Mitchell's Musings

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  • 11 Oct 2017 6:02 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    Mitchell’s Musings 10-16-17: Goodbye Columbus?


    Daniel J.B. Mitchell


    As readers will probably know by now, the Los Angeles City Council and then the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. There were protests from Italian-American groups that consider Columbus to be an Italian hero.[1] (The Council set the next day as a holiday – although not one which gave anyone a day off – as a day in honor of Italian-Americans.) And there were op-ed rationales for the change presented, including one by a UC-Riverside faculty member.[2] The rationales offered were good. So was there any reason not to do it?


    There was a special local problem. On the grounds of the downtown “Great Park” in LA, which is surrounded by civic buildings of the City and County, there is a statue of Columbus, as this photo taken by yours truly on Sunday, October 8 shows:

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    But the following day (the former Columbus Day), the statue was found by a local TV station to be surrounded by a chain-link fence and covered with paper:

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    No one in an official position was saying who ordered the fencing and papering or whether it was done to protect the statue from vandalism (as has occurred elsewhere in the country to Columbus statues), or instead to protect the powers-that-be from embarrassment over the inconsistency.[3]


    And lest you think these events have nothing to do with Donald Trump and his controversy over statues, let me quickly disabuse of that notion. There is a connection, whether it was intended or not, between Charlottesville, Civil War statues of confederate “heroes,” and the LA decisions about Columbus.

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    The president had previously defended the “Unite the Right” demonstrators of Charlottesville on the grounds that they were just defending historical monuments and that, if the confederates go, the next would be George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, presumably because they were slave-owners. This charge was derided by historians as implausible because Washington and Jefferson, aside from owning slaves, did important things in founding the nation. Those important things, it was asserted, would override the slave-owning and protect their statues.[4]


    So here’s the problem. Columbus is primarily known in the U.S. as an explorer who, given the primitive navigation technology of the time, performed an amazing feat that ultimately – centuries later – was important in founding the nation. But now his holiday is being renamed – contrary to the Washington/Jefferson argument - and his statue is being papered over (and likely will be removed). So the Columbus issue plays directly into the hands of right and the claim of the president.


    There is one Marist public opinion poll that suggests that there exists general support for the Columbus holiday.[5] Of course, that poll was commissioned by – who else? – the Knights of Columbus.[6] So you can discount the results, if you like. But there is no doubt that changing the holiday, or removing the statue, reinforces a right-wing narrative of an overly-sensitive left and its excessive political correctness. Furthermore, as noted, it makes real the question of whether Washington and Jefferson are next. Is being the commanding general in the Revolutionary War and the first president enough to keep a statue? Is being primary author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president enough?[7]


    The LA decision has certainly sparked a predictable response from right-wing media:

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    In short, while the LA decision has little political consequence in the immediate area, in other parts of the country, there could be consequences. Now you can argue that LA should “do the right thing” and not worry about external fallout. Or you can argue that even considering the negative fallout, the decision to change the name (and probably remove the statue) should be made. But my sense is that the question of any larger external impact or of timing wasn’t even considered.


    Nowadays, many public projects require an Environmental Impact Statement. The idea behind such statements is to include recognition of larger external negative effects that policy makers might otherwise neglect before decisions are made. There are Senate seats up for grabs in 2018. There are House seats in marginal districts, including seats in California, which could go one way or another. It would be nice if sometimes Political Impact Statements were required on public policies to force similar recognition of wider externalities.


    Footnotes:

    [1] http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-italians-columbus-la-20171008-story.html.

    [2] http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-hackel-columbus-day-california-settlers-indigeous-peoples-20171009-story.html

    [3] http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2017/10/09/christopher-columbus-statue-covered-on-first-indigenous-peoples-day/.  

    [4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/08/16/historians-no-mr-president-washington-and-jefferson-are-not-the-same-as-confederate-generals/

    [5] http://www.kofc.org/un/en/resources/communications/americans-support-columbus-day.pdf.  

    The Knights of Columbus pushed for adoption of Columbus Day as a federal holiday in 1934, although earlier versions existed. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/09/us/columbus-day-protest.html.  

    [7] Note that among the “usurpations” of King George listed in the Declaration of Independence is this problematic statement: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.

  • 07 Oct 2017 3:44 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    Mitchell’s Musings 10-9-2017: The Meaning of Life


    Daniel J.B. Mitchell


    From time to time, you see stories in the news media and other sources about “life expectancy.” There may be comparisons of the U.S. with other countries or with particular groups within the U.S. There may also be comparisons over time. Table 1 provides an example.


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    Table 1: Selected Life Expectancies at Birth in the U.S. (years)


                         2015        1900

    ------------------------------------------------

    Both Sexes           78.8        47.3  

      Males              76.3        46.3

      Females            81.2        48.3

    ------------------------------------------------

                  Males (2015)    Females (2015)

    ------------------------------------------------

    Hispanic             79.3        84.3

    White Non-Hispanic   76.3        81.1

    Black                71.8        78.1

    ------------------------------------------------

    Source: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus16.pdf#015.

    ===


    You may see things on the table that you already know without seeing the numbers. For example, life expectancy has grown over time or females live longer than males. You may also see things that surprise you, i.e., that Hispanics have a longer life expectancy than non-Hispanic whites. But what precisely do these numbers mean?


    In essence, to calculate these figures, data on survival rates are used. What is the probability within the group that a newborn will reach age 1. What is the probability that a 1-year old will reach age 2, etc., based on current probabilities? So what is really being measured is what would happen - on average - to someone born today if these survival rates were indefinitely frozen.


    Now we know (because of the large increase in life expectancy over time shown on Table 1) that those probabilities in fact have changed over time. Death rates have declined for any age group due to such important factors as the development of public health measures and to advances in medical science and practice. So someone born in 1900 who survived to 1965 and then had, say, a heart attack would likely be taken to a hospital in a fast-moving, motorized ambulance rather than a buggy and would have been treated using 1965 methods rather than 1900 methods.


    In short, if you really wanted to calculate the life expectancy of someone born today, you would need to know what the state of world would be in the future that the newborn will face. There is no guarantee, by the way, that there will be linear progress. For example, when the Soviet Union collapsed, it was noted that life expectancy for men fell, presumably because of disruption of medical services and the social and economic dislocation.[1] More recently, much has been made of increased death rates among U.S. middle-aged whites.[2]


    While life expectancy figures tell you something, the fact that they provide no adjustment for changes in future survival rates is a definite limitation. You can be sure, for example, that the average person born in the U.S. in 1900 turned out to have lived longer than the 47.3 years shown on Table 1. So you don’t want to push such estimates too far. I was therefore struck recently by a headline indicating that figures were being released in Los Angeles County, purporting to show life expectancy by community.[3]


    A press release, for example, tells us that life expectancy in Walnut Grove (population around 16,000) was an astounding 90.5 years, in contrast to a meager 75.8 years in Sun Village (population under 12,000).[4] Both of these places are Census areas, not independent cities. The latter, at least according to Wikipedia, is notable because “composer and musician Frank Zappa played his music and made many friends in Sun Village when he first got started. Thus, Sun Village is the setting of the Frank Zappa song ‘Village of the Sun’ from the 1974 album Roxy and Elsewhere.’”[5] Zappa lived only to age 53, so maybe there truly is a Sun Village jinx. (If only he had made friends in Walnut Grove and instead had composed “Village of the Walnut”…)


    Seriously, to come up with such statistics, you have to assume that someone born in one of these places will not only be subject in the future to the survival probabilities that characterize them today, but will live out their lives entirely in these communities.[6] The probability that someone born in either Walnut Grove or Sun Village will stay there for a lifetime has to be, well, low. And, of course, there is a tremendous noise factor when you try and estimate survival rates in small areas. My city, Santa Monica, has a reported poverty rate of 13.5%, a population of around 93,000, but a life expectancy of 83.2 years. Walnut Grove has a poverty rate of 19%. Is it really less healthy to live in Santa Monica than Walnut Grove?


