Student debt and tuition hikes: destroying the lives of America's children


In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi takes a long, in-depth look at the scandal of student loans and tuition hikes, a two-headed parasite sucking America's working class and middle class dry as they plunge their children into a lifetime of ballooning debt in the vain hope of a better, college-educated future. The feds keep backing student loans, and the states keep cutting university funding, so the difference is made up by cranking up tuition and shifting the burden to future grads. Meanwhile, the laws that prohibit discharging student debt in bankruptcy, combined with ballooning default penalties (your $30K debt can rocket to $120K if you have a heart-attack and are bedridden and can't make payments) and the most ruthless, unsupervised, criminal collection agencies means that tens of millions of Americans are trapped in a nightmare that never ends -- student debt being the only debt that can be taken out of your Social Security check. Matt Taibbi is a national treasure, and Rolling Stone does us all a service by keeping him working.

If this piece moves you and you want to learn more, Don't miss "Generation of Debt," an important pamphlet on the subject from UC students.

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Why terrorist bosses are micro-managing dicks

Jacob N. Shapiro, author of The Terrorist's Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations , sets out his thesis about the micromanagement style of terrorist leaders in a fascinating piece in Foreign Affairs. It comes down to this: people willing to join terrorist groups are, by definition, undisciplined, passionate, and unbalanced, so you have to watch them closely and coordinate their campaigns. From the IRA to al Qaeda, successful terrorist leaders end up keeping fine-grained records of who's getting paid, what they're planning, and how they're spending. This means that in many cases, the capture of terrorist leaders leads to the unraveling of their organizations, but the alternative is apparently even worse -- a chaotic series of overlapping, self-defeating attacks and out-of-control spending.

Recall that Moktar Belmoktar was hounded out of the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in part over his sloppy expense reporting, and that he went on to found the group that took more than 800 hostages in a gas plant in Algeria. This kind of budget-niggling is apparently common: Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al Qaeda since 2011, was reportedly furious that Yemeni affiliates had bought a new fax machine, because the old one worked just fine.

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Propublica crowdfunds an intern to study interns

ProPublica raised $23,000 on Kickstarter to hire an intern whose job is to investigate unpaid interns. The successful applicant, Casey McDermott, sounds great -- a recent grad with a double major in Journalism and Sociology who edited Penn State's newspaper during the Sandusky scandal, and oversaw the paper's mobile app rollout. She says that her proximity to the issue -- having lots of friends who are interning, being an intern herself -- gives her great perspective.

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WinCo: worker-owned grocery chain that pays benefits, pensions, living wages -- and has lower prices than WalMart


WinCo is a midwestern chain of worker-owned stores that consistently underprice WalMart, while still paying a living wage to their staff and decent prices to their suppliers. Their secret appears to be a smaller selection of goods, sourced directly from factories -- but surely the fact that they're not extracting billions in profits for a family of rapacious plutocrats also helps keep prices low.

Burt Flickinger III, a reputable grocery store analyst, called them "Walmart's worst nightmare." They provide health benefits to all employees who work 24 hours per week or more, as well as pensions. They are expanding into Texas, and Time's Brad Tuttle predicts that they'll double in size every five to seven years.

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On the Ropes, the long-awaited sequel to Kings in Disguise


In 1988, Kitchen Sink Press broke ground in the comics world with its publication of Kings in Disguise, a six-issue comic series by Jim Vance and Dan Burr (later collected in a graphic novel with an intro by Alan Moore). Kings was one of the first modern American comics to tackle straight historical subjects, and it succeeded brilliantly. It told the Depression-era tale of Freddie Bloch, a Jewish kid from California who ends up on the road and on the bum, who becomes involved in a bloody labor uprising in Detroit.

Earlier this year, the sequel, On the Ropes was published. To call this book "long-awaited" is to commit violent understatement. Kings had attracted high praise by the likes of Art Speigelman, Will Eisner, Harvey Kutzman, and Alan Moore, and had swept the awards when it was published. It took twenty years for the sequel to emerge, and you know what? It was worth the wait.

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Just another day in the Anonymous mines


Guy Fawkes mask factory, photographer unknown (please comment if you can identify her or him).

Update: A hint from the comments led me to the source of the photo: an article from Extra Online by Fabrício Provenzano. The photo is by Gabriel de Paiva -- click through to the article to see the uncropped, full-size version.

(Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

Behind every great man is a woman doing his transcriptions and data analysis

"Read a piece of scholarship from the mid-twentieth century, and you are likely reading the work of a male scholar and his wife," writes Ronit Y. Stahl at the Nursing Clio blog. More importantly, the contributions of those wives are seldom mentioned, despite the fact that they often ran the lab and the statistical analyses that produced the great works of research credited to their husbands. Stahl offers an interesting look at history — and how women are still going uncredited for their contributions to men's work, today.

Hellishly complex, gorgeous assemblage about endless work


"Quaestus" is the latest assemblage from sculptor Jud Turner. He sez,

“Quaestus” is a latin word meaning “gain or profit extracted from work”, a concept darkly represented in my latest sculpture: 5 tiny employees are trapped in an endless task inside a gigantic machine, toiling to keep up with the conveyor belts they are walking on. Each work station has a 2 digit counter which seems to be keeping some kind of score. If the employees don't keep up with the machine, they will fall off the ends of their conveyor belts and be fed to the machine.. The employees actually power this machine, but are unaware and unable to stop moving forward for fear of falling behind.

It's an amazing piece. Click through for hi-rez and details.

"Quaestus"

The ship graveyard salvage yard

"This is the biggest ship graveyard in the world - where huge tankers and cruise liners are scrapped on the shorefront by teams of labourers using little more than hand tools. The job is considered one of the most dangerous in the world with workers earning a pittance of just £2.25 a day. But amazingly there is no shortage of willing recruits." [Daniel Miller / Daily Mail]

Forcing your employees to do dumb Scientology exercises creates a "hostile work environment"

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a lawsuit against Dr. Dennis Nobbe's Dynamic Medical Services, Inc, where employees were made to engage in bizarre Scientology rituals as a condition of employment. The EEOC says that this violated employees' freedom of religion, and they're suing Dr Nobbe to prove it. This is the downside of the Church of Scientology's dodge of getting itself certified as a "religion," a practice that otherwise grants it enormous privileges, including preferential tax-treatment. But once your woo-woo exercises are officially "religious rituals," then forcing someone to engage in them violates freedom of religion rules:

According to the EEOC's suit, the company required Norma Rodriguez, Maykel Ruz, Rommy Sanchez, Yanileydis Capote and other employees to spend at least half their work days in courses that involved Scientology religious practices, such as screaming at ashtrays or staring at someone for eight hours without moving. The company also instructed employees to attend courses at the Church of Scientology. Additionally, the company required Sanchez to undergo an "audit" by connecting herself to an "E-meter," which Scientologists believe is a religious artifact, and required her to undergo "purification" treatment at the Church of Scientology. According to the EEOC's suit, employees repeatedly asked not to attend the courses but were told it was a requirement of the job. In the cases of Rodriguez and Sanchez, when they refused to participate in Scientology religious practices and/or did not conform to Scientology religious beliefs, they were terminated.

Requiring employees to conform to religious practices and beliefs espoused by the employer, creating a hostile work environment, and failing to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs of an employee all violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

EEOC Sues Dynamic Medical Services for Religious Discrimination (via Lowering the Bar)

This American Life's report on kids and disability claims riddled with factual errors


A couple weeks ago, I listened to Unfit for Work: The startling rise of disability in America an interesting program on the supposed rise in disability claims produced by Planet Money and aired on This American Life (where I heard it). The program raised some interesting points about the inaccessibility of certain kinds of less-physical jobs to large numbers of people, but it also aired a lot of supposed facts about the way that parents and teachers conspired to create and perpetuate disability classifications for kids.

Many of the claims in the report are debatable, and many, many more and simply not true. A Media Matters report called This American Life Features Error-Riddled Story On Disability And Children systematically debunks many of the claims in the story, which NPR has modified slightly since posting online (though NPR and Ira Glass continue to stand behind the story).

FACT: Medical Evidence From Qualified Professionals Is Required To Determine Eligibility

Government Accountability Office: "Examiners Rely On A Combination Of Key Medical And Nonmedical Information Sources." A Government Accountability Office report found that disability determination services (DDS) examiners determined a child's medical eligibility for benefits based on a combination of school records and medical records, and that if medical records in particular were not available, they were able to order consultative exams to review medical evidence:

DDS examiners rely on a combination of key medical and nonmedical information sources -- such as medical records, effects of prescribed medications, school records, and teacher and parent assessments -- in determining a child's medical eligibility for benefits. Several DDS officials we interviewed said that when making a determination, they consider the totality of information related to the child's impairments, rather than one piece of information in isolation. Based on our case file review, we estimate that examiners generally cited four to five information sources as support for their decisions in fiscal year 2010 for the three most prevalent mental impairments.

[...]

