Are Unions Progressive?

Progressives like to stress their solidarity with unions. On important issues, unions don’t return the favor. If you look at self-interest, it’s obvious why.

Police Unions

The veil has been lifted on police unions and few progressives would call police unions progressive. Many are calling for them to be disbanded. Many other unions, however, don’t share this sentiment, and given how embedded police unions are within organized labor, it seems unlikely they will come around.

The Environment

Unions remain extremely ambivalent on the environment, even the Green New Deal, a policy specifically designed to appeal to them. In the broader scope, making renewables as cheap as possible — including reducing labor costs — will speed our transition to clean energy. Job creation is far from guaranteed. Even if the clean energy transition creates jobs, many incumbent unions in fossil fuel will cease to exist. These unions clearly know where their interests lie. Unfortunately, it is not with the environment.


Immigration is another area where conflicted interests are on display. The conflict is familiar: Should unions protect their own? Or should they fight for all workers?


Finally there is UBI, an idea which has gained traction among progressives (and espoused by Libertarians like Milton Friedman) as an important part of the social safety net. Unions? Not so much traction. The AFL-CIO has not endorsed it. This paper by PSI, a global union organization representing union views, roundly rejects UBI for (among other things) not strengthening union or worker bargaining power. Its true UBI won’t help the bargaining power of unions, but it can help the bargaining power of workers.

PSI also states UBI doesn’t improve job instability. That’s not its purpose. The point is to help workers through periods of disruption and give them the leeway to re-tool. This clearly helps the worker, but not unions. While PSI is only one organizations, we should reflect whether unions, whose livelihoods rely on jobs, have an interest in promoting a scheme which gives power to individual workers not unions, and loosens the coupling between income and jobs. I suspect the answer is no.

The Way Forward

Are unions bad? Like most human organizations — including but not limited to corporations, government bodies, charities, and religious organizations — unions are self-interested. Meaning rather than good or bad, they are human. I’m not saying we should vilify them — they shouldn’t. But we should realize that union interests are about protecting jobs, specifically incumbent jobs. Anything which threatens incumbent jobs, like new environmental technologies, or the importance of jobs in general, like UBI, is going to be a hard sell. We should try to find ways to get unions on board with goals like preventing climate change and basic income. But don’t defer. Insist on the goals.


The Hardest Part of Parenting

The second time I took my twins ice skating was when they were six. They had enjoyed it the previous year so I figured they’d be fine after a short refresher. Julius was fine. Isabela wasn’t.

For whatever reason, Isa just couldn’t find her balance. I told her to take it slow. I held onto her. We went along the barrier. Nothing was working. I reminded her how well she skated last time and now she’s a year older and more co-ordinated. Logic sometimes works on six-year olds. Not this time!

The more I talked, the more I got frustrated and she got frustrated. The year-older argument wasn’t working on her, but it was making the continued problem incomprehensible to me. Here was my child, for whom I’ll do anything, in distress, and somehow I can’t help her. Do I yell at her? Do I make her sit and watch Julius and I until her attitude improves?

I skated away. It felt irresponsible, yet I realized no good could come from staying. So I skated away and hoped for divine intervention. As it turned out, I didn’t need the supernatural, just some 8 year olds! In the short time it took me to do a lap, a group of kids saw Isa crying and huddled around her. By my second lap, they had taken her under their wing. By the third time, it was off to the races.

Lesson Learned

There is a lesson here for parents and all authority figures. It feels irresponsible stepping away from a problem you are keenly aware of. But sometimes that’s the best solution, and giving the community, whether it be a market, or concerned citizens — or a group of 8-years — the chance to solve the problem, will result in a better solution.

An Appeal to Voters

Before you go gaga for the loudest politician shouting from the rooftops how they’re going to DO SOMETHING, consider whether the government is in a position to help. Helping requires an intimate understanding of the problem and the ability to stay impartial in the face of very self-interested lobbies. Governments often aren’t in this position. In those case, often it’s better to let the populace figure things out. Most politicians aren’t inclined to make that choice because it limits their power, and especially when egged on. So next time, as a voter please consider whether they really need egging on…or egging off!


First Debate with Jerry Nadler

Outside Tom’s Restaurant

I was biking home along Riverside Drive after a great evening of campaigning on Morningside Heights, when who should I espy on the sidewalk? None other than my opponent Jerry Nadler!

He was with a nurse and his wife, who is ill, so I didn’t want to be intrusive, but as he was lagging behind, I went up to him, mentioned I was running for congress and offered him a flyer.

“What district?” he asked.

“This very one,” I replied.

“Oh, “, he said taking the flyer, “what do you think of the incumbent?”

