December 12, 2013God, the great thing about these minimum wage sky-is-falling stories that you see running on business pages is that the truth just keeps falling out of these free marketeers' mouths like the rain from heaven above.
Take for example this story from the Wall Street Journal concerning the $15 minimum wage voted in for SeaTac, WA. If you're wondering the Journal's position on this, clock the headline: "Businesses Stung by $15-an-Hour Pay." Stung, I say!
Like this fellow, Mike Condon, who runs a coffee shop that will not be required to comply with the new minimum (it excludes airlines and businesses with fewer than twenty-five employees):
But he expects the higher rate to make it harder for him to recruit and retain entry-level workers. "Employees of my own that are well trained can go over to these jobs at the airport now and make more money than I can possibly pay them," he says.
But but... it's a free market, Mike Condon. Surely, workers seeking alternative employment because of better wages would be a good thing for the workers, right?
And as to the amount Mike Condon could possibly pay them, let's go to Han Kim, part-owner of three area hotels:
"We are running pretty thin as it is so we cannot eliminate positions," he says. Increasing the price of a room is too risky, he adds. "I cannot go around changing prices without my competition [also] changing them. . . . We'll have to make less money I guess."
I wonder what that feels like, having to make less money. I guess you could probably ask anyone cleaning rooms or working the front desks for Mr. Kim in the past few years.
The article is actually a little bit less than a hit job, as it does note the fast food strikes, and talks to SeaTac workers scraping by on $9 an hour. But it is revelatory that the basic principles supporting a minimum wage keep being repeated, unasked, by people assumedly opposed.
Posted at 10:06 AM
December 11, 2013Hey now check out this swank little section of an article on the current state of MOOCs, or massive online open courses as people with time to say long things would say. You remember, MOOCs, right? A bunch of Silicon Valley start-ups leveraging relationships with actual institutions, the future of education, that whole song and dance?
A study of a million users of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, released this month by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education found that, on average, only about half of those who registered for a course ever viewed a lecture, and only about 4 percent completed the courses.
Much of the hope -- and hype -- surrounding MOOCs has focused on the promise of courses for students in poor countries with little access to higher education. But a separate survey from the University of Pennsylvania released last month found that about 80 percent of those taking the university's MOOCs had already earned a degree of some kind.
Man, that is so much like the jet car we were all promised, if a jet car were a car that neither flew nor drive but was still popular with the TED talk types.
Now is probably a good time to re-recommend Maria Bastillos' gimlet look at MOOCs from nearly a year ago. If you see Maria, ask her what it feels like to be right all along.
Posted at 9:41 AM
December 10, 2013On page A15 of today's New York Times you will note an expensive full-page ad attempting to libel Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers on the grounds that high school kids are stupid. Sassy! At the bottom of the ad, there's a URL to a website that's full of "facts" about the UFT — basically your run of the mill "unions are bad" claptrap.
So it seems to me that the appropriate thing to do is to try to look at who paid for such nonsense.
The answer is, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization called the Center For Union Facts. Obviously, from the ominous doublespeak of its nomenclature, it is an organization dedicated to eradicating that menace to the oligarchy, organized labor. But, who pays for all of it? Sadly, that is unknown, because of loopholes in the IRS code. So long as this company does not engage in a certain amount of "politicking," it is not required to disclose where it gets the cash.
But what we do know is that CFUF is yet another Richard Berman production. Who is Richard Berman? Thanks to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington we know this about the man:
Berman founded and runs four tax-exempt front groups and a number of linked projects, focusing on food, tobacco, alcoholic beverages and labor. He is well-paid by the represented industries to serve as the executive director of all four organizations. Berman then uses his own lobbying and public relations firm to do work for the organizations, thereby channeling between 49% and 79% of all donations made to the groups into his own pocket.
Basically, Berman is a professional non-profit shill for business interests, who eagerly forms seemingly neutral front groups to advocate corporate positions, and skims millions off the top while he's doing it. Click over to the site provided by CREW and you'll see that some of the positions Berman was handsomely paid to take include opposing drunk driving laws, touting the benefits of high fructose corn syrup, and doubting the dangers of mercury in fish.
So the next time you see some clumsy PR attempt to trick you into a position, a campaign that assumes you're too dumb to think for yourself, think of people like Richard Berman who make our species look bad.
(And as to the allegations that the AFT is a bad thing: go eat a bag of dicks in space. That's the level of seriousness such charges merit.)
Posted at 9:28 AM
December 8, 2013A friend of mine and I were talking about how there's been a creeping change in the Zeitgeist. Namely, income inequality is a much more popular now than it was even during Occupy New York, even though the problem is hardly worse now than it was two years ago. From the Pope's exhortations to the President's speech last week, to the election of Bill de Blasio and his two New Yorks, to the number of stories pointing out that full-time employment at minimum wage is actually impossible to live on, is is increasingly becoming common wisdom that there is something terribly wrong with the way that the American economy works.
