Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

A Facebook Experiment

Solid social science on the opinion pages (needless to say news reporters consider interest in randomized controlled experiments to be opinion.

Christian Caryl explains how it is possible to determine the effect of the Russian influence campaign on the 2016 presidential election.

Sinan Aral, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [skip] says he and his colleagues want to study the Russian influence campaign in precisely this geographical context. The MIT scholars have developed a robust methodology for assessing how social media campaigns influence the behavior of their targets — and now they want to bring it to bear on the Russian meddling in 2016 [skip]

“For example, Facebook and Twitter constantly test new variations on their feed ranking algorithms, which cause people to be exposed to varying levels of different types of content,” they write. “One underpublicized A/B test run by Facebook during the 2012 U.S. presidential election caused users to be exposed to more ‘hard news’ from established sources, with effects on political knowledge, preferences, and voter turnout.” Given access to adequate data, the researchers claim they can estimate the impact of the Russian influence campaign in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida “with 95% to 99% confidence.”

Facebook performed the necessary experiment, because they perform experiments all the time aiming to maximize user engagement. These are genuine randomized controlled experiments (because Facebook’s profits are on the line). The names of people exposed to more or less hard news can be compared with the lists of people who actually voted (which are public) only if facebook is forced to cease to protect their privacy (which really means to protect Facebook from proof that they let the Russians trick Americans into electing Trump).

I don’t think the researchers will ever get access to “adequate data” but I do think it is worth fighting for such access.

update: this might not have been clear in the original post. The idea is to use which of the 2 algorithms was used as an instrument for exposure to Russian propaganda. So it is engagement with known russian propaganda regressed on the algorithm used to check the association of (engagement with known Russian propaganda)(demographic characteristics typical of Democrats) and turnout (in particular of African .

To be crude (and explicit) the idea is that African Americans with the hard news algorithm interacted less with Russian propaganda and were more likely to vote. Or not (good experiments are ones where one doesn’t know the result before analysing the data).

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PBS NewsHour “Then” Edition with Kevin Hassett

Kevin Hassett (chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers) talking to PBS NewsHour:

“Federal workers who are without pay as the government shutdown drags on actually have it pretty good.

A huge share of government workers were gonna to take vacation days, say, between Christmas and New Year’s. And then we have a shutdown, and so they can’t go to work, and so then they have the vacation, but they don’t have to use their vacation days. And then they come back, and then they get their back pay. Then they’re, in some sense they’re better off.”

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How did they get so rich ?

I hope and trust that this will be an amusing display of my ignorance. I don’t hope to reach David Graeber’s level

David Graeber: Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other’s garages…

1. How did Jeff Bezos get so rich ? His wasn’t a subtle idea.
The first point is that Amazon went for years without turning a profit. I think his strategy was partly based on new entrant predatory pricing. I would guess that are many B league Bezoses whose firms went bankrupt. In the field of innovative low margin retail, survivor bias is a bitch.

But also, books were a good place to start. There are lots of different books. They are durable. They aren’t so heavy (even pre-kindle).

Then there is big box one stop shopping.

2. Yeah what about the Waltons ? At first (in the 80s I think) I was very puzzled to read the name Sam Walton on a list of the super rich, because I had never seen a Walmart. In fact, that was when I first read “Walmart”. Retail is a very competitive low margin sector. How could anyone become super rich in discount retail ??? My guess is that he was the first to realize how much big cars had changed the game. The long cars of pre-1973 had big trunks, but I guess they just aren’t in the same league as pickups, SUVs and minivans. It is notable that Walmart started in the huge vehicle belt (which I think has a lot to do with belt size if you get my drift).

3. Brin, Page and Google. OK look the original product is actually excellent. Also giving stuff away (including 1 gigabyte e-mail boxes) was smart.

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The Buffett Buffer

This is an almost semi serious proposal suggesting payday lenders could get good publicity.

There are many entities with plenty of spare cash. The US Treasury isn’t one of them. I think that the good publicity gained by offering zero interest loans to unpaid federal employees is worth the cost. They are good credit risks because they will get paid (without interest) eventually.