“I like some of his position,” I responded, “but I think there are some new ideas (like basic income) he hasn’t kept up with. And then there is the tunnel…”

“What don’t you like about the tunnel?” he asked, inviting me to walk with him.

“I like the fact it would reduce truck congestion, but it will cost a lot of money and there’s a shipping law which, if we revoke, would be a much better solution.” I was of course referring to the Jones Act, which makes shipping between US ports prohibitively expensive. Repealing it would allow a large part of truck freight to go by cheaper and more environmentally-friendly ship instead.

I would hope Jerry, having served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, knew I was referring to the Jones Act, but he asked, “What law?”

“Its the law that gets the spotlight every time Puerto Rico has a destructive hurricane,” I responded. I thought this would connect the dots, but again he demurred, so I said the Jones Act.

“That’s a shipping law. This is land transport,” he responded, finally acknowledging familiarity with the Jones Act and ignoring that ships can substitute for trucks.

“Yes, but why do we send just 2% of our freight by ship, whereas Europe ships 40%? And why has freight on truck, rail, and by ship between US and Canada and Mexico grown, while US to US shipping has actually decline?” I persisted.

I could tell he was losing interest and a couple of constituents came up and gave him an exit. They asked if he was campaigning after which I interjected that I was. A giggle was had by all and I departed.

The Jones Act may seem like an obscure law, but it is the swamp writ large. It benefits a coterie of well-connected companies and unions who funnel oligopoly profits to the politicians who protect them. You cannot be on the side of light and support the Jones Act. Jerry wants to compound this error by foisting an (at least) $10 billion expense on New York which would rip up neighborhoods for years. It will never get built, but this type of politicking is why electeds like Jerry have to go.


What I want out of a Trillionaire

There is much hate for billionaires these days. There is a perception they are stealing from people. Or that they contribute nothing to society.

Is this actually the case?

Many answer by pointing to the tremendous number of jobs created by the companies who have also created billionaires. This is definitely a consideration. Then there is someone who always gets left out of these conversations: the consumer.

I like Amazon because I can find many goods there for cheaper than in the store. Like fluoride mouthwash, which is half of what is costs in the local CVS and I don’t have to walk there.

If Jeff Bezos gets a few pennies for every time I save $5, I’m fine with that.

The richest man in modern times was John D. Rockefeller. Like Jeff Bezos, he has many critics, but his effect on American society is unequivocal:

Rockefeller’s efforts did bring American consumers cheaper kerosene and other oil by-products. Before 1870, oil light was only for the wealthy, provided by expensive whale oil. During the next decade, kerosene became commonly available to the working and middle classes. (Wikipedia)

The wealth Rockefeller attained was a very small fraction of the tremendous wealth he created for society.

Many people DO get rich stealing from others, for example Bernie Madoff, but this is rare among the billionaires people complain about. Gates, Bezos, Jobs, Page/Brin have created things that everyday people use daily. If you really hate billionaires, try going a week without using something created or sold by a billionaire.

You can argue that we should continue to encourage the entrepreneurs who build companies like Apple, Microsoft or Amazon, but we shouldn’t allow as much of the spoils to go to the founders. An arguable point. If you could guarantee that the innovation and consumer benefit happens, I’d not necessarily be opposed. But the amounts in question are small compared to consumer benefit, so tread carefully.

My Kind of Trillionaire

Energy hasn’t been a great minter of billionaires recently, but if I were to hope for a trillionaire, it would be someone who discovered near costless clean energy — cold fusion, really efficient solar panels, technology X? — and had the managerial skill to spread it around the world. One trillion is a lot of money, but a fraction of what the world spends on energy consumption in a year. Not to mention the cost of energy pollution, or the benefit of the whole new industries, jobs and products which near costless energy would engender. If it led to these benefits, would having a trillionaire really be that terrible?


Hitting the Streets

Ross and I continue to hit the streets talking to constituents. This has been invaluable in helping me gauge what issues people find important.

We had our best night out last night. It started very badly! The first person who took a flyer told me I was wasting my time running against Jerry and angrily threw the flyer in the garbage! But the next person who stopped was much more sympathetic. I was an easy sell because she was anti-Nadler, but the message of simpler government also resonated.

The next person I spoke with wanted to talk about drug legalization. My approach is more staggered than he preferred, but he was pleased enough that he took some additional flyers from Ross to pass out in his building.

Next conversation was about getting things done in government. We commiserated about how the big parties love big bills which have some commonalities. Instead of passing the commonalities and arguing about the rest, they insist on all or nothing, with the result being nothing. We’re seeing this yet again with police reform and next stimulus bill.

