Friday, June 29, 2007

Supreme Court Permits Price-Fixing, Solving Non-Existent Problem

Jared Bernstein at Tapped offers some solid commentary on a deplorable Supreme Court decision that has been mostly overshadowed in the media by an entire string of deplorable Supreme Court decisions. The one Bernstein writes about is the one that overturns 96 years of court rulings in order to permit manufacturers to fix prices on products. The effect will be to prevent the retailer discounting that has so greatly benefited consumers in recent decades.

This graf captures the heart of Bernstein's analysis:
What you need to overturn such a well-established precedent, especially one involving basic market principles, is deep and compelling evidence that the ban is truly leading to market failures. The court heard arguments on both sides, and yes, there were some cases where the inability to set a minimum price hurt producers. But not enough to convince an objective observer that innovation or entrepreneurship has been diminished. Jeez, look around. Does it seem like we lack for product choices?
I would add one point that Bernstein doesn't make: namely, that at least part of the cited rationale for the ruling seems disingenuous in the extreme. Here's a quotation from the New York Times story about the ruling:
"In sum, it is a flawed antitrust doctrine that serves the interests of lawyers--by creating legal distinctions that operate as traps for the unaware--more than the interests of consumers--by requiring manufacturers to choose second-best options to achieve sound business objectives," the court said in an opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and signed by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
The claim, then, is that this ruling is designed to benefit consumers by eliminating confusing "legal distinctions" that do nothing but provide work for meddling attorneys. But isn't this exactly backward? Under the old precedent, retail price-setting by manufacturers was flatly forbidden. Under the new rule, it is permitted--sometimes. Again according to the Times:
[T]he court instructed judges considering such [price-fixing] agreements for possible antitrust violations to apply a case-by-case approach, known as a "rule of reason," to assess their impact on competition.
If anything, this new rule should be a windfall for lawyers, since it opens up the door to a whole new class of lawsuits to define exactly which sets of circumstances justify price-fixing. This basically forces companies to consult specialized attorneys whenever they set up pricing agreements.

I understand the appeal to conservatives of pretending that you are trying to simplify and streamline business so as to get lawyers out of everyone's hair, but in this case it appears to me that exactly the opposite is true.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Samuelson's "Soft Censorship" Isn't Censorship At All

As you may know, for years now many educators have disliked the college rankings published annually in U.S. News and World Report. They consider the rankings simplistic, misleading, pointless, and say they encourage schools to compete on meaningless standards that will boost their place in the standings rather than focusing on activities that actually benefit students. (And undoubtedly some college administrators don't like the rankings because they feel their schools have been given unfairly low scores by the magazine editors.)

And that brings us to the current brouhaha:

Now a rebellion has broken out. A majority of some 80 small liberal-arts colleges says it will refuse to cooperate with the U.S. News colossus. They won't supply personal opinions of same-category colleges, which make up 25 percent of the ratings formula. Much of the other information the guidebook uses is public and can't be withheld.
So, fine. Obviously the schools are within their rights to refuse to cooperate with the editors of U.S. News, no? How is this any different from telling a telephone pollster "No, thanks" when he calls to ask you a few questions?

But don't say that around WaPo's Robert Samuelson. Today he wanders from his usual economics beat to denounce the rebellious schools for--of all things--censorship:
What's so shameful about this campaign against the rankings is its anti-intellectualism. Much information is in some way incomplete or imperfect. The proper response to evidence that you dislike or dispute is to supplement or discredit it with better evidence. The wrong response is to suppress it. And yet, that's the agenda of these college presidents. By not cooperating with the U.S. News survey, they hope to sabotage the rankings. They say they'll provide superior information. But they want to control what parents and students see. This is soft censorship.

What their students will learn, if they're paying attention, is a life lesson in cynicism: how eminent authorities cloak their self-interest in high-sounding, deceptive rhetoric.
Ahem. Evidently in Samuelson's world, once a newsmagazine (at least one edited by someone Samuelson describes as "a friend") has decided it wants to survey the colleges of America, those colleges are under a moral obligation to provide the information the editors want--otherwise, they are guilty of censorship (though of the "soft" kind, whatever that means).

I think I'll call Samuelson's office tomorrow and ask him to spend half an hour on the phone with me so I can write a follow-up post. I'm sure he'll clear his schedule to answer my questions--after all, he wouldn't want to impose censorship on me, would he?

