October 21, 2021 / by 

 

Trump Policy Maximizes Deaths in Food Factories

Even before coronavirus spread to the United States, the risk to meat-packing plants was known. Major meat-packers in the US are either owned by Chinese companies (Smithfield) or have factories in China (JBS and Cargill). Still, the plants were slow to offer their workers masks, much less space out the lines sufficient to prevent infections. In most cases, workers were not given sick pay to encourage infected workers to stay home.

All of those policies could have cut down on infections. Those policies might have prevented shutdowns of at least 15 plants. Those policies are within the emergency authority of OSHA. AFL-CIO called on OSHA to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard for protecting workers back on March 6. And a bunch of Democratic Senators called on Eugene Scalia to do the same days later.

At the time, a number of industries wanted to mandate masks, but could not because of the shortage of personal protective equipment destined for medical workers. Trump could have deployed the Defense Production Act to mandate manufacturers like 3M to prioritize first line workers.

Trump didn’t do any of that.

Indeed, OSHA waited until yesterday to issue non-mandatory guidance for meat facilities. Upwards of 20 workers at a number of facilities have died. Even a food inspector died.

And today — as livestock slaughter starts to backlog and red state voters contemplate lost sales — Trump will announce he’s going to (try to) use the DPA to mandate that meatpacking plants — including some that have closed because of COVID outbreaks — open and remain that way (it’s not clear the DPA authority extends this far). Apparently, he will provide liability protection for the companies, even as their workers continue to infect each other and their surrounding communities.

Trump’s action might address the failure of the food supply chain.

But along the way, his inaction will have led to infections and death before today, and any success he has at forcing workers to work while sick will lead to infections and death after today. At each stage, Trump’s policies have maximized the deaths of workers.

He has only prioritized that his meatpacker executive donors can keep killing cows and pigs and chickens, along with their workers.

Update: UFCW, which represents some of the affected workers, demands that this order include safety provisions. It reveals the union wrote Pence last week asking for five safety actions:

In the last week, UFCW sent a letter to Vice President Pence urgently calling for the White House Coronavirus Task Force to prioritize five safety actions targeted toward the meatpacking industry, including: (1) increased worker testing, (2) priority access to PPE, (3) halting line speed waivers, (4) mandating social distancing, and (5) isolating workers with symptoms or testing positive for COVID-19.

Today, new internal UFCW estimates have confirmed 20 worker deaths in meatpacking and food processing. In addition, at least 5,000 meatpacking workers and 1,500 food processing workers have been directly impacted by the virus. Those directly impacted include individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19, missed work due to self-quarantine, are awaiting test results, or have been hospitalized, and/or are symptomatic.

UFCW announced today that new estimates show 22 meatpacking plants have closed – including union and non-union plants – at some point in the past two months. These closures have resulted in over 35,000 workers impacted and a 25 percent reduction in pork slaughter capacity as well as a 10 percent reduction in beef slaughter capacity.


Rikers and Roosevelt: The Uncontrolled Human Experiment Occurring with Essential Workers (and Their Wards)

In the several weeks since much (though not all) of the country has been shut down, an uncontrolled human experiment with the country’s essential workers has been occurring.

I say that because those people still required to work — especially medical care workers, nursing home workers (and their clients), prison guards (and prisoners), cops, meatpackers, grocery store workers, warehouse workers, public transit workers, and sailors and other service members — have all been asked to work with a very limited test and tracking regime in place to limit spread among co-workers, wards, and their communities.

There’s inconsistent public data about how closely the federal government is tracking these communities (they’re obviously tracking the military, and after an initial attempt to hide the numbers, have provided skeleton baseline numbers; they’re reportedly not tracking nursing homes). So what has happened in these populations cannot be described with precision yet. But there is public reporting on how seriously affected each of these groups are — and whether, and when, their employers took appropriate protective measures. Thus far, the anecdotal reports show that some individual institutions have been more successful than others at preventing mass infection, whereas certain kinds of worksites — prisons and ships — will have much less success controlling an outbreak given existing tools.

These professions are where spread is happening even with shutdowns (though some, like meatpackers, are often located in areas more likely to have shut down late or not at all). Thus, amid the debate about when we can reopen the economy, what happened to workers and their wards in these professions provide lessons about what protections have to be in place before any place can open up, how widespread COVID might get amid populations that social distance but don’t stay home, and what pitfalls are likely once we do open up.

Along the way, a lot of people have died.

Update: Elizabeth Warren and Ro Khanna have called for a Workers Bill of Rights that includes–but then adds to–a lot of the protections included in this discussion.

Medical care workers

In a recent presser, Trump claimed that the federal government eventually will figure out how many medical workers have contracted COVID-19 (though I suspect that number won’t be made public until after the election). But it hasn’t done so yet. Buzzfeed collected what was publicly available and found that key states, including New York, Louisiana, and Michigan, are not tracking this number either yet.

Buzzfeed tallied 5,400 cases in those states that are counting it, which would work out to be 1% of the cases on the day of the story (though because some of the most important states aren’t counting this, it must be a higher percentage of national cases).

At least 5,400 nurses, doctors, and other health care workers responding to the coronavirus outbreak in the United States have been infected by the disease, and dozens have died, according to a BuzzFeed News review of data reported by every state and Washington, DC. However, the true number is undoubtedly much higher, due to inconsistent testing and tracking.

[snip]

As of Thursday afternoon, 12 states reported health care worker infections: Alabama (393), Arkansas (158), California (1,651), Idaho (143), Maine (97), New Hampshire (241), Ohio (1,137), Oklahoma (229), Oregon (153), Pennsylvania (850), Rhode Island (257), and West Virginia (76). Additionally, Washington, DC (29) and Hawaii (15) reported infections at a specific hospital, not state or territory-wide. On Friday afternoon, Kentucky reported 129 health care worker infections.

In Ohio and New Hampshire, health care worker infections represented more than 20% of total confirmed cases in the state. It’s unclear if this is due to health care workers having greater access to testing there compared to other states, or something else, but it highlights the dangers these workers face. In the other states that broke out data on health care workers, rates ranged from a low of nearly 5% in Pennsylvania up to 17% in Maine and Rhode Island.

Some other states are trying to collect this information but not yet sharing it publicly, with officials citing reporting holes in their data.

[snip]

And in at least nine states, infection rates among health care workers are not being tracked at all. That includes New York and Louisiana, two of the worst-hit states by the outbreak, where officials said they aren’t specifically collecting this information. In Michigan, another hard-hit state, 2,200 health care workers have reportedly been infected, yet the state itself is not tracking infections. (Because the reporting on these cases did not come from the state itself, BuzzFeed News is not including them in its total.) Fourteen states do not make these statistics publicly available and did not respond to questions from BuzzFeed News as to its collection.

As that story noted, these numbers are unreliable both because health care workers may have better access to tests, but are, in many cases, being discouraged from taking them. And workers are so overwhelmed right now it may undermine record-keeping.

