What Happened Today: September 14, 2022
Friday’s rail strike could be a disaster for supply chain; Russian officials call for Putin’s resignation; If I Wasn’t a Chassid I’d Be a Nihilist
The Big Story
About 115,000 freight railway workers from nearly a dozen unions are likely to walk off the job on Friday if a deal is not finalized in time with the industry’s largest freight rail operators. With some 28% of all U.S. freight distributed by rail, the strike would idle thousands of trains and cause massive nationwide disruptions to the supply chain, with an economic cost of at least $2 billion a day, according to the Association of American Railroads. The strike would undermine passenger rail travel as well, with nearly 97% of Amtrak trains running on rails owned by freight operators. On Wednesday, Amtrak canceled all long-distance passenger trips in anticipation of Friday’s work stoppage.
An emergency panel established by President Biden began mediating negotiations between rail operators and the unions in July, with most of the parties agreeing to the proposed wage raise of 24% through 2024. But two unions representing about 55,000 workers are withholding their endorsement until the agreement includes significant improvement to workplace conditions that they say have degraded amid increased staffing cuts. Railroad operators have thus far declined the union requests to change workplace requirements that keep workers on call over several days for 12-hour shifts and give penalties for missing work for doctors appointments or calling out sick. “It’s no longer about money—it’s about unpaid time off to go to the doctor without getting fired,” said Dennis Pierce, the president of a locomotive engineer union.
Nearly half a million trucks would be needed to transport goods no longer moving along rail lines, the industry group the American Trucking Associations said last week. Yet because there’s already a shortage of 80,000 drivers, the freight strike would “create havoc in the supply chain and fuel inflationary pressures across the board.”
Biden administration officials have become intensely involved in the negotiations in recent weeks, with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh in regular contact with both sides to thwart the work stoppage that could begin on Friday. The labor dispute is a complex problem for President Biden, who’s cultivated himself as a union stalwart but has also named repairing the supply chain and reducing inflation as two of his top priorities.
In the Back Pages: If I Wasn’t a Chassid I’d Be a Nihilist
→ Following Ukraine’s rout of the Russian military in the country’s northeast, there are growing calls among Russia’s municipal deputies for President Vladimir Putin to resign. “President Putin’s actions are detrimental to the future of Russia and its citizens,” a petition reads. “We demand the resignation of Vladimir Putin from the position of President of the Russian Federation.” Signed at the time of its posting on Monday by 19 municipal deputies, mostly serving in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the petition has since garnered signatures from another 84 officials. The deputies, who are violating a Russian law passed shortly after the invasion of Ukraine that all but bans anti-war protest, are also denouncing Russia’s most recent election, held over the weekend, which they describe as rampant with fraud.
→ It’s not just railway workers moving to strike this week. On Wednesday, some 15,000 Minnesota nurses across the Twin Cities and Duluth headed back to the picket line for the third straight day of a planned three-day work stoppage after seven healthcare systems in Minnesota rejected their call for 30% salary increases. Hospital representatives said that because of significant drops in revenue stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, the best they could offer nurses was a 10% to 12% raise, but union groups said that wasn’t enough. They argued hospitals do have the funds to increase salaries because they were paying traveling nurses premium fees of between $8,000 and $10,000 for two days of training and three days of shifts to cover the nurses on strike. Nurses will return to work on Thursday and continue negotiations, according to union reps. At current salary levels, newly hired nurses make about a quarter of what the hospitals have paid their temporary replacements.
→ Graph of the Day:
Despite August’s good news about gas prices going down, inflation remains stubbornly high, ticking up last month to 6.3% when excluding energy and food commodities. The cost of shelter, meanwhile, rose 0.7% in August, the largest single month increase since 1991, while numerous other sectors continued climbing as well, from medical care (+0.7%) to cars and trucks (+0.8%) to outdoor equipment (+1.2%), suggesting that there is too much money for too few things—an inflationary cycle that is sure to keep the Federal Reserve raising its benchmark rate, which, in turn, makes a recession more likely.
→ Quotes of the Day:
I think that literature is not really supposed to ‘answer’ things, not even to make them clearer, but rather to explore—often blindly—the huge areas of darkness, and show them better.