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Andrew Sullivan Has a Fainting Spell Over Hillary's "Ruthlessness"

As I've noted before, I haven't signed on to the Hillary campaign or to any other as of yet. And there are certainly plenty of grounds for criticizing Hillary, especially from the left, most notably her vote in favor of the Bush Iraq authorization, her support for the idea of a long-term US troop presence in that country, and her general hawkishness.

Having said all this, I am truly fed up with the constant criticism of her that is supposedly related to her "character," "temperament," or "lack of leadership." Whenever I examine these complaints closely, they seem to boil down to rehashing of scurrilous rumors about her and Bill's personal life mingled with vapid, unspecific whining about the fact that "I just can't warm up to her" or "There's something I just don't like about her."

Today's volley against her by Andrew Sullivan (he launches one practically every day) is typical. He recounts an anecdote about Hillary's political operation and sums up its moral in these words: "Don't mess with her or her cronies. They're ruthless."

And what happened to demand the use of the word "ruthless"? Did thugs hired by Hillary beat up dissidents? Did they disseminate vicious lies about some enemy in order to cause him to lose a job or to destroy his marriage?

No, it turns out that what happened was that someone made a critical comment at a Hillary fund-raising event in Los Angeles and in response received a "smattering of boos and gasps that were directed my way." (Follow the link and read the account for yourself--I swear that is all that happened.)

This is "ruthlessness"? I guess it is if you've already decided that for some reason you can't stand Hillary's guts.

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New Yorker: Michael Moore Is a Silly Worry Wart

I haven't yet seen "Sicko," but according to David Denby in the New Yorker, I don't have to. Denby cites the many vital topics Michael Moore shamefully neglects to discuss in the movie (such as how Cuban health care has been affected by the US embargo) and then adds:
And since he [Michael Moore] doesn't interview any of the countless Americans who have been mulling over ways to reform our system, we're supposed to come away from "Sicko" believing that sane thinking on these issues is unknown here. In the actual political world, the major Democratic Presidential candidates have already offered, or will soon offer, plans for reform. A shift to the left, or, at least, to the center, has overtaken Michael Moore, yielding an irony more striking than any he turns up: the changes in political consciousness that Moore himself has helped produce have rendered his latest film almost superfluous [emphasis added].
Wow, it's nice to know that, now that the Democratic reform plans are on the table, America's health care problems are all but solved!

Of course, there are a few intervening steps needed to usher in the new world of sanity and reform that Denby foretells: the election of one of those Democratic presidential candidates along with solid majorities of liberal Democrats in the House and Senate; the writing of a bill that actually provides meaningful health care reform; the shepherding of that bill through the gauntlet of Congressional committees that will try to eviscerate it or weigh it down with pork, earmarks, and favors to corporate supporters; and the passage and implementation of the effective new health care program in the teeth of a massive propaganda campaign against it by the insurance companies, the AMA, the anti-tax lobby, and many other interest groups.

But I guess those trivial formalities are scarcely worth worrying about. Thanks for setting my mind at ease, David Denby!

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Al Gore's "The Assault on Reason": Keep the Tom Paine, Lose the Mr. Wizard

I've finished reading Al Gore's new book The Assault on Reason. It's very forthright, opinionated, and passionate, far more so than any book that a declared candidate for office is likely to write.

Much of the book--most of chapters two through eight--is a detailed critique of the dishonest, anti-democratic, and quasi-totalitarian bent of the far right and in particular of the abuses that have been committed by the Bush administration in the name of "the war on terror." If you're a regular reader of the progressive blogosphere (or for that matter of Paul Krugman's columns in the New York Times), you'll find most of this material familiar (though no less appalling on that account).

More significant is the broader context in which Gore couches this critique--namely, his vision of a generalized "assault on reason" and on the principle of deliberative, consensual, representative democracy by groups that want to accumulate power for selfish or ideological ends and in so doing are threatening both the spirit and the substance of the U.S. Constitution. Gore faults not only the political players responsible (including the lobbying groups, astroturf organizations, and think tanks that promote the far-right agenda) but also the corporate media, which has permitted and even abetted the gradual hollowing-out of American democracy. If the trend continues, we'll be left with an empty shell in place of a once-vibrant government more or less responsive to the will of the people.

