The Year in Preview: Labor's Outlook


Labor—both unions and the broad working class of wage workers—haven’t had a good year in a very long time. Union membership continues its long, slow decline, as does median family income. But if nothing else, 2014 should be a clarifying year in the life of several legal and organizing struggles which will either advance or retard the progress of labor.

Google to Begin Building Robot Army

Boston Dynamics' Atlas marches over the rubble of our shattered world.

When Amazon bought a robotics company called Kiva Systems last year, it made perfect sense. Kiva makes robots that move things around warehouses; Amazon has a lot of warehouses full of a lot of stuff that needs moving around. Google, on the other hand, would seem to have no obvious need for robots, which is why it might appear odd that they just announced the purchase of Boston Dynamics, a company developing robots that mostly resemble animals and are designed to do things like carry equipment for soldiers, run really fast, and jump really high. In fact, it's only the latest of a bunch of robotics companies Google has bought.

So what are they up to? In some ways, Google increasingly resembles a corporation out of a near-future sci-fi novel, one that begins by making some nice but (seemingly) not exactly world-transforming product, then that product turns out to be bigger than anybody imagined, then it gradually expands into one area after another until it controls practically the entire world. Eventually, the corporation becomes a nuclear power and wages war on its few remaining competitors, then becomes a practical one-world government. If that's their goal, a steady supply of robots would obviously be extremely useful.

The Year in Preview: Paul Ryan's Misguided Poverty Plan

Next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty, launched by President Lyndon Johnson. But don’t expect a golden anniversary party for the tired, poor, huddled masses.

A Dubious Budget Deal

The years of Republican obstructionism and the corporate campaign for deficit reduction have taken such a toll that merely the fact of getting a budget deal at all looks like a great achievement. This one is better than continued impasse, but the deal itself is a stinker.

Representative Raul Grijanva, co-chair of the House progressive caucus, put it well: “I feel like punching myself in the face, but I’ll vote yes.”

Robbing Illinois's Public Employees

In the span of a few hours on December 3, two Midwestern states changed America’s relationship to its public employees, perhaps irrevocably. If courts approve plans for bankruptcy in Detroit and a new law in Illinois, retirees who worked their careers as sanitation engineers and teachers, firefighters and police officers, public defenders and city clerks, under a promise of pension benefits protected by state constitutions, will not receive their promised share. “This is a bipartisan collection of politicians who essentially don’t respect democracy,” says Steve Kreisberg, Director of Research and Collective Bargaining for the public employee union AFSCME. “They authorized a violation of their own state constitutions.”

On Inequality, Obama's Words Aren't Enough

President Obama speaking Wednesday on inequality.

There are times, like the speech Barack Obama gave yesterday on economic inequality, when he reminds liberals of what we found so appealing about him. Despite the seemingly obligatory pleading that government policies that help regular people aren't the enemy of capitalism ("Remember, these are promises we make to one another. We don't do it to replace the free market, but we do it reduce risk in our society by giving people the ability to take a chance and catch them if they fall."), it can stand among the most progressive statements of his presidency. Not for the first time, Obama declared inequality "the defining challenge of our time," and articulated an eloquent case, based in American history and values, for the damage it does and why we need to confront it.

So why was I left feeling less than enthusiastic? Because over the last five years, Obama has succeeded in doing so little to address the problem. "Making sure our economy works for every American," he said, is "why I ran for president. It was the center of last year's campaign. It drives everything I do in this office." If that's true, then his presidency hasn't been particularly successful.

Plan for Robotification of Everything Proceeding Apace

In the late 19th century, major American cities began installing networks of underground pneumatic tubes between post offices, enabling them to whisk hundreds of letters back and forth at speeds up to 35 miles per hour, with the satisfying thurp sound as an added bonus. Most of the systems were dismantled in the 1920s, but somehow New York's managed to stay in use until the 50's (here's a description of this odd bit of postal history).

Sadly, the dream of universal pneumatic tube delivery to the home was never achieved. But in a 14-minute ad for Amazon that was cleverly staged as a report on 60 Minutes ("If you can do this with all these products, what else can you do?" gushed Charlie Rose on the floor of a fulfilment center. "You guys can organize the world!"), the company revealed the future of package delivery: drones.

The People's Court?

If you want to see where the problems of unaffordable housing and low wages and poor education play out every day, go to Detroit's 36th District Court. 