I think it was Faulkner who once said that when you strike a match in a dark wilderness, it is not in order to see anything better lighted, but just in order to see how much more darkness there is around. I think that literature does mainly that.
— Javier Marías
The filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky said the purpose of art is to ready a person for death, if only to ensure his soul’s good standing for the afterlife. This week we’ve seen the demise of three major artists: first the French director Jean-Luc Godard, then the filmmaker and photographer William Klein, and now the writer Javier Marías. Marías died at the age of 70 (pneumonia); he was the author of 14 novels and several other books that were received more or less by his native Spanish readers as national events, the same way Americans once anticipated theatrical releases of summer blockbusters. Selling 8 million copies and translated into 46 languages, Marías wrote a beloved news column on everything from soccer to politics in between his spy thrillers and sophisticated yarns of social psychodrama threaded with the burdens of history, of memory, and of other people. His best works were marked by a sardonic, stylish wit that unspooled over long, discursive paragraphs about moody ghosts, the depravity of elite bureaucracies, and the pleasures of a cigarette.
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→ The United Nations almost buried its own report on China’s treatment of its population of Uyghur Muslims, according to the Financial Times, with Michelle Bachelet, the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights, pressuring her staff to not publish the damning indictment of China’s abuses. In the end, the report was released on Aug. 31 and concluded that “the extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups … may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity” but according to the Times’, Beijing applied constant pressure to squelch the report and was nearly successful. “In the UN, China’s influence is massive,” one senior European diplomat told the paper. “They really are so powerful there and so much more sophisticated than, say, the Russians, who are only really able to spoil things. They know how to work the system to their advantage.”
→ Number of the Day: 59%
The decrease in the child poverty rate in the United States since 1993, according to The New York Times, with 28% of American children living below the poverty rate in that year compared to 11% as of 2019.
Some 8 million children still live in poverty in the United States, and many families earning just above the poverty line, set at $29,000 for a family, still suffer financial hardships.
But the analysis suggests that three decades of expanded federal aid for poor and working class families have more than halved the poverty rate across all U.S. states and demographics.
According to the Times’ analysis, done in partnership with Child Trends, a nonpartisan research group, this “astounding decline in child poverty” is the result of the United States’ deeply divided approach to welfare, which includes programs pushing people back to work as well as programs distributing aid to those in need, with “the single largest explanation [being] the growth of the safety net.”
→ As China and the West trade barbs about sovereignty—with China claiming Taiwan as part of its national territory and the West supporting Taiwan’s own claims of independence—the United States is considering a raft of potential sanctions against Beijing, and Europe is being pressured to follow suit, Reuters reports. Such sanctions would be far harder to apply and even costlier than those leveraged against Russia. “The potential imposition of sanctions on China is a far more complex exercise than sanctions on Russia, given U.S. and allies’ extensive entanglement with the Chinese economy,” a former senior U.S. Commerce Department official told Reuters. The Biden administration has already limited U.S. sales to China of advanced technologies such as semiconductors used for artificial technology and tools needed for manufacturing computer chips.
→ Launch House, a start-up promising young tech entrepreneurs and would-be founders the opportunity to mingle in a mansion in Beverly Hills, was rife with riffraff, sexual harassment and assault, and cultish intimidation tactics, according to an exposé published this week in Vox.
Founded by three tech veterans, the experience was billed as a meaningful community-building and networking opportunity—a way for people in the tech world to connect with one another and with potential funders.
But many former Launch House members, who paid $3,000 a month for a bunk bed in a mansion, said it was run less like an incubator than a fraternity, with underage girls passing out by the pool and strangers falling asleep on the couch.
One Launch House member recalls waking up one morning to find a guest had overdosed. Brett Goldstein, one of the founders, was on the phone as the ambulance arrived. “I’m like, he’s probably figuring out what hospital he was taken to, or contacting loved ones,” said the Launch House member. “And then he gets off the call and comes over to us and goes, ‘Hey, guys, guess what? I just landed two fintech TikTokers for our first New York cohort!’ and I think they were also gonna invest as well. I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ Thirty minutes later, he ordered Thai food. That’s how he handled that situation.”
