Kevin Drum

Does Amazon Have to Pay Workers for Going Through Its Security Lines? The Supreme Court Is About to Decide

| Tue Oct. 7, 2014 3:00 PM EDT

Here's the newest front in the war to pay low-wage workers even less:

The latest battle, which goes before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, was launched by former warehouse workers for Amazon.com, who argue they should have been paid for the time they spent waiting in security lines after their shifts....Those security lines could take more than half an hour, the workers said, and that was time when they should have been getting paid.

....Amazon said it would not comment due to the pending litigation, but a spokesperson said the "data shows that employees walk through post shift security screening with little or no wait."

Well now. If employees truly walk though security screenings with "little or no wait," then it wouldn't cost Amazon anything to pay them for that time. So why are they fighting this? Perhaps it's because Amazon is lying. Sometimes the wait really is substantial, and Amazon doesn't want to (a) pay more security guards to speed up the lines or (b) pay workers for the time spent in slowpoke lines.

So this really does seem like a simple case. If Amazon is telling the truth, they should have no objection to paying employees for time spent in line. If they're lying, then they should be given an incentive to speed up the security process—and the best incentive I can think of is to pay employees for time spent in line. Either way, the answer is the same: pay employees for time spent in security lines.

Needless to say, the Supreme Court will figure out a way to spend a hundred pages making this more complicated so that they can justify a different ruling. After all, it wouldn't do to allow workers to get above their stations, would it?

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Chart of the Day: Overweight Teenagers Earn Less as Adults

| Tue Oct. 7, 2014 1:14 PM EDT

Here's a stunning chart for you. It comes from a paper by a team of Swedish researchers, and it shows the relationship between earnings and weight among men. As you can see, adult earnings reach a peak around a BMI of 23—smack in the middle of the normal weight range—and then steadily decline as you get more overweight. But here's the kicker:

In particular, we contribute to the existing literature by showing that there is a large labor market weight-related penalty also for males, but only for those who were already overweight or obese in adolescence. We replicated this pattern using additional data sets from the United Kingdom and the United States, where the results were strikingly similar. The UK and U.S. estimates also confirm that the penalty is unique to those who were overweight or obese early in life.

The earnings penalty for overweight (and underweight!) men isn't due to simple discrimination. Men who become overweight as adults face no special career penalty. It's only a problem for men who become overweight as teenagers. The Economist summarizes the paper's conclusions:

At first glance, a sceptic might be unconvinced by the results. After all, within countries the poorest people tend to be the fattest....But the authors get around this problem by mainly focusing on brothers....They also include important family characteristics like the parents' income. All this statistical trickery allows the economists to isolate the effect of obesity on earnings.

So what does explain the “obesity penalty”? They reckon that discrimination in the labour market is not that important. Neither is health. Instead they emphasise what psychologists call “noncognitive factors”—motivation, popularity and the like. Having well-developed noncognitive factors is associated with success in the labour market. The authors argue that obese children pick up fewer noncognitive skills—they are less likely, say, to be members of sports teams or they may face discrimination from teachers.

In other words, social ostracism of both underweight and overweight teenagers produces lower cognitive skills and lower noncognitive (i.e., social) skills, and this in turn leads to lower earnings as adults. It may seem like harmless teenage clique behavior, but it has real consequences.

Spending During a Recession Is an Even Better Idea Than We Thought

| Tue Oct. 7, 2014 10:59 AM EDT

Matt O'Brien points today to a new paper that tries to estimate the value of the fiscal multiplier during recessions. The multiplier is a number that tells us how effective government spending is. For example, if the government spends a dollar on donuts, and then the baker uses part of that dollar to buy sugar, and then the sugar distributor uses part of that to pay her truckers, then the original dollar of government spending might spur total spending of more than a dollar.

On the other hand, if government spending simply takes a dollar out of the pockets of taxpayers, the net effect might be zero. Total spending might not change at all.

