MONEY alternative assets

New York Proposes Bitcoin Regulations

Bitcoin (virtual currency) coins
Benoit Tessier—Reuters

New regulations may make Bitcoin safer. But some people think they will also ruin what made virtual currencies attractive.

Bitcoin may have just taken a huge step toward entering the financial mainstream.

On Thursday, Benjamin Lawsky, superintendent for New York’s Department of Financial Services, proposed new rules for virtual currency businesses. The “BitLicense” plan, which if approved would apply to all companies that store, control, buy, sell, transfer, or exchange Bitcoins (or other cryptocurrency), makes New York the first state to attempt virtual currency regulation.

“In developing this regulatory framework, we have sought to strike an appropriate balance that helps protect consumers and root out illegal activity—without stifling beneficial innovation,” wrote Lawsky in a post on Reddit.com’s Bitcoin discussion board, a popular gathering places for the currency’s advocates.

“These regulations include provisions to help safeguard customer assets, protect against cyber hacking, and prevent the abuse of virtual currencies for illegal activity, such as money laundering.”

The proposed rules won’t take effect yet. First is a public comment period of 45 days, starting on July 23rd. After that, the department will revise the proposal and release it for another round of review.

Regulation represents a turning point in Bitcoin’s history. The currency is perhaps best known for not being subject to government oversight and has been championed (and vilified) for its freedom from official scrutiny. Bitcoin transactions are anonymous, providing a new level of privacy to online commerce. Unfortunately, this feature has also proven attractive to criminals. Detractors frequently cite the currency’s widely publicized use as a means to sell drugs, launder money, and allegedly fund murder-for-hire.

The failure of Mt. Gox, one of Bitcoin’s largest exchanges, following the theft of more than $450 million in virtual currency, also drew attention to Bitcoin’s lack of consumer protections. In his Reddit post, Lawsky specifically referenced Mt. Gox as a reason why “setting up common sense rules of the road is vital to the long-term future of the virtual currency industry, as well as the safety and soundness of customer assets.”

New York’s proposed regulations require digital currency companies operating within the state to record the identity of their customers, including their name and physical address. All Bitcoin transactions must be recorded, and companies would be required to inform regulators if they observe any activity involving Bitcoins worth $10,000 or more.

The proposal also places a strong emphasis on protecting legitimate users of virtual currency. New York is seeking to require that Bitcoin businesses explain “all material risks” associated with Bitcoin use to their customers, as well as provide strong cybersecurity to shield their virtual vaults from hackers. In order to ensure companies remain solvent, Bitcoin licensees would have to hold as much Bitcoin as they owe in some combination of virtual currency and actual dollars.

Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, two of Bitcoin’s largest investors, endorsed the new proposal. “We are pleased that Superintendent Lawsky and the Department of Financial Services have embraced bitcoin and digital assets and created a regulatory framework that protects consumers,” Cameron Winklevoss said in an email to the Wall Street Journal. “We look forward to New York State becoming the hub of this exciting new technology.”

Gil Luria, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, also saw the regulations as beneficial for companies built around virtual currency. “Bitcoin businesses in the U.S. have been looking forward to being regulated,” Luria told the New York Times. “This is a very big important first step, but it’s not the ultimate step.”

However, this excitement was not universally shared by the internet Bitcoin community. Soon after posting a statement on Reddit, Lawsky was inundated with comments calling his proposal everything from misguided to fascist. “These rules and regulations are so totalitarian it’s almost hilarious,” wrote one user. Others suggested New York’s proposal would increase the value of Bitcoins not tied to a known identity or push major Bitcoin operations outside the United States.

One particularly controversial aspect of the law appears to ban the creation of any new cryptocurrency by an unlicensed entity. This would not only put a stop to virtual currency innovation (other Bitcoin-like monies include Litecoin, Peercoin, and the mostly satirical Dogecoin) but could theoretically put Bitcoin’s anonymous creator, known by the name Satoshi Nakamoto, in danger of prosecution if he failed to apply for a BitLicense.

