December 31, 2008

I wish I owned a TV so I could watch Rachel Maddow

December 30, 2008

path dependence, unions, and health care

Jonathan Cohn’s piece about auto workers in the New Republic talks about both the major gains that unions won, and the way that right-to-work laws closed off opportunities for further union organizing. Union efforts developed the modern American welfare state: because union wage and benefit gains altered the market for labor, other companies had to offer better wages and benefits, and Americans became accustomed to the idea that they would receive health and retirement benefits through their employers. But globalization (which allowed manufacturing to take place in other countries) and the decline of unions changed that situation.

As Ezra Klein points out, weakening unions leads to a collective action problem:

a dilemma in which the rational actions of individual actors make everyone worse off. What's smart for the one proves to be dumb for the many. Imagine, for instance, that you are a new business entering a field where the major players are decades old. Over time, they've bargained with their workers, raised their pay, offered good health benefits and retirement packages. The rational thing for you to do is undercut their labor costs. Then you can sell the good more cheaply and take away their market share.
Klein and Cohn both point out that countries which provide their welfare state benefits directly through the government don’t face this collective action problem. Every firm both receives benefits and pays taxes to support them, so there’s no empty market space in which a firm can evade costs that others bear. This is changing to some extent as manufacturing and services both go global, but since countries are sovereign entities that have substantial control over their borders (especially over legitimate cross-border transactions), they have far more options for mitigating the collective action problem than any individual firm.

What Klein and Cohn both ignore is how things got to be this way. Why does the US, unlike every other wealthy country, rely largely on private employers for its welfare state services? The answer is complicated, but one part of it is union co-optation. In most countries, unions pushed for national health insurance; in the US, unions made what looked like a temporary, tactical decision to push for an employer mandate to provide health insurance, and to negotiate individual agreements with employers that offered union workers health insurance. The Taft-Hartley act, which Cohn notes allowed right-to-work laws and made union organizing much more difficult, combined with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act to give unions substantial control over multi-state health and welfare funds. It didn't just limit organizing - indirectly, it limited activism.1

Just as union ability to organize was declining, and as the percentage of workers who were unionized dropped, unions were handed control over health and welfare funds, which they viewed (correctly) as a major potential source of continued influence and as a potential recruiting tool. National health insurance, which would make the Taft-Hartley funds obsolete, would deprive unions of one of the best reasons for employees to join a union. In other countries, unions focused on winning guaranteed health benefits, vacation time, and retirement security through the political process, rather than through bargaining with a single employer at a time. In the US, partly because of the arrangement of institutional incentives but also for other reasons (which I think I used to know more about), unions negotiated an expansion of the private welfare state. It doesn’t look like such a good bargain now: we’re losing those benefits one employer at a time, and we never did get maternity leave. I have some hopes that the slow-motion collapse of private benefits will generate the political will for an expansion of public, guaranteed benefits, as seems to be happening with health care. We still need to remember, while we do it, that today’s temporary, tactical decision can radically change tomorrow’s incentives and possibilities.2

1. I know about this stuff from reading Marie Gottschalk (in college, and again today): "It's the Health-Care Costs, Stupid!" and The Shadow Welfare State.
2. Shout-out to Paul Pierson!

December 26, 2008

a manoeuvre!

My first reaction to Rick Warren being selected as speaker was something like this:

Listen, it's my right to marry that Rick Warren wants to take away. I hate the man, for his sexist opposition to women in positions of authority, his stand for forced pregnancy, his homophobia.

But I find it pretty persuasive when a Balloon Juice commenter points out that anointing Warren as the next evangelical leader puts Dobson out in the cold and means that we'll have some evangelical leaders who aren't dead set against all progressive politics. We'll peel some evangelical votes off by emphasizing poverty and the environment, and we'll get more Democrats in Congress and more progressive programs on those issues. We'll get better policy out of it, so I'll swallow that symbol.