I basically agree with Gore on all of these points and am delighted to see him express them with such force and frankness. I'm less convinced, however, by the panoply of neurological, sociological, and psychological theories that he draws on to suggest that technological changes--especially the dominance of television as a communications medium--have made the dire trends he writes about all but inevitable. (This of course is the aspect of the book that David Brooks focused on in his recent effort to debunk Gore. Brooks fancies himself an expert on the social implications of brain functioning and evidently resents having someone else--a liberal Democrat, no less!--treading on his turf.)

Much as I dislike Brooks, however, I feel that Gore may have weakened his case by including this material, which dominates the 22-page introduction and the first chapter and is also scattered elsewhere throughout the book.

For one thing, I automatically become skeptical when I see a non-scientist citing scientific research in support of some political or social thesis. Global warming is one thing: It's quite apparent that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is altering the world's climate in ways that are likely to be unpredictable and probably dangerous. But is there a consensus among neuroscientists that watching TV "induces a quasi-hypnotic state . . . and creates an addiction to the constant stimulation of two areas of the brain: the amygdala and the hippocampus" and thereby weakens the viewer's ability to reason dispassionately? I don't know, and I would feel a little queasy if Gore's thesis relied on this and similar scientific arguments.

The fact is, however, that the scientific stuff is really unnecessary to Gore's points about the weakening of democracy. He could have stuck with certain arguments he makes that are practically uncontrovertible: that television is a passive, one-way medium that stifles many voices in favor of a powerful few; that the reliance of political campaigns on costly TV ads gives moneyed groups too much influence over outcomes; and that as a result of these two forces, individual citizens have steadily diminishing power to control their lives and the government that supposedly represents them.

Mind you, David Brooks's criticism of Gore's book as proposing some kind of "Vulcan Utopia" based on a worldview that is "chilly" and "sterile" is just plain wrong. Page after page of The Assault on Reason consists of frank, scathing accounts of some of the horrific actions of the Bush administration coupled with withering quotations warning against and denouncing just such tyrannical abuses from the likes of Jefferson, Hamilton, Lincoln, and Tom Paine. Overall, Gore's tone comes across as no less impassioned (and no more "chilly" or "sterile") than The Federalist Papers, Common Sense, or the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

But from a rhetorical standpoint, Gore may have erred in giving his inner nerd a little too much freedom to expatiate about the latest "cool" science in the very first pages of his book. I'm not sure how many converts those passages will win--and I'm afraid they may turn off a few who'd otherwise find his arguments compelling.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Time to Run Away and Join the Carnival

Is there something in the air? For whatever reason, the crop of submissions for Carnival of the Liberals #41 was especially strong. We're proud to be hosting such a fine collection of leftist propaganda here at World Wide Webers. Here are this edition's ten winners:

First, a very impressive three-part series by Terrance Heath over at The Republic of T. Click here for Part 1, here for Part 2, and here for Part 3. Titled "The Myth of a Bush Recovery," it examines the psychology of our president through the lens of AA and the truths about addiction--then goes a step further by comparing the Bush psyche with that of the country that (sorta) elected him twice. Tremendous work by Mr. T.

Next, a very thoughtful piece by David at Frozen Toothpaste titled
"Misguided Reform: The Problem of the Guest Worker"
. I've been struggling to decide where I stand about the immigration debate, and David's perspective will play a big part in my future thinking about the issue. After reading him, I realize that the move to create a new class of "guest workers" is not unlike the administration's effort to create a new class of prisoners called "enemy combatants"--a ploy to strip people of their rights by putting them in a new, needless category that is exempt from historic protections.

Our third selection is an essay on the problems with ethanol by Vihar Sheth of Green Rising. It's titled "Six of One, Half Dozen of Another" and it does a fine job of challenging the conventional wisdom surrounding this supposedly eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels.

For a change of pace, turn to "Cui Bonehead?" by math teacher Zeno at Halfway There. It's a witty evisceration of some of the latest inanities to come from conservative columnist Kathleen Parker. My first thought was that debunking Parker is almost too easy--I've done it myself!--but Zeno gets extra style points for flair, and his piece makes fun reading.

Next, check out "No Sex Please, We're Democrats". It takes down the recent "compromise" bill funding abstinence-only sex ed, and it comes from the keyboard of Greta Christina, who earns credit for being willing to say, "I had sex when I was sixteen, and it didn't do me any harm." (Same here, Greta.) Greta's work appears at The Blowfish Blog.

