Kevin Drum - June 2011

Unions Finally Catch a (Small) Break

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 5:42 PM EDT

The NLRB, protector of management rights when Republicans are in charge and protector of labor rights when Democrats are in charge, announced today that it plans to change the rules governing union recognition elections in order to "curb unnecessary litigation, streamline procedures before and after elections, and enable the use of electronic communications, such as requiring employers to give union organizers access to electronic files containing workers' addresses and emails." Sounds boring. So why should you care? I'll let Peter Kirsanow, an avowed labor-phobe, explain:

In a nutshell, the NLRB’s proposed rules would implement “quickie elections,” a process that would allow unions to organize a workplace as easily as they could have had the Employee Free Choice Act (also known as “card check”) passed.

This is a very big deal....Right now, initial elections normally are conducted within 38–40 days of the filing of a petition by the union....That’s not much time for the employer to get his message out. Indeed, in 2009 and 2010 unions won approximately 68 percent of elections (this does not include the number of petitions withdrawn by unions). Yet the “quickie election” rules proposed by the NLRB will shorten the time frame to a mere 10–20 days. Make absolutely no mistake: That’s not enough time for even the largest and most sophisticated employers to counter what the union has been telling employees while organizing them for the last 6–8 months. The union win rate will far exceed 68 percent. In fact, it’s likely that many employers will choose to not even go through the expense of an election that he’s sure to lose, but will simply voluntarily recognize the union upon a showing of authorization cards.

Sounds good to me! And don't get too excited about that two-thirds rate of union victories, either. It's true that in 2009 unions won 66% of all NLRB elections compared to 51% in 1997, but that's 66% of 1,304 elections compared to 51% of 3,261 elections. Contra Kirsanow, organizing a new workplace has gotten so hard in recent years thanks to corporate-friendly NLRB rule changes and increasingly aggressive union avoidance campaigns, that unions simply don't bother waging all that many recognition elections anymore. They know that most of them are hopeless. The result is that the net number of election wins has dropped nearly in half in just the last decade alone.

That's not good enough for Kirsanow and his allies, of course, who would like unions to disappear completely. But among workers themselves, the anti-union skepticism of the 70s and 80s has mostly disappeared in the face of stagnant wages and skyrocketing executive pay. Survey research a few years ago by Harvard's Richard Freeman suggests that "if workers were provided the union representation they desired in 2005, then the unionization rate would be about 58%" — almost eight times higher than the actual private sector rate of 7.4%. The fact that so many workers would welcome union representation but don't have it is compelling evidence that far from being unfair to management, the current legal regime for union elections is tilted dramatically in their favor. For workers, rule changes that slightly reduced that tilt and once again gave unions a fighting chance to organize workplaces would be a welcome change.

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Obama's Spending Cuts

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 12:57 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias points out that last December, when Democrats cut a deficit-busting deal with Republicans to cut taxes and increase stimulus spending, would have been a perfect time to raise the debt ceiling. But:

It didn’t happen. Obama said he trusted John Boehner. Harry Reid said he didn’t want the debt limit to be raised by the 111th Congress because he wanted to force the incoming 112th Congress to take ownership over it. The results of these decisions have been a disaster.

What’s more, not only was the disaster predictable but even once it was visibly on the horizon the White House bungled it. There was a brief opportunity for the President to dig in his heels and simply refuse to compromise. Then the debate rapidly would have become “can John Boehner round up the votes in his caucus necessary to avoid a default.” Instead, the White House conceded the unprecedented point that even though Boehner and Obama agreed about the desirability of raising the debt ceiling that the White House should make concessions to the Speaker in order to obtain it. Consequently, you get what we have here this week.

For what it's worth, I continue to think that this probably wasn't a bungle. More likely, during his first two years in office Obama had gotten enough deficit religion from the likes of Peter Orszag and Tim Geithner that he actually welcomed the opportunity to put in place some long-term spending cuts. He couldn't very well admit that publicly, of course, since his base would go bananas, so instead he punted on the debt ceiling, knowing that Republicans would then use it to "force" spending concessions out of him. Mission accomplished: long-term spending is reduced, and Republicans get all the blame. Democrats mostly forgive him because everyone knows Republicans are crazy, and as a bonus, Republicans don't even get much of a boost from their own base out of this since any real-world spending cut won't come close to the demands of the tea party crowd.

How sure am I of this? Not very. Maybe 60%. But think of it this way: the kind of negotiating position Matt is talking about isn't rocket science. It's not even Negotiation 101. It's more like the fifth grade version. There's just no way that Obama and Reid and the rest of the Democratic brain trust were literally so stupid that they didn't understand this. A far more parsimonious explanation is that this is roughly what Obama wanted. He wanted spending cuts, but he wanted Republicans to be the ones to take the lead. And that's what happened.

