of getting caught, according to Greenhouse, is exceedingly small, because governments have cut back on enforcement of labor laws, and the penalty for getting caught is seldom enough to be a deterrent.  One of his main proposals for reform is simply the enforcement of existing law.

Not all companies do this, as Greenhouse noted.  McDonald’s, for one, has an excellent record of compliance with wage and hours laws.


Eastman Kodak and the idea of loyalty

September 10, 2010

I don’t know if there was ever was a Fortune 500 company more paternalistic than Eastman Kodak Co., and I am certain there never was one that enjoyed greater loyalty from its employees.

When I first came to Rochester, N.Y., in the mid-1970s, Kodak seemed more like a cult than a company.  Kodak never asked its employees to sing a company anthem or do gymnastics in the morning, as Japanese companies of that era did, but if it had, I am sure they would have been glad to do so.Kodak was one of the last examples of the age of the “organization man,” in which security was given in return for conformity.

I wouldn’t really want that era to return, but I don’t regard the age of the disposable employee as an improvement.People in Rochester said that once you were hired by Kodak, you were set for life.  There were people who were the second or third generation in their family to have worked all their adult lives at Kodak.  There were people whose whole lives revolved around Kodak.  They spent their spare time at the Kodak recreation center, they attended plays at the theater in Kodak Building 27, they banked with Eastman Savings and Loan Association (not actually a part of the company) and saved up for retirement in the Kodak Savings and Investment Plan.

All this security was repaid by a devotion to the company that is hard to understand in the light of the way things are today.  In 1980, Kodak announced a new consumer product – a snapshot camera with film on a disc instead of a roll.  We reporters at the Democrat and Chronicle naturally wanted to find out in advance what the announcement was going to be.  All of us had friends and neighbors who worked for Kodak (one in eight employed persons in the Rochester area worked for Kodak), and thousands of them knew what the announcement was going to be.  But nobody said a word.  The Kremlin-like secrecy was complete.

I had just started to cover Kodak for the D&C.  The company gave me a Disc camera to try out, and, as luck would have it, the camera short-circuited and melted the internal parts.  I wrote a light-hearted article about it, treating it the subject fairly gently, I thought.  Kodak loyalists in the community didn’t think so.  I was inundated with angry phone calls accusing me of playing into the hands of the enemy, Fuji Photo.Kodak Disc 4000

The Disc didn’t turn out to be as successful as Kodak hoped and, for that and other reasons, the company began layoffs a couple of years later than continued for more than a decade.  Kodak employed 50,000 people in Rochester through the 1970s, and in 1982 employment here shot up to 60,000.  The following year Kodak began a series of layoffs that have continued ever since.  Employment locally is now below 7,500 and falling.

By the time I left the Kodak beat in 1992, the feeling of loyalty had been replaced with a sense of betrayal.  The angry phone calls came whenever I wrote anything that reflected favorably on the company.

A friend of mine, a Kodak patent attorney who lost his job in the downsizing, said he came to realize the profound ambiguity of the idea of loyalty to a corporation – or any other organization.  You can be loyal to people, and you can be loyal to ideas, he said.  But if the people change, and the ideas change, what are you being loyal to?

Business executives such as CEO Jack Welch of General Electric – called “Neutron Jack” because, like the neutron bomb, he made the people disappear and left the buildings standing –  said that companies such as Kodak did their employees no favor by holding out the false hope of lifetime employment.  The employees were set up for a worse fall than if Kodak had been tougher all along.

I think there is truth in that, but there is a middle ground between treating employees as children and treating them as commodities.  A business corporation can’t be like a Mommy and Daddy to its employees, but it doesn’t have to follow Welch in terminating the supposedly worst-performing 10 percent of employees every year.


The case for letting the Bush tax cuts expire

September 9, 2010

Click on the charts if they are too small to be readable.

Americans in all income brackets benefited from the tax reductions enacted in 2001 and 2003, but it was the upper-bracket tax cuts that had the big effect on the federal budget deficit.

Let’s stop acting like a Third World country

September 7, 2010

We’re the Americans!  We’re the people who once did things nobody else could do.  We built the tallest buildings, the biggest dams, the spaceships that sent people to the moon.  We created mass prosperity on a scale the world had never seen before.  We took as our national motto the slogan of the Seabees (Navy Construction Battalions) during World War Two – “The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer.”

Minneapolis bridge collapse (2007)

Now we act as if we are some Third World country waiting to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund.  Our roads and bridges, dams and levees, water and sewer systems are all wearing out and we have no plans to replace them.  Some cities are turning out the street lights, some countries are digging up paved roads, some school boards say they can’t keep schools open the full year.  Our new national mottoes are – Nobody could be expected… and Nobody could have predicted…

Our present situation is that we as a nation have an enormous backlog of work that needs to be done.  We have nearly 15 million unemployed who need work.  And interest rates are at their lowest level in a generation, giving a once-in-a=generation opportunity to finance the work.

So I applaud President Obama’s announcement of his plan to rebuild the nation’s transportation infrastructure.  It is a good first step.  The next steps would be to rebuild the nation’s communications, energy, water and sewer infrastructure.