The value of the multiplier during the Great Recession has been a subject of considerable dispute over the past few years, but a new trio of researchers has produced an estimate higher than most previous ones:

Riera-Crichton, Vegh, and Vuletin took this analysis a step further. They focused squarely on countries that, between 1986 and 2008, had both been in a recession and increased spending. This last point is critical. Stimulus, remember, is supposed to be countercyclical: the government spends more when the economy shrinks. But historically-speaking, countries have actually cut spending about half the time that they've been in a slump. So counting all that austerity as "stimulus," as most do, gives us a misleadingly low estimate of the multiplier, something like 1.3. But it turns out, based on this new better sample, that the multiplier is really around 2.3 during a garden-variety recession, and 3.1 during a severe one.

Hmmm. I can't say that I understand this. Every estimate of the fiscal multiplier I've seen acknowledges that it's different during recessions. And why would previous research have included countries that cut spending during a recession? This is a bit of a mystery. Nonetheless, if this new paper really does do a better job of estimating the multiplier, then it makes a very strong case that stimulus spending during a recession—especially a severe one—is critical to recovery. America's obsession with austerity starting in 2011 is probably a big reason our recovery was so weak, and cutting spending now, as the eurozone is doing even as its economy decays yet again, is the worst thing they could do.

More infrastructure spending, please. After all, why not do it now when it's practically a free lunch?

BREAKING: Wall Street Is a Sinkhole of Corruption and Fraud

| Tue Oct. 7, 2014 1:26 AM EDT

The New York Times reports on the latest in Wall Street malfeasance:

With evidence mounting that a number of foreign and American banks colluded to alter the price of foreign currencies, the largest and least regulated financial market, prosecutors are aiming to file charges against at least one bank by the end of the year, according to interviews with lawyers briefed on the matter. Ultimately, several banks are expected to plead guilty.

....The charges will most likely focus on traders and their bosses rather than chief executives.

Ha ha ha. That goes without saying. Everyone knows that the CEOs of big banks know absolutely nothing about what's actually going on in their banks.

In any case, I think we might all have an easier time from now on if we wrote stories explaining which areas of banking aren't under investigation for collusion and gobsmacking levels of fraud and corruption. You know, just to save time.

Your Lesson for the Day: If You Decline to Use Military Force, You've "Kind of Lost Your Way"

| Mon Oct. 6, 2014 6:45 PM EDT

Today the Washington Post summarizes a new book by Leon Panetta, former CIA director and secretary of defense in the Obama administration, as well as an interview Panetta gave to Susan Page of USA Today:

By not pressing the Iraqi government to leave more U.S. troops in the country, he “created a vacuum in terms of the ability of that country to better protect itself, and it’s out of that vacuum that ISIS began to breed,” Panetta told USA Today, referring to the group also known as the Islamic State.

....The USA Today interview was the first of what inevitably will be a series as he promotes his book, “Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace,” which is sharply critical of Obama’s handling of the troop withdrawal from Iraq, Syria and the advance of the Islamic State. “I think we’re looking at kind of a 30-year war” that will also sweep in conflicts in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and Libya, he told the paper.

My first thought when I read this was puzzlement: Just what does Panetta think those US troops would have accomplished if they'd stayed in Iraq? Nobody ever seems to have a very concrete idea on that score. There's always just a bit of vague hand waving about how of course they would have done....something....something....something.....and stopped the spread of ISIS. But what?

My second thought was the same as Joe Biden's: would it kill guys like Panetta to at least wait until Obama is out of office before airing all their complaints? Do they have even a smidgen of loyalty to their ex-boss? But I suppose that ship sailed long ago, so there's not much point in griping about it.

In the end, what really gets me is this, where Panetta talks about Obama's foreign policy legacy:

"We are at a point where I think the jury is still out," Panetta says. "For the first four years, and the time I spent there, I thought he was a strong leader on security issues. ... But these last two years I think he kind of lost his way. You know, it's been a mixed message, a little ambivalence in trying to approach these issues and try to clarify what the role of this country is all about.

"He may have found himself again with regards to this ISIS crisis. I hope that's the case. And if he's willing to roll up his sleeves and engage with Congress in taking on some of these other issues, as I said I think he can establish a very strong legacy as president. I think these next 2 1/2 years will tell us an awful lot about what history has to say about the Obama administration."

