Police Can’t but Boss Can Invade Your Privacy

Welcome to you oligarchy!This last week was pretty good regarding the Supreme Court. As I reported on Wednesday, the Court found that the police could not just search the phones of people they arrest. They have to have a search warrant. But the same day, Corey Robin noted that, Supreme Court rules: the Government Can’t Search Your Cellphone Without a Warrant; the Boss Can. That’s right. Four years ago, the Supreme Court unanimously found that an employer could search your cell phone.

Now the case at hand is not all that clear. It involved a police officer who was using an employer provided phone. But as Robin noted, that really wasn’t part of the decision. If it had been a personal phone, the reasoning would have been the same. The Court didn’t say, “Because the phone belonged to the force…” What’s more, the case itself stinks. The officer was given some device that I’ll call a phone that was able to send text messages. He and all the other officers were told that they shouldn’t expect their messages to be private, but that it was okay to use them for personal matters. What’s more, if they went over the allowed number of texts, they had to pay for them.

Well, this officer went over them month after month and his supervisor got tired of collecting the money. So he got all the records, saw that the vast majority of them were personal and disciplined the officer. The real problem I see here is that all the power is given to the employer. The employer never set a level of “personal use” that was unacceptable. The one thing that was required (paying for the overages), the officer did. The Supreme Court said that it was fine to do this if it was for a “legitimate work-related purpose.” I just don’t see this as legitimate.

The supervisor could have changed the rules. He could have said that anyone who went over their allotted number of texts would have them checked to see what they were. That would have given the officer time to change his behavior. But instead, the supervisor was simply annoyed and so pried into the personal matters of the officer. A supervisor being annoyed at a subordinate does not sound like a “legitimate work-related purpose” to me. But to the power elites at the Supreme Court, I guess it does.

The wider point of all this is that oppression by the government is not the only kind of oppression there is. When the United States was formed, that was much more true. If you didn’t like your work options, you could, “Go west, young man!” But now workers don’t really have choices. Pretty much any reasonably sized company infringes on employees in much the same way. Now it happens before you even get hired. Companies want to do background checks, credit checks, Twitter and Facebook checks! That is almost all ridiculous and of little value to the employer.

Yet it seems that the Supreme Court really is stuck in the past. It’s nice that this week they updated the idea of your home to include your cell phone when it comes to government intervention. But more and more it is your employer and not the government that is the greatest threat to your liberty and privacy.

Fighting Global Warming Helps the Economy

Ross DouthatYou all know how much we love reform conservatives around here, right? Or at least, you know how much we would love them if they existed. One of the people who claims to be for reforming the Republican Party but always comes up with a reason why actually, the Republican Party is just fine, is Ross Douthat. In Ryan Cooper’s excellent rundown, Reformish Conservatives, he does not even score as high as David Frum, whose idea of reform is just two things: don’t be openly racist and don’t be against even the smallest of gun control measures. Douthat seems to think he is defending the Pope. But not Pope Francis — Pope Pius XII.

Anyway, earlier this month, Matt Yglesias wrote, The Deafening Silence of “Reform Conservatives” on Climate Change. So after thinking about it for three weeks, Ross Douthat shoots back, “But, but, but…” Well, actually he wrote, Reform Conservatism and Climate Change. It’s total apologia. Basically, he says that he can’t be bothered to talk about climate change because the economy is bad.

Matt YglesiasOkay. Let me say something nice about Douthat. He’s actually not that bad on economic issues. He’s a total social conservative, and in a man as young as he is, I think this really raises questions about someone screwing him up somewhere. But he isn’t one of the usual “screw the poor, love the rich” conservatives. If he really worked at by toning down the social conservatism a bit and revving up the economic liberalism, he’d be a populist. But I’m done now. That’s the last nice thing I’ll say about Ross Douthat.