Plus, there are significant discrepancies from hospital to hospital regarding how much PPE is available to workers, not to mention how overwhelmed the individual hospitals are. Hospitals that succeed at keeping infection rates low will have lessons to offer on what might successfully limit transmission among workers who are highly trained in doing so, lessons that would be of use in professions not normally trained to prevent contagion.

Nursing homes

Nursing homes are another obvious cluster — so much so that they may make up a huge proportion of what we’re seeing in non-crisis localities (as is the case in my own county). Like medical care workers, there’s not an official count; indeed, some states (especially Florida) are affirmatively hiding how badly nursing homes are being affected and ending efforts to count clusters among seniors. Nevertheless, NBC found over 2,200 deaths in the states that do count such things, representing a huge spike since March 30 (which would suggest nursing homes are where the virus has continued to spread since states and localities that have shut down).

Nearly 2,500 long-term care facilities in 36 states are battling coronavirus cases, according to data gathered by NBC News from state agencies, an explosive increase of 522 percent compared to a federal tally just 10 days ago.

The total dwarfs the last federal estimate on March 30 — based on “informal outreach” to state health departments — that more than 400 nursing homes had at least one case of the virus.

[snip]

Thirty-six states reported a total 2,489 long-term care facilities with COVID-19 cases.

The toll of these outbreaks is growing. NBC News tallied 2,246 deaths associated with long-term care facilities, based on responses from 24 states. This, too, is an undercount; about half of all states said they could not provide data on nursing home deaths, or declined to do so. Some states said they do not track these deaths at all.

As with the county of medical workers, key states like Michigan and Florida are tracking neither which facilities have clusters nor how many deaths there are. New York is tracking this statistic.

Nearly 60 percent of the deaths tallied by NBC News occurred in New York, where more than 1,300 residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities have died, according to the state health department.

That would represent around 18% of the deaths New York had recorded by April 9, the day before NBC published.

And these data generally only count residents affected, not the workers who might spread the virus outside of the facilities.

As Andy Slavitt explained in his Rachel Maddow appearance to discuss this data, one of the key lessons in the outbreaks at nursing homes and other assisted living facilities (though the lesson applies to all these “essential” professions) is the differential impact. Some facilities have succeeded in containing the virus, others have failed to contain known outbreaks. Those that have succeeded have lessons to offer about how to deal with this virus effectively.

The way this will get fixed — this is not to embarrass anybody — but the way this will get fixed is there are nursing homes that are doing it right. And the nursing homes that are doing it right can give guidance to the nursing homes that are doing it wrong. We don’t have enough time to go back to the drawing board and create new regulations — I wish we did. But in the middle of a crisis, I’d get them all on the phone, we’d be sharing best practices, we’d be publishing them, and we’d be slowly and slowly taking down infection rates. And for those that couldn’t do it, we would be moving people into facilities that could.

Nursing homes are, along with prisons, probably the hardest population to keep safe from COVID and there are aspects of both (the underlying health problems and the immobility and close quarters of the facilities) that are impossible to eliminate. But that means the lessons learned here — particularly the lessons learned about how to keep the workers safe (and therefore to prevent intra- and extra-facility spread through them), would be critical to share not just within the nursing home industry, but more generally with businesses as they think about reopening down the road.

Update: According to the AP, Louisiana has now stopped providing details on infections in nursing homes.

Prisons

Immediately after the impact of COVID became clear, prisoner advocates started calling for decarceration to alleviate crowding and remove the most vulnerable prisoners, where appropriate, from prison. Ohio’s Republican Governor Mike DeWine has even laid out the epidemiological reason to take such measures (that is, the obvious conservative case to release as many prisoners as possible), and Oklahoma’s Republican Governor Kevin Stitt (who was otherwise tardy in taking measures to stop the spread), is preparing to commute the sentences of 452 people to empty the prisons. Even Bill Barr has pushed for prisoner releases. His efforts risked disproportionately help white prisoners, but because BOP is now prioritizing those facilities already affected by an outbreak — meaning they’re acting reactively, not proactively — that has not yet been the practice. That said, Federal policies on releases are changing day-to-day, with some prisoners cleared for release but then continued to be held.

BOP has an official tracking number — though they’re not testing everyone. So in the prisons where there’s a real cluster, the numbers are likely far higher. For example, at Elkton, OH which BOP says has 13 inmates infected, 37 prisoners have been hospitalized with symptoms and another 71 are in isolation. At Oakdale, LA — where the first BOP death occurred and one of the hardest hit — BOP claims 40 inmates have tested positive, but at least another 56 have been hospitalized with severe symptoms and 575 are quarantined.

With regards to state and county prisons and jails, however, those counts are often still spottier — and potentially far more urgent given greater overcrowding. UCLA Law has put together a database that tries to track all the known cases (though, as one example of its limits, it only shows New York’s case statewide).

Nowhere is the spread of COVID in prison more concerning than in urban jails. NY City’s Rikers, which as of Wednesday had over 700 infections. 440 of those are staff, meaning the 287 count for inmates testing positive is surely a significant undercount. Nevertheless, that undercount shows that 6.6 percent of Rikers prisoners have tested positive, a rate seven times higher than New York as a whole. Unfortunately, this all happened at a time when Andrew Cuomo and others were trying to reverse recent measures to decarcerate New York, and Cuomo has lagged some of his Republican counterparts in his efforts to cut prison populations and so limit the spread there. Cook County, IL’s jail has 304 positive detainees and 174 correctional officers who tested positive, similar or slightly higher rates than Rikers. This week a judge ordered the Cook County Sheriff to provide soap and sanitizer to prisoners, test those exhibiting symptoms, and provide PPE to those quarantining because of exposure, but stopped short of ordering the jail to release prisoners.

Thus far, that’s what the emphasis has been: emptying the jails. That’s a welcome approach, as a number people who shouldn’t be in jail or prison (or immigration detention) have been released. It’s not clear that prisons have solved the problem of COVID and efforts to do so often end up being inhumane, leaving sick prisoners in solitary and the general population with far less ability to contact their lawyers, to say nothing of family members, which only adds to the panic and confusion for all involved.

One thing that is unclear is whether COVID has spread through guards to the surrounding population, something that — because so many of our prisons are located in rural areas — might be a vector for COVID to spread to the surrounding communities.

These badly affected prisons, however, are going to have an interesting dynamic between guards and prisoners. In Oakdale, for example, there has already been a clash between guards and prisoners. But in other places, the situation has put guards and prisoners on the same side of legal challenges to push for more releases, something that rarely happens in prisons.

No one is going to solve the problem of how to go back to work at prisons. But if you want to see the kind of societal upheaval that might happen if this effort fails, prisons may be your first measure.

Update: Florida has now tasked inmates to make cloth masks for guards, but not for themselves.

Update: Lansing Correctional Facility, in Kansas, also had a riot believed to be COVID-related last week. There are 16 staff and 12 inmates confirmed to have COVID-19.

Cops

Cops interact less directly with COVID patients and often in less enclosed environments than medical care, nursing home, and prison workers, which may make them a better read of what kind of exposure will happen among those who have to interact with a range of the public, but not necessarily a population particularly exposed.