    I realize that those folks putting out these numbers wanted to call attention to discrepancies in health care and other socio-economic inequities. Obviously, some places are more prosperous than others, and health conditions are going to be correlated with the variation. There is the old line, “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich; rich is better,” that has been ascribed to many, and is surely true, whoever first said it.[7] But you don’t need silly statistics to prove it to anyone.


    Footnotes:

    [1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1116380/.  

    [2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/a-group-of-middle-aged-american-whites-is-dying-at-a-startling-rate/2015/11/02/47a63098-8172-11e5-8ba6-cec48b74b2a7_story.html.  

    [3] https://patch.com/california/santamonica/s/g8w8j/la-county-life-expectancy-report-shows-big-gap-between-communities.  

    [4] https://ssrc-static.s3.amazonaws.com/moa/MOA%20LA%20Life%20Expectancy%20Report%20Release_Final.pdf.

    [5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_Village,_California. Apparently, there were (are?) turkey farms there. You can hear it at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEZwa1Funh0, or just read the lyrics at: https://genius.com/Frank-zappa-village-of-the-sun-lyrics.   

    [6] From the report: “Life expectancy at birth in a geographic area can be defined as an estimate of the average number of years a newborn baby would live if they experienced the particular area’s age-specific mortality rates for that time period throughout their life.” (Page 16 of the report.) Source: https://ssrc-static.s3.amazonaws.com/moa/LIEXBrief_FINAL.pdf.

    [7] https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/07/01/poor-rich/.

  • 01 Oct 2017 1:51 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    Mitchell’s Musings 10-2-2017: What You Know


    Daniel J.B. Mitchell


    Sometimes what you assume to be true may not be. Mark Twain is supposed to have said that “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble; it's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”[1] But then again, just to illustrate the point, it appears that he never said it.[2]


    Two items in the news recently come to mind. One is the political appeal of “single-payer” health insurance. There seems to be an assumption, at least on the part of some on the left, that this concept is a natural rallying cry for Democrats. Indeed, it seems on the way to be becoming a litmus test for Democrats. But how popular is the idea generally, i.e., among voters? The other item I spotted in the news – albeit very locally - is that we live in an era of unprecedented technical progress. The little city I inhabit – Santa Monica, California (population around 93,000) - feels a need to plan for this progress.


    Let’s start with the first item. How popular is single-payer, particularly among Democrats, but also among voters in general? Below is a poll from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) that asks those questions. Note that California is a “blue state,” so one might expect the notion to be particularly popular in a California poll.

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    Source: http://www.ppic.org/wp-content/uploads/s_917mbs.pdf

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    It’s true that the poll above doesn’t really ask about “single-payer.” It asks about a “single national health insurance system run by the government.” And it is quite likely that because lots of folks don’t really know what single-payer is, the pollsters had to define it for them to obtain responses. Still, described the way the pollsters asked, only 44% of Californians who identify as Democrats favor the idea. Of course, Republicans don’t like it at all. And independents are in between. So when you add them all together, and adjust for who is likely actually to vote, you get about one-third support.


    That result doesn’t prove that if you had just said “single-payer” with no definition, you might not have gotten a higher level of support, at least among some Democrats (but maybe a lot more “don’t knows.)” But if there were an actual political campaign in favor of a single-payer plan in California, you can be sure that opponents would use language that was intended to evoke a negative reaction. Maybe “government-run” would be emphasized. Or the ending of all private insurance would be featured as a threat, since loss of that option would affect lots of people.[3]


    The poll didn’t test “Medicare for All” as a slogan, which might be considered a subset of “single payer.” But it’s worth pointing out that Medicare is less “single” than you might think, and it doesn’t really eliminate private insurance, as the diagram below illustrates. Most people under Medicare also have some other supplemental plan. And many recipients have Medicare Advantage plans under which a private entity handles medical coverage for a fixed payment from the government.[4]

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    The bottom line here is that single-payer is unlikely to be a path to sure victory for Democrats. What tends to be popular as a concept is universal coverage – everyone should have health insurance - without a specification as to how that coverage is to be provided. Given the fact that we have had a history of various forms of private health coverage, the notion of re-starting with a new system and scrapping the past seems naïve at best.


    Now let’s turn to the second news item that describes what some people are sure they know. What about the notion that we live in an era of unprecedented technological progress? My own little city, Santa Monica, as noted, recently became concerned about the impact of that progress. It is commissioning a report on how technical change would affect the city and its government over the long term. There is nothing wrong with looking ahead, of course. But the premise seems to be that very rapid progress is inevitable and already occurring:


    Many observers… note that the “pace of technological change is increasing exponentially. Technologies and ways of doing business are rapidly changing and are expected to have significant impacts on how the City provides services and how it pays for those services.[5]


    There is a problem with the idea of the “pace” (presumably rate of change) increasing exponentially, i.e., faster and faster. One relevant measure from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is the change in output per hour. It’s a noisy series, affected by the ups and downs of the business cycle. But when you smooth it out, as in the figure below, it’s hard to see signs of exponential advance.

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    You do see swings in the BLS series. But in fact in the recent period, the index seems to suggest a recent decline in the rate of advance. Indeed, the current period looks reminiscent of the 1970s and early 1980s when there was a federal Productivity Commission established to analyze what had gone wrong with productivity growth. Of course, you can always say there must be some type of measurement error and point to some new app on your cellphone as surefire evidence of rapid advance. In a more sophisticated response, you might respond that labor productivity is not quite the same as technical progress.


    In fact, the BLS does have a more comprehensive series – so-called multifactor productivity – that is supposed to come closer to measuring technological progress. Unfortunately, although there is a long history of trying to measure multifactor productivity, BLS doesn’t have a really long time series of that concept on a consistent basis. But what there is – shown below – mirrors the story told by output per hour, i.e., recent slippage.

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    There is no harm in Santa Monica, or any other city or region, engaging in futurology, so long as the cost isn’t too high. But whoever does the study ought to keep in check the tendency to think that right now there is a special leap in progress occurring, unlike what has gone before. It seems that since the Industrial Revolution, people always seem to believe they live with unprecedented progress.


    Perhaps the best place to illustrate that tendency is in popular culture. The new edition of the movie “Blade Runner” is coming out, this time set in 2049. However, the original film was set in Los Angeles in 2019 and was made in 1982, i.e., at the low point of measured productivity shown earlier. Nonetheless, the film postulates that by 2019, there will be flying cars. Bio-tech will have advanced so much that there will be “replicants” and other artificial creatures. Travel to other planets will be routine. It seems unlikely that these prophesies will develop in the next two years. But the filmmakers must have believed they were living in a period of especially rapid progress back in 1982 that would produce such advances in only 37 years.


    In short, the lesson is that Mark Twain was right, even though he didn’t say it.

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    A clouded 1982 view of the future: A Los Angeles of flying cars, heavy Japanese influence, replicants, and Pan Am.