Just because he doesn’t hate the poor, doesn’t mean he understands economics. Paul Krugman noted this, Depression Economics and Climate Policy. He noted what I talk about around here a great deal. (In fairness: I probably learned it from Krugman in the first place.) When the economy is depressed and there are lots of unused (primarily human) resources laying around, it does not hurt the economy to increase regulations that force industry to invest in clean technology. In fact, it is exactly the opposite. Doing this will actually create jobs.

Paul KrugmanYou may wonder, how can this be? How can there be this win-win situation where we get a cleaner and safer environment while also creating jobs? Simple: not everyone wins. All those rich corporations that are sitting on piles of money that they don’t know what to do with? They are going to see those piles of money shrink. And that is why the Republicans are against doing anything about global warming or for that matter anything at all. They believe it is immoral to hurt the profits of any company by even the smallest amount. On the other hand, they don’t see it as immoral at all to keep many millions of people out of work unnecessarily. That’s the “free” marker!

The question you might be wondering is that now that I (with a tiny assist from Paul Krugman) have pointed out the error in Ross Douthat’s thinking, will he decide that he must start pushing the Republican Party to do something about climate change? Of course not. We will be back to what Yglesias was talking about in the first place. There will be a “deafening silence” from Douthat. As I said, his article was just an apologia — just some fancy footwork to justify his lack of engagement on the issue. He doesn’t want to turn into Josh Barro!

And ultimately, that’s the issue that faces all conservatives who want to make the Republican Party more reasonable. If they start making sense — thinking rationally, accepting facts, striving for consistency — they start to sound like liberals. And then how can they reform the Republican Party? It’s a Catch-22. In order to reform the Republican Party, they must stay crazy and stupid; but if they stay crazy and stupid, they can’t reform the Republican Party. Oh well.

Eric Cantor on Eric Cantor

Eric CantorFrom obstructing a jobs bill to put Americans back to work in 2011, to derailing gun control measures any time they reached my desk, I feel blessed to have had such an incredible run of preventing productive policies, and even a few pieces of landmark legislation, from ever passing… Of course, I’m disappointed because I thought I had many more years of impeding accomplishments ahead of me, and I’ll be the first to admit that I never quite managed to stall environmental policies as much as I would have liked. But at the end of the day, I’m very proud of how I helped Congress accomplish so little during my time in office.

—Satire of Eric Cantor
Resigning House Leader Cantor Reflects On All The Accomplishments He Thwarted


Although satire, this is very close to the rhetoric of the Republican Party. Remember when John Boehner said, “We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal”? Of course, they didn’t succeed at that either, but you get the idea. What The Onion wrote was funny, but I doubt if Eric Cantor would disagree with it.

Two Problems With Hierarchical Class

Mark SanfordIn New York Magazine Jim Rutenberg has written a profile of disgraced and redemed Representative Mark Sanford, Path of Most Resistance. I’m sure you remember Sanford, who while governor of South Carolina disappeared. It was claimed that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail but was really just having an ex-marital affair with an Argentinian woman. He claimed she was his soul mate, but after five years of trying, they have not been able to leverage that into a stable relationship or, you know, marriage. I don’t think I’m out on a limb in noting that the relationship is probably more about flesh than soul. But whatever.

Ed Kilgore explained what the story of Mark Sanford means to him and I think he has it exactly right:

The title of the piece—”Mark Sanford’s Path of Most Resistance”—is supposed, I guess, to connote a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress, if not actual martyrdom, for the former conservative titan. But to me it comes across as a tale as old as the South and as new as its current GOP hegemons: a tale of the power of privilege to salve all wounds and forgive all sins, for those in the right social station with the right ideology.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I wrote about the film Brave yesterday, Brave Is Kind of a Mess but Enjoyable. I bristle at the very idea of class and I think to a lot of people, that comes off as naive. After all, a society is always going to have some people who are smarter, some people who are stronger, some people who are better at macrame, and so on. Isn’t that going to lead to some kind of social order? Well, sure. But there are two important points, one more theoretical and one intensely practical that stares us all in the face every day.

