Mojo - June 2006

Taking the High Road

| Tue Jun. 13, 2006 5:50 PM EDT

In the middle of Nathan Newman's great primer on unions and why they're important, there's an interesting discussion about the various "high road" and "low road" strategies corporations often adopt, and what that means for organized labor:

The commonest metaphor for how unions strengthen the economy is that they force employers on to the "high road" of production-- concentrating on innovation rather than sweating workers, promoting skilled work versus unskilled low-wage labor, and encouraging investment in long-term productivity rather than short-term profits.

Especially in a world of global competition, "low road" companies will inevitably lose to firms in developing nations which can always undercut them on price, so forcing companies into long-term investments in "high road" production is the only way US economic growth will sustain itself in the longer term. I'd suggest a good example here—New York's garment industry, which, in the postwar era, focused on lowering production costs by colluding with corrupt unions and the Mafia to slash wages and set up sweatshops. But now the industry, whose main selling point is its low prices, faces competition from overseas, where wages are even lower. By contrast, Northern Italy's garment industry—where workers get paid two to three times what they do in New York—has long competed on quality and innovation, and faces somewhat less overseas pressure (although there's still a fair bit). So I think there's something to Nathan's point.

The post also brings to mind an interesting paper by Roberto Fernandez, who looked at what happened when a food reprocessing plant in the Midwest when it "retooled" and upgraded its production equipment. Not surprisingly, the new technology increased wage inequality within the firm: those workers who could do the new, more complicated jobs requiring greater education saw a leap in pay, and those who didn't were left behind. It's evidence that technological change can and probably does lead to greater wage inequality in the United States (although I doubt it's the whole story).

But. There's a "but" here. One noteworthy thing about the plant was that it was unionized, and thanks to that, the plant owners agreed not to fire any workers prior to retooling but instead to retrain them for their new jobs (in this, they were helped by state programs to pay for retraining). Although this didn't eliminate the adverse impact of the retooling on inequality (especially on racial and gender inequality), it greatly reduced it. More to the point, it worked out well for the firm too, since "workers fretting for their jobs or wages can undo many of the benefits expected from new technology." So score one for unions.

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SCOTUS and DNA

| Tue Jun. 13, 2006 3:32 PM EDT

Iocaste explains what yesterday's Supreme Court decision on DNA evidence was all about. For anyone, like me, unfamiliar with the "nasty, brutish, and long" world of habeas corpus, it's very much worth reading.

Suicide Prisoner Had Been Scheduled for Release

| Tue Jun. 13, 2006 3:13 PM EDT

This is a wretched story: "One of the three detainees who committed suicide at Guantánamo Bay was due to be released but had not been told, the man's lawyer said today." It's not hard to see why he was driven to suicide here:

"His despair was great enough and in his ignorance he went and killed himself," Mr Denbeaux said, adding that many other Guantánamo detainees felt similarly hopeless.

"These people are told they'll be 50 by the time they get out, that they have no hope of getting out. They've been denied a hearing, they have no chance to be released," he said.That's just a tad more likely than Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr.'s claim that he was waging "an act of asymmetrical warfare" by killing himself, no? Previous studies have estimated that over 55 percent of Guantanamo detainees "are not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the United States or its coalition allies," and the vast majority were captured not by the U.S., but by either Pakistan or the Northern Alliance at a time when the United States was offering very large rewards for any "suspected enemies."

Liberal Americans more willing to give post-Katrina aid to white victims

| Tue Jun. 13, 2006 12:00 PM EDT

The Washington Post conducted a study to determine how racial cues presented in Katrina news coverage influenced citizens' response to the hurricane's aftermath. These racial cues were found in both thematic stories that covered the hurricane in general, and in episodic stories that focused on particular individuals.

Participants in the study were given a thematic story that covered the extent of the flooding and the destruction of parts of New Orleans, and one that focused on lawlessness and looting. Participants were also given episodic stories about victims of various races. About 2,300 people completed the study. Of this group, "the sample was skewed heavily" in the direction of Democrats and liberals: Only 12% identified as Republicans. 86% were critical of Bush's handling of Katrina, and 84% had earned at least a bachelor's degree.

The details of the study may be viewed here. Here are the major findings:

People were willing to give assistance to a white victim, on average, for about 12 months, and they were willing to give the same amount of aid to an African American person for about 11 months. A darker-skinned black victim was selected to receive $100 a month less, over a shorter period of time, than a light-skinned white person. Participants who read an article on looting were the least generous toward African Americans.

"We suspect that this group would score at or very near the top of most measures of support for civil rights and racial equality," Post authors said of the study's participants. "The fact that this group awarded lower levels of hurricane assistance after reading about looting or after encountering an African-American family displaced by the hurricane is testimony to the persistent and primordial power of racial imagery in American life."

