Railroad executives holding economy hostage
And the US begins to release some stolen Afghan central bank funds -- to a Swiss bank
Yesterday I reported that the U.S. is planning to send $3.5 billion of Afghan central bank reserves it seized to a Swiss bank, under the control of a trusteeship, to be used for its intended purpose – monetary policy in Afghanistan – but also, disturbingly, for other purposes. It’s potentially hopeful news, but only if those other purposes are reined in when the operation is set up, and the money is moved quickly back to the central bank, which is the stated goal of the new policy..
Today, in a joint statement, the Treasury Department and State Department confirmed the reporting. The details are here. Whether this alleviates the catastrophic crisis in Afghanistan depends on whether the reserves are genuinely used to stem inflation there, stabilize the currency, and grease the flow of imports and exports. In other words, get the economy going. I’ll continue to follow it as we learn more about the structure and mandate of this new board.
Railroad executives are in the beginning stages of a lockout of workers, with Amtrak already halting all long-distance service. The goal is obvious: To cause enough economic pain for the country, and political pain for Democrats leading into the midterms, that Congress forces a contract on workers that doesn’t deal with their main point of contention, a new brutal scheduling system that has made family life, or any semblance of a life outside of work, borderline impossible.
For the details on that, see this interview we did in July with labor reporter Max Alvarez and Teamster Jeff Kurtz. Essentially, workers are pushing back against utter inflexibility that makes no room even for high-stakes family emergencies, a policy necessitated by the railroads’ unsustainable insistence on staffing service with as few as one or two people for miles-long trains. Here’s how one worker put it:
The administration has begun making backup plans to make sure chlorine gets to water treatment facilities, among other critically important deliveries that simply must keep moving. What the administration hasn’t done is bring the hammer down on the railroad executives holding the entire country hostage in their labor dispute.
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I made a version of this point on Twitter, criticizing Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for allowing us to get to this point, and many people responded by saying this is actually a role for the Labor Secretary (which, yes: Marty Walsh is also involved, and also deserves criticism). Matt Yglesias made the point that “This is actually under the jurisdiction of an independent agency not housed at Department of Transportation, run by a longtime public servant who was previously a union-side labor lawyer.”
That response might be the neatest encapsulation of the difference in political approach between the band of more technocratic policy mavens and what you might describe as a more expansively progressive approach to governing. I have no doubt the public servant, Linda Puchala, head of the National Mediation Board, is well meaning, and is doing her level-best to get a deal before the deadline.
For those in Matt’s camp, the existence of this independent agency marks, more or less, the end of the role of government in the dispute: it’s between labor and the company, and the mediation board will sort it out, or it won’t.
There is, of course, another way to see it. There’s nothing technically written into the law that expressly gives railroad executives the power to put your safe drinking water at risk so that we all cave to their demands and ratify their brutal labor practices with a new forced contract. That law doesn’t exist. But the law doesn’t stop them either. And nothing is stopping Secretary Buttigieg from assigning his deputies to the task of making those executives’ lives miserable for what they’re doing. How? Well, the trains don’t have a very good safety record. Massively expanding spot safety inspections would get their attention. You get the idea. (The same goes for Biden and for Secretary Walsh. They have power.)
By the way, I might disagree with Matt on this point and this approach (and often), but he writes his own substack newsletter I’ve found provocative and worth reading.
About the Afghan money: the problem, when the money gets there is going to be: what the people in charge are going to do with it.
I'm not too worried about them doing something evil with it. I'm worried that they won't know what to do, but will do something with it, anyway, that probably won't be very useful.
Why? Because the Taliban has a way of getting anyone with a shred of talent and expertise -- on anything other than blowing things up or shooting them up, or figuring out more ways of treating women as troublesome pets better not to be seen in public -- anyone else, in summary, able to do something practical and positive, running away from them as far as they can. And so would I, if I were unfortunate enough to be living there these days.