Nevertheless, COVID had spread broadly among the police departments of the bigger cities with COVID spikes, including New York, Detroit (exacerbated by a pancake breakfast attended by a bunch of cops that was an early transmission vector), and Chicago, and known exposure has led significant numbers of cops and other first responders into quarantine, illness, and death (there are other major metros for which reports of exposure among cops is more dated and in smaller numbers). As CNN described it, the toll at the NYPD rivals (though, because of the lasting after-effects of 9/11, could never be counted in the same way) 9/11:

In a department of about 36,000 sworn officers, 7,096 — or 19.6% of the uniformed workforce — were out sick on Friday, according to data issued by the NYPD. Some 2,314 uniformed members and 453 civilian employees have tested positive for Covid-19, and 19 employees have lost their lives as a result of the virus.

The NYPD suffered an incomprehensible 23 losses on 9/11 (hundreds more died in subsequent years from 9/11-related illnesses). It’s devastating to think that the casualties from Covid-19 may soon eclipse this.

IACP and CDC guidance for first responders currently only recommend using PPE when interacting with known or suspected COVID carriers. And this week, the CDC issued new guidance for critical workers (especially including but not limited to first responders) who’ve been exposed that permits returning to work while wearing a mask rather than a full quarantine.  This effort was explicitly rolled out in an effort to address staff shortages like those in police departments.

That guidance — which relies on temperature checks rather than testing — hints at where the Trump administration intends to go as it pushes people to return to work. Which is to say, its first effort to get people back to work falls far short of the testing regime most experts say we need to control the spread.

Military

The military initially tried — in the name of national security — to prevent the release of any granular data showing where its cases are. But then William Arkin published a map showing where the 3,000 cases (of which 2,031 were uniformed military on Friday) were. That same Friday report showed 13 total deaths.

I’m particularly interested in the clusters at bases in Anchorage and Honolulu in states not otherwise heavily impacted by the virus. It suggests that the military may be a vector to spread to unaffected places.

That is a rate of infection that is higher than the US as a whole (which likely stems, at least in part, to greater access to testing), but with a mortality rate significantly lower than the overall rate.

The new count puts the department’s death rate at 0.4 percent, versus the overall U.S. mortality rate of 3 percent.

[snip]

The military’s infection rate now stands at 971-per-million, compared with the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers, which shows 1,307-per-million U.S. residents having contracted coronavirus, or about 0.1 percent of U.S. residents.

Nowhere has the challenge of COVID been more dramatic, however, than on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. As the scandal over Captain Theodore Crozier’s removal and the ouster of Navy Secretary Thomas Modly has continued, the Navy has continued to test the entire crew of around 4,800. With 92% tested yesterday, 550 tested positive, meaning 12% of those tested, tested positive. That’s a lower rate than the Diamond Princess’ 19% positive rate, but of a younger and presumably far healthier population, during a period with a higher level of awareness of the virus, and among a population more likely to maintain the discipline of social distancing.

Keeping sailors on a ship from infecting each other is a daunting task, but the military has more resources to conduct evacuation and to conduct contract tracing than any private employer this side of Amazon. As other ships and bases face the challenge in the wake of the Roosevelt fiasco, it will be a measure of whether even the military can catch the virus and contact trace before other big clusters arise.

If the military can’t do it, your average small business isn’t going to be able to pull it off.

Update: The sailor who had been moved to the ICU has now passed away from COVID-19.

Transit workers

One reason New York has been so badly hit is so many people rely on public transportation. Even NY’s suburbs are among the hardest hit area of the country (with 34,392 cases on Long Island, or 21% of the state’s total), and the outer boroughs, where poverty and continued exposure via “essential” jobs, are hardest impacted by the virus within the city.

That’s why the outbreak on the MTA offers important warnings about the possibility that New York could reopen anytime soon. That’s true not just because of the high levels of infection and death — around 14% of MTA 50,000 employees have either tested positive or are quarantining with symptoms, but also because COVID has led to a shortage of workers which has in turn badly hurt service.

At least 41 transit workers have died, and more than 6,000 more have fallen sick or self-quarantined. Crew shortages have caused over 800 subway delays and forced 40 percent of train trips to be canceled in a single day. On one line the average wait time, usually a few minutes, ballooned to as high as 40 minutes.

[snip]

Still, around 1,500 transit workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 5,604 others have self-quarantined because they are showing symptoms of the infection. Absenteeism is up fourfold since the pandemic began, officials say.

If more people were working, this shortag would make it harder for passengers to engage in social distancing themselves (though usage is down 70% for buses and 92% on subways).

While MTA dawdled in imposing protective measures for employees, it now surpasses CDC guidelines, in part by providing masks to all its employees.

Patrick J. Foye, the M.T.A. chairman, who himself tested positive for coronavirus, said the agency initially followed guidance from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that healthy people did not need to wear face masks.

Mr. Foye said the M.T.A. then decided to go farther than that, before the C.D.C. changed its advice on masks. He said it had already provided 460,000 masks to workers, in addition to thousands of face shields and 2.5 million pairs of gloves.

So long as the stay-at-home order remains in place, this crunch on transit won’t prevent people from working, which if it happens would hit those who can’t afford Uber the hardest. But until NY can find a way to limit the illnesses on transit, there’s no way the city can reopen.

Meatpackers

This week a lot of attention has focused on meatpacking plant. The numbers of people infected aren’t high, on a national level, but they’re shutting down factories that supply a significant percentage of the nation’s meat supply, and often in more rural places that until recently believed they were immune to the virus.

A Tyson-owned meat processing plant that churns out 2% of the US pork supply ground to a halt this week as workers became infected with Covid-19.

And that wasn’t the only meatpacking plant impacted by the spread of the novel coronavirus. JBS USA on March 31 said it hit pause on much of its work at a beef facility in Souderton, Pennsylvania and wouldn’t have it back online until mid-April. National Beef Packing on April 2 temporarily stopped slaughtering cattle at one of its plants in Tama, Iowa after a worker tested positive for the virus.

Perhaps the most notable of those cases is in South Dakota, where a Smithfield pork processing plant first closed for three days, after 80 employees had tested positive, and then today closed indefinitely after that count grew to 293, 8% of the plant’s workers (it’s unclear whether all the worker at the plant have been tested). The cluster is also significant given that those cases make up 40% of the cases in South Dakota, which has not imposed a stay-at-home order. As such, it’s an example of a workplace that, by not managing an outbreak, can significantly impact a community that may have assumed it was immune.

Guidance released by an industry organization dated April 3 noted that the industry wasn’t getting PPE because shortages mean what is available needs to be saved for medical workers, which suggests that even for an industry that recognizes the need (some of these companies also operate in China), they’re not able to provide masks for their workers because the shortage for medical workers hasn’t been solved.

Update: On April 8, the UFCW called for CDC to issue mandatory guidelines that would cover both the union’s grocery store and its food processing workers. It includes employer-provided PPE for the workers.

