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December 2008
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February 2009

The Importance Of Labor Unions

In general, our present society undervalues the union, just as it (or at least, capitalist managers) did in the 1880s and the opposite of the way it did in the mid 1950s.

I love capitalism, and I have benefited greatly from it. But from 1776 (to pick an arbitrary date) until the 1880s, wages remained flat or drifted downwards and this was basically a poor society, because company A cut wages to raise profits, which reduced the demand for the products of company B, which cut wages to raise profits. As capital is money invested to make a profit (not money invested to make workers happier), this "beggar your neighboring corporation" policy continued unabated until the unchecked power of capital was met by the power of organized labor.

Even that was not sufficient to break the cycle, however. Some would say Henry Ford's greatest industrial innovation was the assembly line. I disagree. His greatest innovation was the living wage. Did he offer it for noble reasons? Almost certainly not. He was a heard-headed capitalist, who raised his employee wages so they could afford to buy his own product. But by paying (numbers generated at random for demonstration purposes) mechanics a dollar a day at a time when everyone else paid 50 cents a day, he not only gathered the nation's best mechanics to Detroit, he raised the average wages of good mechanics everywhere--at least, of those who were mobile. Better-paid mechanics could buy more bread, which produced better-paid bakers. And what had been a lethargic downward spiral of wages and economic activity suddenly became, for a brief century, an upward spiral, under the twin influences of Ford and organized labor.

Alas, when Reagan broke the back of organized labor in the 1980s, the trend was reversed (even though we have been slow to see it). The average household wage has been stagnant for 20 years, even while the wealthy have been sucking up an ever-greater percentage of our national wealth. The middle class made this country great, and the labor movement created it. The disappearance of the middle class, created by the deliberate governmental destruction of the labor movement, will make this country more like most countries in the world--an extremely thin layer of vast wealth oppressing a vast layer of miserable poverty. That won't be good for America or the world.

Not that I feel strongly about the issue.

I was put in mind of this by Harrison Klein, an avid reader and college classmate of mine, who wrote in to say:

Come on Paul! That's such an obvious example of a 'post hoc ergo propter hoc' logical fallacy. Correlation does not imply causation! I bet almost all of the people involved in that situation drink coffee. Does that mean "this miracle brought to you by coffee growers"? I could make the equally nonsensical argument that the Go! flight that overshot Hilo last year because the pilots fell asleep was the result of unions.

While the "great man" theory often isn't the full explanation for successful outcomes, in this case, when you're talking about a piece of equipment controlled by an individual, I think it's more realistic (and fair) to give Mr. Sullenberger full credit for his extraordinary skill and judgment in this emergency.

"That's how strongly I believe in unions" implies an irrational faith bordering on fanaticism. All large and powerful institutions got that way because they offered benefits, but they all have their imperfections. We can certainly recognize the benefits brought by unions, but romanticizing them makes it easier to avoid seeing their imperfections. As I said in an email to you a couple years ago when you ran another item about unions:

Different industries and types of businesses require different employment structures. In some, unions offer employee protections, negotiating power, and organizational stability that benefit both the employees and society. In others, unions merely protect poor employees and the status quo while discouraging innovation and productivity improvements.

I would add that unions probably don't have much effect at all on whether a pilot can safely land his airplane in the Hudson River.

Stressing their labor roots may have been a bit of a stretch as an explanation for the plane crew's performance in this case, but labor unions can use all the good publicity they can get. And, frankly, I doubt management would put as much effort into safety as pilots' unions do. Management doesn't fly airplanes; pilots do. Who has more skin in the game? Management, like, say, that of Ford Motor, calculates that the cost of replacing a bolt on the Pinto gas tank costs less than paying off the families of people who die when the bolt triggers gas tank fires. Similar calculus, I am sure, could apply to airlines.

We both had more to say, but I think you can glimpse the arguments here...

Political Briefs


by Craig Reynolds

Prez tech: apparently the First BlackBerry stays: The BlackBerry accord of 2009. While there seems to be a party-line divide over what constitutes modern technology: Obama Staff Arrives to White House Stuck in Dark Ages of Technology and White House Already Well Wired, Bush Staffers Say (hmm "...Windows XP, BlackBerrys, Outlook..."  I don't use any of those but XP dates from 2001, BlackBerrys from 1999 and Outlook has been around since MS-DOS, how do these suggest IT modernity?) Also: Word Cloud Analysis of Obama's Inaugural Speech Compared to Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Lincoln's.

Belkin's web 2.0 payola: Belkin damages brand by paying for favorable reviews: LA company apologizes for paid online reviews, Belkin fake reviews case raises broad questions about peer ratings and Belkin Employee Sheds Light On Belkin's Supposedly Dirty Practices.

OS v. OS: Why I can't get enough of Windows 7 and Windows 7 vs. Mac OS X Snow Leopard: Apple ups the ante.

Technobits: I had a nice visit to UC Santa Cruz and spoke in their CITRIS Distinguished Lecture Series on: Crowds and Emergent Teamwork --- Payment Processor Breach May Be Largest Ever --- Michael Arrington's Minimalist Web Tablet Prototyped, Fulfills (Most) Promises --- What's with Google's new mini icon? --- Twittering idiot hoist by own petard: Be Careful What You Post.

