Upworthy Labor Problems Show Capitalism’s Faults

UpworthyAdd Upworthy to the list of amazing websites that I’d never heard of. Today, I heard about them because there is a bit of a dust up about them, Upworthy’s Lefty Owners Scared Employees Out of Unionization. The company was founded by Eli Pariser, the former director of MoveOn. It is supposed to provide an outlet for “meaningful” content with a progressive edge to it. But like with most companies, when the employees wanted to organize, the owners freaked out. Labor unions might be fine for General Motors, but not for an internet company!

But don’t think too poorly of Upworthy. They aren’t ogres. The company does have a very good reason for resisting unionization: it is dying. Most of the traffic that Upworthy gets is via Facebook. And last December, Facebook changed the way it calculated its page rankings, and Upworthy saw its traffic cut in half. So the company is struggling. And management is afraid that if the workers unionize, it will scare off its already weak interest from venture capitalists.

According to Eli Pariser, the company did not say no to the workers. It just encouraged them to hold off because, “Doing this now at Upworthy could come at a cost to the company in terms of our ability to raise capital.” It’s not a totally unreasonable argument. Just the same, I know businesses. It is never a good time for anything — especially for unions. So I have a hard time taking this too seriously. I have to wonder why the company didn’t start off unionized. For a company pushing its liberalism as a brand, that might have been helpful. Regardless, I don’t see this story are a fight between good and evil. Upworthy is in a bad place, and it makes sense for workers to be understanding of that.

What I find much more concerning here is the way that an interesting company has to depend upon establishment companies for its fortune. There can be all the brilliant entrepreneurs in the world, but if the existing economic structure stifles them, what does it matter? And that’s clearly what’s going on with the venture capitalists. A liberal company isn’t allowed to be liberal, because the capitalists don’t think they will make as much money. And then, there is the whole issue of Facebook being so large that it can pick winners and losers. This is interesting because conservatives are forever talking about the grave threat of the government picking winners and losers. But we have an economy where major corporations pick winners and losers and they just don’t care.

The why I increasingly see things is that we need to get past the idea that our problems are do to individuals or companies or even industries. The problem is the system itself. And before we can even get to that, we need to see the problem. I don’t necessarily think that socialism is the solution, although clearly a social democratic system with a mixed economy is far better than what we have. But we live in a world in which people take capitalism as a matter of faith — as though no better system is possible. And the people who think this are as blind as those who thought feudalism was the best possible system.

The case of Upworthy is interesting, because it shows that even when people start companies with the best of intentions, they are constrained by the flaws in the wider economy. We need to start thinking about that, and working toward a better system for replacing it.

I’ve Already Forgotten About Lessig’s Campaign

Lawrence LessigI am a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders. But it isn’t without some reservations. If I were an ideologue, I wouldn’t be a Democrat. I am very much in favor of strategic voting. So I have some concern as to whether Sanders acceptance of the “scary” socialist label wouldn’t be enough to destroy his chances in the general election. But in general, I don’t think so. I think “socialism” is a bad word primarily to people who would never vote for a Democrat. For most people, “socialism” means Sweden, not communist China. And Sanders’ policies are so popular, that I think the attacks wouldn’t stick.

But when I heard that Lawrence Lessig was thinking about running for president as a Democrat, I thought it was odd. I’m a big fan of his. Just the same, I have a problem with people who have no political experience running for president. It just isn’t what we as Democrats are. Above all, Democrats are competent. Governing is a question of skills. The Republicans may think that all a candidate needs is the right ideology, but the results of that can be seen in the House of Representatives right now. What does Lessig think he is adding to the debate? Is it really important enough to take time and attention away from candidates who are actually qualified to run for president?

The question defies a simple answer. Lessig is pushing the Citizens Equality Act of 2017. He says that he would serve as president only until it was passed into law. It has three parts to it: first, it would assure the equal freedom to vote (make elections a national holiday); second, it would assure equal representation in Congress (eliminate gerrymandering); and third, it would secure citizen funded elections. I don’t think any liberal would have a problem with this. And as Lessig indicates in the following video, it really isn’t partisan. Except that it is because conservatives know that in a fair fight, they lose, because their ideas are bad.

I guess Lessig is trying to push against the argument that I’ve made that he doesn’t have the experience to lead the country, by saying that he will resign after the law is passed. But that doesn’t really fly for a couple of reasons. First, it requires not only that he be elected, but that a Congress be elected that would agree with the Citizens Equality Act. That’s certainly not going to happen. What’s more, Lessig would be running as a Democrat. At least a third of the country is going to vote against him just because of that. On this level, his candidacy doesn’t make sense.

But as pretty much everyone is saying, the bigger problem is that Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley are all in favor of the plan. So what’s going to happen? We’re going to have a debate where Lessig says, “Citizens Equality Act!” And the other candidates say, “Sure!” Lessig himself says that he knows other candidates care about the issue, but that they don’t have a plan for getting the policy passed. But neither does Lessig given that there is no way in hell he is ever going win the nomination, much less the general election.