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    Footnotes:

    [1] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/marktwain109624.html

    [2] https://newrepublic.com/minutes/126677/it-aint-dont-know-gets-trouble-must-big-short-opens-fake-mark-twain-quote

    [3] There was a single-payer initiative on the California ballot in 1994; it was defeated in a landslide. Of course, that was then and this is now. See https://ballotpedia.org/California_Proposition_186,_Single_Payer_Healthcare_System_(1994).

    [4] Source: http://www.kff.org/medicare/issue-brief/medigap-reform-setting-the-context/. I was unable to find a source with later data of the type shown on the chart. 

    [5] http://santamonicalookout.com/ssm_site/the_lookout/news/News-2017/September-2017/09_28_2017_Santa_Monica_City_Officials_Brace_for_a_Future_of_Hi_Tech_Change.html.  


  • 23 Sep 2017 2:24 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    Mitchell’s Musings 9-25-2017: Retraction is the Wrong Action


    Daniel J.B. Mitchell


    Here’s the beginning of the story, as it appeared in Inside Higher Ed:


    Denounced by some as “clickbait” and others as poor scholarship, a new article on the supposed benefits of Western colonialism has prompted calls for retraction. And while detractors are plentiful and pointed in their criticism, the debate and others like it has some wondering if retraction threatens to replace rebuttal as the standard academic response to unpopular research. “The offending article has brought widespread condemnation from scholars around the globe,” begins a petition submitted Monday to the editor of Third World Quarterly and its publisher, Taylor & Francis, demanding the retraction of “The Case for Colonialism.”[1] The petition says that the paper, written by Bruce Gilley, an associate professor of political science at Portland State University and published earlier this month as a “Viewpoints” essay, “lacks empirical evidence, contains historical inaccuracies and includes spiteful fallacies. There is also an utter lack of rigor or engaging with existing scholarship on the issue.” With more than 10,000 signatures -- many from faculty members -- as of Monday, the petition continues, “We do not call for the curtailing of the writer's freedom of speech … Our goal is to raise academic publishing standards and integrity. We thereby call on the editorial team to retract the article and also to apologize for further brutalizing those who have suffered under colonialism.”[2]


    Then:


    Fifteen members of Third World Quarterly’s editorial board resigned Tuesday over the publication of a controversial article they said had been rejected through peer review. The news comes a day after the journal’s editor in chief issued an apparently contradictory statement saying that the essay had been published only after undergoing double-blind peer review.[3]


    And finally:


    Bruce Gilley, an associate professor of political science at Portland State University, has asked the journal to withdraw the paper. “I regret the pain and anger that it has caused for many people,” Gilley said in a statement Thursday. “I hope that this action will allow a more civil and caring discussion on this important issue to take place.”[4]


    Let’s start with the following two disclaimers. 1) I have no special knowledge of economic development in third world countries. 2) I don’t read the Third World Quarterly and never heard of it before the controversy. So I have no knowledge of the journal’s history, reputation, slant, etc. But I do think there are two elements in the controversy that are relevant to academic journals generally. One is the question of retraction. Another is the role of a journal editor.


    After looking at the article, it appears to me to be an extended opinion piece rather than a research essay. In fact, it appeared as a “Viewpoint” article in the journal. I can imagine a journal retracting a research article which turned out to be based on fake data or which violated some other expectation one might have of a research piece. But it’s harder to justify a demand for retraction of an opinion piece. One member of the editorial board who didn’t resign and who opposed the demand for retraction was Noam Chomsky, someone with whom I would normally not share many opinions. But in this case my sympathies are with what Chomsky said:


    Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor and professor of linguistics emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology… told Inside Higher Ed that it’s “pretty clear that proper procedures were not followed in publishing the article, but I think retraction is a mistake – and also opens very dangerous doors… Rebuttal offers a great opportunity for education, not only in this case.” Chomsky added, “I’m sure that what I publish offends many people, including editors and funders of journals in which they appear.”[5]


    Despite my admitted lack of expertise in economic development, I couldn’t help but notice that the articled didn’t go into a comparison of China vs. India. The former has been the home of rapid growth, but didn’t retain governance structures of the various European powers (or of Japan) that carved it up into spheres of influence in colonial days. India has been less of an economic success story, despite retaining governance structures inherited from Britain.


    Both countries are huge compared to some of the examples cited in the paper. And, curiously, Gilley has elsewhere written extensively on China.[6] Wouldn’t someone making a case for the benefits of colonial inheritance want at least to deal with the largest examples of third world countries on the planet? In short, I doubt that it would be hard for someone with actual expertise on the subject of post-colonial development – unlike the author of this musing - to develop a rebuttal.


    I have been a journal editor and have been on journal editorial boards, so I do have some experience, if not expertise, in those roles. In this case, the journal’s editor is accused by those members of the board who resigned of misrepresenting the peer review process and of not properly following it. I can’t judge the issue of misrepresentation. But the board’s understanding of the role of a journal editor was certainly not my understanding when I played that role. Even allowing for differences in expectations across fields, I can’t imagine that an editor of any journal is expected simply to follow a mechanical process of review.


    Yes, any respectable journal will have an external review process as its major gateway to publication. But I never thought of my role as editor as being one of just handling the paperwork involved in contacting reviewers and soliciting their opinions. If that were the role, why not hire a clerk to do it? Why would any busy academic want to do it, if that were the role? If I, as editor, thought a submission was worthy despite reservations by reviewers, I would go ahead with it. (There are always reservations by reviewers.) In short, editors – at least in my understanding – exercise judgment. They are expected to exercise judgment.


    In one case, I did resign from an editorial board over an article. But in that instance, a paper that I regarded as little more than an ill-disguised diatribe had been published. When I protested to the journal’s editor, he asserted that he had no choice but to publish it because the outside reviewers had approved. In short, I resigned because the editor had not exercised good judgment, not because he used his judgment. And I certainly did not demand retraction or apology.


    As of this writing, the Third World Quarterly paper is still posted on the web, despite the author’s request for retraction. The journal has not taken it down. And it shouldn’t. As the author’s explanation – reproduced earlier – indicates, his retraction request is based on “pain and anger” caused to readers. The author did not indicate that he now had an epiphany and thought his article’s viewpoint was incorrect. In contrast, Chomsky – in opposing the demand for retraction - notes that his (Chomsky’s) published viewpoint “offends many people.”


    If indeed, as the retraction petition asserts, “there is… an utter lack of rigor or engaging with existing scholarship…,” then surely someone among the 10,000+ petition signatories can easily write a response to the article. Nothing really vanishes from the web, even if the paper is formally taken down. If no one writes a rebuttal, and instead the paper remains quasi-available somewhere in the internet ether, then it will remain the last word on the subject. And if someone does write a rebuttal, but the paper is not readily available, the juxtaposition will suggest that academic bullying – not reasoning – accounts for its absence. If that’s the final result, it would not be a good outcome. A much better outcome would be for the signatories to retract their petition.


    Footnotes:

    [1] https://www.change.org/p/editors-of-the-third-world-quarterly-retract-the-case-for-colonialism and http://fooddeserts.org/images/paper0114.pdf.  

    [2] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/09/19/controversy-over-paper-favor-colonialism-sparks-calls-retraction.  

    [3] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/09/20/much-third-world-quarterlys-editorial-board-resigns-saying-controversial-article.  

    [4] https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2017/09/22/author-asks-journal-pull-pro-colonial-essay and http://www.web.pdx.edu/~gilleyb/.   