Bottom line: I don't think we should try to figure out what Obama "really" thinks about stimulus spending vs. deficit reduction. His actions suggest that he wants long-term spending cuts. Like it or not, that's the real Obama.

UPDATE: Jon Chait has the same reaction as Matt, saying this about the failure last December to tie a debt ceiling increase to the tax and spending package: "It was clear that the time that Republicans were committed to pushing the boundaries of their formal powers as far as they would go, and Obama utterly failed to anticipate this."

Seriously? Does anyone really believe that Barack Obama and his team, all with high IQs and decades of Washington experience, utterly failed to anticipate this? I don't. A third grader might fail to anticipate this, but not Obama.

Slouching Out of Afghanistan

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 12:33 PM EDT

President Obama will be at Ft. Drum on Thursday to announce his plan to reduce our military presence in Afghanistan. Apparently, though, there's not much chance of doing anything more than pulling out the 30,000 troops that were added to Afghanistan in 2010. The real discussion is only over the exact pace of withdrawal for those 30,000:

Administration officials said Mr. Obama would most likely pull out the entire 30,000 troops by the end of 2012. What is still not known is how soon and how fast, though as the administration’s deliberations wind down, the outlines of the main proposals are becoming clearer.

Some senior White House officials advocate a plan under which 15,000 troops would return by the end of this year and the other 15,000 by the end of 2012....Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has long pushed for the United States to curtail its military engagement in Afghanistan, favors a plan under which all 30,000 troops would be pulled out within 12 months....Pentagon and military officials [prefer] an initial reduction this year of about 5,000 troops — the size of a brigade — followed by 5,000 over the winter, when fighting recedes. The final 20,000 troops could remain into the next autumn, through the 2012 fighting season.

So there you have it. Behind Door #1, is the 15/15 plan. Behind Door #2 is the 30/0 plan. Behind Door #3 is the 5/5/20 plan. Plus there's a Door #4, with no timeline at all. Those are your choices. Any way you slice it, though, all we're doing is getting back to 2009 levels, which themselves were more than twice as high as they were during the Bush administration.

In the New York Times a couple of days ago, David Sanger wrote that Obama "has scaled back, time and again, Washington’s goals in a country that the British, the Soviets and ultimately the Americans tried, and failed, to change." No kidding. Nation building is just a dim memory, we're negotiating a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban instead of trying to eliminate them, and our relationship with neighboring Pakistan is as dim as it's been for the past decade. What's more, the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has become even more hostile and mercurial than ever, lashing out at NATO a few days ago with this broadside:

“You remember a few years ago I was saying thank you to the foreigners for their help; every minute we were thanking them,” he said. “Now I have stopped saying that, except when Spanta forced me to say thank you,” referring to his national security adviser, Rangin Spanta, who was present. “They’re here for their own purposes, for their own goals, and they’re using our soil for that,” Mr. Karzai said.

Former Afghan ambassador Karl Eikenberry, as Spencer Ackerman pungently put it, basically told Karzai the next day to "shut the fuck up," and it's hardly any wonder. It's dangerous enough being deployed in Afghanistan already without having the local government essentially declare open season on you. But that's what Karzai does every time he unleashes one of these verbal cannonades.

I honestly don't know what our mission is in Afghanistan any more. It's a base for continued drone attacks against al-Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan, but our own intelligence officials have estimated that there are no more than a couple of hundred al-Qaeda members left there. It hardly seems feasible that we're ever going to get al-Qaeda presence in the AfPak border region down to zero, so the only real question left is whether it's worth hundreds of American lives and tens of billions of American dollars every year to try to reduce that number from 200 to 100, or from 100 to 50.

We really don't seem to be doing anything else useful there, the host government speaks out against us routinely, and Afghanistan continues to be a festering sore with no end in sight. So why is it that the only thing we're arguing about is whether a few thousand troops will come home in February of next year instead of October? Why aren't we arguing about whether we ought to be in Afghanistan at all?

A Historical Perspective on Historical Perspective

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 10:56 AM EDT

Via Andrew Sullivan, the New Yorker's Nick Paumgarten provides some perspective on the latest dismal findings about American kids' knowledge of American history:

“We haven’t ever known our past,” Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, said last week. “Your kids are no stupider than their grandparents.” He pointed out that the first large-scale proficiency study—of Texas students, in 1915-16—demonstrated that many couldn’t tell Thomas Jefferson from Jefferson Davis or 1492 from 1776. A 1943 survey of seven thousand college freshmen found that, among other things, only six per cent of them could name the original thirteen colonies. “Appallingly ignorant,” the Times harrumphed, as it would again in the face of another dismal showing, in 1976.