One major issue not yet settled is whether other states, or the federal government, will use this proposal as a model for their own regulations. Until some form of regulation is widely adopted, New York’s effort will have a limited effect on Bitcoin business. “I think ultimately, these rules are going to be good for the industry,” Lawsky told the Times. “The question is if this will spread further.”

TIME Music

In Semi-Defense of “Brooklyn Girls”

Catey Shaw isn't really singing about Brooklyn

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If you saw the video above, Catey Shaw’s “Brooklyn Girls,” on the Internet yesterday, you probably figured out that it was instantly hated — and not because of the song or the singer, because of the subject matter. Its presentation of the much-beloved and much-maligned New York City borough is enough to make residents want to leave, apparently.

But Catey Shaw isn’t actually singing about Brooklyn the place. She’s singing about Brooklyn the adjective. She says so herself, in a teaser video for the song: “The whole thing about a Brooklyn girl is you don’t have to be from Brooklyn,” she states, with an actual bird perched on her shoulder. “It’s more the whole idea of the strong female.”

And Marc Spitz, author of the recently released book Twee, sees what she means. He says the song called to mind the idea of “très Brooklyn,” the supposedly trendy French terminology for coolness — to the point that he first guessed the song and video were Swedish, with non-Brooklynites just imagining the place. (Though “Brooklyn Girls” is definitely not twee, Spitz writes about the relationship between the two, saying that “Brooklyn” and “twee” are often confused these days.) The reason why there’s been such a backlash, says Spitz, is that “anything that’s ‘Brooklyn’ is going to produce a backlash.”

“It’s an authenticity question. We haven’t really progressed that much since the ’90s; you have to be super sincere or else you’re going to get a lot of shit,” he says. “Now [Brooklyn] is kind of a faux neighborhood with a prefabricated culture.”

But once you see it that way — the faux neighborhood and the real neighborhood being different — Shaw’s song doesn’t seem worth the hate anymore. That’s because if you separate the idea of Brooklyn from the place where people live (myself included, full disclosure), Shaw is being authentic.

The pre-fab culture Spitz describes is a real thing, and she’s really singing about it with seeming sincerity. Though New York-based outlets are understandably upset (with some exceptions) that someone is capitalizing on their hometown in a such a lame fashion, it’s hard to be upset at someone commercializing an intentionally commercial concept. Moreover, it’s not like the idea-vs.-place struggle is new. Manhattanites figured out long ago that while feeling protective of your territory is one thing, getting upset about other people’s ideas of what that place means is pointless.

“You have to remember that everyone since the dawn of time has bitched about New York and what it’s become, but nobody owns New York,” Spitz says. “When Bob Dylan came here, they said the scene was dead. When the Dutch came, they probably said the scene was dead. One of the great and terrible things about New York is that we expect the real, and this is clearly not ‘the real’ — but also it’s bullshit to think that we own it.”

Just as Manhattan — like Paris and Los Angeles and Tokyo — has had to come to grips with existing as both a place and an idea at the same time, it’s too late to take back “Brooklyn,” even if the idea’s existence is still novel. “Personally, I lived on Bedford and Grand in 1992 and there was nothing there, and I go to Williamsburg now and I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone,” Spitz says. “The fact that any of this is happening is rather strange to me, even though I wrote a book about it.”

TIME Law

FAA Investigates Congressman’s Drone Wedding Video

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney in Capitol hill in 2013.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney in the Capitol in 2013. Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) — The Federal Aviation Administration indicated Wednesday that it is investigating whether a video of a congressman’s wedding last month violated the agency’s ban on drone flights for commercial purposes.

The agency’s carefully worded statement doesn’t mention Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., by name, but said it was looking into “a report of an unmanned aircraft operation in Cold Spring, New York, on June 21 to determine if there was any violation of federal regulations or airspace restrictions.”

Maloney has acknowledged hiring a photographer to produce a video of his wedding using a camera mounted on a small drone. The wedding took place in Cold Spring on June 21. Maloney is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s aviation subcommittee, which oversees the FAA.

Top agency officials have testified extensively before Congress about their concern that commercial drones could collide with manned aircraft or injure people on the ground. Congress has been pressing the FAA to move faster on creating regulations that will allow commercial drones access to U.S. skies. The agency has been working on regulations for about a decade.