Click on America Goes Dark for an eloquent and justified rant by economist Paul Krugman.

Click on Obama’s Labor Day Remarks in Milwaukee for President Obama’s announcement of his infrastructure plan.

Click on White House fact sheet for the details of President Obama’s plan.

Click on New Republican Highway Bill Nixes National Infrastructure Bank for a report on Republican opposition to infrastructure spending.  [7/12/11]


Tough times for the American worker

September 7, 2010

Over Labor Day weekend I read Steven Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker. It was published in 2008, so it doesn’t deal with the results of the current Great Recession.  Rather it covers the condition of the working class of the United States in supposedly good times – the alleged prosperity we’re trying to get back to.

I knew the story in broad outline – the erosion of the U.S. manufacturing base, wage stagnation, the loss of job security, rising debt – but Greenhouse’s reporting, with many poignant individual stories and backed up by statistics, brought home to me just how bad things are.

Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor, famously said that what American workers want is “more.” What they are getting is more stress, more hours of work, more unpaid overtime, more insecurity, more debt, more years to work until retirement, but not more pay or benefits.

I was surprised, which may show my naivete, at the amount of lawbreaking by employers.  Greenhouse tells story after story of workers being forced to work overtime and through their lunch hours without pay, of workers being dismissed on trumped-up charges because they were injured on the job and became financial liabilities, of workers being locked in to their workplaces like the women who died in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

There are two aspects to the story.  There is what I call the Adam Smith story, which is about the need to adapt to a highly competitive global economy, and the Karl Marx story, which is about class warfare and redistribution of income upward.

You can’t ignore either aspect.  American industry did grow complacent after World War Two.  The United States had the world’s only intact industrial base, and, for about 30 years, our industries had no serious competitors. There used to be an urban legend about the city of “Usa, Japan” which existed for the purpose of being able to stamp products “Made in USA.”  Corporate management grew complacent, as did government and organized labor.  The U.S. government, instead of trying to strengthen international competitors such as Eastman Kodak Co., Xerox Corp. and IBM Corp., broke up their market power through anti-trust suits.  Organized labor, all too often, resisted new technology and clung to outmoded job classifications and work rules.

But in fact the U.S. economy is not doing all that badly.  It is just the human beings in the economy who are struggling.   Corporate profits, national output and productivity continued to grow in the 2000s, as do the incomes of Americans in the highest brackets.  But wages were flat, benefits were eroding and the majority of workers were under increased pressure to work harder and longer, even in a time of economic expansion.


The subprime student loan crime scene

September 6, 2010

When I put up my original posts on Subprime student loans and The student loan train wreck, I did not realize how much of a racket the student loan process really was.

SCM Corp. (known as Sallie Mae) is a private, profit-seeking corporation which is guaranteed against loss by the federal government.  It thus had no incentive to limit loans to those who could afford to pay them back. Not only that, SCM, like a credit card company, actually benefited from defaults, because it owns the collection agency.

The current crisis in student loans is worsened by the policies of the Bush administration, which deprived student loan debtors of the protections given other debtors, and the Obama administration has not proposed anything to change this.

The infographic below the fold tells the story.  I have only a couple of differences of opinion with its message.  I think the student loan reform bill signed into law by President Obama does help student borrowers going forward, although not those currently in debt.  And I would note that SCM has been hurt financially by the federal government’s decision to make student loans directly and not channel them through private lenders.


‘The politics of envy’

September 5, 2010

I found this item on Fred Clark’s Slacktivist web log.

JB: Let the one who has two tunics share with the one who has none.

RWT: That’s what I’m talking about! That’s the politics of envy.

JB: I don’t see what envy has —

RWT: I’ve got two tunics and you’ve just got one and now you envy me!

JB: I used to have two tunics —

RWT: And you lost one and now you’re envious!

JB: No, actually I gave one to a man who had none.

RWT: Aha! Because he was envious!

JB: He wasn’t envious, he was shivering.

RWT: Shivering … with envy!

JB: He was shivering with cold.

RWT: But you weren’t cold.

JB: No, I was quite warm.

RWT: And this man shivering with the cold, don’t you think he wanted to be warm too?

JB: Yes, that’s why —

RWT: He wanted what you had. He was envious of your warmth!


Drezner’s 10 tips on how to become an expert

September 5, 2010

Daniel Drezner, who teaches international politics at Tufts University, gave this advice to an inquirer who wanted to know how to become an expert.

1)  Go to school.  There are people out there who are self-taught wunderkinds, capable of long, brilliant disquisitions about the intricacies of international relations after reading Thucydides just once.  There’s a 99% chance that you are not one of these people.  For you and almost everyone else, the path to expertise is paved through college and graduate school.  So go forth and take courses on these subjects.

2)  Read a lot.  I mean, read a whole damn lot.  Don’t just read the books and articles that are assigned to you in class.  Read the stuff that you notice popping up repeatedly in the footnotes and bibliographies of your assigned reading.  Read the classics.  Read cutting edge work.  Read anything that seems of value.  When you get to the point where you think you’re seeing recurring arguments, then you’re approaching the cusp of expertise.