Don’t breathe the pig brains, revisited

So, a couple of years ago I wrote about workers at a hog processing factory in Minnesota developing a dymyelinating nerve disorder that arose from their job of blowing the brains out of pig skulls with high pressure air hoses.  Fun!  Thus, I was particularly intrigued to read this recent MoJo story that follows up on these cases and goes inside the plant.  Not all that surprisingly, it looks like the problems came from increasingly unsafe and unsanitary (i.e., more profitable) working conditions:

The new disease theory made sense, except that, according to company officials, QPP had been blowing brains, off and on, for more than a decade. So why did workers fall ill now and not earlier? The answer is complex. First, in April 2006, the line speed increased from 1,300 pig heads moving down the conveyor belt each hour to 1,350. This speedup was slight, but it was just the latest in a series of gradual increases. “The line speed, the line speed,” Lachance told the AP, when recounting patient interviews. “That’s what we heard over and over again.” The line had been set at 900 heads per hour when the brain harvesting first began in 1996—meaning that the rate had increased a full 50 percent over the decade, whereas the number of workers had hardly risen. Garcia told me that the speed made it hard to keep up. Second, to match the pace, the company switched from a foot-operated trigger to an automatic system tripped by inserting the nozzle into the brain cavity, but sometimes the blower would misfire and spatter. Complaints about this had led to the installation of the plexiglass shield between the worker manning the brain machine and the rest of the head table. Third, the increased speed had caused pig heads to pile up at the opening in the shield. At some point in late 2006, the jammed skulls, pressed forward by the conveyor belt, had actually cracked the plastic, allowing more mist to drift over the head table.

Working at the “head table” in a hog-processing plant is bad enough.  Is it asking too much that we at least give the people a chance to do their jobs at a non-crazy rate of speed?  Apparently.

Michelle Bachmann and the politics of resentment

Matt Taibbi has an absolutely fabulous profile of Michelle Bachmann in Rolling Stone.  I’m not 100% convinced of Taibbi’s insight, but damn if it is not the most entertaining piece of political journalism I’ve read in a very long time.  For example:

Bachmann is a religious zealot whose brain is a raging electrical storm of divine visions and paranoid delusions. She believes that the Chinese are plotting to replace the dollar bill, that light bulbs are killing our dogs and cats, and that God personally chose her to become both an IRS attorney who would spend years hounding taxpayers and a raging anti-tax Tea Party crusader against big government. She kicked off her unofficial presidential campaign in New Hampshire, by mistakenly declaring it the birthplace of the American Revolution…

In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you’ve always got a puncher’s chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy — crazy in the sense that she’s living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she’s built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.

In her runs for Congress, Bachmann discovered — or perhaps it is more accurate to say we all discovered — that a total absence of legislative accomplishment and a complete inability to tell the truth or even to identify objective reality are no longer hindrances to higher office.

That’s good stuff!  He also does a nice job of explaining how she so aptly ties into the politics of resentment that seems to so motivate Tea Party types:

Snickering readers in New York or Los Angeles might be tempted by all of this to conclude that Bachmann is uniquely crazy. But in fact, such tales by Bachmann work precisely because there are a great many people in America just like Bachmann, people who believe that God tells them what condiments to put on their hamburgers, who can’t tell the difference between Soviet Communism and a Stafford loan, but can certainly tell the difference between being mocked and being taken seriously. When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC and blurting out that the moon is made of red communist cheese, these people don’t learn that she is wrong. What they learn is that you’re a dick, that they hate you more than ever, and that they’re even more determined now to support anyone who promises not to laugh at their own visions and fantasies.

“There’s always this mechanism available to Bachmann,” says Elwyn Tinklenberg, the Democrat she defeated in the congressional election that fall. “No matter what they say, there is this attitude that ‘these poor Christians are being picked on.'” Cecconi agrees, saying that Bachmann has discovered her blunders only serve to underscore her martyrdom. “I’ve seen her parlay that into ‘Look how downtrodden I am,'” she says. “It works for her.”

Lastly, I’ve gotten the sense that she’s way overblown her foster-mothering (which, whatever else there is to say about her is certainly laudable)– it’s not like she ever had 28 kids in the house at once.  Indeed, that very much is the case:

A great example is the issue of her “28 children.” Bachmann has five kids and, something even her most withering critic should acknowledge, has cared for 23 foster kids. But in 2008 — 10 years after any of her foster children had been in her home — Bachmann was talking as though she was still dashing home from Congress to cook for them. “Every weekend now when I go home, I will go to the grocery store, I’ll buy food for the family,” she said. “We have five kids and 23 foster kids that we raise. So I go to the grocery store and buy a lot of food.”