Over at The Greenbelt, blogger The Ridger exposes the futility of voting for "moderate Republicans" in "The Party Above All Else". Her illustrative case: The defeated motion to censure A.G. Alberto Gonzalez. Well done, Ridger!

After reading David Brooks bloviate about genetic influences on stature (among other things), it was a pleasure to turn to "Height and Immigration", an essay on the topic by someone who actually knows what he is talking about--Joshua Rosenau, a graduate student in evolutionary biology whose writing appears in Thoughts from Kansas. Read and learn a little about the subtle interplay among genetic and other factors (and check out the comments which are also well worth reading).

We've all seen the hoary myth about how Al Gore exaggerated his role in creating the Internet exposed. Here's something a little different: a detailed explanation of the important steps Gore actually took to help create the Internet. It's by Devindra Hardawar at The Far Side of Technology, and it's titled "Why We Owe Al Gore for the Internet". (Maybe Devindra can investigate how Al Gore really appeared in the novel Love Story for a future diary . . .)

"Steeplejacking" is the intriguing title of a diary by Coturnix on A Blog Around the Clock. It's Coturnix's review of the recent forum on faith featuring the leading Democratic presidential contenders. Among other interesting observations, Coturnix praises Obama's ambiguity about religion. Read the whole post to find out why.

Finally, for the economic policy wonks in the audience: Take a look at "How Australia Loses $1 Trillion a Year" a book review by Gavin R. Putland at /etc/cron.whenever/. It deals with a slightly arcane but fascinating and important topic--the impact of real estate values (especially in bubble mode) on the broader economy. Sounds like a Henry George deal to me, but what do I know? Those of you who studied how it all works will know better what to make of it all.


And so there you have it--Carnival of the Liberals #41. Put on your ape face and meet me at Zaius Nation for the Fourth of July Carnival in two weeks' time. Meanwhile, keep cool, drink plenty of fluids, and say a prayer for Carlos Delgado.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

REAL ID = Real Trouble

This article by Greg Anrig, Jr. describes the needless cost, inconvenience, and chaos that are in the offing as the impractical, complex proof-of-identity requirements of the war-on-terror-inspired REAL ID Act of 2005 take effect next year.

People will first encounter these troubles at departments of motor vehicles as states demand REAL IDs before renewing drivers' licenses. But the problems won't end there. The immigration bill currently being debated would require job applicants to present either REAL IDs or passports.

And how much do you want to bet that soon we'll be hearing calls for requiring REAL IDs at the voting booths?--calls that will come primarily from Republican operatives eager to further reduce the number of people allowed to participate in democracy, using phony concerns about "voter fraud" as an excuse.

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All Hail Ms. Digby

So it turns out that the brilliant, feisty, profoundly knowledgeable, righteously indignant Digby is a woman! I am stunned. Not because it is surprising that a woman should be a fantastic blogger but because--between the picture of Network's Howard Beale on Digby's site and the basically universal references to Digby as "he" in everybody else's blogs--it never occurred to me that the otherwise unidentified Digby was a she.

All I hope is that stepping out from behind the curtain of anonymity doesn't somehow reduce the amount of time she has to write. I don't know where I would be without my daily fix of Digby sanity.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Carnival Time Is Here

World Wide Webers is hosting Carnival of the Liberals #41. Now is the time to submit your best diaries of a left-wing bent. Click here to reach the submission form. Deadline for entries is midnight Eastern time, Monday, June 18th. The winning posts will appear here on Wednesday, June 20th.

Happy Carnival, everybody--and don't go too crazy with the cotton candy.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Missing the Point of Roe v. Wade--By a Mile

Andrew Sullivan had me nodding in agreement . . . right up until the final sentence:
The genius of America, it seems to me, is its capacity to include people of radically different worldviews within a loose, flexible and constantly adjusting constitutional system. Given the huge differences between, say, a born-again evangelical in Georgia and a pot-smoking post-boomer in Seattle, no single cultural strait-jacket can ever hold America together. That's why we mercifully don't have such a strait-jacket, despite the excesses of the cultural left and right. We have a constitution that allows us to live together and even learn from each other in a morass of competing life-choices. This kind of politics eschews the dictatorial uniformity of Roe vs Wade and of the Federal Marriage Amendment.
Roe v. Wade represents "dictatorial uniformity"? Who was ever forced to do anything--or to not do anything--by Roe v. Wade? What sort of "uniformity" did it impose?