The latest evidence of this is this quality piece of journalism by Thomas Frank (who you may remember from "The Baffler"), considering the recent spate of fast food worker labor actions. He reports it out down Raleigh, NC, on one of those stretches of highways in the city that is a chain-food corridor, a place that's everywhere and nowhere at all.
It is, as these tend to be, a sad story, but if you can read it and eat fast food ever again you're a monster.
And the extraneously awesome point that Frank makes is that this is not just a story of the exploitation of the laborer, this is a story of how private equity fucks everything up:
Consider Burger King, which (let the shameful record show) I once preferred to certain other ubiquitous burger joints. Today the chain is little more than a shuttlecock for private equity. Acquired in 1997 by Diageo, the liquor multinational, it was sold in 2002 to a consortium of financial institutions -- including, of course, Goldman Sachs and Bain Capital -- which took the company public in 2006. It was next acquired by the Brazilian-backed investment firm 3G Capital, then merged with yet another private-equity outfit, only to be taken public again last year. Along the way, this pointless enterprise duly fumbled its position as the Number Two American burger chain. A long and painful fight with employees can only do it good.
Similar stories are everywhere you care to look. Bojangles', the fried-chicken chain, used to be owned by Falfurrias Capital Partners, which eventually off-loaded it to a private-equity firm called Advent International. Sun Capital Partners owns Friendly's, Captain D's, Johnny Rockets, and Boston Market. Fog Cutter Capital Group owns Fatburger. Consumer Capital Partners owns Smashburger. And then there is Roark Capital -- yes, named after Ayn Rand's individualist architect -- which owns Arby's, Cinnabon, Carvel, Moe's Southwest Grill, and (perhaps tellingly) a trash-collection company called Waste Pro.
That's the scariest thing I've read in a while, and I read scary things as a matter of course.
Posted at 1:49 PM
December 6, 2013If you are a certain sort of person, one who gives the Internet close attention, you will have already read this. But if you are not, then you should: Gawker's Tom Scocca On Smarm. To the naked eye it's yet another contemplation of the ways that we interact with each other and how that has changed with the advent of digital, social media. But since I happen to agree with every word, it's much much more than that.&nbps; It's correct.
Without identifying and comprehending what they have in common, we have a dangerously incomplete understanding of the conditions we are living under.
Over the past year or two, on the way to writing this essay, I've accumulated dozens of emails and IM conversations from friends and colleagues. They send links to articles, essays, Tumblr posts, online comments, tweets--the shared attitude transcending any platform or format or subject matter.
What is this defining feature of our times? What is snark reacting to?
It is reacting to smarm.
Smarm, as defined therein, is the forced politeness of current discourse, in which everything is the New Nice, and criticism is dismissed out of hand as negativity. It's a clean shot at the tone of sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy, and it's entirely deserved.
And it cites as the sources of smarm two things that I've actually been thinking of recently, Heidi Julavits' terrible essay from ten years ago decrying snark, and that kid from West Virginia Jedidiah Purdy who was briefly famous for calling for a new sincerity. Both of these irked me greatly at the time, and it is nice to see them fuel Scocca into proposing terms for the counter-insurgency, wherein claims that someone is being mean is a valid defense in an argument.
It is a stem-winder, so bring a sandwich. But it's also lucid and compelling, and you will stumble across many keepers that you will be tempted to share with your own personal social media friends.
Posted at 10:18 AM
December 5, 2013This is becoming somewhat of a subcategory of journalism, but here is another very excellent piece about the fresh hell of working at an Amazon "fulfillment center," this time in the United Kingdom. In case you are unaware of the meaning of that nasty bit of double-speak, fulfillment centers are actually the huge warehouses where legions of temp workers stuff items into boxes. It's what passes for employment these days.
Right now, in Swansea, four shifts will be working at least a 50-hour week, hand-picking and packing each item, or, as the Daily Mail put it in an article a few weeks ago, being "Amazon's elves" in the "21st-century Santa's grotto".
If Santa had a track record in paying his temporary elves the minimum wage while pushing them to the limits of the EU working time directive, and sacking them if they take three sick breaks in any three-month period, this would be an apt comparison.
Like that, right?
It's written by Carole Cadwalladr for the Guardian, and it's a loping, personal work. There's plenty of reportage, but there's plenty of very sharp observation, and it's all keenly meshed together, a snapshot of the bleak future Naomi Klein described nearly fifteen years ago in No Logo.