Businesses and services have had from two weeks to months to try to prepare their workplaces for this crisis — and for none of them has there been any doubt about their essential status. But they’re still not doing some of the basic things that experts say we’ll need more generally to reopen the economy. These workplaces — the ones for which there is some kind of real count — are facing up to 12 to 19% COVID positive rates, even in professions with a strong culture of hygiene (though none of these professions, not even medical workers, can get the testing to confirm those rates). The resulting staffing shortages are causing service shortfalls even beyond the hospital staffs we’ve been working to flatten the curve to accommodate. And for many of these communities, those numbers reflect weeks of stay-at-home orders that limit the sources of new infections.

Trump wants to reopen the economy. But it’s clear from the limited data and anecdotal reporting from essential workplaces that basic things — starting with masks — still aren’t in place to limit workplace exposure.

And again, because these men and women haven’t had the protective equipment or other workplace protections they need, many have needlessly died.


Killer Trash Talk

Hi there!

This will be a Trash Talk mostly absent the real world intrusions of the last few weeks. Mostly.

But I had dinner a couple of days ago with a couple of people, both students, with a family and home in Puerto Rico. No, nothing there is going the way Trump duplicitously portrays it. It is just not. To argue otherwise is to prove a fool and ignorant. Here is the Washington Post with a reminder of what we all knew. The family we know lives in a part of San Juan that is upscale. It is the “nice” part. They still do not have power. Just barely got running water. Things are very much not good there. And will not be for a very long time. For this White House to have taken the victory laps they did is simply unimaginable. Then there is the Las Vegas shooting. That will await another day.

So, probably we should be concerned about whether or not athletes in America stand of kneel for the national anthem. Even in hockey they may not always, or they may raise a Tommie Smith fist, and idiots will probably be up in arms about that.

On to the games. Turns out, the Mean Green of Sparty did the nation a favor by slaying Kaptain Khaki and the Bo Merlots in the large abode. And Mark Dantonio reminded everybody exactly who is the best college coach in Michigan. Don’t sleep on Chris Peterson and Washington, they are coming, and he is one hell of a coach. And hate it all you want, Penn State may be in that rarified picture too.

As to the pros: I cannot say it any better than Gary Myers did, so I won’t, and will let him speak:

The NFL needs to start looking for ways for the Chargers to move back to San Diego. Team owner Dean Spanos should take the $650 million relocation fee he owes the NFL and put it towards a new stadium in San Diego instead. Fans are tired of corporate welfare and don’t want to pay for billionaires to get new stadiums so they can make even more money. Los Angeles was fine without a team for over 20 years and now they have two. The Rams are having a tough time getting re-established in the market. The Chargers are not wanted. They can’t even sell out the 27,000-seat soccer stadium that is their home until the new stadium is ready in 2020. Fans of opposing teams are making it feel like home games are road games for the Chargers… Rivers has not relocated his family to the Los Angeles area. He customized an SUV with video equipment and a driver and rides up from San Diego every day with backup QB Kellen Clemens. Rivers says the commute takes about an hour each way. They must be leaving early and coming back late to beat the usually horrendous traffic. “It’s actually been even better than anticipated. That’s one thing I’m thankful for,” Rivers said. “I’ve had no issues at all and really feel like I’m getting all the work done. It’s been as if, honestly, as if I was right there in San Diego, as far as the way we get to setup. So, it’s been smooth.”
>>>>>
Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky is the third rookie QB now starting as he takes over for free agent bust Mike Glennon. Browns second-round pick DeShone Kizer won the job out of camp and Texans first-round pick Deshaun Watson was made the starter at halftime of the first game. Alex Smith is doing a good job keeping first-round pick Patrick Mahomes on the bench in Kansas City… Watson, by the way, was electric in the Texans’ 57-14 victory over the Titans last week throwing for 283 yards and four TDs and also running for a TD. The Texans traded up from No. 25 in the first round and also gave up their first-round pick in 2018 to move to the Browns spot at No. 12 to get Watson. Of course, Cleveland should have taken Watson. In March, they took Brock Osweiler’s $16 million guaranteed off Houston’s payroll along with adding the Texans’ second-round pick. If the Texans win the Super Bowl, the Browns front office should get Super Bowl rings… The Browns are 2-29 in their last 31 games, the worst 31-game stretch in NFL history.

I saw that this morning, and all of it were thoughts I had to start with. It is time for Trubisky. And Watson for the Texans looks like the truth. With a real franchise QB, the Texans could be scary good for a very long time. As to the Bolts, they really should go back to San Diego. It makes far more sense than LA for them. Thing is, I am not sure San Diego wants them back at this point. The blinding arrogance and lack of sensitivity of the Spanos family and the NFL owners/Goodell is so incredible that I am not sure the Chargers are now welcome anywhere, much less in San Diego. What a total oligarch cockup.

The Pats overcame the Bucs in one of the better and more memorable Thursday Night games to move to 3-2 for the year. Huge win, but Brady is still spending too much time on his ass from poor offensive line play. And, though the defense has been praised for their effort against TB, it really was not that much better. History reflects that Bill Bel defenses start soft and gel when it counts, but this one is nowhere near that yet. We shall see, but, for now, Bill Bel and the boys are 3-2 and on to the Jets Jets Jets, who will undoubtedly enter the game next week also at 3-2 because they play the Brownies today. The better question is whether the Bills circle their wagons enough today against the Bengals in Cinci to keep the lead in the AFC East, or if they fall to 3-2, and leave the Pats right where they always are. In the division lead.

In other games, the Cards at Iggles is interesting. Philly has been in a breakout so far. The Cards have sucked. I think the Eagles win this pretty easy, but Cards are one of those outliers that, if they catch fire, can flat kill you. Don’t think so this week.

Detroit at Carolina ought to be pretty interesting. What kind of routes will Cam the misogynist man run? But I’ll put my dimes on the Kittehs, because they are a better team. Titans at the Fish was going to be great, but Mariotta is hurt, now maybe a tossup. Best game, probably by far, is the Cheesers at the Boys. I’ll call it a tossup. It is not a make or break game for either team. It is, however, one of the more underrated rivalries in the NFL over the last two decades. That is must see TV.

Today’s music is by The Killers. It seems a weird name for the band in light of what just happened a week ago in their home town of Las Vegas. But they have been rocking, and carrying the banner of Nevada and Las Vegas since they broke out with Hot Fuss in 2004. The band is ridiculously good, and have been from the start. If you do not know The Killers, you should, give them a try. So, let us rock on for another week.


The Trump Trash Talking of Puerto Rico

This spot in our week here at Emptywheel is supposed to be a set aside for light hearted banter on sports, especially football and Formula One. That is what we have done since our beginning over a decade ago.

But I just cannot summon the enthusiasm for that right now any more than I could last weekend when the Trump racism and narcissism were already raging.

There are 3.5 million American citizens in the lurch in Puerto Rico, suffering from dehydration, starvation and death. Because of a fundamental lack of fuel to move, and communications to know, the full extent of the damage is still not really known.

So, what is the most powerful leader in the world doing? Tweeting a bunch of racially bigoted trash at the people and leaders of Puerto Rico. Here is what our disgrace of a President blasted off this morning:

That graphic was posted on Twitter by Josh Marshall of TPM, and his annotations are perfect.