“On their wedding day, Sean and Randy were focused on a ceremony 22 years in the making, not their wedding photographer’s camera mounted on his remote control helicopter,” Stephanie Formas, spokeswoman for Maloney, said in a statement.

The FAA has approved a few limited commercial drone operations. But the agency has also been sending letters to commercial operators across the country — including other videographers and companies that hire videographers — to cease their drone flights or face fines.

One videographer, Raphael Pirker, challenged the $10,000 fine the FAA tried to level against him for flying a small drone in an allegedly reckless manner near the University of Virginia. An administrative law judge sided with Pirker, whose attorney argued the agency can’t ban commercial drone flights when it hasn’t formally adopted safety rules governing drone flights. The FAA has appealed the case to the five-member National Transportation Safety Board. A decision is expected this fall.

Formas, citing the judge’s ruling, said there was “no enforceable FAA rule” or regulation that applied to “a model aircraft like the helicopter used in the ceremony.”

The wedding photographer subcontracted Parker Gyokeres of Propellerheads Aerial Photography in Trenton, New Jersey, to shoot the video. Gyokeress posted outtakes of the wedding on his company’s website and created a YouTube video.

TIME animals

Not Just Penguins: Many Animals Partner With Same Sex

A homosexual penguin couple from New York’s Central Park Zoo are back in the news now that a book about their relationship has been banned in Singapore. Keith Wagstaff looks at the core question about homosexual behavior in animals.

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Transportation

Lyft Delays New York Launch to Seek Government Approval

Lyft Car
A Lyft car drives along Powell Street on June 12, 2014 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan—;Getty Images

The state attorney's general office had sought a restraining order after failed attempts to get Lyft to comply with state law

Updated July 11, 5:32 p.m.

The ride-sharing service Lyft has delayed its launch in New York following a request for a restraining order by the state attorney general’s office. In a joint statement, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and State Superintendent of Financial Services Benjamin Lawsky said they sought the restraining order after failed attempts to get Lyft to comply with state law.

“Instead of collaborating with the State to help square innovation with statute and protect the public, as other technology companies have done as recently as this week, Lyft decided to move ahead and simply ignore state and local laws,” the statement reads. “Lyft’s arguments are a disingenuous attempt to disguise old-fashioned law-breaking that jeopardizes public safety.”

Lyft is an app-based service that allows regular people to offer rides to strangers in their area in exchange for money. The company has argued that it is not a taxi service and therefore should not be bound to the regulations of New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission. Following this week’s legal wrangling, though, the company says it will now seek TLC approval before launching in New York. “We agreed in New York State Supreme Court to put off the launch of Lyft’s peer-to-peer model in New York City and we will not proceed with this model unless it complies with New York City Taxi and Limousine regulations,” the company said. “We will meet with the TLC beginning Monday to work on a new version of Lyft that is fully-licensed by the TLC.”

The joint statement from the government originally claimed that the attorney general’s office had successfully lobbied the state Supreme Court to issue a temporary restraining order against Lyft. However, after Lyft said that no such order was issued, the office changed its statement to say that an “injunction” had been issued. Lyft maintains that neither a restraining order nor an injunction was issued, but that the court adjourned and the company agreed to postpone its launch.

Other car-hailing tech companies like Uber have gone through the TLC to operate in New York. The ones that haven’t, like Sidecar, have been kicked out of the city. “We are committed to fostering a competitive marketplace where each participant is treated fairly,” the statement by Schneiderman and Lawsky said. “We are hopeful that Lyft will now recognize that it has to play by the same set of rules as everyone else.”

Lyft was originally scheduled to launch at 7 p.m. Friday with service in Brooklyn and Queens. The company still plans to host a launch party Friday night in Brooklyn.

TIME weather

Manhattanhenge Is Back, Here’s What You Need to Know

Manhattanhenge
Photographers gather on the Tudor City Place overpass to capture the Manhattenhenge looking across 42nd Street in the Manhattan borough of New York, New York, USA. Zoran Milich—Getty Images

For two weekends every year, the island of Manhattan gets a little Stonehengy.

Druids of New York City, break out those robes — the Manhattanhenge Solstice hath returned.