I grew up in South Wales and saw first-hand how the 1980s recession slashed a brutal gash through everything, including my own extended family. I've always known that there's only a tissue-thin piece of luck between very different sorts of lives. But then my grandfather worked in a warehouse in Swansea. In my case, there really is only a tissue-thin piece of luck between me and an Amazon life. I have a lot of time to think about this during my 10½-hour day.
At the Neath working men's club down the road, one of the staff tells me that Amazon is "the employer of last resort". It's where you get a job if you can't get a job anywhere else. And it's this that's so heartbreaking. What did you do before, I ask people. And they say they're builders, hospitality managers, marketing graduates, IT technicians, carpenters, electricians. They owned their own businesses, and they were made redundant. Or the business went bust. Or they had a stroke. Or their contract ended. They are people who had skilled jobs, or professional jobs, or just better-paying jobs. And now they work for Amazon, earning the minimum wage, and most of them are grateful to have that.
And in the midst of the smoldering loss, there's an honest sense of wonder at the scale of Amazon's operations, which approach the level of beyond human apprehension.
It's a very fine bit of work.
Posted at 9:52 AM
December 3, 2013I was too busy Thanksgivinging last week to properly give thanks, as I try to do each year. So I'm a bit late, but aside from the normal things to be thankful for — family, friends, health, comic books — for 2013 I am thankful for the New York Times.
Oh, there's all sorts of reasons to pick on the NYT — David Brooks, losing Nate Silver, the cumulative style sections — but the paper is kicking all sorts of ass on its in depth features. (And by in-depth, we're talking three thousand words at the minimum, and up from there.)
Two Sundays ago, you get a story of domestic violence committed by police officers and then overlooked by their coworkers.
A week later, the Metro section has this heart-breaking look at one Queens man's effort to support his family on $7.25 an hour.
Yesterday we got the latest installment of the continuing story of Louis Scarcella, the Brooklyn detective who allegedly railroaded a armful of innocent men on murder raps. The NYT has been singularly running down this story for more than a year. This time around, it's two teens taking the fall in a very dubious murder case twenty-two years ago.
And today's NYT goes deep on exploding emergency room costs — which I'll boil down for you as "$500 per stitch (removal extra)."
And that's just from recent memory. They're churning out three or four of these nuggets a week.
I may be gee-whizzing a bit here, but I grew up on largely Gannett newspapers, which barely had nine thousand words in the paper in toto, let alone in one story. And none of these stories are chasing breaking news, or stories about politics. Assigning reporters these deep-look stories is a huge investment in time and money, and the NYT is one of the bigger pulpits out there. It's evocative of the crusading part of journalism that you remember as a kid and don't see so much lately, hidden amongst all the listicles.
(And this is not to the exclusion of the good dailies out there. We all share the good work they do in our social media. But the NYT is my hometown paper, and the one I read in the morning. And it's better.)
So for the fact that the NYT is so committed, I am grateful.
Posted at 9:12 AM
December 2, 2013Tempted to say, "This is pretty much all you need to know about charter schools," but that would be a generalization that would be easy to poke a hole or two into. Instead, let's just call this the Elephant In The Room of the problem of charter schools:
Mr. de Blasio has contended that charter schools have been favored at the expense of traditional public schools, which serve the vast majority of students, and that locating charter and traditional schools in the same buildings has resulted in overcrowding. Mr. de Blasio has proposed that "well-resourced charter schools" should pay rent on a sliding scale. Some charter schools and their advocates have countered that charging rents could lead to teacher layoffs, program cuts and increased class sizes.
Or, in some cases, reduce shareholder value.
It is comical that these private ventures will bellyache that unless they receive favorable treatment then they will be forced to provide a poorer product. It's almost a threat: force us to pay for the things that all other non-governmental ventures pay for and then the kids get it.
Public education should not be a business. The competition of the free market will not provide for better educated kids. The competition of the free market will provide for the best possible way to make money of the purported education of kids.
Posted at 9:47 AM
November 27, 2013Listening to a little sports radio while walking the dog, I couldn't help but note that the most head-scratching promotion out there, even moreso than the effort to associate hummus with tailgating, is a seasonal campaign peddling Medieval Times as a destination for Thanksgiving.
Now Thanksgiving has long been one of my favorite holidays, but it's a big world out there. We've heard of the alternate holiday restaurant traditions, like hitting Chinatown for Christmas dinner, but, Medieval Times? Maybe the reluctance I'm having imagining that is that I have a hard time imagining going to Medieval Times on days that are not Thanksgiving.
Though after thinking about it, I realized that a story I would love to read is the Thanksgiving Day scene at Medieval Times. Happy families? Sad loners? Jousting fanatics? And it's something that I would happily report and write, but for the fact that Thanksgiving Day is a day I plan to spend with my friends and their families. I'm selfish!
But that would be fantastic. Or hell, not even Medieval Times, but the corner diner, a Pizza Hut, the truck stop. How do people Thanksgiving in public?
