Kevin Drum

Workers are Getting Screwed, Part MDCCXII

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 11:05 PM EDT

In a new study, 68% of the workers who were interviewed had experienced at least one pay-related violation in the previous work week.  You heard that right.  In the previous week alone:

In surveying 4,387 workers in various low-wage industries, including apparel manufacturing, child care and discount retailing, the researchers found that the typical worker had lost $51 the previous week through wage violations, out of average weekly earnings of $339. That translates into a 15 percent loss in pay.

The researchers said one of the most surprising findings was how successful low-wage employers were in pressuring workers not to file for workers’ compensation. Only 8 percent of those who suffered serious injuries on the job filed for compensation to pay for medical care and missed days at work stemming from those injuries.

“The conventional wisdom has been that to the extent there were violations, it was confined to a few rogue employers or to especially disadvantaged workers, like undocumented immigrants,” said Nik Theodore, an author of the study and a professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. “What our study shows is that this is a widespread phenomenon across the low-wage labor market in the United States.”

They were surprised by this?  Seriously?  Sure, I suppose 68% is higher than I would have guessed, but I sure wouldn't have guessed that this kind of thing was confined to a "few rogue employers" either.  How many reports of mistreatment do we have to get before we finally figure out that labor violations are rampant in this country?

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The 25/25 Rule

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 5:49 PM EDT

Virginia Republican Bob McDonnell is in trouble.  He's running for governor, and a couple of weeks ago he happened to mention to a pair of Washington Post reporters that he had written his master's thesis at Regent University on "welfare policy."  So they went to the Regent library and took a look.  It turns out that "welfare policy" was a pretty bloodless way of describing it:

He described working women and feminists as "detrimental" to the family. He said government policy should favor married couples over "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators." He described as "illogical" a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples.

Oops.  He's supposed to be a moderate conservative, you see. Michelle Cottle comments:

I find myself torn in this fight. In general, I find the obsession with politicians' student writings excessive. Most of these papers spring from the  brains of people in their early- to mid-20s who have spent the past several years in the self-indulgent cocoon of academia.

....That said, Republicans are hardly in a position to gripe about this tendency. Anyone recall the frenzy the Right whipped itself into over Hillary's thesis on Saul Alinksy or Michelle O's thesis on black Princeton grads? The former ostensibly proved Hillary to be a socialist and the latter revealed Michelle to be a militant whitey-hating bigot. Ah, good times.

So we're to judge Democrats by their academic ramblings but not Republicans? I think not.

I have a solution to this problem that I call the 25/25 rule: it doesn't count if you did it more than 25 years ago or before your 25th birthday.  Obviously there are exceptions to this.  A major scandal (Watergate, say) or career accomplishment (passing a bill) should stay with you more or less forever.  Likewise, if you can show a consistent pattern of behavior, then the entire historical track record is fair game.

But for modest, one-off stuff like this, I think 25/25 works pretty well.  Sadly for McDonnell, he doesn't qualify on either count: he wrote his thesis 20 years ago, when he was 34 years old.  So there's no need to be torn: McDonnell was no utopian teenager scribbling out plans to save the world in the pot-ridden 60s.  He was a grown man writing during the first George Bush administration.  That doesn't mean his thesis should disqualify him from office or anything, but it does mean that it's fair for his opponents to bring it up in their campaigns.  It's up to McDonnell to convince us that he doesn't believe this stuff anymore.

Wildfires and Climate Change

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 4:37 PM EDT

At last year's Netroots Nation I ran into CAP's Brad Johnson one day, and he told me that one of the consequences of global warming was increased wildfire activity in California.  I wasn't sure I really believed that, so he promised to send me some stuff to read.

Well, he did, and I read it, and he was right.  I blogged on that shortly afterward, and with fire season on us once more it's worth writing about again.  Roughly speaking, it turns out that land use issues are probably responsible for about half of the increase in western wildfire activity over the past few decades and climate change is responsible for the other half.  The mechanism is pretty straightforward: higher temperatures lead to both reduced snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas and an earlier melt, which in turn produces a longer and drier fire season.  Result: more and bigger fires.  Plus there's this, from CAP's Tom Kenworthy:

In recent years, a widespread and so far unchecked epidemic of mountain pine beetles that has killed millions of acres of trees from Colorado north into Canada has laid the foundation for a potentially large increase in catastrophic fires. Climate change has played a role in that outbreak, too, as warmer winters spare the beetles from low temperatures that would normally kill them off, and drought stresses trees.

In the western United States, mountain pine beetles have killed some 6.5 million acres of forest, according to the Associated Press. As large as that path of destruction is, it’s dwarfed by the 35 million acres killed in British Columbia, which has experienced a rash of forest fires this summer that as of early this month had burned more than 155,000 acres. In the United States to date about 5.2 million acres — an area larger than Massachusetts  —have burned this year.

