January 18, 2008

Wildcats in China

It seems like every week a news story will surface about how horrifying labor abuses in China are proceeding apace. After awhile, it all starts to blend together, since nothing ever changes. But this recent booklet from the Albert Shanker Institute, documenting the growing outburst of wildcat strikes and demonstrations around the country, is worth highlighting. The vignettes are compiled from interviews that labor activist Han Dongfang has done with Chinese workers over the past decade, through his radio show broadcast from Hong Kong. Han, whose personal story is riveting in its own right, gave a talk in D.C. this week where he estimated that strikes, many involving thousands workers, now happen daily in China. Is that a big deal? It might be.

None of these demonstrations involve China's "official" union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (which usually just orders the rabble to get back to work). In his talk, Han mentioned something I'd never heard: Although the ACFTU claims to represent 90 percent of Chinese workers, most of said "representation" consists of sending out a fax to newly formed companies, getting back a fax with some names scribbled on it, and putting the form in a filing cabinet. Indeed, the fact that many NGOs are now providing legal aid to workers and doing things the ACFTU should be doing means that state union is increasingly irrelevant.

Later, I asked Han to what extent the government tolerated these NGOs, and his reply was surprising: Labor violations have gotten so bad over the last two decades (in the Pearl River Delta manufacturing area, 40,000 fingers are broken or lost each year), that even many officials can no longer stomach it. "I don't believe people can be completely heartless," Han insisted. So the government is starting to sanction NGOs that assist workers, so long as they don't challenge the ruling party. Incidentally, Christina Larson of The Washington Monthly reported a similar dynamic vis-a-vis green activists in China—environmental degradation has gotten so severe, and Beijing so unable to rein in pollution in the provinces, that civil society groups have been given a freer hand.

Han was particularly eloquent about connecting the lack of bargaining power among Chinese workers with many of the country's other problems. Teachers, for example, have very few rights—especially in rural areas. So, not only are low pay and coerced contracts a recurring phenomenon, but, because teachers lack any sort of organized strength, the education budget, which is usually handled at the township level, frequently gets raided to pay for other priorities—a local industrial park, for instance. As a result, parents can't pay for their children's education, which in turn leads to child labor, and so on.

What was fascinating was how Han alternated between justified pessimism and sustained optimism. He was ambivalent about China's new labor contract law coming into effect this year—will it even be enforced?—and doubted that the Olympics would call attention to worker abuses. But he then observed that "labor rights violations have gone beyond anyone's wildest imagination" and that officials really are getting worried. Moreover, massive worker demonstrations simply weren't happening as little as a decade ago. One of the biggest questions, Han noted, is whether anyone can channel those wildcat strikes into "something systematic."
-- Brad Plumer 1:18 PM || ||

January 14, 2008

Power Mining

Last month, James Verini had a great piece in Vanity Fair about Aristotle, Inc., one of the premier political data-mining firms in the country. (As Richard Viguerie tells it, "It's not just that their list [containing detailed information on 175 million voters] is good—they're considered to have the only list."):
"What we do is help a campaign run more and more like an effective business," [Aristotle CEO John Aristotle] Phillips says as he types on his laptop, bringing up on a large projection screen the profile of an actual voter in Atlanta, whom we'll call John Smith.

Phillips hits a button and up pops Smith's basic information—address, phone number, etc. A click of the mouse brings more personal information—his photograph, his age and occupation, the names of his adult family members, his party affiliation and approximate income. Another click summons the exact amounts of political donations he has made. Phillips clicks once more, and a kind of molecular model appears on-screen, showing every political donor and potentially influential person Smith is linked to, in Atlanta and beyond, with dozens of interlocking nodes. Each node leads to the profile of another voter, about whom Aristotle knows just as much or more.
Back in 1999, Dana Milbank wrote a TNR piece on the dawn of the "customized campaign," describing Aristotle as a tiny startup working with AOL to "create ads that appear only on the screens of those computer users the campaigns wish to reach." Since then, the firm's matured considerably: playing a starring role in Bush's '04 win (allowing the campaign, for instance, march into union neighborhoods in Ohio and locate voters upset about gay marriage); tilting the 2001 mayoral race in Los Angeles for James Hahn at the last minute (really); and helping Viktor Yuschenko uncover election fraud in Ukraine's 2004 election.