    [5] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/09/20/much-third-world-quarterlys-editorial-board-resigns-saying-controversial-article.    

    [6] https://www.pdx.edu/hatfieldschool/bruce-gilley

  • 15 Sep 2017 9:36 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    Mitchell’s Musings 9-18-2017: Little Things Can Mean a Lot


    Daniel J.B. Mitchell


    Economists have a concept of “externalities” which are generally categorized as causing market imperfections. Externalities can be positive or negative. They typically involve side effects of some activity that do not directly find their way into the costs and benefits of whoever is undertaking that activity. Air pollution is often given as an example of a negative externality. If you run a factory with a smokestack polluting the air, the cost of that pollution is borne by others; it does not enter into the calculation of building or running the factory unless some outside regulator steps in and requires mitigation or taxes the pollution output in some way.[1] As a reverse example, if you improve your house, you may well raise the property values of neighboring houses. But you won’t obtain those external benefits – your neighbors will - and so individual homeowners may underinvest in home improvements.


    The notion of externalities comes to mind at this writing as UC-Berkeley is preparing to host a conservative speaker – Ben Shapiro – at the invitation of a student group, despite perceived threats of violent protests. The new chancellor of Berkeley has decided to do whatever is necessary to have the talk go forward. She is partly doing it to protect notions of free speech and academic freedom on campus. I suspect she is also doing it for a more general reason, a public perception that universities in the U.S. are themselves becoming intolerant – sometimes in the name of tolerance. She is trying to avoid a negative externality that may not affect Berkeley, but does spill over to the larger academic world.


    What’s the evidence of a growing negative public perception? As the survey chart above suggests, the general polarization in national politics – particularly during and after the 2016 presidential election – is showing up in public attitudes toward academia. Democrats tend to have a positive view of academia; Republicans have tended to have a negative view in the past couple of years.[2]


    If you are the head of a university, even in liberal-leaning California where the Republican Party has drifted toward state-level irrelevance, you have to view that trend as a Bad Thing for the larger academic community. But, as noted, the specifics of what happens at Berkeley – particularly in California – largely flow externally. A good deal of the effort at Berkeley with regard to the Shapiro talk has gone into security. A university official put out a news release going into some detail on the steps being taken for security reasons.[3] Unfortunately, included in that release was the following language:


    We are deeply concerned about the impact some speakers may have on individuals’ sense of safety and belonging. No one should be made to feel threatened or harassed simply because of who they are or for what they believe. For that reason, the following support services are being offered and encouraged: (Links to counseling services followed.)


    In short, the wording of the news release inadvertently encouraged the “snowflake” narrative that has widely circulated in conservative media as part of a more general denigration of higher ed. The first item reproduced in the Appendix to this musing comes from the conservative Flashreport website and explicitly uses the snowflake terminology with regard to Berkeley-Shapiro. But note that a similar theme was found in a Yahoo news report which, in turn, picked up a report from mainstream Newsweek.


    Both of these items poke fun at the notion that the mere presence of Shapiro on campus was likely to cause psychological problems for students. It goes along with the trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc., that have been much parodied, particularly on the right. While the author of the news release may not have foreseen that his wording would become a source of mockery, it was a negative externality that should have been avoided. It’s a little thing, a negative externality, which ends up becoming a bigger thing.


    As for Shapiro himself, I will confess to never having heard of him until the controversy over his invitation arose. Although he was invited by campus Republicans, apparently – at least in the past – he has not been a supporter of President Trump. So he might be viewed as controversial within conservative circles. He may be challenged by his immediate hosts at the presentation.

    But I have no idea as to what Shapiro will say at Berkeley. According to the campus newspaper, some faculty are arguing that because he just has opinions they find offensive – or because he might engage in hate speech as they define it - he shouldn’t be allowed to speak. That position is another negative externality for academia. The public may not be friendly toward Nazis marching in Charlottesville, but Shapiro is hardly that.


    The fact that the First Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court (and the Berkeley law school dean), says Shapiro has a right to speak at a public university, is seemingly not persuasive to those folks with such views on the Berkeley faculty.[4] I am going by a description in the campus newspaper, so I may not be doing their viewpoint full justice. But like all negative externalities, the constraining effect on the behavior of those articulating that viewpoint is less than it should be. The cost is borne elsewhere.

    ===

    Postscript: According to the campus newspaper, the Shapiro talk went off without violence. Seven hundred people showed up for the talk. Others engaged in what was reported to be peaceful protest.[5] Police deterred others who might not have been peaceful.

    ===

    Appendix:


    ===


    ===

    Footnotes:

    [1] The assumption is that those individuals adversely affected by the pollution in practice cannot collectively negotiate a deal with the factory owner.

    [2] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/07/20/republicans-skeptical-of-colleges-impact-on-u-s-but-most-see-benefits-for-workforce-preparation/.  

    [3] http://news.berkeley.edu/campus-update-on-ben-shapiro-event/.

    [4] http://www.dailycal.org/2017/09/08/free-speech/

    [5] http://www.dailycal.org/2017/09/14/hundreds-gather-peacefully-near-uc-berkeley-campus-protesting-ben-shapiros-talk/

  • 07 Sep 2017 3:09 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    Mitchell’s Musings 9-11-17: More Thoughts of the Week


    Daniel J.B. Mitchell


    In a recent musing, I reflected on that week’s prior events.[1] Here is another such weekly reflection.


    The Median Voter


    Recently, California’s Democratic U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein was booed by members of her own party for essentially saying that she hoped Trump would improve as a president. She has to make a decision soon on whether to run for another term in the U.S. Senate. At age 84, she may very well decide not to run, regardless of boos or praise. However, the folks who booed her seemed to have little sense of what a senator does. Here is one critic:


    “We don’t need to work across the aisle. We don’t need bipartisanship. We don’t need compromise. What we need to do is fight,” said Pat Harris, a Studio City attorney and one of five little-known Democratic challengers who have opened committees to run against her.[2]


    I trust that most LERA readers, with their backgrounds in negotiations and in working things out (if possible), will find such a sentiment anomalous. The problem is that California has all kinds of “interests” in Washington and with the federal government. It gets disaster aid when bad things happen. It gets a lot of Medicaid (Medi-Cal) funding. Etc., etc. (Do I really need to point these facts out?) So, yes, if you want to be a senator, you had better learn to compromise and to deal with folks with whom you disagree. It can’t just be fighting and nothing else.


    “It’s time for Dianne Feinstein to go,” said Ben Becker, co-founder of San Francisco Berniecrats. “She’s not looking out for people of color and poor people, those who don’t have equal footing in Donald Trump’s America. Her argument for civility and bipartisanship will lead us down a very, very dark path with this current administration.”[3]


    There is a major problem with the view above. It’s a simple example of Groupthink. Everyone Mr. Becker knows agrees with him, but he apparently doesn’t know a representative sample of the California electorate. Academic analysts like to look at the numbers, and we had an empirical test quite recently of where the median voter is in California. In the Democratic primary in June 2016, Hillary Clinton got 53.1%. Bernie Sanders got 46%. And, of course, these numbers don’t include Republicans who are roughly one fourth of registered voters, and who didn’t vote in the Democratic primary.[4] So the median California voter is not a “progressive” Berniecrat. In November 2016, for example, California voters rejected ending the death penalty in one ballot initiative. In fact voters supported another initiative that limited death penalty appeals. They liked the death penalty and thought it should be sped up.