The only logical construction one can put on this sentence is that Andrew must have been referring to the impact of Roe v. Wade on state legislatures, which were indeed enjoined ("uniformly," if you like) from passing laws that imposed undue restrictions on a woman's right to choose.

But by the same logic, the First Amendment imposes "dictatorial uniformity" by forbidding (among other things) the passage of laws that establish a state religion. If this is objectionable, then, logically, Andrew ought to be calling for repeal of the First Amendment so that the states could revel in the cultural diversity of fifty different state religions. Utah, Mormon! Massachusetts, Congregational! Maryland, Catholic! Alabama, Baptist! Nevada, Unification Church! Minnesota, Scientologist! New Jersey, Zoroastrian!

But to be serious for a minute . . . Andrew's description of the American constitution as a system that allows people of many cultural backgrounds to co-exist more or less peacefully is exactly right. And the way it works is by strictly limiting the power of government (at the federal, state, or local levels) to impinge on personal freedom. This "dictatorial uniformity" controlling what governments can do creates the maximum possible liberty for individuals. And that is precisely how Roe v. Wade has worked.

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Welfare For Me But Not For Thee

Darn those illegal immigrants, welfare moms, and minorities demanding affirmative action! Why can't they pull themselves up by their bootstraps the way heroes of the free-market do?
BANDON, Ore.--Mike Keiser, who made a fortune selling greeting cards on recycled paper, turned this remote spot on the southern Oregon coast into a golfing mecca that attracts wealthy people in private jets from around the world.

To many in this hard-luck town of 3,000, Mr. Keiser is an economic hero. Work became scarce after the timber and fishing industries collapsed a quarter-century ago, and his Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, a few miles north of town, has created 325 full-time jobs, plus hundreds more part-time jobs. Mr. Keiser earns millions of dollars in profits each year.

But beneath this model of enterprise, largely hidden subsidies from airline passengers, state-lottery players, taxpayers and company shareholders support the benefits that the owner, workers and visitors at Bandon Dunes enjoy.

Airline passengers and lottery players are paying for a $31 million airport expansion to serve the 5,000 business jets that arrive each year, filled almost entirely with golfers. Many of them are executives of publicly traded companies flying at a small fraction of the real cost of their trips; taxpayers and shareholders bear nearly all of these costs.
Well, I'm sure Mike Keiser is at least consistent about his pro-big-government views, right? Oh, wait . . .
An enthusiastic supporter of Newt Gingrich's GOPAC ($20,000), he consistently exceeded contribution restrictions: In 1990, Keiser spent four times the federal limit.
I guess Keiser's career helps demonstrate that old capitalist adage: You get what you pay for.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

A Silly Question About "The Sopranos"

I realize I will lose all my cred as a cultural commentator for admitting this, but I don't have HBO and therefore have not participated in the Sopranos mania of the past several years, culminating in last night's finale. But I do wonder about something which I would love to see addressed by someone in a position to do so: Why is it that the "glamorization" of the "gangsta" life by hip-hop singers is so widely considered a threat to the social and cultural underpinnings of our society, while the "glamorization" of gangsters by shows like The Sopranos (to say nothing of a long list of Hollywood movies, many of them considered classics, from The Godfather to Once Upon a Time in America) evidently poses no such threat?

I don't suppose race has anything to do with it.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Tom Brokaw Explains It All

Updated below

In its annual roundup of highlights from college commencement addresses around the nation, the New York Times offers this excerpt from a speech delivered by a prominent figure from America's mainstream media: former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, speaking at Skidmore College:

You've been told during your high school years and your college years that you are now about to enter the real world, and you've been wondering what it's like. Let me tell you that the real world is not college. The real world is not high school. The real world, it turns out, is much more like junior high. You are going to encounter, for the rest of your life, the same petty jealousies, the same irrational juvenile behavior, the same uncertainty that you encountered during your adolescent years. That is your burden. We all share it with you. We wish you well.
I appreciate Brokaw's honesty. His speech doesn't reveal a lot about the "real world." But it does--unintentionally, I'm sure--reveal a lot about how the mainstream media tends to view the real world. It certainly helps to explain the giggly-gossip style of political coverage, in which the price of John Edwards' haircuts is more important than the substance of his views; the theatre-review approach to White House reporting, in which a presidential press conference is not analyzed in terms of the truth or falsehood of the factual assertions being made but rather in terms of how the president gestured, the tone of his voice, and the manliness of his demeanor; and the horse-race style of election coverage, in which popularity polls, fund-raising statistics, and the latest news about which consultants are on the rise or on the decline eclipses the question of who would make the best president.

