Monday, February 28, 2005

I made this silly list because 150 people died in Iraq today

Thank goodness for weblogs, distracting us from greed, suffering, and injustice. They are to politically conscious urbanites what shiny, dangling objects are to raccoons. I would know -- I have a weblog, and a family of raccoons lived inside a tree behind my house when I was a kid. So I've got all the bases covered.

It occurred to me as I was listening to the Postal Service this morning on the way to work that Ben Gibbard has about the most annoying, ingratiating voice I can think of. Some people can get away with that, and some can't. Hence this list.

Annoying Voices:

i forgive you

- kate bush
- ma$e
- percy sledge
- dean wareham
- cyndi lauper
- ringo starr

shut up now

- ben gibbard
- ja rule
- nico
- celine dion
- pharrell
- barney

(Incidentally, "The Postal Service" is just about the dumbest name for a band since "Ace of Base." They should have just named themselves "The Census Bureau" or "The United States Department of Agriculture" and gotten it over with)

Saturday, February 26, 2005

more on wal-mart in colorado

Thankfully the NYT delved a little deeper into Wal-Mart's anti-union strategy in today's story, by our old friend Steven Greenhouse. The facts presented there give me slightly more hope for an NLRB appeal, even with the currently stacked board.

However, as the bargaining unit shenanigans in Colorado demonstrate, unions attempting organizing drives at Wal-mart are going to have to do one of two things: a) develop their hurry-up offense, so they can condense organizing drives and election schedules to avoid bargaining unit dilution, or b) get card-check agreements.

Which gets chosen depends entirely on the structure of the campaign overall. Unions could attempt store-wide drives on individual locations, simultaneous drives in specific departments across the country, any permutation and combination thereof, or a completely different plan (i.e. regional campaigns, sequential department drives per store, etc.). The recognition method will need to match the organizing approach, which in turn will have to fit within the overall structure of the campaign. If that makes sense.

I'm sure this will continue to be discussed on this weblog and elsewhere in much more detail later on, especially as the campaign structure emerges.

I don't believe, as some folks will likely argue, that the election loss in Colorado demonstrates why stores should be organized wholesale. The same goes for the Jonquiere store and its bearing on the opposite opinion.

We don't know yet what's going to work. But, as previously mentioned, we are definitely coming for their ass. Lawrence V. Jackson, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Executive Vice President for Human Resources, commence fear-induced pantswetting now.

Friday, February 25, 2005

this is the matter with kansas

Kansas's Attorney General Phill Kline, that's two "l's," is demanding records from Kansas abortion clinics. Kline has subpoenaed all abortion records for patients under 16 and patients receiving late-term abortions. At a press conference yesterday, Kline explained that "as the state's chief law enforcement official it is my obligation to investigate child rape in order to protect Kansas children."

Okay, I'm going to try to give this claim honest consideration, ignoring the fact that this guy is a virulent anti-abortion advocate and that he may be investigated for violating the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Well, maybe I'm not.

But I will point out some things which don't seem to be receiving much coverage on this.

Obviously, Kline is practicing misdirection, trying to package his assault on late-term abortions behind the more media-friendly child abuse prevention issue. But the two concerns are completely separate, with different circumstances for patients and different laws governing them. Even in Kansas, it seems like the precedent requiring healthcare providers to release records is much more potent in abuse or neglect cases than in cases involving "illegal" abortion. The latter is even shakier when you consider that Kansas law permits late-term abortions if the mother-s health is threatened -- which gives pro-choice doctors some leeway and makes the concept of "illegal" late-term abortions more subjective.

But, moving on to the child abuse issue, the rationale is that in Kansas any sex under the age of 16 constitutes a sex crime, and thus pregnancy would provide evidence of child rape. It's not at all clear to me how possessing evidence that a crime occurred will help the A.G. prosecute that crime, unless the clinic releases literally every personal detail they have on their patients, including their sexual history, who paid for treatment, previous jobs, marital status, other medical information -- all things that, while they might help a little, don't seem to justify a subpoena, especially when it will violate medical privacy. It still seems a roundabout way of prosecuting child abuse crimes, compared to the more traditional alternatives.

For one thing, while underage pregnancy may equal evidence of sexual abuse in Kansas, it's obviously not the only evidence. Especially since instances of sexual abuse may not result in pregancy for underage girls, definitely will not in underage boys, and (with apologies in advance for this observation) will also not result in pregnancy for pre-pubescents.

I guess my point is not to minimize the evidence Kline has subpoenaed, but rather to put its magnitude in perspective. (like that? that's a little ivy league bullshit spin for you to enjoy) It seems significant to me that Kline hasn't embarked on a broader campaign to stop child abuse. It would be equally questionable, but Kline hasn't taken the next "logical" step and attempted to subpoena OB/GYN records of underage pregnancies carried to term. Nor has he subpoenaed school guidance counselor records or depositions from 7th-grade living-skills students. I wouldn't put it past him, though. Nor has he, to the best of my limited knowledge, made a public show of pursuing more traditional routes to preventing child abuse. In fact, I'd guess that he's a strong opponent of health education and counseling in Kansas public schools. So all this prompts us, rightly, to wonder how committed Kline truly is to his stated cause. I think his motives are a little closer to what we might suspect -- he's waging a war on the precious few pro-choice doctors and clinics left in Kansas.

