Saturday, February 29, 2020

Happy Leap Day!

"For some ridiculous reason, to which, however, I've no desire to be disloyal,
Some person in authority, I don't know who, very likely the Astronomer Royal,
Has decided that, although for such a beastly month as February,
Twenty-eight days as a rule are plenty,
One year in every four his days shall be reckoned as nine and twenty.
Through some singular coincidence – I shouldn't be surprised if it were owing to the
Agency of an ill-natured fairy – You are the victim of this clumsy arrangement, having been born in leap-year,
On the twenty-ninth of February;
And so, by a simple arithmetical process, you'll easily discover,
That though you've lived twenty-one years, yet, if we go by birthdays,
You're only five and a little bit over!
Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!
Ho! ho! ho! ho!" Gilbert and Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Living in the Selfie Society

Within just a few years, the smartphone and its incipient selfie stick have created a billion amateur photographers vying for the perfect shot. They will travel the world for the perfect picture to post on the Internet, on Instagram or Facebook. They seek special moments once found only in wild dreams.
They consist of generations (Millennials and Gen Z) who chooses to spend money on travel and technology, instead of squirreling away savings for down-payment on a house, a car, or retirement. They fly low-cost airlines and stay in Air BnBs. Instead of retail therapy, try travel therapy: Washington Dulles Airport advertises flights to London as a cure for the “Quarter Life Crisis”.

The opportunity for a commoner to travel far from home is a recent phenomenon. Even in the 1980’s, The Preppy Handbook quipped about “The Tour”, typically a young American’s first transoceanic sojourn, with de rigeur visits to London, Paris and Rome. These were carried out by privileged college students of means, while their middle-class co-eds were busy working for tuition money. Childhood stays in Europe and the Far East were reserved for children of diplomats and military “brats”, a dated term in the post 9-11, continuous-contingency world. Just a decade ago, my community paper, DC’s Northwest Current, would publish columns on residents who went to “interesting” destinations, often on government business. How have times changed.

In Amsterdam, locals lament touristic behaviors such as drunk and disorderly conduct, and interference at the farmer’s market. The small Dutch city hosted 20 million visitors last year. In the search for “authenticity”, to include Air BnB homeshares, it appears that inconvenience is imposed on locals and their residential neighborhoods. Washington, DC’s Metrorail lampooned “Escalefters”, people, usually tourists, who stand on the left side of the escalator, impeding the flow of rush-hour commuters. Despite the neighborly complaints, one must acknowledge that cities were built to handle the masses.

The ecological call to “tread lightly” in sensitive destinations is too often forgotten in the pursuit of personal glory. One article in the New York Times recalls the incredible amount of gear left on the climb to Mount Everest, and of the lines and congestion which detract from what ought to be a spiritual moment. More recklessly, vainglorious adventurers attempt the climb with insufficient preparation, and Sherpa guides feel pressure to head out in sub-optimal conditions.
One way to view the travel-selfie phenomenon is the concept of self-assertion in an economically uncertain era. The 1930’s had movies on the “silver screen” to provide an outlet of escapism. Today, “getting away” for a moment (from student debt or stultifying employment) requires little more than an airplane ticket.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Hot Dogs and Handguns

Hot Dogs are sold in packs of six, and buns in packs of eight. I’m neither a hot dog nor a gun enthusiast, but I know the math doesn’t add up on a proposed 12-round limit for firearm magazines in Virginia. 12 rounds is an important number in a military-heavy jurisdiction, as it is the number of bullets needed to complete the Navy Pistol Marksmanship Test. Some legislator had their heart in the right place, but failed to ask an expert: the military’s preferred handguns use a magazine of 15 rounds, which would become illegal under proposed laws. This is the default magazine of Beretta’s M9, and the smallest NATO stock number, off-the-shelf magazine to complete the Marksmanship Test.  

The average sailor, who carries a firearm on duty, qualifies with live ammunition once per year on the Navy’s budget. Firearm instructors, however, recommend monthly practice to maintain marksmanship skills. Sailors fill this gap by going to the range after-hours with their personal handgun; this is an ingrained part of Virginia culture.

Then what about true high-capacity magazines? That question is answered. Virginia has long banned firearm magazines over 20 rounds: It applies in Virginia’s major cities and populous suburbs, when in public; and has been law since 1991*. This law is not worded in heavy-handed language used in the Northeastern states, but it nevertheless gives law enforcement the authority to stop a violent crime before it happens. If this ill-advised 12-round limit becomes law, lawful gun owners would be required to purchase slightly smaller magazines that won’t suit a legitimate and government-sanctioned sporting purpose. We will know that the legislature has placed virtue signaling over practicality and military readiness. 

* See: § 18.2-287.4. Carrying loaded firearms in public areas prohibited; penalty.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Right to Work: Debate Then and Now

Press rooms in heavily-unionized New York and California have a narrative about right-to-work laws. They say these laws were passed by Southern states in the Jim Crow era to ensure a supply of low-wage African-American labor. Union leaders join in, calling Right-to-Work a right to work for less (SIU).

What the argument comes down to is a debate on whether the Closed Shop should be allowed. In a Closed Shop, employers are bound by union contract to only hire members. In contrast, in an Open Shop, employers may control the hiring process. A Right-to-Work state prohibits the Closed Shop.
Right-to-Work laws emerged shortly after World War Two, from Texas to Virginia. These laws would later be passed in the Mountain West. In the North, union loyalty remained strong among blue-collar Whites. African-Americans fought to join unions, which controlled hiring on lucrative, blue-collar middle-class jobs. Many of these involved contracts for immense public-works projects of the era. 

However, until the 1960’s, the Federal government tended to view labor unions as private associations exempt from due process. This held true even if the union held Closed Shop privileges. In some cases, racial discrimination was written into union by-laws; in others, nepotism ensured that sons and nephews of members filled the entry ranks.    Immense pressure by African-American groups upon City Halls, with sympathy from upscale Whites, wedged a token opening for minorities to join labor unions as equals. Furthermore, the Eisenhower administration considered using proposed national Right-to-Work legislation to right a civil wrong. In the South, unionization of railroad employers often led to a loss of skilled jobs for African-Americans, according to then-contemporary Herbert Hill.

Right-to-Work need not be the death sentence of labor unions. Unions which provide value to members, and to employers, will always be in demand. At OSG, a major ship-owning company (pre-2013), Licensed Deck Officers voted to disband its collective bargaining agreement. This was a move discouraged by the company, as the union representing the company’s mates provided surge labor, training, medical services, and a retirement plan. The company couldn’t imagine life without its labor unions. For disclosure, I am a proud, dues-paying union member.

Note: Janus vs. AFSCME concerns a different issue. This decision has been criticized as one enabling “freeloaders” to collect the benefits of membership without paying dues.

“Labor Unions and the Negro”, Herbert Hill. Circa July 1959. Found on
“Why Are Anti-Union Laws Called “Right To Work”?, Brian Palmer, Slate. 12/12/2012.