What is Manhattanhenge, you ask? We’ll leave it to the experts—in this case Neil deGrasse Tyson writing for the American Museum of Natural History—to tell you.

Sometimes known as the Manhattan Solstice, Manhattanhenge comes twice a year “when the setting Sun aligns precisely with Manhattan’s street grid, creating a radiant glow of light across Manhattan’s brick and steel canyons, simultaneously illuminating both the north and south sides of every cross street of the boroughs grid,” writes Tyson. “A rare and beautiful sight.”

For prime Manhattanhenge viewing, get as far east in Manhattan as possible with New Jersey still in sight and look west towards the horizon — 14th, 23rd, 34th and 42nd streets are all good bets for catching a glimpse of the phenomenon. On Friday, the full sun will hover over the horizon at 8:24 p.m. On Saturday, the phenomenon will repeat with a half sun on the horizon at 8:25 p.m.

Manhattanhenge gets its name from the way the sun plays on Stonehenge, the pre-historic ring of vertical stones in England’s Salisbury Plain that has mystified archaeologists for generations. Academics and poets alike have tried to deduce the meaning of the Stonehenge arrangement from the way the sun casts over the stones on the Summer Solstice, a guessing game Tyson plays on with a prediction about future archaeologists poking around the remains of our civilization that hits uncomfortably close to home.

“These two days [of Manhattanhenge] happen to correspond with Memorial Day and Baseball’s All-Star break,” Tyson writes. “Future anthropologists might conclude that, via the Sun, the people who called themselves Americans worshiped War and Baseball.”

TIME Environment

A Year After a Deadly Disaster, Fears Grow About the Danger of Crude Oil Shipped By Rail

The U.S. is producing more oil than it has in decades—and much of that oil is being transported by railroads that travel through crowded cities

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When 21-year-old mother Kahdejah Johnson was told two years ago that she’d secured a spot at the Ezra Prentice Homes, a quiet housing project in Albany, she felt confident she’d found a stable home to raise her newborn son. With its manicured lawns and tidy beige row houses, the Ezra Prentice Homes are a far cry from the crumbling housing projects of large cities. “When people come into town they’re like ‘These are your projects? These are condos!’” says Johnson.

But today, Johnson is losing sleep over how close her house is to railroad tracks congested, day and night, with tanker cars carrying crude oil, visible just outside her bedroom window. The fear of an accident is so great that Johnson has taken to evacuating her apartment some nights, to spend the night at her mother’s home, further from the tracks. “Now I’m afraid to be in my own home,” she says. “Do you know how fast we could die here?”

Albany is one of a growing number of cities where residents like Johnson fear the devastating consequences of accidents involving railcars filled with crude oil. They have reason to fear—on July 6, 2013, a train carrying oil derailed in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, causing an explosion that destroyed more than 30 buildings and killed more than 40 people. This past Sunday, Johnson and other Albany residents held a vigil to commemorate the Lac-Megantic derailment—and draw attention to the growing opposition to transporting crude oil by rail

“Jo-Annie Lapointe, Melissa Roy, Maxime Dubois, Joanie Turmel,” participants in the vigil intoned into a microphone, naming Lac-Megantic residents killed in the explosions. In a line, they held portraits of each of the deceased and read their names, pinning the pictures to a black metal fence. “You may not say that they lived right next door to you, but they were your neighbors,” said Pastor McKinley Johnson, who officiated part of the ceremony. “You may not say that you understand all the language, but they’re your sister and your brother.”

As in Lac-Megantic, oil tankers containing highly flammable crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana roll right through their residential areas. Rows of train-cars filled with crude oil often stand idle for hours on the tracks that hug the curves of the housing project, so tightly only 15 feet at most separate the two in some areas. “Once I found out that these are the same tanks that were in Canada, I was like ‘Oh my God, someone pray for us, We’re in danger’,” Johnson said.