Destruction of trees by the mountain pine beetle, combined with climate change and fire, makes for a dangerous feedback loop. Dead forests sequester less carbon dioxide. Burning forests release lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. More carbon dioxide adds to climate change, which raises temperatures, stresses forests, and makes more and bigger fires more likely.

It’s a frightening prospect, as British Columbia’s Forests Minister Pat Bell told an International Energy Agency conference last week. “I am not a doomsayer,” said Bell. “I am not one who wants to say we are beyond the tipping point. But I am afraid that we are getting close to that.”

Today, 100,000-acre conflagrations that take two weeks to contain and kill three or four firefighters along the way are perfectly normal here in Southern California.  They weren't when I was a kid. This is partly due to global warming, and it's something that's happening now — not in 2050 or 2075 or 2100.  And it's only going to get worse if we don't do something about it.

Toys and Books

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 2:12 PM EDT

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act makes it illegal to sell toys that haven't been tested for lead content.  In general, I think that's a perfectly fine idea.  At the same time, wiping out the second-hand market for clothing and books seems pretty draconian.  And this just stinks.  Maybe CPSIA could use a revisit?

Reading and the Whale

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 1:45 PM EDT

Should schoolkids be allowed to read whatever they want?  Or should teachers assign them specific books?  Here's the brief for the defense:

What child is going to pick up ‘Moby-Dick’?” said Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University who was assistant education secretary under President George H. W. Bush. “Kids will pick things that are trendy and popular. But that’s what you should do in your free time.”

This whole debate seems odd to me because it conflates two different things.  In earlier grades, say 1-8 or so, we're teaching reading.  Within reason, letting kids pick books they're personally attracted to seems like a good approach since it's more likely to keep them interested in reading for its own sake.

But in later grades we're introducing them to the literary canon, and that's where it becomes more appropriate for teachers to pick the books.  American Literature is a subject, just like history or chemistry, and an expert in the subject ought to choose the reading list.

On the subject of Moby Dick in particular, though, I take issue with Matt Yglesias:

All that said, I love Moby Dick. Every American should read Moby Dick, it’s our great national epic and you can’t understand the country without it.

I read Moby Dick a couple of months ago.  I didn't care for it.  I'll spare you the details since I'd just be opening myself up to quite justified charges of philistinism, and who needs that?  But I will say this: I don't feel like I understand our country any better for having read it.  And "you can’t understand the country without it" is an even stronger claim that requires an equally strong defense.  I'm eager to hear it.

The Strange Amnesia of David Brooks

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 12:33 PM EDT

I'm generally pretty well disposed toward David Brooks.  We wouldn't run the country the same way, but he's not a zealot and he's usually not boring.  For a biweekly columnist, that's not bad.

But today's column feels like it came straight from Sarah Palin's PR shop with just a light rewrite:

Anxiety is now pervasive....The public’s view of Congress, which ticked upward for a time, has plummeted....There are also warning signs in the Senate....The public has soured on Obama’s policy proposals....Driven by this general anxiety, and by specific concerns, public opposition to health care reform is now steady and stable. Independents once solidly supported reform. Now they have swung against it.

Etc.  You'd think that Obama had been working in a vacuum or something.  There's not even the briefest mention of the primary cause for all this: the deliberate decision by the Republican Party to hand over the reins to its most extreme wing and adopt a scorched earth counterattack to Obama's entire agenda.  He agreed to cut the stimulus package by $100 billion and put 40% of it into tax cuts.  That cut no ice.  Democrats proposed a cap-and-trade proposal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions because it uses market mechanisms instead of crude command-and-control directives — and then adopted hundreds of compromises to water it down.  Didn't matter.  Max Baucus has been "negotiating" over healthcare reform with Republicans in the Senate for months and Obama has been careful not to criticize.  But that turned out to be a charade.  Tim Geithner's financial bailout plan was limited and business friendly.  No matter.

Independents haven't "swung against" healthcare reform.  They've been the target of a massive campaign of lies and demagoguery.  Brooks says that Obama needs to embrace "fiscal responsibility, individual choice and decentralized authority," but every time he's done that it's gotten him nowhere.  In fact, just the opposite: for the most part these proposals just invite blistering counterattacks from supposedly conservative Republicans.

And contra Brooks, Obama hasn't moved to the left.  He's done almost exactly what he said he'd do during the campaign — sometimes to my chagrin.  So what accounts for an entire column on this subject that doesn't even mention the Republican opposition?  Beats me.  I guess Brooks just finally got tired of reading pieces like this.

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Leaving Afghanistan

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 11:41 AM EDT

George Will, after running through the immense difficulties of nation building in Afghanistan, says this:

Forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.