I’d say some entity with spare liquidity could help the country and win praise. I call my proposal the Buffett buffer. I think the challenge is largely one of automatic underwriting. It would be necessary to extend the offer only to people who are employed by affected departments. I don’t think this is hard — the web pages are still up, so it is possible to search them. The skeleton staff of non furloughed workers could make employment information public at the request of employees (including their un-paid selves).

Actually since the payoff is in popularity, I think this might be the Bloomberg boom not the Buffett Buffer.

Why not ?

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How Shocking Was Shock Therapy?

How Shocking Was Shock Therapy?

In 2007 Naomi Klein got quite a bit of attention and mostly favorable comment for her book, Shock Doctrine. It promulgated that global elites used periods of crisis around the world to force damaging neoliberal policies derived from the Chicago School and Washington Consensus upon unhappy populations that suffered greatly as a result. This was “shock therapy” that was more like destructive electroshock than any sort of therapy. There is a lot of truth to this argument, and it highlighted underlying ideological arguments and outcomes.

The argument largely seems to hold for the original poster boy example in Chile with the Pinochet coup against the socialist Allende regime. A military coup replaced a democratically government. While Chile was experiencing a serious inflation, it was not in a full-blown economic collapse. The coup was supported by US leaders Nixon and Kissinger, who saw themselves preventing the emergence of pro-Soviet regime resembling Castro’s Cuba. Thousands were killed, and a sweeping set of laissez-faire policies were imposed with the active participation of “Chicago Boys” associated with Milton Friedman. In fact, aside from bringing down inflation these reforms did not initially improve economic performance, even as foreign capital flowed in, especially into the copper industry, although the core of that industry remained nationalized. After several years the Chicago Boys were sent away and more moderate policies, including a reimposition of controls on foreign capital flows, the economy did grow quite rapidly. But this left a deeply unequal income distribution in place, which would largely remain the case even after Pinochet was removed from power and parliamentary democracy returned.

This scenario was argued to happen in many other nations, especially those in the former Soviet bloc as the Soviet Union disintegrated and its successor states and the former members of the Soviet bloc in the CMEA and Warsaw Pact also moved to some sort of market capitalism imposed from outside with policies funded by the IMF and following the Washington Consensus. Although he has since expressed regret for this role in this, a key player linking what was done in several Latin American nations and what went down after 1989 in Eastern and Central Europe was Jeffrey Sachs. Klein’s discussion especially of what went down in Russia also looks pretty sound by and large, without dragging through the details, although in these cases the political shift was from dictatorships run by Communist parties dominated out of Moscow to at least somewhat more democratic governments, although not in all of the former Soviet republics such as in Central Asia and with many of these later backsliding towards more authoritarian governments later. In Russia and in many others large numbers of people were thrown into poverty from which they have not recovered. Klein has also extended this argument to other nations, including South Africa after the end of apartheid.

Having said all that it must also be recognized that in some parts of the book Klein overstated her argument even to the point of including outright false information:

The case that really sticks out in this regard is Poland, arguably especially important as it was the place where the term “shock therapy” was first used. As it turns out, many observers have an inaccurate perception of what happened there, with Klein’s account not helping. It is understandable that many might be misled given that it was the Polish finance minister during the worst of the crisis and shock in 1990-91 when economic output fell sharply and unemployment rose, Leszek Balcerowicz, who coined the term and said that it was being applied in Poland. But this turns out to be an exaggeration, with much of what he wanted with the support of Jeffrey Sachs and the IMF at the time not happening due to an election in 1993 that threw out the shockers and mitigated the policies substantially. The upshot ultimately was that Poland ended up performing better than any other of the former socialist transition economies of the former Soviet bloc, becoming in fact one of the best economic performers in the entire continent of Europe, the only nation there not to go into recession in 2009 and now further ahead than any of the others economically. While inequality and unemployment are somewhat higher than in 1989, they are not dramatically so while many other economic variables are strongly better. The unemployment rate in August 2018 was 3.4%, higher than the less than 1% of 1989 but lower than in the US or most other European nations. The Gini coefficient is now somewhere in the .32 to .34 range, higher than ..25-.28 of 1989, higher than in Sweden or the Czech Republic but about the same as in Germany and much lower than in Russia, the US, or China.