That's nice. This guy needs to stop using his position to persecute women and concentrate on spelling his goddamn name correctly.

gloating day over

Wal-mart soundly beat a group of tire-workers trying to unionize in Loveland, CO. The vote was, um, 17-1. The union contends that Wal-mart interfered with the election, which they undoubtedly did, but still it's sobering news. Even if Walmart wouldn't let a union observer into the voting area, the workers would be more vigorously protesting had a majority of them actually voted for representation. It's not like this was a particularly big shop, so it seems like a pretty clear defeat.

Course, you can't blame the folks that voted against the union this time. They were probably worried that, if they supported a union, their store would be shut down or their entire department eliminated. You never know.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

we are so totally coming for their ass

I hate to use what Zach would undoubtedly describe as masculinist rhetoric, but Wal-Mart just got pimp-smacked by the residents of New York, New York.

God bless them. Like their predecessors in Inglewood, a coalition of New York labor unions and community organizations pressured developer Vornado Realty Trust into discontinuing pursuit of a contract with Wal-mart to build an 132,000 square-foot retail store in Rego Park, Queens. This comes after Walmart, in an homage to F. J. Turner, declared New York its "next frontier." The Central Labor Council reacted to that announcement more or less like they'd been tossed a bushel-ful of smallpox blankets.

I keep hoping they'll announce a Divisadero store so I can quit my job and go kick ass within walking distance.

(um - don't worry, i have plenty of substantive, non-masculinist insights regarding big-box retail, local economies, and regional labor markets, but today is gloating day...because somewhere, the vice-presidents of Wal-mart are thinking about the future and wetting their pants in fear)

storming the (ivory) tower

As I write this, 15 of my friends and colleagues are sitting-in indefinitely at the Yale Admissions Office for financial aid reform. No need to go over the details here, but they're blogging live from inside. Here's wishing them the best of luck - I'm certainly with them in spirit.

Some coverage from AP already, and more likely on the way from television and national press.

For more info on the issues, check out the Yale Undergraduate Organizing Committee online, where you can read the platform, check statistics, and browse press coverage.

If Yale doesn't arrest them at the end of the day and take them out, I'll post more details and news as I get it. So far, everyone seems to be fine and happy.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

where the wild things check air pressure

Last week a handful of billboards went up for, with a picture of a guy riding an enormous Maurice Sendak-like monster with headlight eyes and a chrome-grill mouth, and the slogan "An SUV is not a car." Y'all have probably seen this thing around. Anyway, I assumed that it was a bold and brilliant anti-SUV ad campaign, and for a few days we cheered when we passed it on the Bay Bridge onramp. Then I finally visited the site, and it turns out that it's an SUV safety campaign, and the evil ogre is actually a friendly SUV monster who needs love and attention -- in the form of air-pressure maintenance/defensive driving -- to stay safe and happy. Normally I'd say I'm all for an SUV safety campaign, but entering site gave me the same turned stomach as when I first visited this little hypocritical marvel.

I may be reading this entirely wrong, of course. But spending lots of money to educate drivers on how to avoid dying (or more likely, killing someone else) when operating a vehicle whose design and structure are inherently, fundamentally unsafe seems a little bizarre to me. Hence the comparison with Phillip Morris. If you want to reduce the consumer risk of a product that has been approved by a federal regulatory agency, stop approving it! This is why the FDA has not approved DDT for use at French restaurants, and why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration doesn't let you ride a giraffe down I-95. This is just another instance of government agencies dumping liability onto consumers so as to avoid pissing off major lobbying interests by actually holding them responsible for the safety and legality of their product.

This ESUVEE campaign also gives off a pungent aroma of assuaged upper-middle-class guilt. Now, if people buy hybrid models and follow all the friendly monster's instructions, it'll finally be okay to own an SUV. For those of you unfamiliar with that assuaged-guilt smell, just think of a Starbucks shade-grown mochachino and you're pretty close.

I guess the site I was hoping for would probably be called something more like "" Not holding my breath, though.

this is gonna hurt pt 2

needless to say, somewhat defending larry summers has stirred up some waves amongst my immediate friends and family. in the interest of, y'know, intellectual honesty, i'll admit that other folks' comments have shed new light on a few points definitely worth considering. See Phoebe's analysis at Illimitably Fiddlistic for an excellent argument of the contrary view -- which I still disagree with, but which is quite well argued. You can find more reasoned and subtle (I hope) commentary from me as well over at her place, where we're likely to be killing this horse for a few more days at least. But as far as New Plastic's concerned, Larry Summers is tabled indefinitely, unless he shows up for some hearings dressed as David Lee Roth. Then I'll probably jump in again.

Friday, February 18, 2005

this is gonna hurt

I hate having to admit this, but I'm about to defend Larry Summers. Harvard's President consented yesterday to release the transcript containing his allegedly inflammatory remarks re: women in science and engineering. Upon consideration, they're actually not particularly inflammatory at all, nor do they actually suggest that "innate ability" accounts for the disproportionate representation of women in the engineering and science sections of the Academy.

Let me be clear: I do not like this man. He is without a doubt arrogant, self-aggrandizing, and tactless. That doesn't distinguish him from most Ivy League University presidents, but either way I still find him fairly unpleasant in most respects. Also, I think that there are probably many reasons why the faculty have cause to hold a vote of no-confidence in Summers, and they're obviously entitled to do so regardless of what he said at this conference.

But this uproar over his comments is ridiculous, and in my opinion actually distracts people from the seriousness of the real issues at hand. The main story now is whether Summers is a misogynist pig, and not the groundbreaking research presented at the conference. Before the transcript was released I never expected to come down on Summers' side of this fracas, since I both sympathize with and trust his accusers on the faculty much more than I do him. Not only that, they're probably aware of the Ivy League's complicity in the creation of a glass ceiling for women and minorities in the Academy, so their ire towards Summers et al is certainly justified.