This fear is a consequence of the unconventional oil boom in states like North Dakota, where for the last several years producers have been using hydrofracking techniques to pump oil previously locked in underground shale rock. The new oil fields have helped America’s oil production rise to a 28-year high. But that crude oil has to get to refineries, most of which are located in coastal cities—and much of that oil is moving by rail. Nationally, transport of crude oil by train has jumped 45-fold between 2008 and 2013, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

While the U.S. has yet to experience a rail catastrophe on the scale of Lac-Megantic, the country has had its share of close calls. The National Transportation Safety Board counts five “significant accidents” of trains containing crude oil in the United States in the past year alone. The latest, in Lynchburg, Virginia, saw a train carrying crude Bakken oil derail and burst into flames in the town’s center this April, producing black plumes of smoke and billows of flames taller than buildings nearby. The crude oil also spilled into the James River, though one was injured.

The worrying trend has opened a new front to the national environmental debate. Some 40 cities and towns across the country scheduled similar events to mark Lac-Megantic’s one-year anniversary. Many of the rallies will take place in the usual hotbeds of environmental activism —in places like Seattle and Portland—but also in blue-collar tows like Philadelphia and Detroit, where activists will voice demands ranging from a moratorium on oil-trains traffic to increased safety controls.

But the problem has also presented environmentalists with a conundrum. One of the factors behind the rapid rise of railroad shipment of crude oil has been the shortage of oil pipelines, which could move greater quantities of oil from landlocked states to coastal refineries. Front and center to this debate is the multi-billion dollar Keystone XL pipeline project, which would connect the oil sands of western Canada to the Gulf Coast, but which President Obama has yet to approve—in part because of objections raised by environmentalists, who fear the potential for a spill.

Fewer pipelines has meant more oil moved via rail. “If Keystone had been built we wouldn’t be moving nearly the volume of oil that we’re moving by rail,” said Charles Ebinger, the director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

That has exposed the Keystone’s opponents to criticism that by standing in the way of pipeline projects, they are raising the risk of rail accidents. Though hazardous material like crude oil makes its way safely via rail 99.998 percent of the time, according to the Association of American Railroads, a plethora of research suggests that pipelines result in fewer spillage incidents, personal injuries and fatalities than rail. That includes an authoritative environmental review the State Department released last January, which concluded that “there is… a greater potential for injuries and fatalities associated with rail transport relative to pipelines.”

Still, environmentalists like Ethan Buckner of ForestEthics, the group coordinating the string of events to commemorate the Lac-Megantic tragedy, reject that dichotomy. “The industry is trying to present Americans with a false choice between pipelines and rails,” he says. “We want to choose clean energy.”

Back in Albany, the vigil was deemed a success, drawing a crowd of about a hundred. But Kahdejah Johnson wasn’t among them. Why not? Her fear, she said, got the best of her. “Honestly, I don’t really hang by my house,” she said. “I don’t like to be in that area if I don’t have to be there.” She is now on a waiting list to be transferred to another development—something she’s told could take up to four years. In the meantime, the trains will keep rolling.

TIME apps

NYC to Lyft Drivers: We May Impound Your Car

A Post-Taxi Population Opts For Ride-sharing
Hunter Perry, a regular Lyft user, gets picked up on July 16, 2013 near his office on Harrison Avenue. Boston Globe—Boston Globe/Getty Images

Regulators warn Lyft drivers that safety and emissions violations could carry stiff penalties

Just two days before Lyft was planning to debut its ride sharing service in New York City’s outer boroughs, city officials warned that the service remained “unauthorized” and that participating drivers could face stiff penalties.

“Lyft has not complied with [the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission's] safety requirements and other licensing criteria to verify the integrity and qualifications of the drivers or vehicles used in their service,” the New York City TLC said in a statement, “and Lyft does not hold a license to dispatch cars to pick up passengers.”

Unlicensed drivers who fall short of drug, background, emissions or safety standards could face fines of up to $2,000 or even risk losing their vehicles, the agency warned. Licensed drivers could also be subject to fines of up to $2,000 for accepting a ride through an unlicensed dispatcher.

The warning came as Lyft prepared to debut its service on Friday in Brooklyn and Queens, recruiting 500 new drivers and promoting two weeks of free trips for new riders.

Lyft argues that its drivers face stricter background and safety standards than New York taxi drivers, and that some 75,000 people have already used the app to hail one of their iconic mustachioed cars.