I think as much as anything with the coming GOP Primary fight, I anticipate Michelle Bachmann playing a large role for the entertainment value alone.

Why Miss USA does not make science teaching policy

Probably not worth watching the full 15 minutes, but there’s some good stuff here:

Real judicial restraint

I really like Yglesias’ take on yesterday’s ruling about the Affordable Care Act.  What matters is not so much, what was said, but who said it.  The judge who ruled that the ACA was quite obviously Constitutional not only was appointed by George W. Bush, but clerked for Scalia.

The best way to get at the significance of this is just that thus far we’ve seen moderate-and-progressive Democrat-appointed judges uphold the law and conservative Republican-appointed judges strike it down. Today’s decision from Judge Jeffrey Sutton breaks that pattern. Sutton is a Republican. And not some kind of weird holdover from Gerald Ford, not some mistake made by Ronald Reagan, not a compromise candidate offered by George H.W.Bush, but a former Scalia clerk who was nominated in 2001 by George W Bush. Senate Democrats made sure he didn’t come up for a vote at that time, but after the GOP win in the 2002 midterms he got his vote in 2003 and secured confirmation by a relative narrow 52-41 vote. Only two Democrats voted for him. He is, in other words, an orthodox conservative.

What I really liked about his decision is he actually showed what conservatives generally only give lip service to– genuine judicial restraint.  Summary quote via Ezra:

The opinion ends with a pointed reminder that the Supreme Court has traditionally “erred on the side of allowing the political branches to resolve the conflict,” and an assurance that “time assuredly will bring to light the policy strengths and weaknesses of using the individual mandate as part of this national legislation, allowing the peoples’ political representatives, rather than their judges, to have the primary say over its utility.”

Now the truth is, sometimes the people’s duly elected representatives are just flat-out wrong and something needs to be done about it (e.g., Civil Rights for both Blacks and women), but the general idea of judicial restraint is clearly a worthy one.  Unfortunately, the conservatives on the Supreme Court and rarely so restrained in their conservatism.

Sports and aging

Fascinating and terrific article in this past Sunday’s NYT magazine about sports and aging through the lens of Derek Jeter.  Even if you are only a casual sports fan (or have any interest in the physiology of athletic performance and aging) you should definitely give it a read. Really.   Lots of stuff, I really enjoyed learning about, especially how natural deterioration with age that we don’t notice at all with most activities, is crucially important to hitting a major-league-pitched baseball:

The pitcher-hitter confrontation is weighted against any hitter, but particularly older ones, because the batter’s success depends almost entirely on attributes that decline with age — eyesight, visual processing and fast-twitch muscle. Most big-league hitters tend to have good eyesight (they’re young), but even if they retain it into their 30s, it has probably already degraded in subtle ways. “There’s 20-20, and there’s amazing 20-20,” Don Teig, a Connecticut optometrist who works with professional athletes, told me. “You may still be able to read the line on the eye chart, but after your early 20s, you probably won’t see it with the same clarity and detail.”

According to Teig, the “visual-motor system,” as he called it — nerves and muscles that control the focusing of the lens, as well as the lens itself — becomes less supple with age. At the same time, an athlete Jeter’s age is going through changes in muscle composition that make him less explosive. Human muscle is made up of fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibers, which people have in different proportions. No matter what your starting mix is, you lose fast-twitch fibers before you notice a decline in overall muscle mass.

The article also looks at how steroids are uniquely well-suited to overcoming these aging effects and helps explain a lot of the amazing performances that baseball players in the 30’s had during the steroid era, when otherwise, players almost universally perform worse in their 30’s than their 20’s.  Good stuff.

Law school… apparently commentary is necessary

So, I noted the major imbalance between those who passed the bar and actual law jobs.  Apparently my readers think I’m not being fair to the law degree.  A few comments:

1) This is people who passed the bar.  Presumably, you don’t take the bar unless you actually want to practice as a lawyer.  Thus, even though a number of people put their law degree in other fields, i.e., running a non-profit that advocates for election reform, I suspect that most people taking the bar actually want to be a practicing attorney.  Thus, there really is a glut of lawyers in that sense.

2) When you are a Political Science professor/adviser you simply see way way too many students who think they should get a law degree because a) it’s an obvious path to riches; b) their parents think they should; c) they don’t know what else to do.  All to rarely do I see students who are actually interested in the law.  I think that’s kind of depressing.  Being an attorney can be a great and noble calling, or putting that law degree to work leading an advocacy organization, lobbying, etc., can also be terrific.  But, I sense that far too many people end up with a law degree as hopeless and adrift as many a person with a BA in Political Science.

