Wednesday, December 25, 2019

A Christmas Appeal: Do Not Forget Harvard's Neediest!

By Larry Lowell
The College Correspondent

The normally authoritative New York Times today enjoins its readers not to forget the Neediest, so in that spirit, let's consider the plight of Harvard Yard's neediest, the graduate students of the School of Arts of Sciences (or, as we call it, Harvard).

Since early December, they have been on strike, having tried to negotiate something resembling fair compensation for their services with the University and gotten nowhere.  So at this holiday season, they're subsisting on, to use the technical term employed by the Department of Economics, bupkis.

University Provost Alan Garber '76 calls
the negotiations complex and challenging
What's going on?  First, a little background for the preterite who didn't attend The College.  Starry-eyed freshman  arriving in the Yard soon learn that for $64 large a year, they aren't actually taught by the glorious Harvard faculty, which was recruited in large part with the promise that they would not have go anywhere nearer a grubby undergraduate than weekly performances to a 700-strong grinder peanut gallery bent over their laptops in Science Center B.

The miserable business of teaching these obnoxious young over-achievers falls to the graduate students in exchange for tuition, room and board (assuming they are actually willing to dine with the bright young collegians), and a modest stipend.

How modest?  If you are among the best and brightest meaning, oh, let's say the top 5% of aspiring young academics, you can earn the princely sum of up to $45,000 a year, according to The Boston Globe.   In Cambridge this income would easily pay for a nice apartment, if your idea of a nice apartment is a cardboard box conveniently located over a steam vent in Holyoke Center.

Some of the grad students were brilliant and kind, others were brilliant and mean, still others weren't brilliant at all but showed a talent for sucking up to senior faculty that served them well in their later careers as war criminals, but at least they were there and they would try to explain wtf Hegel was talking about.

The University is sitting on an endowment that, although its managers have underperformed a three basis point index fund for years, aggregates over $40,900,000,000, so you'd think the powers that be at Harvard might be able to throw a few more pennies in the direction of the poor souls who do the actual work (which work includes providing invaluable “assistance” to the research projects and thus the glory of the tenured faculty).

Although the grad students' union and the University have been negotiating for over a year, Harvard is considering asking for federal mediation because, according to University Provost Alan Garber "76, the issues are  “complex” and “challenging.”

Who is Alan Garber '76 and why does he find a straightforward labor dispute so difficult?  Let's check out his Harvard bio to see if we can find any clues:

Provost Alan M. Garber serves as Harvard University’s chief academic officer.  He is also the Mallinckrodt Professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School, a Professor of Economics in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Professor of Public Policy in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and Professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management in the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.  An economist and physician, he studies methods for improving health care productivity and health care financing.. . .

Dr. Garber is an Elected Member of the Association of American Physicians, the National Academy of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  He is also an Elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American College of Physicians and the Royal College of Physicians. A summa cum laude graduate of Harvard College, Dr. Garber received a PhD in Economics from Harvard and an MD with research honors from Stanford. 

It's amazing this guy can negotiate a glazed cruller and large regular extra sugar at Dunkin' Donuts under the Square, much less a labor agreement.  No wonder he's begging for a federal mediator.  Perhaps the problem is that he, like the rest of the FAS faculty, is lost without their grad student helpers.

Indeed, the Globe's summary of the economic issues will demonstrate their staggering complexity:
Harvard has proposed an 8.2 percent pay increase over three years for a majority of the graduate students in the union. But union members said that would end up being less than the 3 percent annual raise many of them have received in recent years.
The union has countered with a proposal for a 5 percent raise in the first year of the contract and a 3.5 percent increase in subsequent years, according to union representatives.
Now, we didn't,  to understate matters considerably, graduate summa in Economics, but the University's contract offer of 8.2% spread over three years, or an annual increase of um, give us a second, 2.7% was in fact less than the 3% increase Harvard had been willing to offer in the absence of union representation.  Although we too are baffled by complexity,  we interpret the University's offer of salary increases below what they were willing to pay in the absence of a union as simply an effort to demonstrate to the grad students the futility of seeking to improve their lot by unionizing.

But that's not all that's flummoxing the Mallinkrodt Professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School and Economics in the Harvard School of Arts and Sciences.  There's also the issue of addressing issues of sexual harassment, which seems to be on the minds of some graduate students.

Again, you don't have to possess a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard and an M.D. from Stanford to wonder why the grad students are so concerned about this.  We remember grad students and junior faculty worrying about this revolting practice as far back as 1975.  If the University has failed to resolve this problem despite being aware of it for over 40 years, it must be complex and challenging indeed.