If you view the "real world" as being just a better-paid version of junior high school, then you might as well report about it as if it is all a joke or a game. Judged in that light, our mainstream media are doing a fine, fine job.


After chatting about this with Mary-Jo, I realize that my point here could stand to be clarified.

Tom Brokaw is of course correct to say that the world is plagued by "petty jealousies" and "irrational juvenile behavior." But these aren't the only kind of behaviors we see in the world. There are people driven by passionate concerns about social, political, and economic problems; there are people with strong intellectual, moral, religious, and ideological convictions; there are people who are deeply ambitious to achieve success in business, academia, the arts, science, and many other serious fields. All of these motivations play important roles in shaping the world we live in. To ignore them all and say that the world is nothing more than junior high school redux is silly, simplistic, and false.

Unfortunately, this kind of reductionism is extremely common in the mainstream media. Next time a politician states a position on some kind of important issue, check out how it gets covered on the network news. It is overwhelmingly likely that the substance of the politician's position will be ignored in favor of "how it plays" in the political game: "This is an attempt to shore up his position with his party's base . . . " "He is trying a risky shift to the right in order to . . . " "He is building up his credentials as a . . ." etc. etc. etc. In other words, it's all a game--nothing more.

Naturally, political considerations play a role in everything a politician says and does. For some politicians, those considerations are always predominant. But not for all politicians. And to report politics as if only the game exists is to espouse an extreme cynicism in which government is solely a clash of egos centered on jockeying for position and popularity--"show business for ugly people," as someone once joked.

This kind of cynicism would be harmless if politics had no lasting consequences (like a junior-high-school popularity contest). But when we choose the wrong people to lead the country and allow them to behave irresponsibly, it really matters. People die.

So rather than declaring that life itself is nothing more than junior high school and chuckling about how sophisticated we are to say so, maybe we as a nation ought to be trying to grow up instead.

P.S. I know Tom Brokaw was just trying to make a joke. It's too bad that the joke happens to express so perfectly so much of what is wrong with the MSM where Tom Brokaw made his living . . .

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Secret Shame of Corporate Salaries

A funny little debate going in a few corners of the blogosphere over this op-ed piece in the New York Times by Susan Reed in which she says that businesses should be required to publicly post their employees' salaries. It's a response, in part, to last week's Supreme Court ruling, which said that workers can't sue for discriminatory pay practices unless they can gather the evidence faster than 180 days after the discrimination begins . . . something that is rather hard to do when salaries are a closely-guarded secret.

Anyway, Andrew Sullivan linked (without comment) to this libertarian blog (A Stitch in Haste) whose author waxed indignant over the horrendous invasion of privacy that such a requirement would create. The resulting debate has been, as I say, a bit funny, because the commenters on A Stitch in Haste--who one might assume would tend to be fellow libertarians who would cheer on the blogger--actually do a good job of raising most of the crucial counter-arguments. For example, this:
Oh, I'm sorry. I thought we had a free employment market.

How are free markets supposed to work without transparency? Faith-based markets, I guess. If you sold widgets in the market, you'd be able to pop over to the stall next door and see how much he was charging for his. That would help you set a competitive price and expense-reduction goals.

Oh, but apply that same reasoning to the people who are selling their labor, and it's unconstitutional! Small wonder most people hear "free market" and think "the little guy gets screwed again."
And this:
It's very simple: [if] you're paying a person what they deserve (within the margin of error that life demands), there's no reason to keep it a secret. If my boss is worth twice as much as me to the company, OF COURSE she should get paid twice as much. No one should ever have a reason to complain about appropriate pay, if it really is justified. The problem with paying CEOs 9 and 10 figures isn't that those are large sums of money, but that the people earning them probably aren't worth even 10% of that in many cases.
And this:
The lack of transparency is, as a practical matter, a guarantee of privilege for the 'old boy club', however that may be constituted at a given employer. Those selected will be in the know, and will know how to negotiate effectively for fair pay, those excluded from the informal access to information will be at a disadvantage. A thorough system of discrimination without leaving a trace--nicely done, counselor.