The thing is, the professors are way, and I mean WAY, over-reacting to Summers' remarks. Nowhere in the transcript does he claim that his expertise outweighs theirs, or contradict the findings presented at the conference. In fact, he constantly reiterates that he's not qualified to judge the statistical evidence, and that his observations arise primarily from some familiarity with the relevant studies and conversations with various folks in the Academy. He posited three contributing factors to the under-representation (four, really), explained his reasoning, and called for more research. No doubt he did all this in a really pompous manner, but if these professors are trying to eradicate that from Harvard's hallowed corridors, I think the ship's already sailed.

Okay, I know that if Larry Summers isn't qualified to analyze this issue, god knows I'm not. But here's the gist of Summers' remarks. Three of his four contributing factors were completely legitimate, in my view: socialization, discrimination, and gendered career choices. The fourth was the main bone of contention. Summers suggested that studies of standardized testing showed a variance between males and females, and that the standardized test results (and their consequences in terms of progress through the Academy) may contribute to the filtering process that results in under-representation of women. In a nutshell, he argued that since more men than women test into the highest portion of the bell curve, and that prominent research scientists presumably fall into that same degree of standard deviation. He also acknowledged that studies of gender-corrected standardized tests do not exhibit this variance, and made an argument for why that did not resolve the problem. I didn't agree with it, and I'd imagine that many in the room didn't either, but he offered a lay interpretation of the existing research and acknowledged it as such. He didn't even overtly subscribe to or support that interpretation, though he may have communicated as much through his demeanor -- I don't know. He did, however, display some pretty crappy mathematical and scientific aptitude, and I'm sure that offended the audience. His logic was muddled, and sometimes it seems like he was trying to use deliberately oblique wording to cover his ass on controversial territory. If you're interested in a more detailed assessment of the remarks, check out William Saletan's original analysis of the whole mess over at Slate, as well as his breakdown of flaws in the accusations and in Summers' argument upon release of the transcript. The latter, I think, makes my point far better than I will.

What's missing from all these shrill accusations (and I hate to use that adjective since it's so frequently employed by sexist assholes to discredit legitimate feminist protest, but the shoe fits here) is any consideration of the substantive content offered by Summers during the rest of his remarks. He considered the problems behind discrimination and calls for full measures to combat it. He also exposed the inherent problems involved in reforming hiring searches, without using them as an excuse for the slow progress (as the president of my illustrious alma mater surely would). Finally he argued, from a lay position again, that genetics research often exposes phenomena previously attributed to socialization to be biological in origin. Then, he specifically calls for more research on these topics to get closer to the truth. Of course I would have preferred that Summers call for more research so we'd have the truth and could actually fix the problem, but like I said, that would be expecting a lot from a guy like him. And the conference was focused on social science research anyway, not on the uphill fight for gender equality.

No doubt, some of my seven readers out there will be surprised to see me defending Larry Summers (hi mom). Let me say once more that I have no problem with him being kicked out the door, and I have no problem with Harvard professors calling him out in public. After all, whether or not Harvard discriminates towards women, we can all agree that it discriminates towards its faculty, tenured and not. They have all the reason in the world to knock him around the Op-Ed page if they want to. But the rest of the country needs to read this transcript and figure out if there's really any reason to be so angry about it. Then, even if they decide there is, I humbly suggest that they spend their time and energy pursuing solutions to the problem rather than spending time on vitriol. Okay, that's hypocritical, even for me. But I still strongly recommend that people read this transcript instead of simply taking the professors' word.

By the way, wouldn't it be great if Cornell West decided to speak up on this topic and denounce Summers? Then we could have another Ivy Tower Celebrity Death Match.


Thursday, February 17, 2005

my baby takes the morning train

Yesterday I rode BART to work. I was sitting there looking out the window at the scrapyards and shipping lots, which come into view when you emerge from the tunnel on the Oakland side, when I noticed two people standing by the station map. The first, a young woman, was speaking to a young man in a mix of sign language and English. They were discussing the different stops and the directions the train ran from one side of the bay to the other. I could see that, as well as being deaf, the young man was mentally disabled, and so at first I assumed that she was taking care of him for the day or riding with him as part of an education program. Then, as I turned back to the window, I saw another woman signing energetically to her partner in the seat across. I started to look around. At the front of the car sat an old man pointing out the window and signing with authority to a younger man next to him about the buildings we passed. Right in front of me, three girls sat together having an animated conversation and occasionally breaking into silent laugter. Eventually it dawned on me that, having stepped onto the car alone, I was the only person there not part of this group -- and the only person not currently talking to someone else. Of course I wondered why I hadn't noticed earlier, but then realized that stony silence is de rigeur for BART passengers anyway, so it made sense that I, being totally oblivious to the world in general, would not have noticed anything out of the ordinary. More strange, though, was that I was sitting there amidst a torrent of conversation and I had no idea what was going on. I was completely out of the loop. This provoked an intense flashback to riding on buses in Senegal, which never failed to make me feel both strangely peaceful and desperately lonely. In the midst of all this, the Oakland passing by the window seemed bizarre and foreign, like we were in another country, or the same country a century into the future. I barely regained enough self-awareness to stumble off the train at the downtown stop. When I walked into my office a few minutes later it was shockingly gaudy and familiar, like re-visiting a third-grade classroom. I greeted people like it was years since I had been there last. For the rest of the day I still couldn't shake it off, or even put into words what had knocked me out of place. And later that night, just before I fell asleep, I found myself staring out the window into the dark street and listening for something.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

hold tight

folks waiting for the New Plastic Music update, chill!

it's coming, i'm just having some server problems. i'll keep you posted.

in the meantime, let's play a little game.

click this link, then assign it a rating on a "problematic" scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being "completely PC," 5 being "Halliburton," and 10 being the NAACP giving Fred Phelps an award in 1986 (this really happened).