Sadly, we never learn which candidates in '08 have the best micro-targeting shops (most of Aristotle's clients are Republicans, though I believe that many top Dems now use Catalist). We do know, however, that techniques have advanced far beyond what happened in the last election: "Obama and other candidates now have the ability to custom-tailor cable-television ads down to the Zip Code in Iowa, or send a canvasser to a voter's doorstep armed with a computer-generated picture of that person's political personality." Freaky. Of course, those all-seeing databases do raise concerns about privacy and "political redlining"—campaigns are better able to ignore voters who either don't donate or vote in dependable blocs.

One interesting bit comes when Phillips explains why he's so secretive and rarely blabs to the press: "It doesn't benefit our clients for them to see a newspaper story about how great our technology is. Every campaign that we work with wants you to believe that it's shoe leather that wins the race, or great issues, or the love of the people, but the fact of the matter is a lot of it is the nitty-gritty organization."
-- Brad Plumer 10:55 PM || ||
How Green Is John McCain, Really?

Okay, start with an easier question: Is McCain sincere about tackling global warming? As the story goes, he was first quizzed on the subject eight years ago in New Hampshire, and, after pleading ignorance on the matter, studied up and became a convert. He's reportedly close to Fred Krupp, the head of Environmental Defense, who has a history of reaching out to Republicans with green leanings (and, occasionally, trusting them long after they've ceased to deserve it—as with George W. Bush).

Plus, I'll admit, going into Michigan of all places and talking up fuel-efficiency, as McCain is now doing, takes some chutzpah, even if he is just doing it to woo independents. (Observe, however, that McCain has been notably silent on the fight over new coal plants in Michigan, which speaks poorly for his green bona fides.) He's also taking his lumps from Mitt Romney and National Review on the issue. So, yeah, I do think he's fairly sincere. One might even wonder if a McCain presidency, combined with a Democratic Congress, offers the best chance for a bipartisan-yet-still-half-wdecent emissions-reduction bill to get enacted and stay enacted. (Think Schwarzenegger and health care in California.) I'm skeptical, but it's not an outlandish argument.

That said, McCain's policy proposals are... far weaker than anything we've seen from the Democratic front-runners. Whereas the Dems all put out cap-and-trade plans with emission targets in line with what climate scientists are urging, McCain's website is vague on details. The cap-and-trade legislation he sponsored with Joe Lieberman in 2003 was a nice (if modest) gesture for its time, but, this year, McCain has opposed its successor, the watered-down Lieberman-Warner bill in the Senate, because it doesn't lavish enough money on the nuclear industry. We can debate the merits of nuclear handouts all day, but it's a lame reason to oppose the biggest cap-and-trade bill going, and is enough to make one question how "sincere" McCain will be when it actually matters. (Much like how, in 2005, he talked a big game on preserving habeas corpus but later folded like a lawn chair.)

So, substantively, there's less than meets the eye. One thing I do like about McCain, though, is the way he frames the issue—and here Dems could take lessons. Barack Obama, for instance, loves to emphasize the "sacrifice" required to avert global warming, which seems Carter-esque in its tone-deafness. By contrast, here's McCain's preferred delivery:
Suppose that climate change is not real, and all we do adopt green technologies, which our economy and our technology is perfectly capable of. Then all we've done is given our kids a cleaner world. But suppose they are wrong. Suppose they are wrong, and climate change is real, and we've done nothing. What kind of a planet are we going to pass on to the next generation of Americans? It's real. We've got to address it. We can do it with technology, with cap-and- trade, with capitalist and free enterprise motivation. And I'm confident that we can pass on to our children and grandchildren a cleaner, better world.
That sort of optimism would make Nordhaus and Shellenberger proud. Now, if McCain snags the nomination, he'd likely neutralize the Democrats' traditional advantage on the environment, as Bush did in 2000 by pretending he cared. But if there are still concrete differences between McCain and his opponent, then, as Dave Roberts points out, Al Gore could potentially step in by endorsing the Democratic nominee—unless, of course, McCain puts out an equally effective climate change proposal, etc. Gore's stature here is presumably big enough that he could unblur whatever differences exist.
-- Brad Plumer 2:11 PM || ||