Trump’s conduct is disgusting and unconscionable. From a man fiddling golfing while Rome burns Puerto Rico dies. What did the Mayor of San Juan, the largest population center and capitol hub of Puerto Rican government say? She begged for her people via a tearful plea to all of the federal government:

“We are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy,”

That would be Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. She also had the temerity to call out Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke who made the horribly insensitive and asinine comment that Puerto Rico is a “good news story”. For seeking to keep her constituents from dying and calling bullshit on the actual bullshit of Elaine Duke, Trump now thinks Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz is the functional equivalent of Kim Jong-Un. Even insanity has rarely run this far amok.

Where will you find Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz? Perhaps there is a photo somewhere in an office, but since the Puerto Rican crisis began, I have never seen her portrayed by the press, or anybody else, as being anything other than tirelessly out in the streets and flooded destroyed neighborhoods with her devastated constituents. Like a real leader would be. This photo is indicative:

Remember General Russell Honore, who brought some long past due seriousness and reality to Katrina in NOLA? He is in San Juan now. Here is what he had to say when questioned on Trump’s attack on the Mayor:

“The mayor’s living on a cot and I hope the President has a good day at golf.”

Can’t argue with that. Maybe Trump can secretly meet with the Puerto Rican bondholders he so cherishes that put their craven investments ahead of the lives of American citizens, while he is relaxing at his fucking golf resort this weekend. It is simply who he, and they, are. It should NOT be who we are though. This country is better than that.

I would also like to, again, point out that the much ballyhooed by Sarah Sanders and Trump Administration “Jones Act Waiver was a complete fraud and sham on the press, public and, most of all, people of Puerto Rico. There are effectively little more than SEVEN days left on Trump’s bogus waiver and gift to craven bondholders and rapacious shippers. Trump insured he got good press for a news cycle and completely stiffed Puerto Rico of any meaningful assistance via relief from the hideously oppressive Jones Act. Heckuva job Trumpie.

If you want a couple of fantastic pieces of reportage on Puerto Rico today, go see the Washington Post piece “Lost weekend: How Trump’s time at his golf club hurt the response to Maria” as well as the superb interactive overview from the New York Times, “One Day in the Life of Battered Puerto Rico”. You will be better for having seen both.

As to the games. Eh, Pirate Mike Leach and Washington State pulled off a serious upset of USC last night. Leach had his usual awesome take. As to the NFL, the focus seems to be more on the pre-game than the real games. I will note that Tom Brady’s first start was 16 years ago today. The Patriots have since won 5 Super Bowls, 14 AFC East titles and 185 of his 238 starts. Kid can play ball. Also, this weekend is the Malaysian Grand Prix at the Sepang Circuit. Hamilton takes pole and Vettel starts at back of the grid due to a bad engine. That likely ends the Drivers’ Championship battle for yet another year.

That is it for today. Rock on, and put the thoughts of our fellow citizens of Puerto Rico in your hearts.


Did President Trump Violate Federal Law With His Alabama Rant?

I wrote yesterday about the racial, social and football implications of Trump’s rant in the history and home of George Wallace.

But a new, and by all appearances excellent, commenter on that post noted this:

“It occurs to me that his tweets are at least arguably in violation of 18 U.S. Code § 227. That section prohibits the POTUS (among others), from “attempting to influence or interfere” in a private company’s labor matter, to urge a “political” firing. This is especially true where the basis for the POTUS’s urging of the firing of such a private company employee (union covered, collective bargaining agreement governed) — is (as here) centered on protected political first amendment expression.”

So, is that right? Well, it is a LOT closer call than most would dismissively think. Let’s look at the language of the relevant statute, 18 USC §277:

18 U.S. Code § 227 – Wrongfully influencing a private entity’s employment decisions by a Member of Congress or an officer or employee of the legislative or executive branch:

(a) Whoever, being a covered government person, with the intent to influence, solely on the basis of partisan political affiliation, an employment decision or employment practice of any private entity—
(1) takes or withholds, or offers or threatens to take or withhold, an official act, or
(2) influences, or offers or threatens to influence, the official act of another,
shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than 15 years, or both, and may be disqualified from holding any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States.
(b) In this section, the term “covered government person” means—
(1) a Senator or Representative in, or a Delegate or Resident Commissioner to, the Congress;
(2) an employee of either House of Congress; or
(3) the President, Vice President, an employee of the United States Postal Service or the Postal Regulatory Commission, or any other executive branch employee (as such term is defined under section 2105 of title 5, United States Code).

Read the statute. It is a lot closer call than you think. Will Trump’s own Department of Justice pursue this? No, no chance, nor probably should it be. Is it a viable question, and one that ought be discussed in the public and media, yes, absolutely.

As sports law “experts” would say, let’s break it down. There are elements to a crime. Trump is unequivocally a “covered person” within the ambit of the statute. Also unequivocal is the fact that his words in Alabama were meant to influence “an employment decision or employment practice of any private entity”, in this case, the National Football League.

The problem lies in section (a)(1) of the relevant statute, which requires:

takes or withholds, or offers or threatens to take or withhold, an official act

It is easy to see and admit that Trump would do just that in a heartbeat. But Trump did not do that per se in his Alabama speech.

No. That element cannot be met by Donald J. Trump’s Alabama Song of hate. So, no, there is no exposure to 18 USC §227.

It is a great thought and question though.

And it is a perfect example of the precipice of racism, bigotry and ignorance on which the political discussion in the United States, and our Article II Executive Branch, courtesy of President Trump, nows perilously treads nearly every day.

The events and actions in and from the NFL today, tomorrow, and in the next few weeks pale in comparison. They are a symbol and a voice. But it is so much more and bigger than that.


When The President Hates A Race And Talks Racist Trash

President Donald J. Trump is a racist bigot. Jemele Hill was right on that one, not that sane people had not already realized it long ago, and well before his election. Take his ignorant position on the Central Park Five case, just as a for instance. Then add on how he was sued decades ago for discriminating against blacks in housing. Throw in a thousand other tell tale points and you have a picture of a self entitled candy assed rich New York racist. That is just who he is. It has always been there for inquiring minds to see if they so desired.

Now the latest pure and unadulterated racism from the now President of the United States. Last night in Alabama, Trump let loose a rambling self centered screed of a speech that would make George Wallace cringe. Here is a sample:

“Wouldn’t you like to see one of these owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!”

He then went on to state that any player so exercising free speech should be “fired” and unemployable at their career job. From Michael David Smith at PFT:

Trump said an NFL owner who releases a player would instantly gain broad support across America.

“Some owner’s gonna do that. He’s gonna say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag? He’s fired. And that owner . . . they’ll be the most popular person in this country. Because that’s total disrespect of our heritage. That’s total disrespect of everything we stand for,” Trump said.

Trump added that he believes fans should walk out if players don’t stand for the anthem. “If you see it, even if it’s one player,” Trump said, “Leave the stadium.”

Trump also argued that if they do this to boycott the NFL and personal free speech, they would be supporting him and his position.