Ezra is right about the use Warren will make of that power, but that's only a concern insofar as Warren giving the invocation will give him a larger audience. I'm betting not. I'm betting he already has the audience and congregation he's going to get - that the major effect of tying Warren to Obama will be to make the Democrats more acceptable to evangelicals rather than the evangelicals more acceptable to the Democrats. So ok. I'll trust Obama to make that decision right now. If we start getting bad policy out of the deal, that'll be the time to get mad.
I've changed my mind, partly. I believe Amelia that there are other, real progressives out there on the evangelical scene - people for whom poverty isn't an afterthought, but same-sex marriage is. And I also find Amelia's argument compelling: that Obama is supposedly someone for whom scripture has some real meaning, and that choosing Warren suggests either that he cares rather less about theology than he has claimed, or that Warren is in line with his theology. So I don't think this was such a great decision anymore: this wasn't his only option, or even his best option, and it suggests that he is not serious about things which he claimed to be serious about. Like gay rights, women's rights, and science.

(I'm not saying, by the way, that Obama should never talk to Warren. Just that delivering the invocation is a much larger public honor than inviting him to dinner at the White House. Though the day when Warren's views are considered as socially unacceptable as David Duke's cannot come too soon.)

I also, in thinking that this was a clever piece of triangulation, had argued against being angry about the pick. I was wrong. We should be furious. One, having all these straight people online being angry about queer issues cheers me up. I love knowing that queer issues are not peripheral for my straight friends, but something that actually is close to their hearts - and I'll say that I was surprised and warmed by the reaction to Prop 8, even among people I'm close to. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight mentioned the increasing engagement on queer issues earlier this week as well, and points out that we're seeing a rapid transformation in public opinion. Eight years ago, neither candidate for president favored civil unions; this year they both did.

Second, I think Ta-Nehisi Coates is the person who really has it right on this.
My job isn't to make Barack Obama's job easier. And--as I'm sure he knows--his job isn't to his marching orders from the bloggers who have no political capital to lose. Jelani talks about Adalai Stevenson putting segregationist John Sparkman on the ticket. I think about Lincoln promising to unite the country, blacks be damned. And now Biden defending the Warren pick. I want to be clear--in the context of who they are, national politicians, these people are not "wrong." I think Biden, like Stevenson, and like Lincoln make a solid, political case.
But that doesn't make Frederick Douglass wrong either. That doesn't make black leadership wrong for denouncing Stevenson. And it doesn't make those of us who believe that a man who bans gays from his church should not be giving the invocation, wrong. Obama and co. have the job of building national consensus. We have the job of expanding the boundaries of that consensus. We are in conflict, and this is as it should be. Seriously, what is one without the other?
And not just that, true as it is. Obama just pissed off a lot of queer people, and a lot of our already pissed off straight allies. He owes us. And he just burned up all his queer-friendly cred: not just because he chose Warren, but because people - some of them straight - made a gigantic fuss about it. Because we expected something better. So now Obama owes those of us who care about queer rights. We have the chance to get better policy precisely because people got mad about Warren. There's more about gay issues on the site than there was on the campaign website. Baby steps. But now he's got something to prove. I have to say, I don't mind that as an outcome.

December 12, 2008

choice schmoice

Ta-Nehisi Coates asks, about the whole gay marriage thing, "What if it is a lifestyle?" The argument (as often publicly made) for letting us queers do our thing rest on the idea that we didn't choose to be gay, and thus can't choose to be straight, so it's just mean to try to force us into a role that won't work. Ta-Nehisi says,

"Implicit in that logic is a kind of judgment, the notion that if I could choose, I obviously would choose to be white. But what if I just like being black? What if I could choose and would still choose black? Ditto for homosexuality. So what if you do choose to be gay? I understand that a lot of the science says you don't, but why do we accept this implicit idea that heterosexuality is, necessarily, what everyone would chose?"

This has bothered me for a long time - last night, I watched Jon Stewart going after Bill O'Reilly about gay marriage, and Jon Stewart's framing, as it was to Mike Huckabee, is that he didn't choose to be straight, people don't choose to be gay, and you shouldn't be harassed for something that's not your fault. There's a sense that if you could help it, you should - that being gay is bad, but you're forgiven because you can't help it.

I don't think my relationship is bad. I don't wish I were dating a man. And - here's the tricky part - I could help it.