The theoretical issue is that we can have a social order that is not hierarchical. And in fact, our capitalist system is such that certain kinds of social goods (like commodity distribution and golfing ability) are vastly over compensated—both monetarily and socially. I see society needing a whole bunch of people doing a whole bunch of things. We make a big deal out of great football players, but boiler engineers are far more important to the comfort and safety of the people in our society. I don’t envision an economically flat society, but what we have is a society that is ridiculously warped. And that brings us to the practical issue.

Mark Sanford is not an exceptional man. But he was born into the right social class with the right race in the right place at the right time. Sanford’s father was a cardiologist. As Wikipedia notes, “Before his senior year of high school, Sanford moved with his family from Fort Lauderdale to the 3,000-acre Coosaw Plantation near Beaufort, South Carolina.” And then, Sanford married well. His ex-wife’s great-grandfather was co-founding the Skil Corporation when black people of that time and place were living under a terrorist regime. So Mark Sanford’s rise to power was entirely due to the luck of his birth. And then, when he fell in a way that showed that he wasn’t even good at the one thing he was known for (politics), he was given a second chance. And he didn’t need a second chance. Financially, he had long been set for life.

Compare the life of Mark Sanford to that of the vast majority of Americans—to say nothing of the people of the world. Even on its own terms, does our hierarchical class system work? As I discussed yesterday about torture, it doesn’t work because the opportunity costs are so much higher than value we get from the system. But as Frederick Douglass wrote over a hundred years ago, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” The system we have works very well for Mark Sanford and the rest of the power elite. And things will only change if we demand it.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence DunbarOn this day in 1872, the writer Paul Laurence Dunbar was born. I am fascinated with the stories of African Americans after the Civil War. They were a particularly hungry people, socially and culturally—especially concerned about making better lives for their children. Both Dunbar’s parents had been slaves in Kentucky. But his father escaped during the war and then fought in it for the Union. Both moved to Ohio where Paul Laurence was born. To give you some idea of the hopes and dreams that parents had, his mother learned to read for the very purpose of teaching him to read. I know parents of all times care deeply about their children, but that strikes me as notably heroic.

Of course, despite the wishes for and work on behalf of their children, the white population of the United States was extremely stingy in the chances it provided to them. Dunbar was lucky, in terms of his talent, personality, and environment. He was, for example, the only African American student at his high school. I think that situation worked for Dunbar: one black student is interesting, not frightening to the white majority. And that’s especially true when you are pious and generally brilliant.

Dunbar started publishing while still in high school. And at the age of 18, “Dunbar wrote and edited The Tattler, Dayton’s first weekly African-American newspaper. It was printed by the fledgling company of his high-school acquaintances, Wilbur and Orville Wright.” It helps to know people with money, and the Wright brothers would be lifelong friends. Dunbar’s early career sounds like the careers of writers in the 16th century with rich men providing assistance to him. But truthfully, I’m not sure that’s really very different from the way things work today. Dunbar’s career seems to demonstrate that an enormous amount of talent and a fair amount of luck will take you far.

At first, he was exclusively a poet. But in his mid-20s, he began writing short stories and novels. Although he died of tuberculosis at just 33 years of age, in addition to an enormous amount of poetry, he managed to publish four books of short stories and four novels. He also wrote the lyrics to the historical Broadway musical In Dahomey, which is noted for being the first with an all African American cast. It was a modest hit on Broadway and then toured the United Kingdom and then the United States for four years.

Project Gutenberg was collected all of his poems, two of his short story collections, two of his novels, and a short essay. He wrote poetry in both dialect and standard English. The dialect poems are remarkable for their beauty and accessibility (that could just be me, since I normally have problems with dialect). Here is a short poem in standard English called “Encouraged,” that could mean many things but somehow to me seems like a poem for his mother:

  Because you love me I have much achieved,
Had you despised me then I must have failed,
  But since I knew you trusted and believed,
I could not disappoint you and so prevailed.

Happy birthday Paul Laurence Dunbar!