....The NAEP results through more than four decades have been consistently mediocre, which may prove nothing except, as Wineburg wrote in 2004, “our amnesia of past ignorance.”

My mother attended a highly-regarded Los Angeles public school in the 40s. She was an honor student who loaded up on every advanced class on offer. But she told me once that in her entire high school career she wasn't required to write a single term paper. On the math front, her school not only didn't offer calculus (nobody did in the 40s) but didn't even offer what today we'd call pre-calculus. Advanced algebra and trig was as far as things went.

I don't know how her history education fared compared to mine in the 70s — or to a contemporary high school student's in the aughts. But I'm willing to bet it wasn't any better. Kids may not know a ton of history today, but neither do adults. And why should they? They didn't learn much history when they were in high school either. Nothing much has changed, and education most likely hasn't gone to hell in a handbasket. That's cheery news, isn't it?

Chart of the Day: Who Gets Healthcare Claims Right?

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 10:09 AM EDT

According to the AMA, commercial healthcare insurers are getting worse at processing claims quickly and accurately:

According to the AMA’s latest findings, commercial health insurers have an average claims-processing error rate of 19.3 percent, an increase of two percent compared last year. The increase in overall inaccuracy represents an extra 3.6 million in erroneous claims payments compared to last year, and added an estimated $1.5 billion in unnecessary administrative costs to the health system....Physicians received no payment at all from commercial health insurers on nearly 23 percent of claims they submitted.

And who did best on this measure of administrative efficiency? Medicare, with an accuracy rate of over 96%. The full results for a broad measure of claims accuracy are below.

A Southern California Sunset

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 11:54 PM EDT

I promise not to overdo this, but since I'm still in play mode with my new camera, here's another nice, soothing shot of a lovely Southern California sunset to end the blogging day with. Enjoy.

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Voter Fraud or Voter Suppression?

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 4:23 PM EDT

E.J. Dionne has a column today about the longstanding conservative effort to pass "voter fraud" laws that (a) don't seem to reduce actual voter fraud, but (b) do tend to reduce turnout among traditional liberal constituencies. James Joyner reacts:

Are these reforms are aimed at suppressing the black and youth votes? I’d have to see substantially more evidence. But they seem to be aimed at theoretical problems that those who study such things can’t find in the wild.

Well, look: we'll probably never find smoking gun proof that voter fraud laws are aimed at suppressing the black and youth votes. After all, you'd have to be a monumental moron to actually admit this in any kind of written or otherwise permanent form.

Still, let's walk through the evidence:

  1. Research showing that actual voter fraud is minuscule — perhaps 0.001% of the vote or so — is overwhelming and very well known.
  2. Republicans have nonetheless been pushing voter fraud laws for nearly two decades.
  3. This costs a lot of money and sucks up a lot of energy.
  4. Parties don't generally spend lots of money and energy on things unless they benefit the party or its supporters in some way.
  5. The evidence that voter fraud laws reduce turnout among groups that trend Democratic is also very well known among party apparatchiks who pay attention to such things.

Maybe you can come up with some alternative interpretation for such a tenacious, coordinated, and energetic campaign. But the obvious explanation is that Republican Party apparatchiks think that voter fraud laws offer a method of reducing Democratic turnout in elections that's both effective and deniable. I really think you have to be almost willfully blind not to see this.

Confirmation Bias and Magic Mushrooms

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 3:30 PM EDT

Last week Andrew Sullivan linked to my post about new research into the mystical effects of psilocybin (aka the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) and said that his own experience with mushrooms a few years ago had deepened his faith and brought him closer to God. A reader objects:

This is why rationality is ultimately irreconcilable with faith. Scientists can now pinpoint the exact spots in your brain that light up during spiritual moments and you have found a mushroom that reproduces the effect. But instead of acknowledging this as an interesting yet completely natural sensation, you instead conclude that it’s a mushroom-shaped window into the divine.

Your mind is playing tricks on you, much in the same way that your eyes play tricks on you when items move into your blind spot. However, the effect sounds interesting; I might have to try it.

Andrew has an answer ("by definition, any divine manifestation in the mortal world will have some physical manifestation"), but it doesn't seem very convincing to me. Like his reader, I figure that if the feeling of the divine can be reliably activated by ingestion of a particular drug or stimulation of a particular nerve, then it's not really likely to be anything very divine after all. But then, I'm an atheist. I would think that, wouldn't I?

And with that, I'll now abuse the art of the segue to relate this to something that seems totally different. Here's my question to you: What do you think of those reality TV shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, where some handsome guy or gal sweeps through a field of equally handsome contenders week by week until they're left at the end with their one true love? As near as I can tell, most people who watch these shows think that it shows something about the power of romance. But I have a different takeaway: if you can take 25 random people and reliably make your bachelor/bachelorette fall in love with one of them every single time, then it really means there's not much to romance at all, doesn't it? A few weeks of time and a modest selection of potential mates will do it every time. Sorta sucks all the mystery out of it.