The vast majority of the population is unequivocally better off economically now than in 1989. Comparing 2013 to 1989 as a ratio, real per capita GDP in Poland was 2.98, higher than any Soviet bloc transition economy aside from Turkmenistan (whose data is unreliable), with Russia at 1.44, the Czech Republic at 1.68, Hungary at 2.17, and Moldova at 0.82, now Europe’s poorest economy falling below Albania at 2.55. Poland suffered an inflation rate of 6905 in 1989 but this is was brought down fairly rapidly and is now barely above zero. It had the least level of graft of any of these economies as of 2013, There has been major environmental cleanup, especially in its southwestern corner, formerly part of the “dirty triangle,” one of the most polluted locations ever on this planet. The ratio of measured happiness between 2013 and 1989 is 1.44, higher than in any of the other transition nations.

A particularly controversial issue is that of the poverty rate in Poland, for which there are competing measures. Depending on the measure, the poverty rate in the 1980s was probably in the 5-10% range. In 2012, 6.7% of the population was below a living wage level, while alternative measures had it at around 11% or even as high as 16%. The poverty rate certainly rose sharply as did income inequality in the crisis years of 1990-91, but then fell and rose again before falling afterwards. A low point after the transition was 2003, the year before Poland entered the EU and began receiving substantial agricultural subsidies that helped the poor largely rural southeastern region long marked by small unproductive farms (Poland had mostly private farm ownership throughout the communist period), with by one measure the poverty rate possibly getting as high as 24%.. This is a point where Naomi Klein’s analysis basically went completely off the rails. Her story on Poland basically stops with 2003, which can be understood given her book came out in 2007. But she claims a poverty rate in 2003 of 59% (pp. 241-242), and declares strongly that the economic quality of life in Poland had completely collapsed. This is simply false, a wild exaggeration,

So, how did Poland end up doing so well, actually one of the best performing economies in Europe over the last quarter century? Crucial is that in fact it did not follow through on important parts of its supposed shock therapy, although most people (including Naomi Klein) do not seem to know this. Very important was that it did not undo its generous social safety net, especially its generous pension system. This was a central issue in the 1993 election, with both Blacerowicz and Sachs unhappy about this outcome. I remember well the 1994 ASSA convention at which Sachs gave a major speech in which he basically whined about this election outcome and essentially accused the Polish people of being a bunch of spoiled brats for wanting to hang onto their supposedly overly generous pension system. I note that he has since changed his tune and now recognizes the stabilizing and human nature of maintaining a decent social safety net in these economies.

The other area where Poland did not follow through on its shock policies involved privatization, which was supposed to be rapid and complete. It was not and has never been completed. Indeed, today Poland has the highest rate of state-owned production in its economy at around 30% of GDP of any OECD economy, another little-known fact. Privatization was resisted, especially because of fear of German companies taking over Polish firms, and what privatization that happened tended to be gradual, with a large part of the private sector consisting of brand-new firms owned by Poles, arguably the most dynamic part of the economy. In this areas, Poland actually resembles China substantially, a comparison made by a number of careful observers. The current populist government of the Law and Justice Party has if anything tightened restrictions on foreign ownership of banks and land, if not having engaged in any outright renationalization as we have seen in Russia and Hungary.

Given that much of the shock therapy program did not happen or did not do so shockingly, where was there shock therapy. This did indeed happen with respect to macro policy, driven by the problem of getting the incipient hyperinflation that had developed by 1989 in largely market socialist Poland under control. This did involve sharp pain with falling output and rising unemployment and poverty in 1990-91, but Poland was the first of the Soviet bloc transition economies to turn around, with most still having declining output in 1994 and quite a few until well after that. The pain in Poland was sharp, but it was short, and the longer run state has outperformed the others and put Poland far above where it was in 1989.

The politics of all this has been quite complicated and involved some important and curious twists and turns. From 1989 on there has been a broad “left-right” split with probably the most important constant in this being attitudes towards the Roman Catholic Church in famously devout Poland, with being pro-Church being on the right, with people coming out of the old Communist Party veing on the left. But the positions on economic policy regarding these groups have changed over time. in the 1989-93 period, the supporters of the shock therapy were on the right, although including the workers of the Solidarity movement. However, by now the rightist Law and Justice Party that is in power and attacks its rivals for being leftover communists and also strongly opposed Russia (in contrast to the populist rightist regime of Orban in Hungary who is friends with Putin), has in it populism become more the defender of both the social safety net and supporting the state-owned enterprises compared to the supposedly crypto-communist left, now out of power.