The science, for whatever it's worth, is mostly done on men. And I think that many gay people do experience their sexuality as something fairly immutable that has been the case for a very long time. But I don't. Gender doesn't seem to be a particularly important constraint for me. Not that I'm not picky, just that I'm not at all picky about that. I'm particular about politics, and I like my gender presentation a little outside the mainstream, and I like people who have a critique of capitalism. No investment bankers, thanks. But the thing is, I've dated guys, and it's not like I'm never attracted to them. I could, in a different world, probably choose to be straight. But I chose to be in a specific relationship with a specific woman - I chose a same-sex relationship. And I'm really, really happy about that choice. But it does mean that the idea that queers are alright because we didn't choose it is a bad fit for me. I did choose it. Am I still alright with Jon Stewart?

It's also hard on young queer people, because it suggests that being gay is so awful that you'd never choose it if you had an alternative. I used to think that, actually. A gay friend thought, when she was in middle school, that if she were gay she would never ever tell anyone. (Fortunately for us all, she changed her mind.) Similarly, I was looking through a diversity curriculum for activities, and there was one in which the participants were asked to imagine a gay person's life and go through all the moments where that person is rejected, harassed, and hurt for being gay. The idea was to convince straight participants not to be mean to queer people, but put one queer kid in the mix, and that poor kid gets to spend the activity thinking of how bleak the future is, and struggling to choose not to be gay. And that's what's really crazy-making about the "it's ok because you can't help it" rhetoric: how do you know if you can help it or not unless you try? It suggests that every decision about being attracted to or involved with someone of the same sex ought to be run through a screen of "do I have to?" It almost needs the oppression there, because without the oppression, maybe people would just choose to be queer and you wouldn't know who can't help it.

It reminds me a little of the way women are encouraged to ask ourselves, "do I need that?" about food and, well, really about most of our desires that are for ourselves. It's kind of a crap way to approach your life, and I worry that the language of the current 'tolerance' fight for queer people perpetuates that kind of approach instead of accepting that queer relationships don't need more justification than straight ones.

(I know I promised some thoughts on education policy. I'm working on it!)

December 7, 2008

this post brought to you by the New Jersey Transit news stand

Dear Vanity Fair,

Perhaps you commissioned Maureen Dowd to write about Tina Fey knowing only that she was a New York Times columnist, and never having read any of her columns. I’ve actually read those columns, though, and the profile she turned out was exactly what I would expect. You did a disservice to Tina Fey, and to your readers. We learn little about Tina Fey’s childhood, nothing about her philosophy of writing, nothing about her transition to acting – nothing about the substantive development of her personality and career. Instead, we hear endlessly about her German father and German work ethic, her Greek mother, her weight gain, weight loss, frumpy dresses, mousy appearance, thrift store sweaters, worries about her body. The weight and body image angles are particularly upsetting, since Dowd uncritically accepts the idea that thin equals beautiful, and thus that thin equals successful. But the cumulative effect really says it all: after reading that article, I was bored, offended, and self-conscious about my ass. Tina Fey’s talent deserves better. So does my reading time.

Better luck next time,


December 5, 2008

education reform and junk analysis

Shorter David Brooks: "I know nothing about the subject I'm writing on, and would like to display my ignorance for the world to see."

I don't have time to write a full analysis right now. I'll do it on Sunday or Monday. But I just want to say. People who don't know shit about shit should stop talking about schools and education reform. Of course, if that were the standard, David Brooks wouldn't get a column at all.

December 4, 2008


You know you're a sustainable farming nerd when you get all engrossed reading the Organic Valley farmer profiles. This one made me happy: the farmers switched to grazing from row crops, and from Holsteins to Jerseys, and went to seasonal dairying, and they're happier and have a better family life and the cows are happier too. If you, too, are a sucker for little stories about the world getting better, you can get a few minutes of enjoyment here.

December 2, 2008

I'm in love

If you haven't seen the dancing walrus video, you owe it to yourself to spend the next 49 seconds watching it. Especially if you're too busy. Then, if you have a couple minutes, you should read the Natalie Angier article about walruses. Sample: "Males woo females with lengthy compositions that have been compared in the complexity of their structure and phrasing to the songs of nightingales and humpback whales, but that use a greater number of body parts." Attention walruses: you are amazing. Please come visit.