Think about this. Panetta isn't even a super hawkish Democrat. Just moderately hawkish. But his basic worldview is simple: as long as Obama is launching lots of drone attacks and surging lots of troops and bombing plenty of Middle Eastern countries—then he's a "strong leader on security issues." But when Obama starts to think that maybe reflexive military action hasn't acquitted itself too well over the past few years—in that case he's "kind of lost his way."

That's the default view of practically everyone in Washington: Using military force shows strong leadership. Declining to use military force shows weakness. But most folks inside the Beltway don't even seem to realize they feel this way. It's just part of the air they breathe: never really noticed, always taken for granted, and invariably the difficult but sadly necessary answer for whichever new and supposedly unique problem we're addressing right now. This is what Obama is up against.

5 Percent of Religious Americans Routinely Try to Fool God

| Mon Oct. 6, 2014 2:16 PM EDT

Speaking of phone surveys, surely a survey conducted by LifeWay, a Christian retailer based in Nashville, TN, should be one that we can rely on. So what was LifeWay curious about? Prayer. In particular: how often you pray; what you pray for; and whether your prayers are answered. The chart on the right, perhaps one of my all time favorites, shows what people said they prayed for.

Some of these are unexceptionable. Praying for your enemies is supposedly a Christian sort of thing to do (assuming you're praying for their redemption, of course). Praying to win the lottery is pretty standard stuff. And despite mountains of evidence that God doesn't really care who wins the Super Bowl, there's always been plenty of praying for that too.

But finding a good parking spot? Seriously? There's also a fair amount of Old Testament vengeance on display here. But my favorite is the 5 percent of respondents who prayed for success in something they knew wouldn't please God.

This is great. Apparently these folks are more willing to be honest with a telephone pollster than with God despite the fact that God already knows. If it displeases Him, then that's that. You aren't going to fool Him into making it happen anyway. I'm also intrigued by the 20 percent who prayed for success in something they "put almost no effort in." That's fabulous! Not that they did it, mind you. That's just human nature. But that they were willing to fess up to this to a telephone pollster. Is there anything people aren't willing to confide to telephone pollsters?

Anyway, another chart tells us that 25 percent of those who pray say their prayers are answered all the time. All the time! This is terrific, and I want to meet one of these people. God has not been noticeably receptive to me lately, and I could use some help from someone with a 100 percent batting average.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, is it really possible that virtually none of these folks ever prayed for their health to improve? Or is that too risky to admit, since usually it's fairly obvious when it doesn't work?

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Americans Are Rebelling Against Phone Surveys

| Mon Oct. 6, 2014 12:29 PM EDT

Carl Bialik reports on the state of the state in political polling:

Fifteen pollsters told us their response rates for election polls this year and in 2012. The average response rate this year is 11.8 percent — down 1.9 percentage points from 2012. That may not sound like a lot, but when fewer than one in seven people responded to polls in 2012, there wasn’t much room to drop. It’s a decline of 14 percent, and it’s consistent across pollsters — 12 of the 15 reported a decline, and no one reported an increase.

These results are consistent with what pollsters have reported for years: that people are harder to reach by phone, and are less likely to want to talk to strangers when they are reached. Here, the pollsters show just how quickly response rates have fallen in only two years.

I assume the problem here is twofold. First, there are too many polls. A few decades ago it might have seemed like a big deal to get a call from a Gallup pollster. Sort of like being a Nielsen family. Today it's not. Polls are now conducted so frequently, and the public has become so generally media savvy, that it's just sort of a nuisance.

More generally, there are just too many spam phone calls. The Do Not Call Registry was a great idea, but there are (a) too many loopholes, including for pollsters, and (b) too many spammers who don't give a damn. When the registry first went on line, my level of spam phone calls dropped dramatically. Since then, however, it's gradually increased and is now nearly as bad as it ever was. I won't even pick up the phone anymore if Caller ID suggests it's a commercial call of some variety. Nor is there much likelihood that this situation is going to improve as long as the spammers are smart enough not to call Chuck Schumer's cell phone.