Monday, February 14, 2005

pink ears

if the Wesley Willis generator isn't your cup of tea, try this.

red-haired girlfriends and emasculated housekept men rejoice!

rock over london, rock on chicago

I made this song with the Wesley Willis song generator (scroll to bottom). For folks who don't know, the inscrutable, disgusting, and hilarious songs of Wesley Willis were beloved by many music fans (including me). He tragically passed away in August 2003. There's a heartfelt and entertaining tribute album, called Loved Like a Milkshake, which you can listen to here.


by Wesley Willis

You can really rock it out.
You can really rock your ass off.
newplastic is the best.
You really whoop a snow lepoard's ass.


You can really rock it out.
newplastic is excellent.
Right on brother.
You can really rock it out.


newplastic really whoops a camel's ass.
newplastic is the best.
You are the blog king.
newplastic really whoops a donkey's ass.

Rock over London,
Rock on Chicago.

Mitsubishi - the word is getting around.

2 reasons why wal-mart will be extra-hard to crack

folks who have been following the Jonquiere store saga already know how seriously Walmart takes this organizing drive. I wanted to add a few extra obstacles to the ones most frequently mentioned -- Walmart's rigidly centralized governance, their vertical and horizonatal market power, the job and unit classification problems, etc.

Here they are:

1) The success of big-box retail stores depends partly on their ability to squeeze their workforce into an irrational mentality of retail cheerleadership. To be successful at Walmart an employee must -- well, be male, first off, but moving on -- at least appear to completely endorse Sam Walton's vision of utopian supply and service. Plenty if not most employees can see through this, but when a significant chunk of the nationwide campaign rhetoric will revolve around the damage done by Walmart to local communities and consumers, union organizers are gonna encounter some resistance to that idea. Even when employees are fully on the program of better wages, benefits, and voice-at-work.

2) Unlike many in the labor movement, I believe a good deal of what Walmart executives/spokespeople are saying about the effect of unions on their stores. Walmart is able to operate how it does due to an entrenched and systematic exploitation of workers at all levels, and (as Andrew Pelletier claims in the NYT article), union presence in a Walmart store "would have fundamentally changed the economic model." Not that this kind of change is unique or unprecedented in the labor movement. My friends in GESO at Yale will know what I'm talking about, as would auto workers at GM plants if there were still any around. To continue to function under collective bargaining agreements, Walmart will actually have to overhaul its entire company.

That, incidentally, is why I (and tons of others) see the Walmart fight as such a critical one. Finally the challenge, and the necessary reform, actually matches the scope of what's at stake.

tell walmart to knock it the fuck off.

Friday, February 11, 2005

put down your pencil, dumbass

also, wish me luck because i'm taking the LSAT tomorrow and my test-taking prowess peaked during the 5th-grade Santa Clara County Spelling Bee.

i eat my foot

A few days ago I heard Sage Francis -- intense, angry, disturbed rapper/spoken-word artist from Providence, RI -- on my local alternative rock station. I don't remember what made me buy Personal Journals back in 2002 (it was probably okayplayers), but my first thoughts on hearing that album was that this guy wasn't going to break because he was simply too good at communicating what he felt. For something to break big it has to be on the radio, and for a song to make it on the radio it must be editable, repeatable, and friendly enough to work across at least a limited demographic spread.

I could only listen to Personal Journals once every two weeks or so, and that was pushing it. The emotion was so exposed and bitter that it offered little in the way of catharthis. It just depressed me and pissed me off. In other words, it was a great album but I wouldn't expect to see Sage and Carson Daly in the same room.

I was wrong. This guy is getting serious play on college radio, with some mainstream exposure. And it's not from making his music more friendly. From what I've heard, A Healthy Distrust (released last Tuesday) is just as bitter, obsessive, and confrontational as the others.

My guess would be that Sage Francis's success is a product of the music industry's occasional genuine attempt to sell an outsider -- a product whose draw comes from the fact that most people won't like it. Then they try to build it into a new sub-genre. The reason I say "occasional" is because though it may seem like all popular hiphop/rock music kicks its way onto MTV, intact, from the social fringes, record companies are quite careful to make sure that no matter how "alternative" an artist sounds (or appears), their music will sell outside the immediate target demo. For example, Good Charlotte (and I promise that's the last time you'll see those two words in sequence on this weblog) was ostensibly marketed to 14-17-year-olds, but clearly sold well above and below that age range.

Sage Francis's music is not sexy, nor is his music catchy. I assume he's being marketed to the "angst rock" demographic, Linkin Park fans who don't dig on all the retro-new wave on the radio right now. I don't believe that he will sell, because I think his music is too demanding. But, obviously, don't quote me on that.

There'll be a review of A Healthy Distrust as soon as I can get my own copy.

Interested folks should absolutely track down the Non-Prophets album Hope, which is more rich and consistent than Personal Journals.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

let the cockroaches debate it when we're gone

Rockridge has an article by OB/GYN Lisa Littman that uses George Lakoff's parental political models -- Strict Father and Nurturing Parent -- to explain why we're not winning the abortion argument, and how we can. As my post's title implies, I think this bad boy isn't going anywhere in the near (or distant) future, but Littman's piece is persuasive, compelling, and clearly argued. It also demonstrates the (already self-evident) potential in Lakoff's work for progressive messaging.