Head in the Sand

| Mon Jun. 12, 2006 7:36 PM EDT

Best way to ignore global warming? Cut funding for satellite programs "designed to give scientists critical information on the earth's changing climate and environment." It sure is good to be president…

MORE: "The quality and credibility of government research are being jeopardized by inconsistent policies for communicating scientific findings to the public, says an independent group of scientists that advises Congress and the White House."

Americans want change, but can progressives make the sale?

| Mon Jun. 12, 2006 6:04 PM EDT

At the opening of today's Take Back America conference, hosted by the Campaign for America's Future, progressive leaders, pollsters, Robert Redford and even a bland Senate Minority Leader, Harry Reid, all argued that the conservative era was over and Americans are ready for change. Campaign for America Future's co-director Robert Borsage and pollster Stan Greenberg released a new poll and strategy manual, a roadmap for progressives (okay, liberals) showing that on issues ranging from using international alliances to build our security to regulating business abuses, Americans favor the progressive solutions over the conservative ones."We were asked with this poll, to find out if the country has reached a tipping point. The answer is yes. The conservative world view is in the deepest trouble at its very core philosophical underpinnings."

But the press releases and web pages don't highlight Greenberg's skepticism about the failure so far of the Democrats to convince the public that they offer a better way. Even though the Republican agenda was now "rubble," progressives haven't won over the public or yet reached them effectively. That's the obstacle this conference can help overcome. Check this space for more details and updates.

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Extreme Home Makeover--Corruption Editon

| Mon Jun. 12, 2006 4:49 PM EDT

Businesses have donated $700,000 to Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick to pay for the renovation of his Austin apartment. Craddick and his wife say they do not think it is right for the public to pay for the renovation, but how can it be "right" for Craddick to accept so much money from businesses?

$250,000 came from the AT&T Foundation alone, and another $250,000 came from billionaire investor Harold Simmons and his companies. The nearly 2,000-square foot apartment is the only apartment inside a state capitol in the United States. Craddick and his wife declined an interview with the Associated Press and declined to provide an apartment tour.

Can Wal-Mart Do Fair Trade?

| Mon Jun. 12, 2006 4:47 PM EDT

The newspapers tell us that Wal-Mart is going to start purchasing and selling "fair trade" coffee. That certainly seems like a good thing, though it's only natural to be suspicious here. Wal-Mart's whole business strategy is to reduce its prices by pushing some of the true costs of its products onto other people—paying workers below-living wages, pressuring its suppliers into lowering their labor standards, forcing customers to drive longer distances to get to its stores, violating environmental laws, etc. etc. But "fair trade" is predicated on the idea that corporations—and customers—should pay the full cost of their products.

Presumably something has to give, no? Perhaps in the future Wal-Mart can reduce its prices on "fair trade" products by lobbying to weaken regulations governing what can count as "Fair Trade Certified." Maybe not, but that seems like a reasonable thing to worry about.

Darfur: Harder Than It Seems

| Mon Jun. 12, 2006 3:38 PM EDT

There's not exactly a groundswell for sending more troops overseas these days, but The New Republic's editors are still trying to make the case for intervention in Darfur. The argument's worth reading, although the idea that intervention would "only" take 20,000 NATO troops seems absurdly optimistic, reminiscent of prewar Pentagon estimates about how many troops would be needed to occupy Iraq—low-ball figures that TNR and other liberal hawks have criticized in hindsight. And then there's this:

This is not Iraq: A few weeks ago, thousands of Darfuris demonstrated in a camp, chanting, "Welcome, welcome, USA. Welcome, welcome, international force."
This, it seems, is TNR's way of saying that Darfur would be a "cakewalk" and we'd be welcomed with "rose water and flowers." As the links in that last sentence suggest, that's exactly the same thing that was predicted about Iraq, before the war. And more to the point, a lot of Iraqis really did welcome American troops in the early days of the war, as Anthony Shadid's Night Draws Near shows. But obviously all that "rose water" and goodwill quickly evaporated once things went to shit and people started dying. The same would almost certainly be true in Darfur.

That said, I think Eric Reeves has made a decent case that intervention in Darfur could well succeed and save a lot of lives. But any confidence that it would be simple seems preposterous. To take another "non-controversial" humanitarian intervention, the UN has been in the Balkans for a decade, the region is still extremely unstable, and there are no signs that they can leave anytime soon. So are we talking about a decade-long occupation in Sudan? Maybe. If there's anything to be learned from history, it's that intervening in Darfur would likely be far, far more difficult than anything currently being contemplated.

Guantanamo has driven Rear Admiral Harry Harris insane

| Sun Jun. 11, 2006 4:19 PM EDT

The Bush administration's war on terror has claimed another victim--namely, the tenuous grip on reality possessed by Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the commander of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. Commenting on the suicides of three detainees, Harris offered this analysis:

"They are smart, they are creative, they are committed," Admiral Harris said. "They have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us."

I don't think this requires any further comment.