3) Personally, I’m a big fan of learning the (social) scientific method and if the goal is just to learn higher-level analytic skills, I think many would be better off with a high quality MA (e.g., in Public Policy or Applied Economics).  Thus, for these reasons I believe too many people are, in fact, pursuing law degrees and I’m not going to back down from that.

United Corporations of America

Watched a fabulous HBO documentary, “Hot Coffee,” on Monday night.  If you don’t have HBO, get this in your Netflix queue.  Seriously.

It uses the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit (what you think you know is probably wrong) as a jumping off point to look at tort reform.  Basically, companies have decided they don’t want to be held accountable for gross negligence of malfeasance, so they have convinced must states to put caps on lawsuits while decrying the scourge of “frivolous lawsuits.”  Here’s the thing: frivolous lawsuits don’t get $2 million settlements; they get thrown out by a judge.  If you’re getting $2 million, chances are pretty good you deserved it (i.e. McDonald’s ignored over 700 complaints that their coffee was too hot and the victim had unbelievably nasty burns– they show them).  In Nebraska, if a doctor makes a mistake that means you’ll need $5 million in life-time medical expenses, tough luck.  $1.25 million cap no matter what.  Ain’t that nice for the insurance companies.  In a number of states, Appeals courts have declared these caps to be in violation of state Constitutions.  Next step?  Run incredibly well-funded and scurrilous campaigns to take advantage of the absurd fact that most states rely on elections for their judges.  And, when all else fails, have people sign contracts for binding arbitration in which case, you the company, choose the arbitrator and the victim losing all other legal recourse.  Oh, and the arbitrators basically always side with the company or they never work in arbitration again.  If you are Halliburton subsidiary KBR, you can just house a young women in a dormitory in Iraq with hundreds of men, ignore her complaints about harrassment, “lose” the rape kit, and then lock her up after she reports that she’s been drugged and brutally raped.  And she has no legal recourse beyond KBR’s arbitrator.

Welcome to the United Corporations of America.

Keynes and the Swedes

Yglesias nicely summarizes a Post article about economic lessons from Sweden’s economic recovery:

The ‘lessons’ basically all just amount to bog [sic-- I think] standard orthodox Keynesianism. Sweden’s right-wing government (which of course is wildly socialistic by American standards) went in to the recession with the budget in good shape, rather than the Bush approach of tax cut-induced structural deficits and expensive wars. Then when the recession hit, Sweden has massive automatic fiscal stabilizers, and tacked on some discretionary stimulus in the form of tax cuts and infrastructure projects…

Note that there’s no miracle here. It’s not like Sweden has shot forward into some bold new era of unknown prosperity. They were plugging along before the crisis, the crisis caused output and employment to plummet, but then what all the expansionary policy did was allow for a period of rapid growth so that Sweden can catch back up to the trend.

Meanwhile, the Republican party has convinced ourselves– despite virtually all evidence to the contrary– that we can cut ourselves (both spending and government regulation) back to robust growth.

53,508 > 26,239

First number is Americans who passed the bar in 2009.  Second number is the number of job openings for lawyers.  No further commentary necessary.  (Via Economix)

The legacy of Heller

When the Supreme Court overturned decades of precedent in DC v. Heller three years ago and re-defined the second amendment “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” as an individual right, it was not exactly clear what this would mean for lots of gun regulations as the Heller majority opinion focused very much on the rights of self defense, especially in one’s home.  I’ve not actually read much about how this decision has affected existing gun statutes, thus it was very interesting to see this brief piece in Mother Jones about gun control being alive and well:

Well, three years later, gun control is alive and well despite more than 400 legal challenges based on Helleraccording to a new report (PDF) by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The NRA as well as dozens of criminals have attempted to invoke Heller in court to challenge everything from bans on carrying concealed weapons in public to restrictions on gun ownership by people involved in domestic violence. Almost all of those challenges have failed, according to the Brady Center, including a second lawsuit filed by Dick Heller, the plaintiff in the original Supreme Court case, who sued again to try to invalidate restrictions on semi-automatic weapons in the nation’s capital.

The failed lawsuits have also produced some surprisingly strong language from judges who don’t want to use Heller to implement the NRA’s vision of “any gun, any person, anywhere.” For instance, in finding that there is no constitutional right to carry a gun in a car or national park, the 4th Circuit court of appeals, one of the most conservative courts in the country, declared: “This is serious business. We do not wish to be even minutely responsible for some unspeakably tragic act of mayhem because in the peace of our judicial chambers we miscalculated as to Second Amendment rights.”

Well, that’s pleasantly surprising.  I also love that apt description of the NRA’s position, “any gun, any person, anywhere” as it really gets to the gist of what they support and it is also a formulation I suspect is rejected by over 80% of the public.