As a Sanders supporter, I don’t understand why Lessig doesn’t just help Sanders’ campaign. In his work, he could highlight Sanders’ support for electoral reform. He could also push Sanders even further to the left on the issue. That seems like a much better use of his resources. But I’m open minded. If Lessig starts attracting thousands of people to his events, or starts getting a couple percent in polling preferences, I’ll give him a look. As for now, I’ll forget all about this ever having happened. But maybe I’ll read Republic, Lost again.

Carly Fiorina and the Netflix Dodge

Carly FiorinaCarly Fiorina has surged in the polls for the Republican presidential nomination. This is the result of her performance in the “kids’ table” debate last Thursday, but I doubt it indicates that people were watching. Rather, Megyn Kelly was gushing about it during the regular debate and I’m sure that Fox News has generally been pushing it. She’s a good candidate for the Republicans: rich but a failure at business, no political experience, and the same policy ideas as every other Republican. You gotta love that!

Last weekend, she was on CNN, where we learned that, Carly Fiorina Opposes Paid Maternity Leave Mandate. That’s a shocking headline in its banality. Of course she’s against a government mandate for maternity leave; she’s against any government mandate. She’s against raising the minimum wage, and I suspect if she were honest, she would admit that the very idea of the minimum wage offends her. She’s a corporate thug who believes that if only we give business all the power, everything will be fine.

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig responded to all this nonsense, Carly Fiorina Is Dead Wrong About Paid Parental Leave. On CNN, Fiorina highlighted Netflix as a reason why the government shouldn’t do anything. She said, “I don’t think it’s the role of government to dictate to the private sector how to manage their businesses, especially when it’s pretty clear that the private sector, like Netflix, like the example that you just gave, is doing the right thing because they know it helps them attract the right talent.”

Recently, there was indeed big news about how Netflix was giving all its employees unlimited leave during the first year of a new child. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. As Emily Peck reported last week, Not All Netflix Workers Will Get “Unlimited” Parental Leave. The employees in Netflix’s DVD division are not covered. These are more the regular employees. The leave program only applies to the streaming division — the high tech side of the business.

Bruenig argued that the Netflix program shows exactly the opposite of what Fiorina claims. It’s just another way that the private economy slices and dices employees into the deserving and the undeserving. And the net result of it is not “equality of opportunity.” Instead, it is a way to give the children of the upper classes a distinct advantage over the children of the poorer classes. If anything, Netflix is showing how the business community is making a social problem worse.

Of course, Fiorina’s claim is stupid on a lot of other levels. Assuming Netflix is on the leading edge of trend (and there is no reason to think that), why has it taken all these years to start to deal with a problem that has been going on for decades? I am so sick of hearing this from conservatives. I got into it with a libertarian recently who claimed that we didn’t need child labor laws because the market was going to get around to the problem. Even if you do accept these kinds of highly questionable claims, they are cold comfort for people harmed while we wait for the market to work its magic.

But the main thing is that the market will not work its magic. Fiorina is an ideologue. She simply believes that the government should never tell business what to do. And she latches onto any factoid that gives her beliefs some kind of political cover. We’ve watched over the last five decades as the minimum wage has been allowed to decrease greatly in real terms. Did the business community “do the right thing”? No. More people work for minimum wage than ever. And Netflix hasn’t even solved the issue of parental leave for its own employees — much less for the entire nation.

Anniversary Post: Seminole Wars

Seminole WarThis day in 1842 marks the end of the Second Seminole War. The Seminole were a native American tribe in modern Florida. When the Europeans first came to the new world, they tried to get along with the Seminole by wiping out large numbers of them with disease. When that wasn’t fully successful, they killed them more actively in the attempt to enslave them. By the first decade of the 18th century, there were roughly ten thousand Seminole slaves.

By the beginning of 19th century, the US became interested in Florida. Since the Seminole were in the north part of what would become the state, they were on the front lines of General Andrew Jackson’s invasion of the state. That was the First Seminole War, and it resulted in the United States getting Florida. The Second Seminole War revolved around the United States trying to move all the Seminole out of Florida to send them to Oklahoma. After that war, a couple hundred Seminole were allowed to stay in Florida on a reservation. But even that was too much, as westerners continued to encroach of their lands — eventually leading to the Third Seminole War.

I assume people think I’m too hard on the United States. Mistakes were made and all that. But I’m not really hard on the United States. France has done a lot of terrible things as a country, but I don’t dwell on it. The reason I do dwell on the United States is that I’ve spent my whole life around Americans who seem to think that we are misunderstood. That’s just not true. The rest of the world has a much better understanding about the United States than people here do.

What’s more, it’s all apologetics in this country. Rather than take responsibility for the past, we try to brush it aside. We are a country that learns really simple lessons the hard way every time. We had to kill off over a half million people to get rid of the institution of slavery, which was actually only benefiting a small number of people. But at least slavery is something that we admit to being wrong about. The genocide of the native peoples is still something that most Americans have never engaged with.

I have no illusions about the Seminole being some perfect people. But there is no doubt that by our conception of property rights, they owned their land. Our attitude has always been “might makes right.” So we killed them and enslaved them and moved them. We treated them like animals. But we were the true animals. We don’t play well with others. And I’m not sure we’ve learned a damned thing after all these years.