Grad students are always whining about money
The grad students seek third-party arbitration of sexual harassment complaints.  Such arbitration is common in union contracts.  If you don't believe me, ask former Harvard President Derek Bok, or just read Part V of his Labor Law casebook.

So why is this so complex and challenging?  Again according to the Globe:  “But Harvard officials have said that would circumvent the federal Title IX sexual harassment complaint process, creating an inequitable system for students who are in the bargaining unit and those outside of it.”

We seem to recall that, notwithstanding the no doubt compelling complexities and challenges of the university context, every anti-union employer in the world has stonewalled union demands on the same ground: giving union workers a better deal than their non-union counterparts would be unfair to the unorganized rabble.  Actually, we can make this simple:  giving unionized workers a better deal would demonstrate the advantages of union representation, which might in turn entice others to organize.

To make the matter simpler still, it's just union-busting.

Speaking of matters that are challenging but not complex, who's paying the price for the endless impasse, besides the starving grad students?  If you said the tenured professoriat, then brother (and sister) you didn't go to Harvard:
Some end-of-semester study sessions for undergraduate students have been canceled, and in certain cases professors have cut back on the length of final papers or have opted to give multiple-choice exams, to reduce their grading workload while their graduate assistants are on strike.
You don't have to be the Provost of Harvard University to understand that the tenured faculty, rather than picking up the slack, is simply offering even less to the undergraduates than before.

If you guessed it's the undergrads that are getting screwed, then you're Ivy League material!  In addition to the loss of sections and class time, the undergrads get to confront the many unpleasantnesses of crossing picket lines just to get the education their parents paid for.  And grad students perform many other services, such as recommendations, post-grad career guidance, and making sure the little darlings don't throw themselves off the bridge because they got a C+ on a problem set.

Maybe the problem is that Harvard's negotiators are too brilliant for their own good.  We remember that the bright young things who graduated summa tended to make everything more complex than they were in real life.  The reason that girl from Fieldston ignored Alan and instead hooked up with the Egyptian waiter at the Café Algiers wasn't really that complicated: he was gorgeous and you were not.

And labor disputes are resolved every day by people who don't hold endowed chairs at Harvard.  Just offer them 4.5% and everyone at Harvard can get back to what they do best: self-promotion.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Spy Review of Unreadable Books, Just in Time for Christmas

Editors' Note:  Not what you were expecting?  The explanation is simple: we don't have anything to say about impeachment that Adam Schiff hasn't already said better than we could, so why not change the subject and in the best tradition of the Spy's commitment to service journalism, solve your most pressing holiday shopping query: what do you get for the person you hate but have to give a present to?  You know, your boss, your client, your neighbor whose lawnmower you keep borrowing, your landlord, and so many others.  It has to be something that no one would enjoy, value, or use but not so obviously contemptuous as to get you into hot water.  Here are two perfect solutions: books so terrible that you don't have to open their cover to figure out the drivel within (that's what “unreadable” means), each supposedly written by a loathsome plutocrat with pretensions to the kind of fawning respectability that only a white man's billions can buy.

What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence
by Stephen Schwarzman (at left)
Avid/Simon & Schuster
$30, marked down to $17.99

Here's one of America's leading shameless finagling plutocrats who now feels compelled to share the secret of his entirely unmerited success with you, the wage slaves who made it all possible, thanks to your utter inattention to the subversion of America's tax and regulatory structure while you were staring at your f***in' phones.

He made billions running his private equity, real estate and god knows what else empire without in fact making a single contribution to the overall economy or the welfare of anyone other than himself and his circle of fellow rapacious raiders.

We assume he won't be telling us the thrilling tale of how he made and trousered a pantload on the collapse of the housing market in 2008 and the ensuing human misery.  Nor do we expect to hear much on the clever tax strategems that enabled his firm to avoid paying corporate income tax for years until the Republican Congress he bought and paid for made it financially advantageous to do otherwise.

Look for a number of tedious anecdotes about business deals that demonstrate his genius not to mention plenty of fawning from the politicians and do-gooders he has shtupped with a few pennies from his bulging pockets.  Each will come packaged with a moral that will explain to those who toil for miserable wages by taking care of the old or teaching the young why they should be grateful that for example this tone-deaf tycoon was willing to drop a wad of cash on his old high school – on the condition that the town rename the school for him.