Frum on gay marriage

Former Bush adviser David Frum needs to just give up being a conservative who’s basically become a liberal on domestic issues and just become a liberal who’s a warmonger on foreign policy.  Since I’m much more a domestic issues guy, I generally agree with what he has to say on matters of domestic politics.  On the issue of marriage, I think Frum is, in fact, right to be concerned about the breakdown of American families, as there are very serious social costs that go along with single-female headed households.  He quite rightly points out, though, that this has nothing to do with gay marriage.  Good stuff:

The short answer is that the case against same-sex marriage has been tested against reality. The case has not passed its test.

Since 1997, same-sex marriage has evolved from talk to fact.

If people like me had been right, we should have seen the American family become radically more unstable over the subsequent decade and a half.

Instead — while American family stability has continued to deteriorate — it has deteriorated much more slowly than it did in the 1970s and 1980s before same-sex marriage was ever seriously thought of.

By the numbers, in fact, the 2000s were the least bad decade for American family stability since the fabled 1950s. And when you take a closer look at the American family, the facts have become even tougher for the anti-gay marriage position.

Short version.  Marriages are more stable, but here’s my favorite part:

What’s new and different in the past 20 years is the collapse of the Hispanic immigrant family. First-generation Latino immigrants maintain traditional families: conservative values, low divorce rates, high fertility and — despite low incomes — mothers surprisingly often at home with the children.

But the second-generation Latino family looks very different. In the new country, old norms collapse. Nearly half of all children born to Hispanic mothers are now born out of wedlock.

Whatever is driving this negative trend, it seems more than implausible to connect it to same-sex marriage. How would it even work that a 15-year-old girl in Van Nuys, California, becomes more likely to have a baby because two men in Des Moines, Iowa, can marry?   [emphasis mine]

On the one hand, I think it is easy to overstate what it means when one–admittedly populous and important state– takes this action.  On the other, as I’ve said before, gay marriage opponents need to just see the writing on the wall and find something else to fight about.

Don’t blame Wal-Mart for society

Last week the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 (9-0 on part, but the important part was 5-4) against a class action suit against Wal-Mart by it’s female employees for pervasive sex discrimination.   This interesting Op-Ed in the Times basically paints Wal-Mart as an evil company, but it also strongly suggests to me that they are not guilty of systematic sex discrimination– at least not based on the statistics commonly cited.  Women are 70% of hourly workers, but only a small fraction of managers.  On the surface, it would suggest sex discrimination, but it’s not.  Here’s why:

There are tens of thousands of experienced Wal-Mart women who would like to be promoted to the first managerial rung, salaried assistant store manager. But Wal-Mart makes it impossible for many of them to take that post, because its ruthless management style structures the job itself as one that most women, and especially those with young children or a relative to care for, would find difficult to accept.

Why? Because, for all the change that has swept over the company, at the store level there is still a fair amount of the old communal sociability. Recognizing that workers steeped in that culture make poor candidates for assistant managers, who are the front lines in enforcing labor discipline, Wal-Mart insists that almost all workers promoted to the managerial ranks move to a new store, often hundreds of miles away.

For young men in a hurry, that’s an inconvenience; for middle-aged women caring for families, this corporate reassignment policy amounts to sex discrimination. True, Wal-Mart is hardly alone in demanding that rising managers sacrifice family life, but few companies make relocation such a fixed policy, and few have employment rolls even a third the size.

The obstacles to women’s advancement do not stop there. The workweek for salaried managers is around 50 hours or more, which can surge to 80 or 90 hours a week during holiday seasons. Not unexpectedly, some managers think women with family responsibilities would balk at such demands, and it is hardly to the discredit of thousands of Wal-Mart women that they may be right.

Obviously, I disagree with the conclusion of the article’s author.  It would be sex discrimination if Wal-mart’s policy was not based on something inherent to their business model.  But it is about their business model.  They want their new managers to be assigned far from their home stores and to work hellish hours.  There’s surely some business sense in that and it’s entirely within Wal-Mart’s rights to require that.  The fact that women are much less likely to accept a position in those circumstances– mostly due to social expectations about child-rearing, etc.,– is about society, not Wal-Mart.  It would seem absurd to me, liberalism run amok, in fact, to require Wal-mart to work its new managers less because that is disproportionately hard on women raising families.  The disproportional burden on women has to do with how our society shapes gender roles.  What needs to change is that we need men who are much more supportive with child-rearing and as spouses.   And, for the record, as the author argues there’s surely something to be said for unions to keep employers from abusing workers.  This Op-Ed suggests to me that Wal-mart is not a nice company, and one that I would never want myself of a loved one to work for, but not guilty of legal sex discrimination based upon these facts.

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