Associated Press

The first time I went to Detroit’s 36th District Court, I didn’t know the drill. Most people don’t know the drill the first time they go. A lawyer I’d met agreed to accompany me. He went in the side door, reserved for attorneys and court staff. I joined the long line at the main entrance, waiting to pass through the metal detectors and have my bag scanned. No cell phones, the guard told me. Put it in your car. I waved the lawyer back outside. He was due in court, and his car was blocks away. Give me the phone, he said. I’ll bring it in. I returned to the line. You can’t bring in that hair clip, the guard told me. Just throw it out, I said. I scooped my bag off the belt and joined the lawyer, who was standing where the entryway carpet meets the linoleum, near a line of people snaking through a rope maze, waiting to pay tickets. I was intimidated and upset, and I’d been at the 36th less than five minutes.

Europe's Miserable Credit Score

Without access to credit, the European South is unlikely to bounce back anytime soon.

AP Photo/Michael Probst,File

European Central Bank president Mario Draghi surprised markets last Thursday by cutting the Bank’s benchmark interest rate to a record low 0.25 percent (as low as the federal funds target rate in the U.S.). Explaining his decision, Draghi—the person who deserves most of the credit for the lull in the euro crisis over the past 15 months—noted that “monetary and, in particular, credit dynamics remain subdued” and that monetary policy must remain accommodative in order to “assist the gradual economic recovery” taking hold in the Eurozone. In other words, monetary policy must remain extremely loose to prevent Europe from sliding into a Japan-style period of protracted stagnation.

Krugman Boots One

Paul Krugman has played an indispensable role challenging the conventional wisdom in the financial crisis and the slump that followed. He has been proven right again and again, in his brilliant debunking of austerity as the cure for recession.

Therefore, it was astonishing to read a rare, truly wrongheaded Krugman column in Monday’s New York Times. The offending column is titled “A Permanent Slump?”

Poor, with Savings

Being poor is expensive. A winter heating bill that comes due before the paycheck arrives can compel a trip to a payday lender who charges 350 percent interest. It takes the entire paycheck to pay off that loan in a week—emptying out the bank account and requiring yet another visit to the lender. A child who is too sick to go to school for a week may need her single father to stay home with her, costing him a quarter of his monthly income. He’s overdue on the rent and the bills, so he’s responsible for late fees as well.

Gillibrand Steps Up for Working Women

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

At the end of September, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announced her Opportunity Plan promoting progressive economic policies for women. The plan includes Gillibrand’s proposed FAMILY Act. The legislation builds upon the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows certain workers—public-sector employees or private-sector ones who have been employed for at least a year—to take unpaid leave for child care or health reasons.

The Supply-Side Economics of Abortion

AP Images/Rex C. Curry

Last June, Ohio Republicans quietly slipped a handful of abortion restrictions into the state’s budget, alongside provisions to invest in Ohio’s highway system and a new funding model for the state’s colleges and universities. Eight states, including Ohio, already require clinics that perform or induce abortion to have a “transfer agreement” with a local hospital, so that patients can be transported quickly to a more sophisticated medical center in case of an emergency. The budget, which Republican Governor John Kasich signed into law with the abortion provisions intact, included an innovative new rule, making Ohio the first state to prohibit abortion clinics from entering into transfer agreements with public hospitals.

Will Amazon Swallow the Postal Service?

Don't worry, they only do this in Japan. (Flickr/Fugu Tabetai)

For a while now, the Postal Service has been telling us that they'd like to end Saturday mail delivery as a way to cut costs and deal with their ongoing financial difficulties. Congress isn't about to let that happen, so now they've gone the other way: they're going to start delivering on Sunday. But only packages. And only from Amazon.

The natural response to this is, "Wait, what?" Since when does a single corporation get to commandeer an enormous government agency to use for its own profit-making purposes? What's next, are we going to just rename it the Lockheed Martin Department of Defense? Sell the naming rights to national parks? ("Welcome to the Doritos Locos Tacos Grand Canyon!")

OK, it isn't as bad as all that. In fact, as long as they do this in a fair way—essentially for any company that wants it—it could be good for everyone.

The 40-Year Slump

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The steady stream of Watergate revelations, President Richard Nixon’s twists and turns to fend off disclosures, the impeachment hearings, and finally an unprecedented resignation—all these riveted the nation’s attention in 1974. Hardly anyone paid attention to a story that seemed no more than a statistical oddity: That year, for the first time since the end of World War II, Americans’ wages declined.