Neal Vitale's Top Records of 2008 - Addenda

Whenever I try to sum up a year's worth of music in a single list, it's inevitable that, once I've finished, I find items I wish I'd included first time around:

Bon Hiver - For Emma, Forever Ago
Airborne Toxic Event - "Sometime Around Midnight"
Prince - "Crimson And Clover"
Lindsey Buckingham - "Great Day"
John Mellencamp - "Longest Days"
Coldplay - "Violet Hill"
Los Campesinos! - "Death To Los Campesinos!"
David Bowie - Live Santa Monica '72

There are also a number of records that I hesitate to anoint as "best" but which I still enjoyed and found more than passingly intriguing:

Tricky - Knowle West Boy
School Of Seven Bells - Alpinisms
Mates Of State - Re-arrange Us
Ra Ra Riot - The Rhumb Line
Cat Power - Jukebox/ Dark End Of The Street - EP
Horse Feathers - House With No Name

Neal Vitale's Post Mortem On The Oscar Nominations

Of the 46 nominees across the ten categories that I forecast last week, I got 36 correct (giving myself credit for Kate Winslet in Best Actress category, though I had chosen her in a different film), or 78.3%. A 3-star performance, at best.

My highlights were 100% on Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Animated Film. I didn't like The Reader nearly as much as the Academy (or Paul) did, but it is not a big surprise that it fared well. 

I was very disappointed that The Dark Knight and director Christopher Nolan weren't nominated - it is a terrific film, and very worthy of the accolades. If you believe USA Today, the ratings of the telecast of the February 22 ceremony will suffer as a result of the film's exclusion. [Their well-documented argument is that popular, high-grossing films like The Dark Knight boost viewership, while indie fare like Slumdog or The Reader depresses it.] 

The omission of Sally Hawkins was a shock, and I kicked myself in retrospect for not including Michael Shannon's searing performance in Revolutionary Road. Also a stunner was the lack of a nomination for Bruce Springsteen for "The Wrestler."

It looks like a wide open competition for Best Picture, primarily between Slumdog and Benjamin Button, though I think the strength of The Reader should not be underestimated. More commentary and projections in the coming weeks.

The Wrestler, Foundation Trilogy coming to Big Screen, Unwinding Bush, Chuck Carroll posting, Presidential Ethnicity, Bullet-resistant clothing, Beware Flight Attendants, Dan Grobstein File

Neal already reviewed The Wrestler here. I saw it this week. It is sad and depressing, but with amazing acting. I liked it slightly better than Neal, but not enough to post my own review or an addendum to his. Boy, it was hard to watch in places.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy was one of my favorite books as a boy, so I was pleased when Daniel Dern forward this news from the New York Times

Columbia Pictures has bought the film rights to the Foundation trilogy.

"The studio plans to develop the film for Roland Emmerich, the director of the cataclysmic sci-fi movies "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow." Financial terms were not disclosed, and a release date for the film was not announced."

This just in from Robert Redford via Richard Dalton:

A federal judge ruled in our favor and blocked the Bush Administration from proceeding with the lease sale of 110,000 acres of Utah's Redrock wilderness to oil and gas companies.

It really is the end of an error...

My arch-conservative friend Chuck Carroll is taking a look forward.

Richard Dalton found a great column in the Boston Globe (won't we all miss newspapers when they are gone?) that includes this line:

"The club that Barack Obama now joins has traditionally been far more exclusive than just all white and all male. There has never been an Italian, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Russian, Greek, Spaniard, or Hispanic elected to the White House."

Peggy Coquet passes along: Obama was wearing "bullet-resistant clothing." What's that?

Yell at a flight attendant, go to jail. I love flight attendants, because they are trained safety personnel. I hate disruptive passengers because they spoil my flight. But is cursing on an airplane an act of terror, punishable by loss of your children? Thank you Joe Brancatelli.

Dan Grobstein File

MIT Era Ends

I was lucky; I had Prof. Bernard "Bernie" Feld (of the Manhattan project) as my physics professor, and I was one of a class of a dozen students. I never had to go to freshman physics (8.01) lectures in 10-250, as described in this article. If you will, I had TEAL in 1970. But now everyone gets it: At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard, according to the New York Times. Apparently, some students object. I can't imagine why. I'd have never have passed physics as a lecture course; in fact, I flunked 18.02, second-term calculus, three times because I never understood it from either the large lectures in 10-250 or the small tutorials. If Nixon hadn't bombed Haiphong harbor in the spring on 1972 (unleashing demonstrations on campuses all over America), I would never have passed 18.02, and would never have graduated.

Political Briefs


by Craig Reynolds

Astrophysics, stranger than fiction: OK, the wave/particle duality is odd, quantum mechanics is weird, spooky action at a distance is well, spooky. But those are all minor league odd compared to this: Our world may be a giant hologram. (Warning: read it soon, New Scientist articles disappear behind a pay-per-view wall quickly). Noise picked up by an instrument built to detect gravitational waves may doom the experiment because the universe itself does not have sufficient resolution since it is merely a hologram! Not what they were looking for, but a helluva discovery if true. Recent string theories suggest the apparently 3 dimensional universe actually has 7, 10, 11, or 26 dimensions. If Craig Hogan's theory is correct, the universe has only 2 dimensions. Welcome to Flatland!

Google: an attempt to estimate the power required to perform a Google search lead to consternation and controversy: How Google searches lead to our destruction, 'Carbon cost' of Google revealed, Measuring your Google search's carbon footprint, while Google Argues Its Searches Are Environmentally Friendly and Google emits rebuttal to carbon claims. Also, a response to last July's Is Google Making Us Stupid? article in The Atlantic (which as I recall ends up answering its title with "no, not really"): How Google Is Making Us Smarter.

Technobits: Apple Allows 3rd Party Web Browsers into App Store --- A Breakthrough in Imaging - Seeing a Virus in Three Dimensions --- Search the web for any song in the world.