PS The School Board had the nerve to tell him to stick his moneybags where the moon don't shine, whereupon he gave them the dough in exchange for naming a classroom after him.

It's a perfect gift for the rich person you hate because it reminds them they don't have nearly the pelf this predator has, which is why he's got a book with his name on it and they don't.


The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians  
by David M. Rubenstein (at right) and Carla Hayden
Simon & Schuster (again) [Purely a coincidence that S&S is in turn controlled by brain-dead plutocrat Sumner Redstone? – Book Review Ed.]
$30, already marked down to $24.85

This year, Santa's bag groans with not one unreadable tome “authored” by a shameless billionaire finagler, but two. Those not entranced by Schwarzman's stories of the wonders of me can instead delve into another private equity tycoon's literary, uh, effort.  In Rubinstein's case this involves basking in the reflected glory of real historians, proving once again that every academic has their price and to a titan of wealth like Rubinstein, that price is pocket change.

In other words (namely Roger Debris's), it's David Rubinstein presents . . . history!

The cover will tell you what kind of history matters to self-important billionaires like Rubinstein, who, like Schwarzman, has contributed exactly nothing to economic growth or the general welfare.  The essays by names like Robert Caro and Doris Kearns Goodwin are mostly about, wait for it, great white men.  (To be fair, there's one about Martin Luther King, Jr.)

This used to be called the “great man” theory of history, which attributes primary significance to the decisions and whims of powerful white men, like Rubinstein.  There are of course a few defects in this theory of history, all of which we see reflected in the current crisis of Western Civilization.

You won't find any real focus on racism and misogyny as bits of history that might be worth considering.  In particular, you won't see much effort to discern the bright red line of anti-black bigotry that dates at least to 1619 and continues to the most recent rally of President Pussy Ass Bitch.  How can you understand America without coming to terms with its racist past?

That's easy: you can't.  But you can sit down for chummy seminars and dinners with reputable historians and hope than by association some of their credibility rubs off on you and your ill-gotten gains.  Also, wear sincere glasses.  That will really help.

This is the perfect gift for your frenemies with intellectual pretensions who will have to pretend to like this book.  It's worth it just so you can ask them in February what they thought of David McCullough's no-doubt-worthy take on John Adams.  Bonus points to you if they say they enjoyed the part about how he was both a revolutionary and a master brewer.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Two elections, one lesson, guv'nor?

By Isabel Archer
London Correspondent 
with A.J. Liebling
Meta-Content Generator

You may have heard that on December 12, the United Kingdom held an election and the Conservative Party won. It didn't get a majority of the votes, but there as here the election system contrives to give the party that got less than half the vote a working majority of the government.

In the Queen's English, this is a “mandate.” (Source: BBC)
It seems tolerably clear that the election was decided on two issues peculiar to the UK: (1) the continuing battle over whether to remain a member of the European Union, a powerful transnational authority with no analogue in the United States and (2) the personal unpopularity of the Labour candidate, who propounded clear old-fashioned Socialist solutions for every issue, with the exception of the one that mattered (Brexit), where he offered a straddle whilst holding a pail of mush.

In the end, pro-Brexit parties got 45.6% of the popular vote; anti-Brexit parties got 50.2%.  Given the first-past-the-post system used to fill 650 small district seats, the result was a thumping majority for the Conservatives and the UK will finally leave the European Union.

The ambiguity of these results as you might imagine hasn't stopped the usual gang of white male gasbags on the New York Times Op-Ed page and elsewhere from declaring that this outcome boded ill for, you guessed it, the Democrats.  (This represents a break from the Democrats-in-Disarray trope, which will resume next week.)

Here's one Roger Cohen, who having spent as much time in London as I have, purports to be an authority on all matters Anglo-American:
The clear rejection of Labour’s big-government socialism also looks ominous for Democrats who believe the party can lurch left and win. The British working class did not buy nationalized railways, electricity distribution and water utilities when they could stick it to some faceless bureaucrat in Brussels and — in that phrase as immortal as it is meaningless — take back their country.
If the British wouldn't buy nationalized water utilities why would anyone think American voters would?  By the way, when you turn on the taps in the New York Times building on Eighth Avenue, who supplies the water?  Amazon?  Last we looked it was the City of New York Board of Water Supply, and the City of New York had not yet been sold off to the highest bidder, possibly because Michael Bloomberg has decided to blow his fortune elsewhere.