“The public is reminded that they should not get into a vehicle without a TLC license,” the TLC warned (emphasis theirs). The public may decide for themselves, however, on Friday at 7 p.m., when the service is scheduled to roll out regardless of the TLC’s warnings.

TIME politics

The Students vs. the Unions

New York City’s mayor handed teachers a big win. Struggling students will be the losers

Back in 2005, when New York City was pre-crash flush, Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered the United Federation of Teachers a raise in return for 150 extra minutes of classroom work per week. The mayor’s idea was to spend that extra time tutoring the kids who needed the most help–the bottom third of each class. UFT president Randi Weingarten agreed that the group sessions would be small, no more than 10 students per class. Schools chancellor Joel Klein wanted three 50-minute periods per week. The union wanted five 30-minute periods. They compromised on four 37½-minute sessions.

The program was never given a name, which made it easier for New York’s new “progressive” mayor Bill de Blasio to give it back–to eliminate the required 150 minutes of special instruction–in his negotiations with the UFT this spring. You might well wonder why. I tried to find out but received a heaping ration of gobbledygook from a source close to the mayor. He said that the program had been “inflexible” and “one size fits all.” That it was not “workable to the purpose.” Translation: it didn’t work. But how do we know that? No studies or evaluations were done. At his press conference announcing the new union deal, the mayor and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, gave several foggy reasons for the change: the time would be used for additional parent conferences and for “professional development” so the teachers could learn how to teach the new core curriculum. A lot of unspecific wiggle room was negotiated on both counts–part of the mayor’s drive toward “flexibility.”

But flexibility is not a trait often associated with teachers’ unions. The American Federation of Teachers, which Weingarten now heads, calls itself “a union of professionals,” but it negotiates as if it were a union of assembly-line workers. Let’s start with the 37½ minutes, especially that half-minute. What happens if the teacher is in midsentence–or is in the midst of a breakthrough with a student–when the bell rings? A professional finishes the lesson and is paid in personal satisfaction. (I’m sure that the overwhelming majority of teachers do so; these sorts of work rules insult their dedication.) A professional talks to parents whenever and wherever. A professional also doesn’t resist evaluation–but the current New York City union president, Michael Mulgrew, actually bragged that he “gummed up the works” on an evaluation agreement with the far more rigorous Bloomberg administration; de Blasio, of course, hasn’t sought to implement that deal.

The most damning aspect of de Blasio’s giveback is the “didn’t work” argument. We are talking about one of the ground-zero principles of a healthy school system: extra help for those who need it. If the program doesn’t work, you don’t eliminate it. You fix it. The mayor’s spokesman said the extra help would be continued in “flexible” ways. Apparently, “flexibility” is a mayoral euphemism for “I cave.” And given the current atmosphere, if it isn’t specified in the contract, it doesn’t exist. A mayor who actually cared about education would be seeking longer school days, longer school years, more charter schools (which have to be more rigorously monitored) and the elimination of tenure and seniority rules to make sure that the best professionals, not the longest-serving assembly-line workers, are in the classrooms.

Teachers’ unions are suddenly on the defensive across the country. The Supreme Court recently ruled–unfairly, I believe–that some home health care workers did not have to join the union that negotiated their contract. That could have an impact on all public-employee unions. In California, a district court judge recently threw out the state’s tenure rules. In his ruling, he wrote that the widespread protection of incompetent teachers “shocks the conscience.” A group called the Partnership for Educational Justice, which is led by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, is filing a similar suit in New York and promises to take the movement national. Brown’s group has hired Robert Gibbs, the former Obama press secretary, to run its communications strategy; other Obama stalwarts will soon join the effort as well. Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the California decision, which caused the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, to call for him to be fired.

All of which raises an old labor-movement question for Democrats in 2014 and 2016: Which side are you on? Competent teachers should certainly be paid more, but the protection of incompetence is a national scandal, as is the unions’ resistance to teacher evaluations and charter schools, as is the quiet undermining of educational creativity by eliminating special programs for needy students. The Obama Administration has clearly edged away from the unions’ excesses. But what about the rest of the party? Which side are they on: the students’ or the unions’?

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

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