Here's the basic thrust of Littman's argument.

This debate is how we approach the issue of unintended pregnancy: Prevention or Punishment. The Prevention Approach is about supporting policies that prevent unwanted pregnancies and decrease abortions while the Punishment Approach is about supporting policies that increase unintended pregnancies and increase abortions in order to punish people for having sex. The difference in approach reflects the difference in our values.

By defining the abortion debate terms of our values, we can show the difference between Prevention and Punishment values, policies, and goals. This will allow us to steer the discussion back to the relevant abortion question and allow us to have an honest debate. An honest debate is the kind that we can win.

I think that Littman's suggested method, to define the policies and values associated with prevention and compare them with the policies and values associated with punishment, is an excellent way of reclaiming some ground on this debate. In particular, it offers a calm and respectful way for us to demonstrate how little use conservatives have for the basic human rights of women, and allows us to tie that to the abortion debate without having to jump too deep into the dangerous waters of gender politics or religious orthodoxy.

Okay, so is it possible to convince the American public that the real abortion debate is not about who chooses when life begins, but about what to do with unintended pregnancy? Murder, and its righteous revenge, have a lot more political draw than the acknowledgment and confrontation of unseemly social problems. And when conservatives can harness the blight of "unwanted pregnancy" to minority, low-income, inner-city women, they've got the American electorate right where they want it: in that hypocritical pocket that makes us vote to punish something we're afraid of, something that might affect us if we're not careful. As in, "If we just vote it away, then at least we have a public record of our immunity." A reasoned debate about current abortion policy simply cannot compete with the magnetic draw of that expiatory opportunity.

Which is not to say that Littman's wrong. I just prefer to read her suggestions about a "debate over what to do with unintended pregnancy" as a call for us to directly confront American women with the realities of the problem, and make all the ways in which it affects them abundantly clear. I think we have to follow the Republican model and systematically divorce it from other segments of our public platform (i.e. discontinue arguments about abortion as an aspect of equal opportunity), and instead fight the war on the ground and in the churches, schools, and healthcare facilities. At the same time, we can systematize our message to make abortion an issue of responsibility, of SOCIETAL responsibility, that will carry more weight than arguments of free choice or equal opportunity.

People need to accept that this argument, like flag-burning, will be around forever. True reproductive rights, on the other hand, are in immediate danger of extinction. And preserving them means maintaining and increasing the electoral draw of pro-choice policy, not retreating from it. We're not going to win this argument, ever, but we have to participate.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

people who are not my valentine include tom delay

On the class action front (see previous post), a little more evidence that the bill is designed to promote business interests. Though class actions in federal courts would still be tried on the merits of applicable state law, Senate Republicans refuse to consider an amendment that would allow federal judges to pick one state law and apply it if multiple state laws conflict. This means far fewer class actions would be dismissed or sent back to state courts – in other words, they’d still actually get heard under the new law. The GOP won’t tolerate this amendment because their real aim isn’t to reform class-action law or reduce the “economic pressure” it allegedly places on consumers – they’re trying to use this legislation to immunize their business allies against class-action suits, and (in broader terms) against public accountability.

It's gonna pass both pretty easily, though.

not fooling anyone

A short list of songs that use pleasant harmony and cheerful delivery to mask the actual emotional content, but whose titles kind of give them away.

Crippled Inside – John Lennon
I Wanna Destroy You – Soft Boys
Girlfriend in a Coma – The Smiths
No One Will Ever Love You – The Magnetic Fields
I’m Goin Down – Bruce Springsteen
Help! – The Beatles

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

a little class warfare

As I write this, the Senate is debating the Class Action Fairness Act, which is a GOP-backed attempt to federalize interstate class-action lawsuits (i.e. divert them to federal courts, as opposed to the state courts where they’re usually tried). My initial reaction to the bill was, as you’d imagine, fairly negative…as the guy on the treadmill next to me at the gym can attest. Not for the first time, I referred to Trent Lott as an “assface clone” out loud in public.

And this bill does suck. The National Association of Manufacturors is lobbying hard for it, as are the other major business associations. Why? They say that federal courts carry the appropriate jurisdiction over lawsuits involving multiple states, and that current class-action laws allow plaintiffs to “shop” for the most friendly state in which to file for class certification. According to business, forum shopping undermines those critical jurisdictional authorities. Businesses also regularly settle class actions out of court, which can be expensive in large class-action suits. NAM argues that, in addition to the constitutional angle, the current system is bad for consumers and business alike. Tort litigation, much of it frivolous, costs American business hundreds of billions of dollars, raising the cost of services like healthcare and insurance, and thus raising prices on undeserving consumers.

I find this argument to be strong, well-crafted, and completely fucking false. First of all, the real reason they want to federalize interstate class-actions is because federal courts are much less likely to grant class certification than state courts. They’re overburdened, for one thing, which makes them likely to send cases back to the states or deny class certification due to conflicting state laws. We have to keep in mind that the consumer protection laws, wage and hour laws, and anti-discrimination laws under which most class-action suits are brought vary from state-to-state -- and it's the state laws that govern what constitutes a class, as well as the merits of the case. But conflicts between, say, California’s pioneering consumer protection laws and Nevada’s weaker ones should not prevent a company operating in both states from being held accountable by its consumers. In addition, as Public Citizen points out, federal courts traditionally rule more stringently on whether common issues predominate over individual issues (the central question in class certification), and federal judges tend to apply state law conservatively, since it’s outside their scope. All these factors make the Class Action Fairness Act a decidedly business-friendly piece of legislation.