    So, yes, California as a state is generally more liberal than the rest of the U.S. But it is not where some folks think it is, politically. What has happened in California is that the Republican Party – as a party - has marginalized itself to the point that at a statewide level (which is what matters for U.S. Senate races), it is no longer competitive. (See the chart below.) And in the legislature, where local districts matter, it has too few seats to matter for most purposes.

    ---


    ---

    But all state primaries (except presidential) in California are non-partisan. Local primaries also are non-partisan. Everyone runs in the same primary regardless of party. Ultimately, candidates have to appeal to a wide audience. None of this proves that Dianne Feinstein should run again. But it does suggest that what California voters want (as opposed to what party “activists” want) is someone who knows the value of civility and compromise – as well as the ability to negotiate with those currently in authority on behalf of the state.


    Madman Theory Once Again


    In my earlier musing on the week’s events, I noted the North Korean nuclear problem and criticized an op ed that suggested that President Trump might be using the “madman” theory of negotiations in dealing with the threat. Under the madman theory, which some commentators have said President Nixon used in Vietnam, you try to convince the other side that you are crazy enough to do terrible things. I pointed out that in any theory of negotiations, credibility has to be an important element. If you want to play the madman game in a negotiation, you at least have to be a credible madman. It’s a simple point, and surely one that LERA members will understand.


    But what the North Koreans (and Chinese) have learned is that the American president is at best a rhetorical madman. He threatens. But he doesn’t do anything tangibly that suggests he will carry through on his threats. Nonexistent armadas are said to be heading toward Korea. Fire and fury are threatened, but no troops are moved. More recently, the president threatened to block all trade with countries that have commerce with North Korea. The problem is that the president doesn’t unilaterally determine U.S. trade policy. And there is no way he is going to block all trade with China or any important country. Moreover, there is no evident strategy. Different officials in the administration say different things.[5]


    The result, as suggested in the earlier musing, is to make things worse, short term and long term. If you convince the other side that in the end you will always acquiesce – despite what you say – it will proceed on its current path. And if at some point, you actually do change your behavior and decide to act for real, the chances of both parties blundering into a conflict have been increased.


    American international diplomacy needs a version of the Hippocratic Oath:

    First, do no harm.


    The President’s DACA Decision


    Let’s go back to that chart on Republican Party membership in California. What caused the slide? The usual explanation is that it was kicked off by Proposition 187 of 1994. At the time, California was in the midst of a multiyear budget crisis that accompanied the end of the Cold War and the (mild) recession of the early 1990s. While the rest of the country quickly recovered, the drop in military expenditures in California had a major negative effect in the state.


    Republican Governor Pete Wilson, elected first in 1990, spent his first term wrestling with a budget crisis caused by the downturn. A budget crisis is not a good platform to run on for re-election. But in 1994, that’s what Wilson had to do. He linked his campaign to Prop 187, which would have denied state services to undocumented immigrants.[6] And he won re-election (against current Governor Jerry Brown’s sister, Kathleen Brown). Prop 187 also passed, although it was largely voided subsequently by litigation.


    The short-run victories of Wilson and Prop 187, however, produced a long-run alienation of the growing Latino population in California from the Republican Party. The Party’s “base” became nativist at a time when Californians more generally went in the opposite direction. Wilson himself would today be considered a “moderate” in the GOP. But he seemed to set in motion a process in which his Party was seen as more and more retrograde, and it has never been able to get off that track.


    Sometimes a momentary success can produce a longer term failure. When you think of President Trump’s recent DACA decision, you might want to think about Wilson and 187.

    ------------------------------


         Great for the “base,” but bad for the Party

    ------------------------------

    Footnotes:

    [1] http://employmentpolicy.org/page-1775968/5035539#sthash.8D6Gw8Lp.dpbs

    [2] http://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article171652372.html.  

    [3] Ibid.

    [4] Independent voters can vote in Democratic presidential primaries in California, but not in Republican presidential primaries. (The parties make the rules.)

    [5] If anyone is using the madman theory, it is the North Koreans. And, if so, they are much better at it than the U.S.

    [6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0f1PE8Kzng

  • 31 Aug 2017 5:09 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    Mitchell’s Musings 9-2-2017: Pardon


    Daniel J.B. Mitchell


    Recently, President Trump’s pardon of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio has produced much well-deserved controversy.[1] Although presidents have broad powers to issue pardons, the Arpaio pardon didn’t follow the standard practice of review. Usually, those individuals pardoned have in some way expressed regret for their conduct and have requested a pardon. So the Arpaio pardon was at least unusual. Apparently, Arpaio had not himself requested a pardon, but his lawyer had some communication with the White House about it. And Arpaio certainly did not regret his conduct.


    Of course, there have been other controversial pardons in the past. Perhaps the most notable pardon in that regard was the one granted by President Gerald Ford to former President Richard Nixon. Nixon had not expressed regret at the time and had not requested the pardon. But Ford did not want a former president on trial or even jailed.


    Arpaio’s offense was contempt of court. There was another case, many decades ago, in which a president granted a pardon for contempt of Congress, even though the recipient did not ask for one and, in fact, may well have wanted to go to jail as a martyr. Indeed, what impelled President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue a pardon to Dr. Francis E. Townsend – even though none was requested – was precisely to prevent Townsend from becoming a martyr and a political issue.

    ---


    ---

    So who was Townsend and why did this issue arise? Townsend (seen in the photo) was an elderly physician who ended up living in, and for a time working for, the City of Long Beach, California, in the 1930s.[2] As the nation sunk into the Great Depression in the early part of that decade, he began promoting a cure for the Depression through a local newspaper. At the time, California was something like Florida today: a place for the elderly to retire in the sunshine, away from colder climates of the Midwest or elsewhere. Long Beach had many elderly residents like Townsend.


    In an era before Social Security, indigent elderly persons relied on support of charities, poorhouses, or – in the case of California – what was termed “outdoor relief,” essentially, an early form of “welfare” for oldsters. Townsend’s scheme, which was concocted out of various movements of the day, proposed a pension payment by the federal government of $200 a month for individuals over age 60, provided they promised not to work and to spend every penny of the pension during the course of the month. Jobs would thus be left to the young and the elderly would stimulate demand and job creation by their consumption. The cost of the plan was to be financed by a seemingly modest 2% tax on all transactions, perhaps jumpstarted by some kind of currency creation.


    There are lots of things to be said about the practicality of the Townsend Plan, but it had an obvious appeal to California’s disproportionately elderly population. Two hundred dollars ($400 for an elderly couple!) was a considerable sum at the prices of that period. Indeed, the Townsend movement felt compelled to publish sample budgets proving that someone could actually spend that amount in a month. The Plan would have transferred as much as a quarter of the GDP from those under 60 to the elderly.