Needless to say, there is much discussion about how it is that Poland has been by so many measures so economically successful, yet since 2015 has come to be ruled by a reactionary populist party that has been restricting media and judicial independence, although it may be that it is going to hold back on some of this compared to Russia, Hungary, and Turkey. I think two things are important. One is that although Poland avoided going into recession in 2009 (largely due to staying out of the euro and also being strongly linked into the supply chains of neighboring Germany), its growth rate has slowed in more recent years while remaining positive, something happening throughout all of Eastern Europe, which has stopped catching up to Western Europe. And the second is that the frame of reference has changed. Whereas Poland has done well compared to its formerly socialist neighbors, the population now compares themselves to those in Western Europe, especially neighboring Germany, whom they are clearly well behind. Many young Poles have left for the West, with a cliché in the Brexit debates in UK being about the supposed problem of “the Polish plumber” coming in to take away British jobs. The Poles may be much happier than they were 30 years ago, but the bloom is off the rose as the transition has been long over. Where they will end up is unclear.

A final irony is that for all his advocacy in 1989-93 (and later as Director of the Polish central bank) for the hardline version of shock therapy many think happened in Poland, Balcerowicz himself at one point advocated something pretty much like what came to pass, a gradual privatization and maintaining most of the social safety net while advocating shock monetary policies to bring inflation under control. This was before the transition started and the Communist Party was still in control. Indeed, I met him in this period and heard him advocate pretty much this approach, which he also advocated in print. It was 1988 and I was teaching summer school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when he showed up in town as part of a general wandering around the US talking to people and giving talks. We had some beers on the famous Union Terrace there by beautiful Lake Mendota. I confess thinking him a naive dreamer with all his plans for Poland that at the time seemed so unlikely and utopian. But that was one of those lessons for me: one should never discount a wandering prophet without position. He can end up running the show and making at least some of his dreams become reality.

Barkley Rosser

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With Crumbling Bridges and Roads, the Nation is Excited to Build a Giant Wall

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report) August 31, 2015: As America’s bridges, roads, and other infrastructure dangerously deteriorate from decades of neglect, there is a mounting sense of urgency that it is time to build a giant wall.

Across the U.S., whose rail system is a rickety antique plagued by deadly accidents, Americans are increasingly recognizing that building a wall with Mexico, and possibly another one with Canada, should be the country’s top priority.

Harland Dorrinson, the executive director of a Washington-based think tank called the Center for Responsible Immigration, believes that most Americans favor the building of border walls over extravagant pet projects like structurally sound freeway overpasses.

“The estimated cost of a border wall with Mexico is five billion dollars,” he said. “We could easily blow the same amount of money on infrastructure repairs and have nothing to show for it but functioning highways.”

Congress has dragged its feet on infrastructure spending in recent years, but Dorrinson senses growing support in Washington for building a giant border wall. “Even if for some reason we don’t get the Mexicans to pay for it, five billion is a steal,” he said.

While some think that America’s declining infrastructure is a national-security threat, Dorrinson strongly disagrees. “If immigrants somehow get over the wall, the condition of our bridges and roads will keep them from getting very far,” he said.

With Crumbling Bridges and Roads, the Nation is Excited to Build Giant Wall

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Good news from the employment report: workers are finally getting raises!

Good news from the employment report: workers are finally getting raises!

When it comes to jobs, if there is one trend that really set apart 2018 from any prior year of this expansion, it is that ordinary workers are finally getting decent raises.

Let’s start by looking at the monthly % change in average hourly wages for non-managerial workers for the entire duration of this expansion. Since this has averaged about +0.2%/month, I’ve subtracted that so that any month above 0 is an above average increase in nominal hourly pay for ordinary workers:

Look at the far right. In ten of the last twelve months, average hourly wages have increased by more than the norm for this expansion.