Clearly aiming at Colin Kaepernick, Michael Bennett and Malcolm Jenkins, prominent NFL players who have had the audacity to be free thinking humans and exercise the protected free speech our Bill of Rights is led by and that generations of American patriots fought and died to preserve. Donald Trump shits on every ounce of that every time he goes on one of his little pointed and racist rants. And boy did he shit on it last night in Alabama. You’d almost think Trump is aligned with the neo-Nazi white supremacists with torches in Charlottesville that he praised as “fine people” instead of the full diversity of American citizens. Including, you know, black people.

Was Trump done? Of course not. He then cravenly went on to scold the NFL for being soft because of their (still lame and ineffective) concern about CTE degenerative brain disease:

“When the ratings are down massively, massively. The NFL ratings are down massively. Now the number one reason happens to be that they like watching what’s happening….with yours truly. They like what’s happening.

Because you know if they hit too hard…Fifteen yards! Throw him out of the game! they hd that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom, fifteen yards!

The referee gets on television, his wife is sitting at home, she’s so proud of him. They’re ruining the game! That’s what they want to do. They want to hit. They want to hit! It is hurting the game!”

An outrageous thing to say about, again, American citizens and their workplace safety issues. Especially when the most recent studies found CTE degeneration in 99% of the brains from NFL players they have examined. And when the NFL was just slapped with a complaint on Aaron Hernandez that exhibited that even a relative young player displayed “a raisin-like brain of a 70-year-old even though he was 27″. Simply craven, bigoted and outrageous.

It is the the stuff of a narcissistic self entitled bigot plantation slave owner. Trump literally thinks he is not only the the better, but genetically superior to other humans, including the constituents he works for. Including people he thinks are owned as slaves by the NFL and other terrorized employees.

When Trump instructs NFL owners to fire people that disagree with his own petty world view, he thinks they are plantation owners such as he sees himself with the rest of humanity. Trump makes “the best deals” but cannot see, nor appreciate, the NFL collective bargaining agreement (CBA), nor does he respect that deal for squat if employees thereunder happen to annoy the fat ass boy king and god.

Apparently Trump thinks the illustrious group of NFL owner oligarchs are his bitches too. As Don Van Natta noted, “Bob Kraft, Jerry Jones, Stan Kroenke, Daniel Snyder, Shahid Khan, Woody Johnson & Bob McNair each gave $1M to Trump”. That is nearly one quarter of the NFL owners. What are they rewarded with by their benefactor Trump? A call for boycott of their business interests unless they enforce an unconscionable suppression of political free speech he disagrees with.

This may “only be sports”, but this is one of the more stunningly outrageous and un-American symbols of the cancer the Trump Presidency really is. And what a demented, sick and small man Trump really is.

Did Trump stop with that stunning pettiness and bigotry? No, of course not. He woke up and decided to be the charlatan of humanity he really is, and decided to lash out at another icon of sports. Steph Curry. And more:

Well that is brilliant Art of the Squeal Like a Pig Don.

So, lets see, who has Donald Trump lashed out at exclusively in the last 24 hours? Ryan Lizza hit it on the head:

Trump has now attacked Jemele Hill, Colin Kaepernick, & Stephen Curry. All have something in common but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Ryan was being sarcastic about the putting a finger on it. And, again, he was completely correct in his observation. I wonder what Trump would say about a golden white boy who turned down a White House invitation”? Oh, wait….

The face of the New England Patriots, Tom Brady, did not attend Wednesday’s White House ceremony with his teammates due to “personal family matters” — but the show went on without the star quarterback.

Brady’s decision not to visit the White House comes on the same day former teammate and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez was found dead after an apparent suicide in his prison cell.

Yes, a pure as white can be Tom Brady gets no bad mouth at all from our racist bigot President, but be a black person in sports, whether athletes like Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett, or sports journalist like Jemele Hill, and he will try to deprive you and your family of the essential income your professional career provides.

This is where we are in America in the Age of Trumpism. If you are a white nationalist fat ass racist bigot, your President thinks you are “fine folk”. If you are an intelligent black, brown, gay or other, even trying to serve your country’s military, your President, Trump The Genetically Magnificent, will attack you and your family’s very source of income, and well being, mercilessly.

It is the shame of modern America.

I’m sorry, I’ve no stomach for the actual games this weekend at this point. We can all discuss that in comments, but not here. Not now. Not after this.


‘Look, You Can Live on Minimum Wage!’ Say Modern Slavers

[Sample budget via McDonald’s and VISA]

Jesus fecking Christ on a pogo stick. I can’t believe McDonald’s and VISA were stupid enough to put together this oh-so-helpful budget estimate showing how fast food workers can get by and still have money left over.

After looking it over, here’s my assessment: A couple corporations need to do drug testing among white-collar staff. Somebody had to be be out of their gourd to think this was accurate, let alone an effective marketing tool to promote their businesses.

As many folks have pointed out, an immediate glaring error on this ‘budget cheat sheet’ is the lack of heating/cooling expenses. Sure, some apartment complexes included HVAC in the rent they charge, but this can’t be assumed as a norm.

Every line item included is grossly flawed. I’ll look at three points:

1) First job’s NET salary of $1105 based on an estimated 21% income tax equals ~$1400 gross salary. Based on current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, that’s ~193 hours worked in a month, or ~44.6 hours a week.

This is NOT a part-time job. Most fast food jobs are deliberately limited to under 32 hours a week to avoid paying unemployment taxes or other benefits.

2) Second job’s NET salary of $955 — HAHAHAHAHAHAH Right. That’s another ~167 hours of labor per month at current federal minimum wage and 21% income tax rate.

To make this sample budget work, either two people MUST live together, MUST work a combined ~83 hours a week at current federal minimum wage. Or one person must do all this and simply have no time to do anything beyond eat/sleep/bathe/maybe laundry.

If two people lived together to make this budget work, they MUST share a tiny/cheap/ratty car, or hope like hell there’s public transportation which costs less than $150 a month to get to/from ~83 hours of work, grocery store, school, so on.

The rest of the assumptions in this budget are just plain trash. Like health insurance for two people versus one. Or savings of $100 which is really half that, spread between two people, as is the discretionary daily spending.

Some trollish account said, “But nobody stays at minimum wage forever! They get pay increases!” Sure…now person working First Job only has to work 43 hours a week instead of ~44.6. The average wage at McDonald’s is $8.25 — but does that include assistant managers and shift managers? Does this include people who’ve worked at McD’s for years? Let’s be real: most fast food workers are closer to the federal minimum wage.

Perhaps with pay increase a person working BOTH jobs only has to work ~80 hours a week instead of ~83. Give me a fucking break.

3) Transportation and insurance combined = $250 — HAHAHAHAHAHAH Right, again. I checked Progressive’s website calculator for insurance on a vehicle only, assuming a 2007 4-door Honda Civic, personal use, unmarried single male driver age 18-24 living alone, who lived in the same rented home for 1-3 years, had driven for more than 3 years, had insurance for 1-3 years, assuming a 20-year old male student living in Lansing, Michigan. Car insurance alone was $219 per month AND +$400 was required upfront before coverage began.

Maybe bundling renter’s insurance would help but the cost McDonald’s and VISA used in their example budget for insurance and a used car loan is simply unmoored from reality.