Which, presumably, is why my fearless sellout of a senator (Diane Feinstein) is supporting it – though she claims it’s so that California consumers won’t get screwed when interstate class actions are tried in less-protected states. Of course, giving it to the federal courts is the best way to insure that California's consumer-protection laws (not to mention employment laws, environmental laws, etc.) get thrown out the window.

But here’s the real kicker, and the reason why I think this should be interesting to you, instead of just me. Interstate class action lawsuits are the absolute backbone of the labor movement’s legal war against corporate employers. The UFCW is great and all, but Dukes v. Wal-Mart was the first real blow in the national war against big-box retail employers. Class-action presents not only a credible legal threat, but a remarkable organizing opportunity. For example.

We need a strong, thriving class-action system to protect us as workers, parents, and breathing people in this country. But believe me, we're also gonna need it for that good ol' class war.

Pun intended.

Monday, February 07, 2005

drummers in drag

What this should really be is a concert review of Mandonna, San Francisco’s venerable cross-dressing Madonna cover-band. But I haven’t seen them yet so that will have to wait. The title actually refers to the musical benefits of recruiting rhythm players that play primarily in genres different from your own.

I started thinking about this while listening to a stream of the Invisible Cities’ debut album, Watertown. First of all, lemme recommend this one for real. According to the fairly accurate description on the Invisible Cities Website, the band makes “incandescent rough-around- the-edges sometimes-quiet sometimes-loud rocknroll pop music with wiry guitars and boy/girl harmonies.” I found out about them through my girlfriend Camille, who designed and built their drummer’s website. His name is Tim Bulkley, and he played primarily jazz before joining the group. Apart from being indie-licious and delightful to listen to, I think a lot of the appeal in the Invisible Cities sound comes from Bulkley's attack and sensibility. That Luna-style indie ether effect that so many bands are striving for these days – and fail at because of plodding rhythm sections – succeeds in the Invisible Cities due (in part) to their drummer's buoyant, precise approach. You can stream their album here.

(By the way, folks who saw the previous format of New Plastic Music and were wondering whether I was just a pretentious dick for taking pictures of myself wearing headphones will now understand why I took them. Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t get lonely and take pictures of myself to prove I exist. My lady needed them for Tim Bulkley’s website. Apparently, when Mr. Bulkley’s girlfriend saw the site she was like “Who the hell is that guy?”)

Listening to Watertown got me thinking about other bands that sound fucking great because they have jazz drummers. It’s usually not the only reason, but it helps. I’m talking here about the Smashing Pumpkins, the Doors, Cream. Ever wonder why listening to Siamese Dream doesn’t give you headache, even though there are 189,000 guitar overdubs? Jimmy Chamberlain has an impossibly light touch. Also, Doors songs would be a lot more boring without John Densmore’s subtle pattern and fill work. I gotta say that I hate listening to Cream no matter what Ginger Baker does, but I don't think that's his fault.

The best example of course would be Motown's Funk Brothers, all culled by Berry Gordy from the local Detroit Jazz scene. I don’t need to retell this whole story, but you should all see Standing in the Shadows of Motown. The Funk Bros. subscribed to an almost anti-rock musical aesthetic, full of improvisation, harmonic complexity and independent linear composition. That, plain and simple, is why Motown sounds like nothing else.

Jazz seems like the ideal breeding ground for members of a cross-genre rhythm section, since jazz music requires unlimited virtuosity and flexibility. You sort of have to be able to do anything on your instrument. That’s also why Benny Goodman could so successfully interpret mid-century clarinet repertoire, and also why Yo Yo Ma is like a character in some RPG video game where you conquer every type of music using stealth and guile.

There are probably rhythm players coming from genres besides jazz and classical music, but they seem much more rare. I’d guess it’s because the ensemble structure (not to mention the industry structure) prevent all but the most lunatic musical chameleons from doing genre hops between punk and bluegrass or hip-hop and new age. It’s also usually not the rhythm players who do so.

Regardless, the last thing I wanted to say was that there’s a common assumption out there that having genre-specific technique somehow “contaminates” a musician. This is straight up dumbass garbage. Most musicians can’t play everything, of course, and some can only play one thing comfortably. And sometimes familiarity with a set of genre-specific techniques does color how you play, and that may get in the way of your ability to play another kind of music. In fact, it’s likely to. But that’s either the result of the player’s ego or his/her inhibitions. Genre-crossing, especially for rhythm players, can obviously work in everybody’s favor. Just listen to Smokey.

On another note: this week's picks (with blurbs and audio) are up at New Plastic Music, along with photos and music from my fieldwork in Senegal. Don’t read the thesis unless you like being so bored that you fall into a relieved coma.

Friday, February 04, 2005

good, bad, ugly


Last week's feature on Andy Stern and SEIU in the NYT Magazine was pretty good, but folks who've talked to me about it since know that I wouldn't have minded a little more attention paid to the people who actually built the SEIU movement on the ground. Credit to Stern for immediately posting an entry to that effect on the Unite to Win blog. It's eloquent, fairly humble, and worth reading. The other thing that was missing from the piece was a full (and unbiased) explanation of why some workers oppose Stern's agenda, and why in particular some workers feel that independent or micro-industry-focused unions are more effective. Look elsewhere on the Unite to Win blog for more on that, or check out the summary by Labor Notes.