One of the things I never seem to hear much about is what the generals think would happen if we withdrew from Afghanistan.  If the answer is that the Taliban is likely to take over completely, that's one thing.  But if it's more likely that the Taliban and the central government would continue fighting, with the Taliban maintaining control over a limited area of the country and the central government maintaining control over the rest, that's quite a different outcome.

If, after eight years, the Karzai regime is so weak that the former is likely, then our task is probably hopeless and we should withdraw in the way Will suggests.  But if the latter is more likely, would it really be necessary to go that far?  Why not offer to lease Bagram from the Afghan government for a billion dollars a year, offer some additional money in military and rebuilding aid, and then continue the mission of fighting al-Qaeda from there while leaving the Taliban to Karzai?  We know how to protect a military base from an insurgent force like the Taliban, and fighting from there would be a helluva lot easier than trying to do it from offshore.

This is probably a hopelessly ignorant suggestion.  Does anyone ever try to maintain a military base in a country riven by civil war?  I'm not sure.  But it would be interesting to hear the experts chime in on this.

Healthcare and the Media

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 10:30 AM EDT

A reader from outside DC writes to disagree about healthcare policy stories being too complicated and slow moving to get a lot of air/print time:

Engaging health care stories aren't too complicated for newspapers in the flyover states. They've been doing the personal health bankruptcy stuff for months and folding it into the larger picture.

It ain't that complicated, this is what papers do outside of D.C. They look at an important public issue and, realizing it's complex, dry or technical, figure out ways to make it interesting and easy to understand. They find local people and talk to them and report what they hear in ways that people who live around there absorb.

....As a big fan and daily reader, I am chagrined with your simplistic analysis of why the press corps is bungling the health care story. It's an absence of will, direction, hustle and journalistic acumen — a dearth of basic story-telling skills and common sense — that binds these D.C. sycophantic editors and reporters to everyone in DC. But it is not because the story is too complicated.

Anyone else from outside the Beltway care to chime in on this?  Is coverage of healthcare policy really better in Des Moines than it is in the Washington Post?

Quote of the Day

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 9:59 PM EDT

From former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, describing his favorite congressman:

This is a guy that’s got the intellect, he’s got the energy, he cares, and he wants to legislate, knows how to legislate. He’s interested in getting across the finish line.

The congressman in question is Barney Frank, as described in a series of interviews given to Todd Purdum in Vanity Fair.  Paulson, who comes across in these interviews as almost astonishingly naive about how Washington works, basically says that Frank was the only honest, straightforward guy on the entire Hill.  "I just wish he were a Republican," he said.

Paulson has nice things to say about Nancy Pelosi too (“She was engaged, she was decisive, and she was really willing to just get involved with all of her people on a hands-on basis”).  And Tim Geithner (“He understands Treasury. He’s an internationalist....He’s smooth, but there’s ... inside, he’s tough as steel”).  But his fellow Republicans?  Not so nice:

“It’s not enough to just sit there and say, ‘I’m right, the other guys are wrong,’ ” he told me at one point, explaining why it was often so difficult working with some of the more doctrinaire members of the White House staff. “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with ideology. I’ve got my ideology and my philosophy. But those that say, ‘I won’t compromise,’ to prove a point, and then ‘I’m going to point a finger afterwards and say, See, I was right ... ’ ”

Sounds like he and John DiIulio could have a very simpatico conversation about the Bush White House if they ever got together for a beer or three.

The Public's Right to Know

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 5:47 PM EDT

Today Adam Liptak gives us yet another reason to lament the financial meltdown in the newspaper industry.  In the past, it was most often newspapers that filed lawsuits demanding access to information that had been placed off limits for one reason or another.  But as their finances dwindle they can't afford to file these kinds of suits as often, and other types of publishers don't want to:

Consider the aftermath of a recent settlement in a lawsuit against Amtrak....As part of the settlement, the parties asked Judge Lawrence F. Stengel of Federal District Court in Philadelphia not only to vacate eight of his decisions in the case but also to “direct LexisNexis and Westlaw to remove the decisions” from “their respective legal research services/databases.”

The judge agreed, and the database companies complied.

“In the infrequent event that we are ordered by the court to remove a decision from Westlaw,” explained John Shaughnessy, a spokesman for the service, which is owned by ThomsonReuters, “we will comply with the order, deleting the text of the decision but keeping the title of the case and its docket number. We also publish the court’s order to remove so there’s a clear record of the action.”

In cases like this, newspapers have traditionally refused to cooperate.  What's more, they filed suits to keep this kind of information public not just out of concern for their business, but because their owners were genuinely obsessed with First Amendment rights.  Newer businesses, conversely, tend to either have reason to cooperate with the government, or else think of these suits strictly from a perspective of whether they're economically worth it.  We've still got the ACLU, of course, but they can't pick up all the slack.  In the great power struggle between government secrecy and the public's right to know, the demise of the newspaper industry is a victory for the bad guys.