    Townsend’s transaction tax would have applied to any arms-length purchase. Hence, when the carmaker bought steel, it would have been taxed. When the steelmaker bought iron ore, it would have been taxed. When the car was sold to the dealer, it would have been taxed. And when the final consumer bought the car from the dealer, it would have been taxed. Note that this form of pyramid tax would have been a strong incentive for vertical industrial consolidation. If the carmaker owned the dealership, the steel mill, and the iron mine, all but the tax on the final sale could have been avoided. But these details were not of concern to the Townsendites. Soon there were dues-generating Townsend clubs throughout California that spread to the rest of the country. There were Townsend newspapers and books for sale. The Townsend movement, in short, became a profitable business.[3]


    For the Roosevelt administration, the Townsend movement posed two challenges. First, it competed with its Social Security proposal. Compared to Townsend’s $200 a month, the payments to be made under Social Security were skimpy. Moreover, the Roosevelt plan involved creating a pension system that looked like the few corporate pensions that had developed by the 1930s. There would be employer and employee contributions and a trust fund that would have to be built up (and not pay any pensions until the 1940s). Townsend’s plan in contrast had no cost to recipients, did not require a work history of contributions, would start paying immediately, and offered far more money. Thus, Roosevelt and those developing the Social Security plan looked at the Townsend Plan as stealing elderly political support (which it did).


    Second, Roosevelt would be up for re-election in 1936. We know with hindsight that he won in a landslide. But at the time, polling was embryonic and the outcome was not considered a slam dunk. There was fear that Louisiana Senator Huey Long – who had his own “Share the Wealth” movement – would combine with Townsend and other movements that had sprung up. Long might run a third-party campaign that would siphon votes from Roosevelt and throw the election to the Republicans. As it happened, Long was assassinated and the remnants of his movement did combine with Townsend’s and others, running an obscure congressman for president in a campaign that fizzled out.


    The Roosevelt administration found allies in Congress to start an investigation of Townsend. In part, it focused on the moneymaking aspect of the Townsend movement. Townsend himself was charged in the hearings with everything from being an atheist to a communist. There was pressure on the FBI from the Roosevelt administration to dig up dirt on Townsend.[4] The Post Office Department was used to monitor mail volume going to Townsend as a measure of his popularity. In short, although it remains unclear if Townsend was a huckster or just a naïve believer in his plan, he was clearly subject to an array of Dirty Tricks by the administration.


    At one point in the Congressional hearings, Townsend became frustrated with the questioning and simply walked out, an action that led to a contempt of Congress charge for which he was eventually convicted. But in the end, Social Security was enacted in 1935, and Roosevelt was re-elected in 1936. Yet the Townsendites continued to attract significant elderly political support and continued to push for their plan. If Townsend were actually jailed, the president feared, his pension movement would be strengthened. Rather than see that happen, Roosevelt simply issued an unrequested pardon for Townsend, diffusing the issue. Townsend’s followers, unaware of the Dirty Tricks that had been emanating from the White House, in fact looked favorably at Roosevelt’s rescue of their hero.


    The ultimate irony of the Townsend pardon is that it could be argued that Roosevelt owed a debt of gratitude to Dr. Townsend. The administration’s Social Security proposal was a radical innovation in U.S. politics that might well have been defeated in Congress. But with the elderly pushing for the Townsend Plan instead, Social Security became the moderate alternative. A member of Congress or a Senator – having voted against the Townsend Plan – would not want to slap his elderly constituents in the face twice by also voting against the more modest Social Security plan. What Roosevelt considered the crown jewel of the New Deal may well have owed its success to Francis Townsend. You might look at the Townsend pardon as a reward for his inadvertent service to the New Deal.

    ---


    Emblem of the Townsend movement

    ---

    Footnotes:

    [1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2017/08/30/legal-challenge-to-arpaio-pardon-begins/.  

    [2] The material that follows comes from my book Pensions, Politics, and the Elderly: Historic Social Movements and Their Lessons for Our Aging Society (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000), Chapter 4.

    [3] A newsreel on the Townsend movement can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B10O4qUR7tY.  

    [4] The FBI did accumulate a large stack of files on Townsend, but never found anything it wanted to pursue. 

  • 26 Aug 2017 10:30 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    Mitchell’s Musings 8-28-2017: Deal or No Deal?


    Daniel J.B. Mitchell


    In the past few days, the Republican minority in the California state assembly voted out its leader because he had supported legislation extending the state’s greenhouse gas emissions cap-and-trade program. The cap-and-trade bill, supported by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, was also supported by the business community which prefers the flexibility provided by cap-and-trade to a system of command-and-control regulations. Cap-and-trade, which relies on markets rather than regulation to control emissions, is basically a conservative idea. (For that reason, many on the environmental left don’t like it.) The combination of business support and a market/conservative concept would - in decades past - have been a natural for Republican support. But nowadays, anything pushed by Democrats has become verboten for purists on the GOP right.


    A similar example at the federal level is “Obamacare,” which was in its origins a Republican idea. Its basic framework was implemented in Massachusetts under Republican Governor Mitt Romney. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger tried (but failed) to have California adopt it. The Obama folks adopted the idea in 2009 as a program that might attract bipartisan support. But it didn’t get that support, mainly because Obama was pushing it. Again, compromising and endorsing anything which the other side proposed was rejected. In the end, Obamacare became law without a single Republican vote.


    A sense of political purity is not confined to Republicans. Some Democrats in the California assembly last spring began pushing a single-payer health insurance bill. A major problem was that the bill had no funding mechanism. But that missing element was not the only problem. Replacing all private health insurance with a public program is a complicated administrative task. The details in such an effort matter, and there were no details in the California bill. The bill was a symbol of a desire, not real legislation.


    Vermont – the home of Bernie Sanders – tried to go the single-payer route and failed. California would need the permission of the federal government to establish such a plan, something unlikely to be obtained from the current administration. The Democratic assembly speaker eventually killed the bill, citing its incompleteness and impracticality, and leading to his condemnation by True Believers in his party. (Unlike his Republican counterpart in the cap-and-trade case, he was not removed.)


    What is the lesson from such behavior? A recent op ed in the Guardian was entitled “Liberal elite, it's time to strike a deal with the working class.”[1] The title basically tells the story. It advices Democrats not to fall into the trap of avoiding compromises with those perceived as supporters of the other “side.” Avoiding deals with anyone who does not meet all of your criteria for pure and proper thought is a route to political oblivion.


    It’s worth looking back at history to a time when the Democrats won the working class. The New Deal administration in the 1930s – which (among other things) enacted Social Security (pensions, unemployment insurance) – was based on a truly unholy alliance of northern liberals and southern segregationists (the so-called “solid South” and its block of electoral votes). Would the U.S. be better off today if the deals that were cut back then had not been reached? You really have to be a purist to answer “no.”


    For better or worse, the U.S. has a two-party system with the general rule of winner-take-all in elections. There are other democratic political systems in the world, essentially parliamentary set-ups with proportional representation, in which every cause or interest group has its own party and governments are elected in the national legislature through horse-trading until some collection of parties can form a workable coalition. In the U.S., the horse-trading and compromising has to be done within the parties – which is why the two parties are ideologically incoherent, both at any moment in time and over time. The party that can pull together enough groups and interests to win an election rules.


    As we have noted in prior posts, the minority party in Congress usually picks up some seats in non-presidential midterm elections (such as 2018). But if the economy continues along at its current pace with low unemployment and no recession, there may not be enough of a gain by Democrats in the short run to change control of either house. The outcome could depend instead on the Russia thing or some other Trump scandal, and no one knows how Russia or related controversies will turn out. However, in the longer term, a winning coalition strategy should focus on traditional issues: work, good jobs, economic security, etc. Promising to address those things, even if little was done about them after-the-fact, was certainly part of the Trump appeal in 2016.


    There was much recent ridicule of the Democrats for coming up with a slogan of “A Better Deal.” But the lack of a peppy slogan is a matter of marketing, not substance. (How good a slogan was “New Deal”? Or “Great Society”? Or “Make American Great Again”?) Given the current propensities of the incumbent president, the Democrats don’t need to engage in the excesses of so-called “identity politics” which tend to be divisive. Identities will take care of themselves. California provides yet another example.