January 12, 2008

New York Changing

This is a few years old, but nifty as hell: Photographer Douglas Levere went around and re-shot many of Berenice Abbott's famous photos of New York from the 1930s. You can see some of the photos side by side here. Sometimes only a little's changed: a facade here, an elevated track there. Sometimes entire buildings have sprouted up. My favorite is the bakery on Bleecker Street that's still around today—even the way the bread's arranged in the window is the same as it was in 1937, but the buildings seen in the window reflection seem to have changed completely.

Ah, and there's a newer exhibit called Paris Changing, too. Different photographers, same concept. Now someone just has to do one for Washington, D.C.
-- Brad Plumer 8:52 PM || ||
Downward or Upward?

Last December, in Gall v. United States, the Supreme Court gave lower courts a bit more discretion to depart from federal sentencing guidelines if the circumstances warrant it. The case itself involved a judge who let a convicted ecstasy dealer off lightly with probation, rather than the recommended 30 months in jail, because the deal had occurred a long time ago, and the man had cleaned up since then. SCOTUS backed the judge, and the whole thing sounded like a good, liberal outcome. At least if you think sentencing has gotten waaaaay out of hand.

Lately, though, Doug Berman's been piling up evidence that, in the post-Gall world, many judges may depart from the guidelines by handing out higher sentences. That doesn't seem too surprising: Academics may agree that federal sentencing guidelines are absurdly high, but a great number of judges don't think so (most federal judges, after all, are Republicans). Indeed, some reformers originally backed the 1980s guidelines in order to rein in excessively punitive judges (although the guidelines themselves turned out to be extremely harsh, too). Odds are, given more leeway, judges will be somewhat more lenient on crack defendants, who get an especially raw deal, but tougher on many others.

Basically, the only way we're ever going to get lower sentences (and fix our over-swollen prisons) is if Congress steps in. Speaking of which, here's an interesting story. Jeff Sessions of Alabama is one of those former "tough on crime" Republicans who's supposedly seen the light on America's prison crisis, and went so far as to co-sponsor the Second Chance Act, a modest but relatively liberal bill giving grants to states to fund prisoner re-entry programs. But now that the legislation's all ready for passage—heck, even Bush supports it—Sessions is putting a hold on it. What gives?

Sessions' stated reason—that he's worried about funding duplicate programs in a few cases—seems flimsy. One theory: he's worried about re-election this fall, and Alabama voters don't like this soft-on-crime business. A more, er, cynical theory: Republicans are planning to attack Obama for being a squishy liberal on crime should he get the nomination, and don't want to give him cover by passing this bill. Of course, maybe I'm just a paranoid nutter, and Sessions will lift his hold tomorrow. Also, as Jeralyn Merritt's round-up shows, Obama's not actually that squishy on criminal-justice issues, though he's probably about as liberal as one could hope any mainstream Democrat to be on this front.
-- Brad Plumer 8:33 PM || ||

January 11, 2008

Bright Lights, Rural Village

There are about 1.6 billion people around the world who don't have electricity. Not only is that a catastrophe in its own right, but environmentalists worried about global warming might fairly wonder what'll happen if and when all those people do get power. An explosion in fossil-fuel consumption, over and beyond what we're already seeing? Well, maybe not. This new report from the World Bank suggests that, for many of those 1.6 billion, renewable energy may actually be the most cost-effective option for generating electricity. Really.