As a result, YoY nominal wage growth in the last two months has been a little over 3.3%:

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Newsy Stuff

2018 – The Year of the Complicated Suburb, Amanda Kolson Hurley, CityLab

In the past several years, a much more complex picture has emerged—one of Asian and Latino “ethnoburbs,” rising suburban poverty, and Baby Boomers stuck in their split-levels. 2018 really drove home the lesson of when Americans say they live in the suburbs (as most do), the suburbia they describe are vastly different kinds of places where people of every stripe live, work, pray, vote, and vie to control their communities’ future.

A century and a half after Frederick Law Olmsted laid out one of the first planned American suburbs in Riverside, Illinois, and seven decades after the builders Levitt & Sons broke ground on the ur-tract ’burb of Levittown, New York, we haven’t fully mapped the contours of modern suburbia—not just who lives there and why, but the role that suburbs play in politics and society.

“A continuum of densities” correlates closely to suburban politics. Rural-suburban areas are strongly Republican; urban-suburban places are overwhelmingly Democratic. But sparse and dense suburbs are more divided—and these were the battleground of the 2018 election. On November 6, Democrats picked up at least 22 seats in sparse- and dense-suburban districts. A suburbanite is now twice as likely to be represented in Congress by a Democrat as by a Republican.

Deciding who we throw away, Cassady Fendlay, Medium

“When millions of us showed up to march, there was a prevailing feeling among women of color, especially black women, that the white women who were showing up to march were not really ready to be allies in this fight. They brought signs with fiery quotes from black feminists and reminded us that the suffragettes didn’t want to march with Black women, didn’t care about their right to vote. The image of activist Angela Peeples, looking cynical with a lollipop and a sign about the 53% of white women who voted for Trump, went viral for its perfect encapsulation of this uneasy suspicion of the “well-meaning” white women.

This moment, with Alyssa Milano, is exactly the type of thing black women were expecting. Alyssa is acting in accordance with the tradition of white women who use the labor of women of color when it’s convenient for them, and then use their power to trash those women when it becomes more expedient. Without being invited to speak at all, Alyssa brought up a 7-month-old controversy in an attempt to force women of color to do exactly what she wants them to do. Yet these things weren’t a problem for her last month, when she was posting pictures of herself in D.C. protesting Kavanaugh at demonstrations organized in large part by Women’s March.”

The Year of the YIMBY, Kriston Capps, CityLab

A few weeks ago, Minneapolis made zoning history when its city council endorsed a comprehensive plan that would enable denser housing development across the city. Elements of the Minneapolis 2040 plan still need to be passed into law, so it falls short of an outright ban on single-family housing, as both supporters and critics have described it. But it’s still the most progressive legislative push by any city yet to face up to the affordable housing crisis, and it’s turning heads in Philadelphia, Dallas, Seattle, and other cities.

“Such an ambitious, large-scale overhaul of zoning rules is practically unheard of in U.S. cities, where single-family neighborhoods with their rows of houses set behind landscaped front yards have typically been off the table during discussions of citywide ‘Smart Growth’ and affordable housing,” reads the Los Angeles Times editorial board’s green-with-envy endorsement.

Differences Bernie Sanders versus Elizabeth Warren, David Dayen

I happen to like Elizabeth Warren more so than I do Bernie Sanders. So, if this comes off in a manner favoring Warren, I apologize. As Dayen notes, “Warren and Sanders are hardly identical progressives. They have different approaches to empowering the working class. In the simple terms, Warren wants to organize markets to benefit workers and consumers. Sanders wants to overhaul those markets and take the private sector out of it. This divide, and where Warren or Sanders’s putative rivals position themselves on it, will determine the future of the Democratic Party for the next decade or more.”

The differences I think you can pick up in the New Republic article I linked to so I will not try to detail them here. Again, as Dayen notes the two progressives are on a collision course and could conceivably split the Democratic vote. In Michigan alone during the 2016 election, it accounted for the state voting for a Repub candidate (first time since 1990), low voter turnout, and a historical high vote for Communist and Libertarian candidates. The same occurred in Wisconsin. Pennsylvania is another state which goes Dem in national elections even though pundits cast doubt upon how it will go.