I defy any economist to come up with a rationale for why this is efficient or otherwise beneficial to anyone but insiders. I defy any lawyer to explain how some nebulous right to privacy should trump basic fairness and equity.
The truth is that there is zero chance of a proposal like Reed's getting passed into law any time soon. That doesn't make it a bad idea. Actually, Robert Townsend, one-time CEO of Avis, made the definitive comment about this whole topic almost forty years ago in his classic book Up the Organization (which by coincidence has just been republished in a new "commemorative edition" by my friend Neil Maillet at Jossey-Bass). Here's the advice Townsend offered business executives about salaries:
Secrecy is totally bad. It defeats the crusade for justice, which doesn't flourish in the dark.

Did you ever ask yourself why there's a private payroll? Or why all wages and salaries are posted on the bulletin board? According to the lore of the free-enterprise system money is really a scorecard. So why aren't the scores posted?*

*I'm not suggesting that you should post salaries. For one thing, it would over-emphasize the importance of money. But you shouldn't tolerate a situation in which you're ashamed to post them. Like you are.
Wickedly true in 1970, still true today.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

"He was known to them in the breaking of the bread"

I was sad to read the New York Times obituary of Father David Kirk this past Monday. I didn't know Father Kirk very well, but I met him in the late 1960s when I was in my teens and worked for a time as a volunteer at Emmaus House, the ecumenical center for the homeless and disenfranchised that Father Kirk founded in East Harlem. I admired him very much.

(Emmaus House is, of course, named after this anecdote of the Risen Christ, which to my mind is the most beautiful story in the Bible. It's all about encountering God in the everyday, which of course was also the meaning of Emmaus House itself. The illustration above is by a contemporary Chinese artist, He Qi.)

Father Kirk represented a social movement few people today are probably aware of--left-wing Catholicism, with a strong emphasis on workers' rights, racial equality, caring for the poor, and peace advocacy. The founding figure of this movement in the US (and Father Kirk's personal mentor) was Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and I was pleased to see that Father Kirk has been buried near Day at Resurrection Cemetery in Staten Island. My memories of Father Kirk are all bound up with what I know about Day and about other well-known left-wing Catholics of the 1960s and 70s, such as the clerical peace activists the Berrigan brothers and the pop artist Sister Corita.

Born in Mississippi in 1935, Father Kirk joined the civil rights movement, befriended Martin Luther King, Jr. (and went to prison with him), and worked with Dorothy Day on New York's Lower East Side. It was Day who urged him to launch his own mission house in Harlem where, she said, the city's needs were greatest.

Emmaus House passed through several incarnations, focusing, at different times, on support for civil rights, serving those trying to escape drug addiction, and the anti-Vietnam-war movement. During my time as a volunteer there, it served as a halfway house for newly-released prisoners, offering them help with drug or alcohol problems, job counseling, and advice on practical matters from finding an apartment to reconciling with a spouse of family. The staff even launched a couple of businesses to provide temporary employment for their clients, such as a moving company coyly dubbed Conex Movers (reverse the two syllables in the first word of the name to get the idea).

For me, however, my most vivid memories of Emmaus House are the Eucharist services led by Father Kirk or one of the other priests on staff. A group of us--mostly young people, of both sexes and of every racial, ethnic, and religious background--would gather on the sofas in the sunny high-ceilinged living room of the shabby old townhouse on East 116th Street and quietly bless, then share a bottle of cheap red wine and a crusty loaf of Italian bread from the corner bakery. I've since experienced hundreds of other Eucharists, almost all of them in settings that were far more overtly "devotional," but in very few have I been so aware of the hovering spirit of God. That spirit was present because of Father Kirk--may he rest in peace.

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Saturday, June 02, 2007

I Thought The Problem Was That Al Gore Was TOO Smart

Today's Metro section of the New York Times has an interesting article about a conservative millionaire named Robert Rosenkranz who, as a hobby, has been hosting debates on various political and social topics at the Asia Society here in Manhattan. Here is the paragraph that jumped out at me:
"I felt the level of civility in public life had just gotten dreadful," Mr. Rosenkranz said of his decision to start the debate series. "And when I suggested some kind of oppositional debates to people at the Manhattan Institute and at the American Enterprise Institute, the response was always, 'It's not our mission in life to give them a forum, and there's nobody smart on the other side.'" [emphasis added]
Notice that Rosenkranz didn't say that this arrogant comment was made one time by a single conservative doofus; rather, this was their habitual attitude and their official party line.