(And FWIW, found some people were are specifically aggrieved about a Thanksgiving at Medieval Times: the people who work there.)
Travel safe, everybody.
Posted at 9:53 AM
November 26, 2013This may be a bit provincial for you non-NYCers out there, but if you've noticed the troubling trend of writers turning in endless iterations of "Why I Left New York" pieces, or if you've wondered why some of the smart people of the Internet call our outgoing mayor Mayor Smaug, or even if you're, like me, a student of the slow degradation of all things, then you should give Hugo Lindgren's Riff for the mag he edits, the NYT Sunday Magazine, a good read.
I get the impression that Lindgren was born and raised here, whereas I only fled to here after a childhood in the suburbs, but it is pitch-perfect and I agree with every word, chock full of keepers. Problem stated:
The old easygoing Village ambience has been getting economically stimulated out of existence for decades, but it's going faster than ever now. Every time I walk across Eighth Street, I can't believe what has happened to it -- how one of downtown's last reliably funky and ramshackle shopping streets has been utterly neutered, scrubbed and wine-barred. My local diner on University Place shut down because it could no longer afford what was said to be a rent of 40 grand a month. It sat empty for months and months, though we don't suffer for dining convenience. There are now two Pret a Manger premade-sandwich joints in my area, as well as a 7-Eleven with rolling corn dogs in the window.
Nothing says nowhere quite like a 7-Eleven. Except maybe a Jamba Juice.
And of course you could classify this as another Gen X-er bemoaning the fact that things change. Criticism anticipated:
If this is sounding like yet another lament about how the great island of Manhattan has been reduced to a soulless playground for investment bankers and multinational franchisers, well, it's kind of unavoidable, isn't it? Even some bankers feel this way. They didn't move here from Shaker Heights to live in a shopping mall, either.
But it's not all so bleak. Lindgren gets around to some silver linings, maybe a ray of hope (and not a ray of hope that we're going back to 1992, as we all know there are certain laws of time and space that prevail in that situation).
Think of it as a very resolute Why I Did Not Leave New York.
Posted at 9:46 AM
November 23, 2013As much as I'm sure everyone enjoyed twenty-five word posts that consisted of pretty much "I'm on a jury" and nothing else, I'm happy/sad to announce that the freakin' jury I was on, for nine business days, came to verdict at the absolutely last moment yesterday.
And as the verdict came in, that means that I'm actually free to speak to you about the details of the trial. It was a rape trial, so you can imagine the giggles in that, and I was an alternate juror, which meant that I sat in the box for the entirety of the trial and then was separated from the rest of the jury when we hit deliberations on Wednesday. Then it was total crushing boredom, as we alternates were similarly not allowed to leave a room concurrently with the jury. It was a long time to dodge small talk.
The verdict was not guilty of rape, but guilty of sexual assault and menacing. And it's a good thing I was an alternate, because I believe the People did not meet the reasonable doubt standard on any count, so we'd probably have been deliberating for another week or more.
It was a fascinating (if draining) process, and I recommend it to all you fellow Students of the World.
So now I have to remember how to be a normal person again.
Posted at 2:50 PM
November 21, 2013So the jury is in deliberations, and as one of the alternates, I sit in a separate room, which I cannot leave at all during the day. If the jury agrees, I could be out today. But if the jury has trouble agreeing, which seems likely, this could be my foreseeable future.
To which I say, urgh.
Posted at 7:47 AM
November 19, 2013Up til now "jury duty" would conjure up a quick two day, harmless vacation from work, a chance to get to hang in downtown Brooklyn.
But as I am now on Day Six of being on an actual jury, it's becoming a bit surreal. It's this weird fugue state, some in-between place. Not complaining! But my knowledge of current affairs ends somewhere a week ago. (Except for Rob Ford news. Can't miss that!)
And that is exactly all I have time to write, and I am off to the courthouse.
Posted at 7:57 AM
November 14, 2013So I posted that quick thought yesterday and dashed off to the Supreme Court of Kings County, thinking that day two of jury duty would be the final day of jury duty and today would be back to normal. And by 11am I'm the 20th person of a prospective jury pool, with seven jurors already picked. I'm skating, right? Not the case.
By the afternoon, I'm hearing opening arguments.
It's a fascinating case, and a fascinating process. I guess there's a lot of it I can't really talk about until it's all over, but one thing I do know is that my media diet will be drastically curtailed.
We're scheduled to go at least for a week, so in the intervening please forgive me if this turns into a jury blog.
One thing I'm pretty sure I can share: the view from the 19th floor of the Supreme Court building is tremendous.
Posted at 7:47 AM
November 13, 2013It is not so easy to find the time to post here during jury duty.
But, on the bright side, I'm on jury duty. Heh.
Posted at 8:30 AM