    In 1994, California’s Republican Governor Pete Wilson ran for re-election on a platform of support for Proposition 187, an initiative of dubious constitutionality, aimed at control of illegal immigration.[2] Prop 187 and Wilson won, but in doing so the Latino vote was pushed to the Democrats. The result by 2017 is that the Republicans hold no statewide offices in California. And they are barely relevant in the legislature. In short, if one party is attacking various groups (overtly or indirectly), those groups will migrate over time to the other party. Sometimes, you just have to wait for political reactions and demographics to take hold. And, in the meantime as the song goes, “Accentuate the Positive.”

    ===

    [1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/23/liberal-elite-its-time-to-strike-a-deal-with-the-working-class

    [2] Through a process of litigation, Prop 187 was largely voided. 

  • 18 Aug 2017 9:26 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    Mitchell’s Musings 8-21-2017: Miscellaneous Thoughts on the Past Week


    Daniel J.B. Mitchell


    The past week was a mix of crises with first a conflict with North Korea that was overshadowed by violent demonstrations by neo (and not-so-neo) Nazis and others of that ilk in Charlottesville, VA and the president’s reaction. The first crisis involved negotiations – a topic of great interest to LERA, the organization that sponsors the EPRN website on which this blog appears. LERA members are particularly focused on collective bargaining, a form of negotiations. And the second crisis involves demographics, broadly defined, another LERA topic.


    The Madman Theory of Negotiations


    Let’s start with negotiations and North Korea, where a war of words (“words” is the important element here) was triggered by North Korea missile tests, and by concerns that North Korea might be able (now or soon) to put its nuclear weapons on its missiles and hit the U.S. mainland. (No one seems to notices that these weapons could, right now, and without further development of technology, be put on a ship and sailed near Hawaii or the West Coast.) The president, in response to the missile tests, issued a statement that was widely viewed as off-the-cuff, but appeared (to me) to be scripted, and from a script that implied a nuclear response from the U.S.:

    ---


    ---

    An op ed in the Los Angeles Times by UCLA Law Professor Russell Korobkin (and therefore a faculty colleague of mine) made an argument that the threatening language from the president might have a better effect than more measured statements by previous administrations.[1] In effect, his argument was a variant of the “madman” theory that was said to be applied by President Nixon during the Vietnam War. Act irrationally, according to the theory, and you will scare your opponent with the idea that you might do something unthinkable. As the op ed put it:


    As I tell students in my negotiation class, in hard-nosed, brass-knuckles bargaining, the crazy person wins because he can force a rational counterpart to make concessions in order to avoid mutual disaster. And no one does crazy like Trump.


    …(T)he obvious danger of Trump facing off with Kim is precisely why rational Chinese leaders might reassess their nation’s long-standing approach and intervene more decisively. [Underline added]


    Of course, anything “might” happen. But as fellow LERA members – who have a special interest in collective bargaining - will know, there is a credibility element to negotiations. When Nixon made threats, he was in the middle of a hot war (Vietnam) and in fact could and did order bombings, etc. In contrast, the Trump rhetorical threats were made without any tangible actions that would suggest preparations for military action. Troops were not called up. Ships were not moved. Dependents weren’t evacuated.


    Moreover, the North Koreans and the Chinese, both of whom are said to be the target audience, are surely aware of low approval ratings for the president and of his inability to get major bills through Congress. Chinese President Xi Jinping has experience with Trump. He met with Trump and told him that China was no longer manipulating its currency – and Trump then declared it to be true, despite his earlier contrary campaign assertions. So the Chinese and the North Koreans may well read Trump as weak in tangible actions but blustery in words.


    Further, at least in collective bargaining, the parties typically have decided on their key objectives before negotiations begin. They may incrementally change those goals as the process unfolds. But in the Trump case, his advisors at least seem not to be in agreement on where they are trying to go or how to get there. And these disagreements are being displayed in public.[2]


    So there are many reasons to think that there is a missing element in the madman approach – and that is credibility. North Korea and China have good reason to believe that the verbal threats are not real and that what the president wants is to be praised within the U.S. for being tough and not made to look bad. In short, to use the madman approach, you have to show signs of really being a madman in action and not just rhetorically erratic.


    All that seemed to result from the president’s rhetoric at this writing is that the North Koreans first added a new threat to Guam, and then said they would wait. And the president followed by saying the North Korean leader was “wise.” Is this back-and-forth really likely to change anyone’s fundamental behavior in North Korea or China? You can say it “might,” as the op ed does. But what are the probabilities? So far, they seem slight.


    North Korea in fact has operated on the madman theory for years, both saying crazy things and doing crazy things. If North Korea and China judge Trump to be rhetorically a madman, but not tangibly a madman, and if he turns out to be both, the possibility of stumbling into a conflict will rise. In short, everything we know about negotiations suggests you should be nervous.

    ---

    Firing At-Will Employees


    Now let’s turn to Charlottesville and its aftermath. In a recent post on this blog, I discussed the termination of a Google employee who circulated a memo within the firm questioning its policies regarding diversity. He was fired when the memo became public. The theme of that post was that most private-sector employees are “at will,” and are not protected by union contracts or individual contracts that would require just cause for dismissal.[3]


    One byproduct of the Charlottesville event was that, using photos available on the web, various folks tried to identify participants and “out” their identities. An employee of a hot-dog chain in the San Francisco area was so-identified and was then fired by his employer. Moreover, the employer posted signs about its action at its branches. You can be sure that an employee of a fast-food operation had no employment contract and wasn’t unionized. So the employer could have fired him for any reason or no reason. Even if there was doubt about the identification, he could have been fired. But posting public signs about an individual, particularly someone who was not otherwise a public figure, gets us into the realm of libel if the allegation proves not to be true.


    As it turned out, the allegation on the hot-dog stand employee apparently was true. But there was another case in which someone was “identified” from a web photo as participating in the Nazi march, but the identification proved to be false. The individual in the meantime received threats, demands that he be fired, etc.[4] In short, employers would be well advised to be careful in responding to such cases, even for at-will employees, and should certainly not publicly endorse web-based allegations without assurance that they are true. Indeed, saying as little as possible would be appropriate: “An individual who has been linked on the web to [name the activity] is in fact not employed here.” There is no need to say more.

    ---

    Hidden History Lessons


    Another byproduct of the events at Charlottesville was the discovery and widespread circulation of a film originally made in 1943 by the War Department (and re-released in 1947 with footage of the defeat of Germany) titled “Don’t Be a Sucker.”[5] After showing a couple of unrelated scams victimizing unsuspecting “suckers,” the film turns to a fascist-type street-corner speaker in the U.S. who is condemning Negroes, foreigners, Catholics, and freemasons. One man on the street is at first taken in by the speaker until he mentions masons – because the listener is a mason. At that point, a Hungarian immigrant – now a U.S. citizen – sits down with the mason, and narrates a history of what happened in Germany.


    While it’s interesting to look at the film’s message – and note its relevance for today – there is a bit of hidden history in the film that today’s viewers may not perceive. Although anti-Semitism in Germany is depicted in the film, it is shown as just one form of Nazi discrimination. And the street-corner speaker in the U.S. doesn’t mention it. Why is it downplayed?