What was that you were saying about the elitism and closed-mindedness of New York liberals?

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Forty Years Ago Today

Digby's blogging buddy Tristero (who I gather is composer Richard Einhorn in real life) offers this fine observation in a Sergeant Pepper anniversary diary:
First of all, to you kiddies out there who want to know what all the brouhaha about The Beatles was all about, I strongly suggest you--hell, everyone should have it--grab the four Complete Ed Sullivan Shows with The Beatles. Now here's the thing: you have to watch one a night, all the way through, including Mitzi Gaynor sing what she calls "real music," and Frank Gorshin doing Kirk Douglas impressions. You will learn two things. First of all, that life in mainstream white America in 1964 was bereft of any positive cultural merit whatsoever. And secondly, this is the ideal society your average Republican politician has in mind for America, sans Beatles of course. It truly is hard to believe. You must see these shows in their entirety to understand how much this country has changed.
If I could have glimpsed myself in the year 2007 from the vantage point of 1967, I think I would have been faintly stunned to see how deeply the Beatles continue to influence my personality all these years later. And the impact was not just on me but on so many facets of our culture.

Some of the effects the Beatles had are obvious in retrospect, including, of course, their impact on popular music. Before the Beatles, pop songs were two minutes and fifty seconds long and had a rigidly prescribed form (AABABA) that virtually never varied. After the Beatles, songs of wildly varying length and form, with any conceivable instrumentation and electronic accompaniment or distortion, were all possible. These changes were probably coming, somehow, in some form--but without the Beatles they would have taken longer to arrive and might not have peremeated the music scene so broadly.

Without the Beatles and their electronic experiments in songs like "I Am the Walrus" and "Revolution 9," would there have been mash-ups? Without George Harrison's excursions into Indian music, how and when would the "world music" trend have emerged? Without the Beatles' movies and the promotional videos they created to launch singles after they started touring, would there have been MTV and VH1? Maybe, but maybe not.

However, as Tristero implies, the impact of the Beatles goes way beyond music. It's hard to describe how enormously the "feel" of western society--especially American society--has changed since the advent of the Beatles. They didn't produce the changes single-handedly, obviously. But they were there on the side of change in one instance after another, pushing a whole generation of people in a particular direction.

Before the Beatles, males wore their hair short. They wore clothes that were grey or blue or black. They were (or pretended to be) respectful of their elders and of churchmen and of people in authority, they were patriotic and obedient and tough in a masculine fashion. The few who defied these conventions were pushed way to the perimeters of society. They were "beatniks" (weird freaks not to be taken seriously) or "juvenile delinquents" (criminals) or "addicts" (also criminals) or "faggots" (sources of vague existential-sexual panic).

The Beatles demonstrated that you could flout the conventions in a playful, experimental way and live to tell the tale. They were public about their unconventionality. They had sex and took drugs and made outrageous statements and told inappropriate jokes and tried foreign religions and wore wild-looking clothes and made surrealistic movies and mocked politicians and wrote books of nonsense verse. And through it all they laughed as if life was not to be taken too seriously.

They largely invented the tone of hip, knowing irony that has become the dominant voice of pop culture in America--sometimes to emetic excess. But at the time, what a relief. What a relief to have them in the world--especially during the years when the Kennedys and King and Malcolm were murdered and Richard M. Nixon, the ultimate stiff, was president.

They loosened us up. Without the Beatles, could America have tolerated the insolent, gaily pugnacious Muhammad Ali even as well as it did? Without the Beatles, could there have been Monty Python or R. Crumb or National Lampoon or Tom Tomorrow? Could there have been Robin Williams or Steven Wright or Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show?

Yeah, the Beatles were musicians. But they were also a cultural force unmatched in my lifetime. And what is even more remarkable, their influence was almost entirely benign. (I know that those of the conservative side of the culture wars will disagree, but deep down I bet that even most of them don't really want to go back to that world of Mitzi Gaynor and Frank Gorshin in his crewcut.)

How many people in the history of the world have unleashed as much personal energy and generated as much sheer happiness as the Beatles? Damn few, I'd say.

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