I suppose it would be rubbing it in to ask who owns and operates the railways that take the legions of scribblers at the Times back home to their palatial estates in Tarrytown (Metro-North), Wantagh (LIRR), and Short Hills (NJ Transit).  Mr. Cohen might also enjoy reading each issue of Britain's wicked Private Eye to learn just how well the complex British public/private railway system is working (short version: it sucks).

And just on the facing page who should crawl out but Bretbug, gloating about the “ominous portent” for Democrats?  We don't consume his entirely predictable porridge any more but today, let's guess what's on his mind: rubbishing the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which according to the Bugmeister is indistinguishable from the disgraced Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn:
His [Corbyn's] campaign promised free college, dramatic increases in health spending, a hike in the minimum wage, massive infrastructure spending, new taxes on the rich, and a “new green deal.”
Sound familiar? It’s the Warren-Sanders manifesto, only with £ rather than $ signs attached.
(They use a different currency in the UK which you, poor slob that you are, were unaware of until Bret reminded you.) 

Democrats should not seek to spend more money on health care because Corbyn supported it?  We sent our intern Louise to find out more about health care spending in the UK and the US and she came back almost 0.005 seconds later with the following: 

Spending on health care as % of GDP 2019

US              16.9%
UK               9.8%

Source: OECD.

So if Jeremy Corbyn proposed increasing UK health care spending by 50%, he'd still be proposing to spend less than the US?  Wow pretty radical. 

Also can you tell us where Bretbug learned that Warren and Sanders said they proposed to increase health care spending as a percentage of GDP?  They have proposed to finance health care from taxes rather than premiums and holding heart-rending online charity fundraisers, but they claim that total spending would fall.  And why wouldn't it if you take all the profiting grifters out of the system?

Speaking of health care, Bretbug seemed to think there were miles of blue water or black ink or pink gin between the Warren/Sanders approach to health care and the UK Conservative Party's.  

Were there?

Again, after milliseconds of digging, Louise found the Conservative Party Manifesto, and here's what it had to say about their plans for the NHS, the single-payer single-provider health care system in the UK:

More money for a single-payer tax-funded system?  So the difference between the winning Conservative health care platform and the Warren/Sanders approach is what, Bret?  We'll take our answer offline. 

In fact, touching the NHS has been regarded as the one third rail of British politics (maybe one of two, if you include the British breakfast or three if you add the right to puke in the streets after closing time), because all these new and old Tory voters know that single-payer health care works.

Oh and what about Bretbug's sneer at fighting climate change?  Surely the Tories up with that will not put.  From the same f***in' Conservative Manifesto:

Now we hold no brief for the Tories, who are a loathsome lot of condescending sex offenders using racism and white privilege to hide their pro-rich policies.  In that they can be compared to the Trumpublicans.

But to conclude that the UK election spells doom for progressive efforts to fight climate change and provide health care for all don't seem to accord with those pesky facts, which means that facile comparisons will continue to be emitted by every white male gasbag on every newspaper and television news gabfest.

To be fair to Roger Cohen, he didn't pull his entire column out of his blowhole.  He sought the counsel of thoughtful seasoned political commentators with vast experience in the differing political worlds of the US and the UK.

Nahhh, we're just sh***** you:
“Brexit and Trump were inextricably linked in 2016, and they are inextricably linked today,” Steve Bannon told me. “Johnson foreshadows a big Trump win.” 
When you're reduced to quoting a homeless crack-ravaged hatemonger who will speak for pancakes, you're really down to the dregs of the Scotch bottle.  As far as we can tell the only inextricable linkage that the Democrats have to contend with in 2020 is the one between middle-aged white male columnists and absolute twaddle.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Republican Party and civil rights: any update since 1924?

By Scott V. Sandford 
Justice Editor with 
Ethan Mendelowitz-Bradford, Social Media Aggregator Intern or whatever 

Those of you who enjoy wasting time on Twistagram or Snapbook have undoubtedly come across a species of reactionary agitprop the point of which is the Republican Party is the real friend of black Americans because – wait for it – the Democratic Party was in the past the party most associated with Southern racism and resistance to civil rights.

Thus there are endless bits about how most pre-Civil War slaveholders were Democrats, how Lincoln (a Republican!) freed the slaves (who knew?), and how past Democratic conventions were known as “Klanbakes.” We will admit that Abraham Lincoln was in fact a Republican and he did free the slaves, albeit in phases.