And yet, these shows remain popular, even though they demonstrate on a weekly basis just how mechanical and predictable love is. Why are so many people enamored of having their faces shoved into this week after week? Beats me. But I guess the answer is the same as it is for psilocybin and the divine: if you believe in love as a transcendent experience in the first place, these shows just confirm that belief. If you don't, they confirm just the opposite. Aren't we human beings wonderful?

UPDATE: Andy Sabl is less enthusiastic about psilocybin than I am, but he's thinking along the same lines as me after reading various reactions to psilocybin's mystical effects:

In other words, religion in, religion out. Give mushrooms to a bunch of hippies and they’ll gain a new appreciation for yoga; give them to a heterodox Catholic and he’ll ponder the Incarnation. Give them to me and I might start to (wrongly) believe that I can understand complex mathematical proofs or conceive (wrongly) that I remember my once-adequate ancient Greek — which once gave me the very fulfilling experience of being able to read easy bits of Plato without a dictionary.

I'd make a distinction here. I agree with Andy that I'm not much interested in an "enlightenment" that doesn't also happen to be true. However, the evidence on psilocybin suggests that it not only provides a mystical experience that might be intrinsically interesting (regardless of how you view it), but that it also has longlasting effects on purely measurable qualities like happiness and satisfaction with social interactions. That seems pretty worthwhile to me if there are no harmful side effects. I may not want to believe things that aren't true, but I'm perfectly willing to artificially improve my emotional state. Happier is happier, after all.

My Annual Post About the Death of Tennis

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 1:31 PM EDT

In honor of Wimbledon starting today, Patrick Hruby writes a piece that's become an annual tradition around this time of year: a plaint about the death of the serve-and-volley game among top tennis stars:

In part, serve-and-volley became a victim of its own success. By the mid-1990s, big-serving attackers—again, see Sampras—were winning points and games in bang-bang fashion, producing complaints of boring, monotonous tennis. The griping had merit: bereft of long rallies, matches between net-rushers lacked both flow and consistent action, reducing a game of ebb, flow and varied geometry to a soccer penalty shootout.

In response, courts were tweaked to make balls bounce slower and higher. Wimbledon, for instance, altered the composition of its grass in 2001, producing a firmer and more durable playing surface. This shifted the balance of power in the direction of baseliners, giving them valuable extra time—think a tenth of a second, which is all they needed—to line up returns and passing shots. In 2002, net-rusher Tim Henman complained that the All England grass was the slowest non-clay surface he had played on all season; six years later, a BBC broadcast compared a pair of Federer serves to show that the courts had become even slower. The first Federer serve was hit in 2003; the second in 2008. Both were clocked at 126 miles per hour. The latter serve bounced higher, and came off the grass travelling nine mph slower.

New racket technology also favors the power baseline game, and the result is that today just about everyone plays the exact same, boring style of tennis: an endless parade of huge, looping, topspin shots from five or ten feet beyond the baseline. Athletically, it's stupendous, but dramatically it's tedious. It's here to stay, though. One of these days John McEnroe will retire from broadcasting and we'll no longer have anyone to tell us once an hour or so that whoever we're watching at the moment would benefit from coming to the net more aggressively, at which point the serve-and-volley game will be such a distant memory that no one will even write the annual Wimbledon requiem any longer. It'll just be something to reminisce about at the old folks home.

How the Pentagon Will Rescue the Economy

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 12:40 PM EDT

Looking for employment opportunities that can help our flagging economy? Look no further:

The Pentagon now has some 7,000 aerial drones, compared with fewer than 50 a decade ago....Already the Air Force is training more remote pilots, 350 this year alone, than fighter and bomber pilots combined.

....The pressures on humans will only increase as the military moves from the limited “soda straw” views of today’s sensors to new “Gorgon Stare” technology that can capture live video of an entire city — but that requires 2,000 analysts to process the data feeds from a single drone, compared with 19 analysts per drone today.

There you go. Not only can we employ lots of people to build our new drone army, but we'll have to employ even more people to keep a close eye on every dangerous patch of ground on the planet. And luckily for us, those dangerous patches seem to be multiplying rapidly. Let's do a quick back-of the-envelope calculation:

  • We have 7,000 drones today. Seems to be a growth market, so figure 20,000 drones in a few years.
  • Let's say half of them have this fabulous Gorgon Stare technology. That's 10,000 drones.
  • At 2,000 analysts per drone, this amounts to 20 million jobs.

Now that's what I call putting America back to work! Only a non-patriot could object.