It was a good night for cyclists, several of whom were locking their bikes to the scaffolding nearby. Being a fellow cyclist, I always try to approach them, mention my love for bike lanes and fire them with the vision of us all biking down to Washington when I get elected. These two loved the idea of ME riding down, but didn’t want to commit to joining.

My toughest sell was a woman who said she really liked Nadler. My pitch here was to say that yes Nadler has done some good things, but he isn’t perfect and being a 20-year incumbent without competition has left him detached from festering issues like housing and transit. That works with many, but her response was he is as perfect as she can imagine. Previously I would have given up, but I transitioned to the discussion I had had earlier about how the all or nothing approach the two parties take results in nothing. This got her. She took a flyer.

One lesson here is that even Nadler supporters realize something is amiss, and that the current way of doing things is not resulting in progress. It’s what led me to the theme of Simplify and we need to shout it from the rooftops.

Like what you’re hearing? Get involved!


Saturday Morning for Basic Income

On Saturday morning we took a trip over to the building of my opponent, incumbent Jerry Nadler, to take part in the Income Movement‘s push for basic income. Needless to say Jerry was not there. We spoke to a few people who liked Jerry, but also were interested in hearing about basic income.

As foot traffic was slow, we moved to Broadway and had some interesting conversations there. One with an ardent Jerry supporter, maybe even a staffer. What about basic income, or the Jones Act, or housing and safer streets? No we need to get rid of Trump! Well yes, but has Jerry done that?

I also talked to a Republican (a rarity on the Upper West Side) who didn’t basic income because she thinks income should be earned. I agree income should generally be earned. But many of the people earning their income in March are now are unable to do so through no fault of their own. Disruptions like this are why I support basic income – to get people through the rough patches.

My most interesting conversation was with a woman from the Bronx, a NYCHA resident who is absolutely sick of the neglect her complex is getting. I suggested an opinion which is not always popular: that the solution is not pouring more money down a broken system, but building an abundance of housing, so that rents go down and if your landlord is neglecting you, you give them the finger and move across the street. I was preaching to the choir. We had a good conversation.


What if the Yankees went #BuyAmerican

Joe Biden seems intent on continuing Donald Trump’s #MAGA campaign (oh but the phrase #BuyAmerican sounds so much nicer). Even Jacobin Magazine is calling him out (okay they’re calling Trump out but SSDP):

“Buy American” campaigns have historically done more to intensify xenophobia than improve workers’ conditions.

As the Who song Don’t Get Fooled At tolls in my head, I reflect on who the Yankees would lose if they did #BuyAmerican:

They’d lose half their potential starting rotation, their star closer, and more than a third of their starting lineup. Would that make the Yankees better?

Players we’d lose around the league include Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Altuve, and Shohei Ohtani.

The historical icons we’d have to erase is a long list but includes Mariano Rivera, Rod Carew, David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramizez, Ichiro, Juan Marichal…

Like baseball teams, American consumers are best off when they have the right to access the best the world has to offer at the best price. And remember that many of those consumers are firms — if they’re hampered by MAGABuyAmerican requirements, they lose competitiveness. Without those requirements are American firms going to wilt? Somehow I think Apple, Microsoft, Google and Tesla will be just fine.

Do MAGABuyAmerican restrictions save jobs? Unlikely. Look how the quintessential MBA reg, the Jones Act, has destroyed our shipping industry. And when the government is overpaying to meet some amorphous expensive local content requirement, it builds less. Builds less means you get less bridges and workers get less bridge building jobs. Lose Lose Lose.

Don’t get fooled again.


Stretch that Basic Income

Is a free-market economist supporting basic income a contradiction?  Hardly.  Milton Friedman supported it.  When you think about it, basic income is the perfect complement to the free-market economy, which creates social wealth and is eliminating poverty, but is also very disruptive.  Basic income as part of the free market should be as controversial as skydiving with a parachute. 

In 2020, can we afford a basic income which covers life’s basic necessities? (I’m not talking living large — you have to work for that.) I’m not sure, but I know how to get there: relentless cost-cutting to make the necessities of life as cheap as possible.

This is happening on the grand scale of things.  And I notice it more and more for everyday expenses. I pay $240/YEAR with Mint Mobile and get 8GB 4G data. Previously I paid $40/month with T-Mobile for 2GB data.  My new sub-$200 Xiaomi phone is much closer to top of the line than my previous $300 Motorola was.  Act used to sell me 3 bottles of fluoride mouthwash for over $20. Now I can get 4 for $16 from Amazon (Act has since lowered its price too). From Halloween costumes to cloud computing services and web hosting for my campaign, prices continue down.