If such evidence is not available or is inconclusive, DDS examiners may purchase a consultative exam to provide additional medical evidence and help them establish the severity of a child's impairment. [Government Accountability Office, 6/26/12]

The Media Matters report cites high-quality sources like the GAO throughout, and makes an excellent case for a general retraction of this report by NPR. I hope that they, and Glass, will reconsider their endorsement of this report.

This American Life Features Error-Riddled Story On Disability And Children (via Naked Capitalism)

Hobbit producers to New Zealand: if you tell people how we got our sweet tax/labor deal, no one will want to make movies in your country

The production company that made the Hobbit convinced the government of New Zealand to suspend its labor laws and tax laws. Now the NZ Labour Party is asking for the details of the deal that the company struck with the government to be disclosed, and the production company is fighting it, saying that if the government tells the voters of NZ what sort of sweetheart deal they were handed, no one will want to make movies in New Zealand any more.

Radio New Zealand applied for the documents in November 2010 under the Official Information Act but ministers refused on the grounds they were commercially sensitive.

The broadcaster appealed the decision and on January 31, Ombudsman David McGee ruled 18 documents, including emails between Hobbit director Sir Peter Jackson and government officials, must be released.

In his 29-page ruling McGee said the information in the documents didn't pose serious commercial risks.

But New Line warned this would affect future relations, objecting in a statement included in the ruling.

"If the government is not willing to adequately protect this sensitive information from disclosure, this will operate as a major disincentive to motion picture studios as well as local and foreign talent - to utilise New Zealand as a location for future productions."

Threats fly over Hobbit document release [NZ Herald/Cassandra Mason]

Pret fires longstanding employee who attempted to unionise, asked for the London Living Wage for all employees

UK chain Pret a Manger has a cuddly reputation for being more than a mere fast-food joint, despite the capital it took on from McDonald's. But when a longstanding Pret employee called Andrej tried to organise a union in his shop with the reasonable goal of having all Pret employees paid the London Living Wage of £8.55, they fired him. It's just part of a dirty tricks campaign run by Pret against its 91% immigrant workforce when they have the audacity to organise. I'm done eating at Pret until they reinstate Andrej and promise to pay their staff the London Living Wage.

Pret A Manger Staff Union

Why (some) manufacturing is returning to the USA

General Electric has moved some of its key appliance-manufacturing work back to the USA, re-opening "Appliance Park," a megafactory in Louisville, KY. The company is finding it cheaper to do some manufacturing in the US relative to China, thanks to spiking oil costs, plummeting natural gas prices in the US, rising Chinese wages, falling US wages, and, most of all, the efficiencies that arise from locating workers next to managers and designers.

The GeoSpring suffered from an advanced-technology version of “IKEA Syndrome.” It was so hard to assemble that no one in the big room wanted to make it. Instead they redesigned it. The team eliminated 1 out of every 5 parts. It cut the cost of the materials by 25 percent. It eliminated the tangle of tubing that couldn’t be easily welded. By considering the workers who would have to put the water heater together—in fact, by having those workers right at the table, looking at the design as it was drawn—the team cut the work hours necessary to assemble the water heater from 10 hours in China to two hours in Louisville.

In the end, says Nolan, not one part was the same.

So a funny thing happened to the GeoSpring on the way from the cheap Chinese factory to the expensive Kentucky factory: The material cost went down. The labor required to make it went down. The quality went up. Even the energy efficiency went up.

GE wasn’t just able to hold the retail sticker to the “China price.” It beat that price by nearly 20 percent. The China-made GeoSpring retailed for $1,599. The Louisville-made GeoSpring retails for $1,299.

The Insourcing Boom [The Atlantic/Charles Fishman]

Staffers for millionaire/wrestling magnate/failed GOP Senate candidate say they were stiffed, got bad checks and condoms: "you're screwed"


Linda McMahon (a wrestling magnate who built up the WWE with her husband Vince McMahon) is a failed Republican Senate candidate in Connecticut with a reported net worth of $500M, who has spent a reported $100M on a pair of failed Senate bids. She has also reportedly stiffed her staffers, who claim that they were sent bounced checks from the campaign, and, when they complained, were sent more rubber checks, along with a condom and a message saying "you're screwed." From CBS:

Campaign staffer Twaine Don Gomes was reportedly among the first to make the matter of the bad checks public knowledge through local news media – an action which allegedly inspired the campaign to send a second check with something extra.

“Basically he handed me a check with a condom in it, told me I was screwed,” Gomes told WTNH. “That’s the rudest gesture you can ever do to a person, it’s like spitting in a person’s face.”

Checks Issued By McMahon Campaign Reportedly Bounce