    Whoever made the film for the War Department was surely aware that prior to Pearl Harbor, there was a prominent charge being made by “America First” supporters who wanted to stay out of the war that Jews were dragging the U.S. into it. Perhaps the most prominent proponent of this view was aviator Charles Lindbergh. Three months before Pearl Harbor, he gave his famous speech in Des Moines, Iowa before a raucous crowd which, in the context of the War Department’s film, is worth listening to:


    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_F48oaOskI


    By the way, despite the film’s theme that we’re all Americans, you won’t find any reference to segregation in it (including segregation in the military). You won’t find any reference to the internment of West Coast Japanese-origin citizens and residents. Sometimes what is not said in a film is as significant as what is said.

    ---

    Identity Politics


    White House advisor Steve Bannon, in the wake of Charlottesville, called a reporter and gave a lengthy interview in which he derided white separatists as “losers,” and then gave his version of political strategy:


    “The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”[6]


    You can disagree with his view. But now you know at least one influential opinion within the upper echelon of the administration. You might even note that encouraging the “losers” to demonstrate tends to lead opponents to “talk about racism every day.” Enough said.

    ---

    Let’s hope next week, even with the eclipse on August 21, is less interesting.

    ---

    Footnotes:


    [1] http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-korobkin-trumps-craziness-as-a-negotiating-tactic-20170811-story.html

    [2] http://www.politico.com/story/2017/08/17/steve-bannon-north-korea-comments-jim-mattis-reacts-241748

    [3] http://employmentpolicy.org/page-1775968/5023101#sthash.GqYjVe7F.dpbs

    [4] https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2017/08/16/professor-wrongly-identified-white-supremacist

    [5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V24rKsMVWPc

    [6] http://prospect.org/article/steve-bannon-unrepentant.  

  • 10 Aug 2017 8:58 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

    Mitchell’s Musings 8-14-2017: A Teachable Moment from Google


    Daniel J.B. Mitchell


    By now, anyone following the news is aware of the brouhaha that was stirred up at Google by a software engineer who circulated a memo that criticized Google’s diversity training program. The memo went on to assert that the lack of women in engineering and management was due to innate biological differences between males and females.[1] After a short delay, Google fired him. And – at this writing – the engineer, now identified as James Damore, is said to be looking at his legal options.


    There are really three elements to this affair. First is the assertion of innate sex differences which are purported to explain the relative lack of females in certain fields. There have been other controversies about such assertions, notably remarks by then-President of Harvard Lawrence Summers over two decades ago.[2] Second, there is the issue of Google’s diversity policy and training against bias and how it’s conducted. Damore criticized the approach the company was taking. Third, there is the question of whether he should have been fired for his memo. It’s the last that I think is most important.


    You can break down the third question into two parts. One is whether it was good personnel policy to fire him. A second is whether it was legal to fire him. Note that there is no law that declares in the abstract that companies must follow good personnel policy. But it’s hard to argue as a general proposition that good policy isn’t better to follow than bad policy. Presumably, firms adopt personnel policies with regard to discipline (including termination), and with regard to diversity, that company managers believe to be in the firm’s interest. But, of course, these policies are decisions by human beings and mistakes can be made.


    In the Google case, there were pre-existing complaints about discrimination against women, some involving an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor. And there has been much public discussion of that issue with regard to Silicon Valley firms more generally. So apart from the specifics of the Damore’s memo, Google was already sensitive about such matters and, therefore, there was a PR element involved, apart from considerations of good personnel policy. In all these dimensions, there is much to be said – and undoubtedly much will be said.


    But what about the legal issue? I think there is a teachable moment here that goes beyond Google’s immediate problems. One of the early reports on this matter by NPR made this assertion:


    The law is a little unclear as to whether Google could fire the employee. Generally, political speech is protected under labor laws.[3]


    You’ll note that the statement is vague. No particular “labor laws” are cited. And while there is always some room for ambiguity in legal matters, the statement is really wrong. Google is a private firm. It is not a government agency in which there are (some) protections for the political speech of employees. Of course, it is unclear that you can even characterize Damore’s memo as “political speech.” He wasn’t endorsing a candidate, proposing a change in public policy, etc. Nonetheless, the NPR reporter saw it that way. And that is the basis of a teachable moment.


    If there were a union contract in place covering the engineer (which there certainly was not at Google), there would almost surely have been something in that contract requiring that discipline should occur only for “cause” or “just cause.” And there would have been a specified procedure for adjudicating such issues. We don’t know from the news reports whether the engineer had an explicit employment contract that might have guaranteed some similar protections against termination without cause. Most employees, however, don’t have such contracts.


    California tends to be friendly to the idea that statements in company personnel manuals and the like have contract-like properties so that violations of rules laid out in such documents might be the basis of employee suits against wrongful termination. But most large employers are aware of such matters. They take care to word their manuals and other documents carefully to preserve the “at-will” status of their employees.


    Some commentaries on this matter have pointed to the 1935 Wagner Act and its protections of employees who engage in “concerted activities.” The original intent of the Wagner Act was to protect private-sector workers seeking to unionize. But because courts had tended to be hostile to unions in that era, the Act was worded very broadly to protect any activity in which workers collaborated (such as getting together and organizing a union). As a result, any such collaboration is protected, even if there is no intent to form a union, so long as the collaboration has to do with wages and working conditions (broadly defined).


    Arguably, Damore’s memo – to the extent that it criticized Google’s approach to diversity (such as the bias training program) – dealt with a working condition. But it’s a stretch to say that the complaints of a single individual – with no collaboration with anyone else – are protected. And, indeed, the fact that the only specific “labor law” that might provide some protection is the Wagner Act tells you that the case is pretty weak. Of course, anyone can file a complaint under the Wagner Act or sue under any other law. The question is the likelihood of succeeding.


    So the teachable moment is that private sector employees in fact are generally at-will and constitutional protections of “free speech” and the like do not apply to them at the workplace. There are specific laws banning particular practices such as race, sex, age, etc., discrimination. And there are laws (often at the state level) dealing with things employers must do (such as the frequency of pay, payment of overtime, etc.). But most employees are otherwise “at-will” and absent a union contract or individual employment contract, there is little legal protection from termination. They can be fired for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason.


    Although the Google case has little to do with protections for “political speech,” it does illuminate the current state of political affairs. The case of the fired engineer has become cause célèbre on the right, on the grounds that Google is too politically correct and is not open to conservative ideas.[4] It used to be that those on the right would celebrate successful private firms and argue that they should be free to pursue whatever personnel policies they see fit. By that logic, if Google sees its interest in following a particular diversity policy or bias training program, it should be free to do so. If Google fosters a culture that makes some employees uncomfortable (because they view it as too politically correct), in a free labor market those employees can always look for work elsewhere. Moreover, Google is certainly a highly successful firm – so apparently its policies are working to make it profitable. In short, those on the right should be pleased with Google and its capitalistic success, even if they might not want to work there. But they obviously aren’t. It’s another example of our changing times.

    ---

    Footnotes:

    [1] http://www.therecorder.com/id=1202795118414/Google-Engineer-Firing-NoBrainer-or-More-Complicated

    [2] http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2005/1/14/summers-comments-on-women-and-science/

    [3] http://www.npr.org/2017/08/07/542087066/google-engineers-criticism-of-diversity-programs-sparks-controversy

    [4] http://www.breitbart.com/tech/2017/08/07/google-fires-viewpoint-diversity-manifesto-author-james-damore/.  

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