So perhaps polling is going to end up being a victim of its own success. During election years I get two or three calls a month from pollsters, which is pretty remarkable if I'm anything close to average. It means pollsters are making something like 100 million or more calls per month across the country. Is that possible? It hardly seems like it. Maybe I'm an outlier. But one way or another, it's a big number, and it's no wonder that people are hanging up on them in droves.

Here's Why I Left My Dentist

| Mon Oct. 6, 2014 11:34 AM EDT

Kiera Butler manages to punch one of my buttons today in a piece about the growing problem of "creative diagnosis" in dentistry:

Upselling in dentistry isn't a new phenomenon, but it's having a moment....A generation ago, newly hatched dentists would join established practices as modestly paid associates, with the promise of eventually becoming partners. But these days, with dentists retiring later, there's less turnover in private practice. Instead, more and more young dentists are taking jobs with chains, many of which set revenue quotas for practitioners.

Some years ago, my local dentist was purchased by a chain operation. For a while, nothing seemed to change. But then things did. Was it the recession? Was the chain doing poorly and needed more revenue? Did they hire a new CEO? I'll never know. What I do know is that over time I got more and more skeptical that their recommendations were based purely on best practices. Suddenly I needed lots of fillings replaced. I needed special antibiotic treatments that my insurance didn't cover. I should be coming in every three months, not every six months. And sitting in the waiting room, I frequently overheard conversations that sounded more like they came from a stall in a Turkish bazaar than from a medical office in Southern California.

So I finally left and switched to a dentist recommended by a friend. No more antibiotics. My gums seemed to have been miraculously cured. Coming in twice a year was just fine.

Was my old dentist really pushing treatments that I didn't need? I'll never know with certainty. But it sure felt like it, and I simply lost confidence in them. It felt like the place was being run by the finance department, not by a bunch of doctors. Caveat emptor.

Joe Biden Apologizes For Telling the Truth About ISIS

| Mon Oct. 6, 2014 10:53 AM EDT

If a gaffe is the act of accidentally telling the truth, then Joe Biden pulled off the mother of all gaffes on Thursday:

Speaking at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Mr. Biden said allies including Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates had extended unconditional financial and logistical support to Sunni fighters trying to oust the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“President Erdogan told me,” he said, according to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, “ ‘You were right. We let too many people through. Now we are trying to seal the border.’

“Our allies poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against al-Assad,” he said, including jihadists planning to join the Nusra Front and Al Qaeda.

Our Middle East allies went nuclear over this remark, and by my count Biden has now apologized for it at least three times. Maybe more. I'm not sure. All for the sin of telling the truth.

That's not to say Biden should have said this, of course. Diplomacy is shadowy and vague for good reasons. Still, you have to feel for the guy. Of all the things to be called on the carpet for, this is surely the one he deserves the least.

The Washington Post Wants Google to Invent a "Secure Golden Key"

| Sat Oct. 4, 2014 10:26 AM EDT

A couple of weeks ago Google announced that Android phones would soon have their contents encrypted by default. The encryption key would be set by the user and Google wouldn't keep a copy. This means that if police get a warrant to search a cell phone, they can't get the encryption key from Google. The owner of the phone will have to cough it up.

This is how search warrants work in every other walk of life, but law enforcement agencies were nonetheless frustrated over Google's new policy. The Washington Post sympathizes with their frustration, and yesterday they mounted a fairly standard defense of the law enforcement position. But then they ended with this:

How to resolve this? A police “back door” for all smartphones is undesirable — a back door can and will be exploited by bad guys, too. However, with all their wizardry, perhaps Apple and Google could invent a kind of secure golden key they would retain and use only when a court has approved a search warrant. Ultimately, Congress could act and force the issue, but we’d rather see it resolved in law enforcement collaboration with the manufacturers and in a way that protects all three of the forces at work: technology, privacy and rule of law.

A "secure golden key"? Seriously? Did they bother talking to anyone more technically savvy than their publisher's nine-year-old grandkid about this?

If you're going to opine about this stuff, you owe it to your readers to do at least a minimal amount of reporting and research about what's possible and what's not. Otherwise you sound like an idiot.