And perhaps insurance is cheaper in other parts of the country, but I will bet good money some other line item in that budget increases. Like the cost of an annual automobile license (higher in FL than MI) or a mandatory vehicle emissions test (required in CA but not MI).

Roughly 50% of Americans can’t get their hands on $400 cash for an emergency. Imagine if your insurer dropped you and you’re a fast food worker living to this prospective budget. That’s where VISA comes in with an opportunity to finance your emergency, compounding the stranglehold minimum wage has on your life.

God help you if you’re trying to put yourself through college without scholarships or family assistance. Even the imaginary example student attending Lansing Community College will pay more than $65,500 for four years. How long will it take to get through a four-year degree if one works ~83 hours a week? How long will it take to pay off school loans if one manages to break out of fast food service work after graduation — let’s say they double or triple their wages to $14.50 or $21.75 hour? This prospective student faces somewhere between 12 and 15 years of payments ranging from $950 to $1050 per month, and payments may begin as early as NOW while attending school at $650 per month.

You will be in debt for much of your adult life. There will be no extra money for anything.

Maybe the rare avocado toast, if you can find one marked down in the Damaged bin or live someplace warm where fallen avocados can be found for free. And maybe if you can afford bread this week.

“But millennials buying pricey iPhones!” some out-of-touch jackass might say. Let’s say you’re a fast food worker who might have to change housing at any time because rent has increased dramatically in your city. Even my example dude in innocuous Lansing faces a +7% increase in rent each year though his wages have been stagnant. Your entire life — telephone, computer, internet access, records, more — resides in a single, portable device. Of course you’ll pay more for a phone which hails a tow truck when your ratty little car breaks down, or finds you a quick cash gig (or a plasma blood bank) to pay for repairs. That phone is your lifeline, the lifesaver you can count on unlike white-collar jerk-offs who have no clue what you’re going through to survive.

And God help you if you get sick or injured. You can’t count on your elected officials to make sure you’ll be healthy enough to show up to work those ~83 hours a week.

Indentured servitude, without a contract, that’s what this budget reflects. Product marketing by modern slavers.

And they can’t understand why millennials are killing so many things like fast food businesses. They simply can’t afford them.


The Future of Work Part 4: The Kinds Of Jobs That Are At Risk

Recent improvements in hardware, a massive increase in the number of processors available, and new math tools have increased concerns that computers may soon replace millions of workers. The shorthand for this is Artificial Intelligence, although the term seems like hyperbole considering the kinds of things computers can do at present. The Obama White House issued a paper on this issue, Artificial Intelligence, Automation and the Economy, which can be found here. It cites two studies of the impact of AI on automation over then next 10 years or so. One, by the OECD, estimates about 9% of US jobs may be lost to automation. The other is a more interesting 2013 paper by two professors at Oxford, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, estimating that as many as 49% of US jobs could be lost or seriously affected over 10 or so years.

The Frey-Osborne Paper is here. Frey is a professor in a public policy college, and Osborne is in the engineering college; they aren’t economists. Perhaps for that reason, the introductory sections are instructive on the history of technological change and some of its effects on society. The technical approach of the Frey-Osborne Paper is to identify the bottlenecks that make it difficult to automate the tasks needed in a specific job. They use machine learning to identify patterns in the skills needed by specific jobs.

The authors identify three main bottlenecks to automation:

1. Tasks requiring perception and manipulation. P. 24
2. Tasks requiring creative intelligence. P. 25
3. Tasks requiring social intelligence. P. 26

The O-NET database of jobs is managed by the US Department of Labor. The current version contains detailed descriptions of job tasks for 903 occupations. Here are the top eight tasks of 21 listed for forest firefighter, one of the bright future jobs according to O-NET,:

Rescue fire victims, and administer emergency medical aid.

Establish water supplies, connect hoses, and direct water onto fires.

Patrol burned areas after fires to locate and eliminate hot spots that may restart fires.

Inform and educate the public about fire prevention.

Participate in physical training to maintain high levels of physical fitness.

Orient self in relation to fire, using compass and map, and collect supplies and equipment dropped by parachute.

Fell trees, cut and clear brush, and dig trenches to create firelines, using axes, chainsaws or shovels.

Maintain knowledge of current firefighting practices by participating in drills and by attending seminars, conventions, and conferences.

Frey and Osborne describe their methodology as follows:

First, together with a group of [machine learning] researchers, we subjectively hand-labelled 70 occupations, assigning 1 if automatable, and 0 if not. For our subjective assessments, we draw upon a workshop held at the Oxford University Engineering Sciences Department, examining the automatability of a wide range of tasks. Our label assignments were based on eyeballing the O-NET tasks and job description of each occupation.

They identified nine variables related to the three bottlenecks and assigned levels of difficulty of the variables in carrying out each task, high, medium, or low. Then they verified their data, and used it as training data in a machine learning program. The paper gives a description of the way they prepared and ran the rest of the O-NET data through the trained machine to estimate the likelihood that each job would be automated over the next 10 years or so. They produced a chart showing the likely effects of AI on categories of jobs. The following chart shows the results of their work.

The authors say that large numbers of transportation and logistics workers, office workers and administrative support workers are at risk. They also think many service workers are at risk as robots become more efficient. They think people whose jobs require great manual dexterity and perception, or high levels of creativity, or strong social intelligence are reasonably safe in the near term. They assert that low-skill workers will have to move to jobs in the service sector that require these skills, and will have to sharpen their own through training and education.

There have been several articles on this issue lately. This one by Reuters says that investors think the future is in automation. Since the election shares in companies working in that area are up dramatically as is an ETF in the sector. Reuters says that this means that investors think that Trump’s assertion he will increase jobs in the manufacturing sector will not happen. Instead, as the cost of advanced technology drops labor becomes expendable. Any increase in manufacturing will have little effect on overall unemployment, as displaced workers move to other jobs with the same employers doing “value-added” tasks.

Matthew Yglesias goes a step farther in this 2015 post at Vox. He says the big problem in job growth in the US is the lack of increase in productivity due to inadequate automation. He thinks rising productivity is essential to higher wages, or more likely a reduction in the time spent working. Yglesias lays out the case for not worrying. He ignores, as all economists do, the possibility that the returns from work might be shared more equitably between capital and labor. His relentless optimism contrasts with the lived experience of millions of Americans, the real lives that gave us Trumpism.

I wonder what Yglesias makes of this article in the Guardian discussing the efforts of the billionaire Ray Dalio to create software to manage the day-to-day operations of the world’s largest hedge fund in accordance with “… a set of principles laid out by Dalio about the company vision.” The article provides a more pessimistic view of the future even for management work.

I don’t have an opinion about these forecasts or the reasoning behind them. Yglesias says people will work less, but doesn’t explain how workers who have no bargaining power will be able to increase their income enough to have free time. Dalio must think that he is so wise that his AI automaton will replicate his success forever, and that his competitors won’t take advantage of the rigidity of his principles.

Suppose that the investors described by Reuters are right, that manufacturing increases but without increased employment in the sector. What will all those Trump voters do next? Change their minds about what they want from the economy and the government that fosters it, and live happily ever after?