One area where costs are cratering (and quality, measured as less pollution, is improving) is energy. The inexorable price declines in renewables could save the average American hundreds of dollars per month in lower heating, transport, and power costs. The cost of anything needing energy to produce (ie most everything) will also fall. And less pollution means less healthcare spending on things like asthma.

Unfortunately, one area where costs are not going down is most people’s biggest monthly expense: housing.  Why?  Because we of very restrictive policies on building housing, from zoning to preservation to NIMBY lawsuits, which limit the amount of housing we build and make building more expensive.  In New York City for instance, we’ve built less housing in each of the last five decades than during the Great Depression.

Covid has shown us how quickly rents can fall when supply exceeds demand.  Covid is a demand destruction story, but a supply boom has the same punchline.  In the 1920s when you had that huge NYC supply spike, prices fell so much that when rent control lapsed, nobody cared! 

Let’s get rid of these regulations, keep our markets free and competitive, and let relentless cost cutting stretch our incomes.  I look forward to the day when the average American can adequately pay for the basic necessities of life, including rent, with a basic income.  Sounds fantastic? In 1900, 40% of our population were farmers, meaning we needed 40% of our nation’s labor just to feed everyone.  Today we do it with less than 1%.  With ever accelerating technology, automation and productivity gains, there’s no reason we can’t pummel our other everyday expenses, so everyone knows they are covered even during the rough patches.


Qualified Immunity and Software Development

What does qualified immunity have to do with software development?  Not much.  But a couple of bills to end qualified immunity illustrate different approaches to getting things done that a software developer would have opinions on.

What is qualified immunity? It’s a doctrine that shields government officials from misconduct charges.  Like many government regulations, its has mutated well beyond its original intent. Now it shields police and other government officials from theft, violence, wanton destruction and even murder.

There are currently at least two bills to end qualified immunity in Congress. Libertarian Justin Amash has sponsored one with Democrat Ayanna Pressley.  It quickly garnered widespread  support from progressive Democrats including Reps. Ocasio-Cortez and Omar and even  Republican Tom McClintock.  The bill is four pages long. It deals with qualified immunity and only qualified immunity.

Not to be outdone, the House democratic old guard launched their own bill, the Justice in Policing Act.  This bill deals with at least 10 different issues and has 57 different subsections. 

Software Developer Take

What is a software developer to make of these proposals?

Among the principles which make software development successful are incremental development, granularity and loose coupling, and quick feedback loops.  These suggest that, barring compelling dependencies, it’s better to deal with a set of problems as small independent pieces.

Do the provisions of the Justice in Policing Act depend on one another?  Provisions include qualified immunity, banning chokeholds, establishing a national police misconduct registry, prohibitions on racial profiling, body camera regulations, and others.  Would ending qualified immunity help even if passed without the other provisions.  Yes, and I think we can say the same for the other provisions. 

But not everyone thinks so, and since the provisions are coupled together in one bill, there is no chance the bill will pass. Meaning we are currently unlikely to get any federal police reform whatsoever.

Incidentally because of Republican opposition, the qualified immunity bill is also unlikely to pass. But some provisions such as the police misconduct registry have bipartisan support and could pass standalone.  Getting these provisions into law would give us feedback and make clearer what needs to be done next.  It would in no way prevent later reconsideration of contentious issues like qualified immunity.  It would be MUCH preferable to getting nothing done.

But I guess bills like the Justice in Policing Act are how Congress works.  Seems that introducing bills with no chance of passage, but which set you apart from the other side, is much more important than getting things done — which has the additional risk of upsetting constituencies.  That’s how Congress works, but not how Congress should work.  Might I make the humble suggestion we need more software developers in Congress?


A big dollop of government, or small

The divide between big and small government supporters is often portrayed as those on the left want more government and those on the right want less (or at least they used to claim this).

Is this true though?  Who wants more or less of the following?

  • Military
  • Foreign wars
  • Corporate handouts
  • Fossil fuel subsidies
  • Farm subsidies
  • Prisons and criminalization of victimless non-crimes
  • Licensing regulations

I would think most on the left would join traditional economic conservatives in wanting LESS government spending and involvement in those activities (as do I).  Which is why I urge those on the left to go after this spending FIRST, before clamoring for more taxation.  We may need more taxation, but if it means we just continue spending on things that are not only wasteful, but actually harmful, what’s the point?

I have a list of other government regulations which help no one but the special interests and politicians who feed off of them.  Whatever your political leanings, I think you’ll agree they don’t serve the people and need to go. I hope you’ll join me in my campaign to Simplify.