Watch ‘House Hunters’ to Understand Segregation Natalie Y. Moore, CityLab

House Hunters is on in my home as it is a source of entertainment. Other than the Flip or Flop now divorced couple (she remarried [to keep you up to date]), you can expect to see this at night. I kid my wife about both as it is more like watching the soaps and the dialogues sounds too contrived. Who knew, you could redo a complete bathroom for $5,000 and it always takes 7-weeks to remodel the most ancient of homes? Then too the economics of these shows has given rise to a series of other taunting couples searching for homes or flipping houses just as quick as they can. I guess there is money in those shows.

As the author points out in one episode, “a couple, both in their 20s, paid $1 million for a home in a tony (stylish) North Shore suburb with no backyard . . . insane.) Naturally, we viewers are not privy to the Hunters’ bank statements or financial portfolios, although a few Twitter parody accounts take note.”

I guess if you are born halfway up the ladder, you have a much bigger head start in life than many others of which minorities make up a substantial part. The chances of you slipping backwards on the ladder lessen dependent upon where you are on it. The Center for American Progress in “Understanding Mobility in America” discusses the impact of intergenerational mobility and the degree to which the economic success of children is independent of the economic status of their parents. There is a vast racial wealth and income gap which finds that a U.S. family earning the median black household income of $39,466 would be able to afford fewer than half of all homes listed for sale last year in 17 of the country’s 50 largest markets. The show is a reminder of the impact of US policy towards minorities.

SCOTUS Takes up Electoral Map Disputes, Lawrence Hurley, US News

Partisan gerrymandering is becoming more extreme with the use of precision computer modeling to the point that it has begun to warp democracy in certain states by subverting the will of voters.

June 2018 and SCOTUS failed to issue definitive rulings in cases from Wisconsin and Maryland which election reformers hoped would prompt the high court to crack down on partisan gerrymandering.

In the case in North Carolina, Democratic voters accused the state’s Republican-led legislature of drawing U.S. House of Representatives districts in 2016 in a way that disadvantaged Democratic candidates in violation of the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law. A lower court sided with the Democratic voters.

In order to assure reasonable Congressional Districts to eliminate packing and the deliberate construing of boundaries to give one party an advantage over the other, the Congressional Districts will still have to be gerrymandered as they are too large.

Dollar Stores Tanvi Misra, CityLab

“While dollar stores sometimes fill a need in cash-strapped communities, growing evidence suggests these stores are not merely a byproduct of economic distress,” the authors of the brief write. “They’re a cause of it.”

Like Walmart before them, these retailers present themselves as creators of jobs and sources of low-cost goods and food in “left-behind “areas—both urban and rural. The 2008 recession bolstered their numbers, simultaneously restricting the resurgence of traditional grocery stores and swelling the potential customer base. Middle-class shoppers started frequenting these stores. In 2009, the New York Times picked up on the trend: “Those once-dowdy chains that lured shoppers by selling some or all of their merchandise for $1 are suddenly hot.”

Restaurants are Scrambling for Cheap Labor, Leslie Patton, Bloomberg

In 2019, it is expected fewer teens will be in the workforce reducing the number of job seekers for low-wage work. Due to the shortage they are helping raise the pay rates needed to woo those who are. Minimum wage increases for lower-skilled workers at companies such as Amazon.com, Walmart, and Target have made it more difficult for restaurants to compete for talent and forcing them to try everything from social media campaigns to quarterly bonuses to entice applicants. “The last 18 to 24 months, it’s been very competitive, no matter what time of year.”

Bjorn Erland, vice president for people and experience at Yum Brands Inc.’s Taco Bell chain. “I don’t think it’s going to ease up much just because the holidays are over.”

Why Not Hold Regular Union Representation Elections? , Andrew Strom, On Labor

Citing polls (NLRB) showing many non-union workers would like to have a union at their workplace, each year only a tiny fraction of workers get a chance to choose whether or not they want union representation.

When the Obama NLRB modernized the Board’s election rules and eliminated some unnecessary delays, employers characterized the result as “ambush elections.” The companies insisted they would no longer have enough time to wage their anti-union campaigns.

The NLRB found substantial evidence that employers are generally aware of union organizing drives long before an election petition is filed. A solution as Samuel Estreicher and Michael Oswalt have previously suggested and to give even more notice is to hold regularly schedule representation elections the same way we regularly schedule elections for political office. There is no magic number to how often the elections should take place, but every three years might be optimal. The elections would occur both at unionized and non-union facilities.

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