This isn't new news, but as of today it looks like Benon Sevan is gonna go through the ringer for soliciting oil sales while director of the U.N. Oil-for-Food program in Iraq, in violation of all kinds of laws. It seems a little unclear to what extent Sevan is actually guilty, but it's bad from every angle.


Fox News wasted no time making U.N.-funded terrorism their top story, and crackpots across the nation rejoiced. This will also doubtless give Bush & his Crony All-Star Team more fodder for their arguments that the U.N. can't fight terror effectively.

Hooray for sanctions!!
(personally, I think that would have been a better name for Bloodhound Gang's first album)

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Part II (dun dun DUHHHHHH)

Alright, here’s the second installment. So I left off refusing to acknowledge the one-to-one relationship of private profit to public good. It’s kind of a staggeringly obvious point, anyway. But it’s worth challenging tired old progressive assumptions on a regular basis to see if they hold up.

Moving on, does CSR do any good? And should we care, by the way? Normally I would say it doesn’t matter all that much, considering the relatively small scope of CSR activities and their impact. But the reason I’m boring you and myself with this Economist article is because CSR is an arena in which the left is actually winning the battle of ideas. Can you say the same for collective bargaining, or equal rights, or progressive taxation? The article laments the fact that we won, and that corporations never fought back, but I believe CSR actually represents business’s stunted, hesitant response to pressure created by the social discourse on corporatization. CSR is so widespread now because people on the left actually convinced the general populace that we ought to expect social responsibility from companies, and that we (as consumers) could use our power to demand it. Sort of.

CSR more or less breaks down into two types: corporate charity and corporate conduct. The article decries corporate charity because it involves giving away someone else’s money. Cry me a river. Given the extremely low donation levels, the existing profit margin, the faulty corporate tax code, and the negative effects of non-philanthropic corporate activity on communities, I could care less about this grievance.

Which brings us to corporate conduct. Crook’s article strenuously objects (hi Sorkin fans) to “codes of conduct” because the standards they enforce cause businesses to abandon contracts in developing countries, and discourage them from investing in Third World capital developers. In fact, Crook blames cut-and-run licensing practice on activist NGO’s and “ill-informed consumers.” This is garbage, and poorly supported garbage at that. Plain and simple, multi-national corporations refuse to part with the profit motive that drew them to overseas investment in the first place, and they’d rather withdraw jobs and capital from developing countries than take even the slightest hit to their bottom line.

Incidentally, Crook’s accusation also ignores three critical ways in which corporate “codes of conduct” benefit both multi-nationals and developing countries. First, operating humane industry in developing countries does help a business’s prestige on the homefront, attracting customers. Second, setting decent wage standards for developing countries increases their purchasing power, and thus their market potential for your products. And third, workers in developing countries will benefit when their governments – in an effort to attract multi-national contracts – commit to higher labor standards.

Of course The Economist would prefer that businesses forget codes of conduct and simply adhere to a decent set of business ethics. The article uses Elaine Sternberg’s parameters of “ordinary decency” and “distributive justice” as a guideline for businesses to replace CSR with ethical behavior. Ordinary decency would prohibit companies from lying, cheating, stealing, murder, etc. Anything patently “indecent.” Crook argues that whether or not they are required to adhere to “decent” standards by law, they must do so in order to succeed. Again, that’s wrong and myopic. First of all, the ability to mask business behavior, combined with consumer indifference (we’ll pretty much buy their products unless it explicity says “We like torturing baby ducks” on the label) means that businesses can certainly conduct unethical operations and still succeed. That’s, like, a Newtonian law. Second, the structure of global capitalism allows business to work ethically while partnering with and directly funding unethical business practice. They’re covered by precedents of non-disclosure, confidentiality, or so many degrees of separation that you just can’t tell if something going on in the Honduran jungle is ethical or not. That’s why we need codes of conduct so desperately. That’s their aim – to prevent unethical business from operating under the radar by committing to investigate multi-national (and local) partnerships to ensure ethical conduct.

Okay, what about distributive justice? The article describes this as the principle of “aligning benefits within the organization to the contribution made to achieving the aims of the firm.” This principle can basically bite me, especially when it’s interpreted as a justification for merit pay and against affirmative action. In my view, the idea of distributive justice does about as much to undermine business ethics as it does to preserve it. But I’m a little shakier on this point, so don’t take my word on that because I have to admit that I have no idea what “distributive justice” is. It sounds like a Steven Segall movie.

What’s the worst thing about CSR, according to Clive Crook? Those dreaded two words: sustainable development. Don’t read this part of the article (if you’re reading it at all), because it’s horseshit. The best argument Crook can make against sustainable development is that it spreads mean, mean lies about business and makes business wait in the milk line until all the chocolate milk is gone. He calls S.D. advocates mis-informed, even though they usually aren’t – especially when it comes to things that business believes it’s not required to disclose. Crook also accuses sustainable development advocates of promoting the idea that business on its own is inherently harmful, and must be augmented with SD programs to prevent Earth from crashing into the Sun or something. It would be a lot more accurate to describe SD as an effort to minimize or eliminate the negative by-products of development. And by the way, most of the time we’re not talking about nit-picking stuff here; we’re talking about sustainable development to prevent asthma, child labor, desertification, etc.