The logic goes like this: It's true, without a carbon tax, building a coal plant is often the "cheapest" option for large-scale power needs ("cheap," that is, if you ignore the pollution and climate-change costs). But that's not true for rural folks who live off the grid (about 500 million people) or in smaller, isolated villages (a good chunk of the rest). For these communities, wind, biomass, geothermal, hydro, and sometimes even solar are more economical, even before you start thinking about green concerns.

That makes sense. For a tiny village in the middle of nowhere that requires a 500kw load, building a monster coal plant—or installing hundreds of miles worth of transmission lines to the nearest urban area—won't necessarily be the easiest way to bring in electricity. There's also the added bonus that state-owned utilities in many developing nations can be unreliable, and micro-generation is a nice way to not have to rely (too heavily) on a corrupt central government.

Back in 2001, Nick Thompson and Ricardo Bayon wrote a wonderful Washington Monthly piece about how renewable energy often makes more sense for many developing countries than doing what the now-rich countries all did and burn loads of fossil fuels. (They used the example of solar power in rural villages in Ghana.) In some cases, it'd be easier for renewable companies to make inroads in the developing world, since it's not like there's a ton of pre-existing fossil-fuel infrastructure in place. But anyway, it's nice to see the World Bank putting forward a similar argument, only with more charts and graphs.
-- Brad Plumer 7:08 PM || ||
A Little Busting Goes a Long Way

Back in December, Harold Meyerson wrote about how labor unions are increasingly going global and making alliances abroad. So the CWA will link arms with Germany's Ver.di to organize the German-owned T-Mobile here in the United States. But labor leaders aren't the only folks who can travel abroad: "U.S.-based transnationals [are trying] to bring their union-busting practices to their far-flung activities. At the moment... anti-union U.S. consultants are advising Chinese companies how to get around a mild Chinese labor-rights law that takes effect January 1."

Well, I was curious to learn more, and recently came across a paper by John Logan, a professor at the London School of Economics, on a related subject: As it turns out, not only are U.S. companies bringing anti-labor tactics overseas, but more and more foreign-based firms are calling the Americans for help in fending off their own organizing drives. Along with fighter jets and scrap metal, union-busting knowhow is becoming a major U.S. export—especially to the UK, Canada, and Ireland.

Take The Burke Group, a "union avoidance" firm that's been helping companies like GE, Coca Cola, MCI, and Kmart thwart organizing drives since the early 1980s (the firm claims a 96 percent success rate). In the past five years, TBG has been waging counter-organizing campaigns for clients in Britain, too: T-Mobile, Virgin Atlantic, Honeywell, FlyBe, Kettle Chips. During organizing drives, TBG will help convince workers that unionizing means wage cuts and job loss and, if necessary, will push employers to intimidate or fire organizers. Since British unions have had little experience with this sort of opposition, they've been getting crushed. Utterly crushed:
Following a five-year campaign to organize employees at General Electric Caledonian, Britain's largest private-sector union, Amicus, lost decisively a representation ballot in June 2002. Unaware that that Burke consultants were running the company's campaign, one bewildered union official remarked after the crushing defeat: "We have been blown out of the water… The result is a huge shock. We can’t explain why our arguments for union recognition have been rejected…It is quite obvious that those who said they would vote for us have changed their mind. God knows why."

The GE campaign is not an isolated case. The British union running the organizing drive at Amazon, the Graphical Print and Media Union, reported that the company mounted the most aggressive anti-union campaign it had ever encountered and accused management of sacking union activists and committing several other illegal practices. The union has temporarily abandoned its flagship organizing drive among distribution employees at Amazon.
It's an ugly scene. And notice, it took at least few decades for union-busting to become a billion-dollar industry and permanent fixture on the American labor landscape. Britain's getting there a lot quicker.
-- Brad Plumer 2:52 PM || ||