I think both Yglesias and Dalio are so steeped in neoliberal economics with its model of human beings as Homo Economicus that they assume these changes will come about smoothly. Nothing else will change; there are no dynamic tipping points. No large number of human beings will raise hell. There will be no feedback effects. The displaced of all ages will just retrain to some other job and/or resign themselves to their reduced lives. They won’t resist, or riot, or insist on government protection, or demand a completely new system. Investment bankers will blandly accept the judgment of computers as to their value and will not insist on being treated like superstars even if the machine says they are just gas giants.

Yglesias and Dalio are wrong. That is precisely what history says won’t happen.


The Future of Work Part 1: John Maynard Keynes

As the global depression spiraled towards its depths in 1930, John Maynard Keynes wrote a cheerful article on the future of work: Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. He argued that it wouldn’t be too long before capital accumulation and technological change would come near to solving the economic problem of material subsistence, of producing enough goods and services to provide everyone with the necessities of life and largely relieving them of the burden of work.

The paper begins with a very brief description of the problems of the time:

We are suffering, not from the rheumatics of old age, but from the growing-pains of over-rapid changes, from the painfulness of readjustment between one economic period and another. The increase of technical efficiency has been taking place faster than we can deal with the problem of labour absorption; the improvement in the standard of life has been a little too quick; the banking and monetary system of the world has been preventing the rate of interest from falling as fast as equilibrium requires.

This statement anticipates the views of Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation, and of Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism. They argue persuasively that massive technological changes led to changes in social structures which were profoundly upsetting to large numbers of people. Polanyi says that a decent society would take steps to relieve people of these stresses, perhaps by forcing a slower pace of change, or perhaps by legislation to protect the masses. Arendt claims that for a while, imperialism offered a solution by absorbing some of the excess workers. Both believed that the stresses of constant change and displacement of workers played an important role in the rise of fascism.

Keynes then points out the history of growth in world output. From the earliest time of which we have records, he says, to the early 1700s, there was little or no change in the standard of life of the average man. There were periods of increase and decrease, but the average was well under .5%, and never more than 1% in any period. The things available at the end of that period are not much different from those available at the beginning. He argues that growth began to accelerate when capital began to accumulate, around 1700.

It’s interesting to note that this sketch of economic history accords nicely with that provided by Thomas Piketty in Capital In The Twenty-First Century. This is Piketty’s Table 2.5. Compare this with Figure 2.4, The growth rate of world per capita output since Antiquity until 2100.

Keynes argues that since 1700 there has been a great improvement in the lives of most people, and there is every reason to think that will continue. Certainly there was the then current problem of technological unemployment, with technology displacing people faster than the it was creating new jobs. But he says it is reasonable to think that in 100 years, by 2030, people will be 8 times better off, absent war and other factors. He says there are two kinds of needs, those that are absolute, and those with the sole function of making us feel superior to others. The latter may be insatiable, he says, but the former aren’t, and we are getting closer to satisfying them. In so doing, we are getting close to solving the ancient economic problem: the struggle for subsistence.

That problem is indeed ancient. It shows up in Genesis, 3:17. Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Almighty punishes Adam with these words:

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.

To be relieved of this ancient curse should be a wonderful thing. Keynes doesn’t think it will be an easy transition though. The struggle for subsistence is replaced by a new problem: how to use the new freedom, how to use the new-found leisure. He thinks people will have to have some work, at least at first, to give us time as a species to learn to enjoy leisure. He thinks that those driven to make tons of money will be seen once again in moral terms: as committing the sin of Avarice. They will be ignored or controlled in the interests of the rest of us.

As it turns out, this wasn’t one of Keynes’ better predictions. It isn’t clear that there is such a thing as a minimum absolute needs, for example, and technology has not yet removed the need for all work. Still, the goal of solving the economic problem seems sensible, and his discussion of the problems of a possible transition seems accurate.

People want to work, and they want everyone else to work too. There have been a number of reported interviews with Trump voters, many of who claim that this has become a give-away society. People complain that it pays better to be out of work than in work because of all the free stuff you get, health care (Medicare), free phones, food stamps, SSDI, free housing and so on, so they voted for Trump thinking he’d fix it so that only the deserving poor would get that free stuff. They think people don’t want to work, which feels like projection, and if they have to work, everyone should. Work has a number of social benefits, including a sense of purpose, responsibility, and pride. How are these to be handled in Keynes’ Eden?

The pace of technological change has picked up. It not only affects blue-collar workers, it’s starting to hit on doctors, lawyers and even translators. Here’s an article on improvements in translation based on neural network machine learning from the New York Times Magazine; and here’s a report from the White House on the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs. And here’s an article in the NYT’s Upshot column discussing the White House Report, and a rebuttal from Dean Baker.

These problems are crucial to the future of democracy. They concern the nature of our institutions and our social structures, as well as questions about our nature as human beings. I’ll take these up in more detail in future posts in this series.

Update: Here’s a link to the Keynes paper discussed in this post.


Vox Media, Where You Can Make $15 an Hour to Insinuate Fight for $15 Is Just about Alliteration

A lot of people are bitching about the sheer snottiness of this passage in a Vox piece arguing that fighting for $15 minimum wage will lead, instead, to the automation of those minimum wage jobs.

The McDonald’s experiment with touchscreen ordering systems illustrates the potential problem with making high minimum wages effective across big states like California and New York — both of which passed minimum wage increases this year. If McDonald’s automates its locations in Manhattan, San Francisco, and Silicon Valley, displaced workers shouldn’t have too much trouble finding alternative work in the booming economies of these cities as barbers, servers at full-service restaurants, nannies, and so forth. With lots of wealthy customers around, there’s a robust demand for unskilled service workers there.

But the outlook might not be so rosy in cities like Fresno, California, or Rochester, New York, where the economy is not booming and average wages are much lower. If a $15 minimum wage causes fast-food jobs to be automated in these cities, workers may not be able to find alternate work. A law designed to put more money in workers’ pockets could wind up putting a lot less money in their pockets instead.

It’s easy to get people fired up about an alliterative slogan like “Fight for $15.” But alliteration isn’t necessarily a good way to choose a policy goal. The implicit idea here — that people everywhere should get the same minimum wage whether they live in a booming, expensive metropolis or a struggling town with a low cost of living — doesn’t make a lot of sense. [my emphasis]

The Fight for 15 has more to do with what is a living wage than poetic devices. Indeed, even $15 actually doesn’t pay enough to rent an apartment, even in the hinterlands.

But I’m just as disgusted by the suggestion that if people live in booming economies, they can get jobs making $15 an hour as a barber or a restaurant server.

They also could, with some prior experience, apply to be Vox’s “race and identities” writing fellow for … $15 an hour.

screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-5-51-27-pm

And that’s to live in NYC or DC, cities where $15 an hour is well below a living wage.

Maybe Vox just plans on automating their race coverage if no one will take this job?

Update: Vox’s Managing Editor just announced on Twitter they will be increasing the rate for this and other fellowships. Good!

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Originally Posted @ https://www.emptywheel.net/labor/