Numerous women, meanwhile, came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Yet, as all of this was going on, Launch House was also beginning to gain traction—especially after it received support in February from leading venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz, leaving the Launch House members, especially female members, fearful of speaking out against the company.
→ Robot of the Day:
Food delivery is a booming business—not just for human drivers, but for the many thousands of autonomous robots schlepping spicy salmon rolls and banh mi along a growing number of U.S. campuses and city streets. Last year, robot delivery company Starship Technologies made its 1 millionth autonomous delivery, a 900% jump compared to what it was doing about a year and half prior. Scaling up that kind of growth demands a lot of the robot work fleet, including sometimes forcing them to run through a crime scene, as seen in this video posted online this week of a delivery robot in Los Angeles ducking under police tape to continue its forward food march.
Additional reporting and writing provided by The Scroll’s associate editor, David Sugarman
TODAY IN TABLET:
The For-Profit D.C. Firm Staging America’s ‘Grassroots’ Movements
Hayden Ludwig writes about how the great American tradition of spontaneous local protest is funded and staffed to a large degree by a “dark money” network controlled by Arabella Advisors.
Tablet columnist Michael Lind on how Cass Sunstein’s latest TED Talk of a book offers the kind of technocratic whimsy that the left and the right can agree to hate.
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If I Wasn’t a Chassid I’d Be a Nihilist
Laugh out loud—everything matters
By Ariel Fine
Nihilism and Chassidism seem to be on opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum, yet my mind seems to believe that I can reconcile them. It’s likely that I cannot, but at the very least I can explain why I am drawn to each philosophy and justify why I choose to believe in Chassidism, with all its obligations, instead of in the pure negation of nihilism.
I was only introduced to nihilism recently—academically, anyway. Experientially, it has been a part of me for as long as I can remember. I was learning chassidus for many years and was beginning to think more broadly when I decided to expand my studies to other schools of philosophy and mysticism. My intention was to find more words that I could use to explain and understand chassidus. I cannot fully describe the sense I had when I came across nihilism. It simply resonated on a deep level. Naturally, being a chassid, I felt the need to synthesize my new affinity toward nihilism with my belief in Chassidism.
Nihilism is, at least in my view, the philosophy that life has no meaning and that nothing is real. This is a wonderful outlook on things. If nothing means anything, then nothing really matters. Free from the anxiety of whether you have made or will make the right choices, you can never screw up! There are no mistakes because everything you do is of equal value—none of it means anything! All the rules about right and wrong are based on the illusion that some source of authority exists outside of the nothing that is everything. But there’s no authority, say the nihilists, so there’s no reason to accept the rules. No rules mean that you will always be free, no matter where you are.
Perhaps it will be clearer if I illustrate the inverse. If you believe that everything matters and life is inherently meaningful, then you will always be burdened with the task of living up to your potential. What if I made the wrong choice? What if I waste an opportunity? What if I fail? Being a nihilist promises to free you from these worries. You never have to become something or be someone. Nothing can ever go wrong! Nor do you have to worry about other people’s feelings or your obligations to them.
If you just accept the absurdity of this meaningless existence, you can live a liberated and, ironically, a meaningful life. It’s almost as if nihilism, which denies religion and afterlife, is a life-affirming philosophy. It forces you to stop searching for something greater, something beyond yourself, some “out there” higher-purpose bullshit. Instead, it forces you to be in the here and now only. Because there is nothing else (there isn’t even this).
I have no deeper explanation for why I am drawn to nihilism, but the great thing about it is that I don’t need one. The whole point of believing in nothing is that it doesn’t need to be justified. What would you even justify it with? More nothing? There is something to be said for how satisfying it feels to not give a crap about anything. Nothing can ever bother me if nothing means anything. I’ll be like the bottom of a riverbed and let everything just rush over me—water, fish, plants, life. The riverbed never changes, never even flinches at what flows by. Existence sounds like hard work, but the riverbed is a very comfortable and pleasing mode for getting through it …