This is rambling a little. My overall point is that the article is right, but for the wrong reasons. Of course CSR doesn’t solve many problems, if it solves anything at all. But I do dispute the claim that it does little or nothing to help people. It’s just not what we should be relying on. Like I said in the first section, corporate benevolence, even if we had to reach down their throats and drag it out, is never a substitute for substantive tax reform, social spending, and of course my personal favorite – hardcore, in-your-face, ass-kicking collective revolt of the organizing variety.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Economist and CSR

The cover story in last week’s Economist took a skeptical look at corporate social responsibility (CSR). The author made a number of excellent points and a bunch of shitbrained ones as well. It needs a response, though, because even at its strongest moments the argument against CSR smacks of neo-con self justification. And since it’s a well-written article in a respectable magazine, I can’t just say “forget this bullshit, I’m gonna go eat an ice-cream sandwich.” Hence the observations below.

The basic point of Clive Crook’s article is that CSR, while sometimes well-intentioned, misunderstands capitalism and ignores economic processes and impacts. Plus, it’s not the natural or appropriate arena for business. According to The Economist, CSR is “based on a faulty – and dangerously faulty – analysis of the capitalist system [it is] intended to redeem.”

The article argues against CSR in part because it assumes a dichotomy between the shareholders and the public, negating the possibility that what is good for one may be good for the other as well. The editorial section also strongly asserts that “without trying, [a company] does ‘good works’ by conducting honest business.” I don’t know to what degree advocates of CSR would actually dispute this claim, but even so the article presents a few supporting examples:

1. “Employees willingly work for the company in exchange for wages; the transaction makes them better off.” Though the pronoun’s a little indeterminate, let’s assume they’re talking about the employees being better off, and let’s also respectfully suggest that the idea of a universally willing workforce is a little passé, as is the implication that being “better off” is the same thing as being “happy” or “secure.” Having money is better than not having money, but that doesn’t mean that paying poverty wages constitutes an act of “good works.”

2. CSR is unnecessary because “well-run companies will strive for friendly long-term relationships with employees, suppliers, and customers.” Depends on your definition of “well-run.” There are plenty of companies, especially in hospitality and retail, that operate on business plans geared towards a turnover market. Plus, if “loyalty” is what’s being cultivated by the well-run business, wage and price pressures have an unfortunate tendency to make people “loyal” out of necessity. A full-time waitress, hospital employee, or janitor can have a “friendly, long term relationship” with the Armani Exchange window display but their economic circumstances are gonna make them "loyal" to Walmart.

3. Finally, “the selfish pursuit of profit serves a social purpose…this is not the fatal defect of capitalism, as CSR-advocates appear to believe; it is the very reason capitalism works.” See, I personally would argue that it’s both. I’d also point out that it’s not the selfish pursuit of profit that raises (or lowers) our standard of living, it’s the amount of justice and sensibility we use to regulate it.

Okay, so even if we ignore the contrary evidence and hypothetically grant the premise of a one-to-one relationship between private profit and public good, most of us would still like to see some support for this claim. The full survey (later in the magazine), does offer two necessary criteria for private profit to translate into public welfare. According to Clive Crook (this guy’s name is too good to be true), the process requires free competition and accurate social pricing. Well, we have neither, Clive. Free competition is, of course, a theoretical myth, like pure communism. It works at a lemonade stand (or a kibbutz), but not in any form of modern economy. And -- on the subject of accurate social pricing -- despite the article’s lengthy arguments to the contrary, many of our most valuable “commodities” simply cannot be accurately priced, but are regularly underestimated. For easy, do-it-yourself examples of inaccurate social pricing, try applying for a job as a childcare worker or calculating the "value" of not dying from mercury poisoning. Environmental costs and labor value represent two of the many mis-priced items in today's (and yesterday's) economy. One last thing on private profit and public good: even if we could achieve Crook’s two conditions, we’d still have to eliminate all the social structures that affect opportunity and standard of living. I’m talking about wealth concentration, segregation, immigration policy, sexism, etc. etc.

So forget granting the hypothetical premise. I don’t believe there is a one-to-one relationship between private profit and public good. Which, I suppose, makes me automatically more sympathetic to anything that tries to even out the gap, like CSR. But I’m open to examining that, because God knows I don’t have enough training in business operations or market economics to evaluate whether CSR actually does any good. Unfortunately my lunch break’s over, so you’ll have to wait till tomorrow for the second half of this response, which will feature a similar degree of scintillating, incisive analysis.

I’ll try to work more enraged cyberspace trash-talk into the next post, as well. Don't worry, I know what side my bread is buttered on. In that spirit, I'm gonna go out on a limb and suggest that some divine presence confiscated Oren Hatch's conscience, humanity, and self-respect, replacing them with a half-eaten churro.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

New Plastic is back!

Welcome to the official launch of the New Plastic Weblog, designed carefully to coincide with the long-awaited re-launch of New Plastic Music. There's tons of new content, with more coming, plus improvements, more (and easier) sample contests, and shit you can't even imagine yet because I haven't thought it up. Booyakasha!
The topical content of the weblog, if you care, will roughly restrict itself to the following:

Urban life
Funny shit that happened

As guaranteed earlier it WILL rock your world, if you let it. It's a lot like Def Leppard in that respect. I know that the secret of a good blog is not quality, but quantity and reliability, so you can expect to see new postings three times a week. Once I get going I hope to ramp it up to five. In the meantime, check out the links to the left. If you consume them in just the right proportion (that's one part American Progress to two parts My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable) you can achieve cyberspacial enlightenment...while laughing at karate guys kicking the shit out of each other. By the way, it's not like I made up that formula -- ever heard of a little thing called "kung fu cinema?" Yes, you have. That's right.