As for the rest of it, while we may not be the sharpest blade in the social media drawer, even we know that providing examples of this nonsense only gives it wider currency. It also provides free advertising for thirsty wingnuts, graduates of Dartmouth, and other dubious sorts, but here's one example of their debunking at the hands of real historians like Kevin Kruse and journalists like Jennifer Mendelsohn:

In any event, the racist past of the Democratic Party at least prior to 1960 is well known and as with so much else in American history, something to be ashamed of. And we would be the last person to deny the importance of understanding and learning from history. But the history of civil rights in America didn’t end in 1924. It goes on right up to and including last week.

What happened last week? We’ll get to that in 400 words or so, but to understand the significance of last week’s developments, we need to examine a little – history. [You’re starting to sound like Rachel Maddow here – Ed.].

From about 1876 until 1965, Southern states, admittedly run by Democrats, instituted a vast array of laws and other measures designed to deny the freed black slaves the voting rights that had been granted to them by the 15th Amendment and enforced by several divisions of the U.S. Army.

When the 1876 election was awarded to Rutherford B. Hayes – a Republican by the way – by Congress (the quid), he withdrew federal troops from the South (the quo). Jim Crow laws and terror followed, and soon from Virginia to Texas almost no people of color were able to vote, at least if they wanted to survive the walk home from the polling station.

By the sixties, black America had had enough and, despite calls for “unity” and “civility,” demanded their civil rights. They were met with bullets, police dogs, and truncheons, wielded in the name of law and order.  But, after Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964 against a Republican opponent who opposed civil rights legislation, the Democratic-dominated Congress passed the Civil Right Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The latter statute contained a number of effective and enforced provisions to prohibit state and local laws that made it more difficult for black people to vote or even to dilute their influence, by for example, changing district to at-large elections. The VRA included a provision requiring certain jurisdictions which suffered from low minority voting rates to seek pre-clearance from the Justice Department for changes to voting laws to ensure that Jim Crow would not rise again.

The Republican Supreme Court Justice who gutted
the Voting Rights Act, shown here with the
Leverett House Pre-Law Club, 1975
From 1965 to 2013, it worked pretty much as intended and was routinely re-authorized by huge bipartisan majorities. In 2013, in a decision written by Chief Justice John “the Bongmaster” Roberts ‘76, that pre-clearance provision was held somehow unconstitutional:

 [T]he Supreme Court ruled that the coverage formula in Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act — which determines which jurisdictions are covered by Section 5 — is unconstitutional because it is based on an old formula. As a practical matter this means that Section 5 is inoperable until Congress enacts a new coverage formula, which the decision invited Congress to do. 

Since that time, Republicans (remember,the party of civil rights, according to their trolls) have blocked any effort to revise the coverage formula and revive the Voting Rights Act.

Which brings us to last week.  [Finally – Ed.]   Last Friday, the House of Representatives voted to fix and reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. According to The New York Times,

The House voted on Friday to reinstate federal oversight of state election law, moving to bolster protections against racial discrimination enshrined in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the landmark civil rights statute whose central provision was struck down by the Supreme Court. 

54 years later, John Lewis was wielding the hammer
Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, who was beaten in 1965 while demonstrating for voting rights in Alabama, banged the gavel to herald approval of the measure, to applause from his colleagues on the House floor. It passed by a vote of 228 to 187 nearly along party lines, with all but one Republican opposed. The bill has little chance of becoming law given opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate and by President Trump, whose aides issued a veto threat against it this week. 

All but one Republican opposed?

It turns out that if you stop learning history past the year 1924 you miss quite a bit in terms of where the two parties stand when it comes to advancing civil rights and equal opportunity.

We would go so far as to say that if 99% of House Republicans oppose the Voting Rights Act, if the Republican Senate won’t even bring up the bill for a vote, and if the Republican Pussy-Ass Grifter of a President would veto it, it seems reasonably clear that it is the Republican Party that opposes civil rights today.  This strikes us as a more compelling matter for voters of color (and wypipo too) to consider before voting in 2020 than the admittedly disgraceful history of white racist Southern Democrats before they embraced the Republican Party in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Indeed, the suspicious among us might think that the whole social media trolling about Democratic slaveholders in 1856 and Klansmen in 1922 might just be an effort to distract us from recognizing that the Republican Party since 1964 has transformed itself into the party of white racism and privilege.

You might respond that the Republican social media trolls don’t sound like they have the wit to contemplate such a massive disinformation campaign, but we would note that the leader of these trolls went to Dartmouth, so you’d certainly have to regard him as, at the very least, a half-wit.