Stop Dumping All the Risks on Blue Collar Workers

June 13, 2018

That commentary was originally scheduled to air on WAMC on June 5. They did post it on their website but the audio was pre-empted by the Pledge Drive. Instead they aired it a week later on June 12. Even though they’d posted it, I wanted to be sure it was aired because I consider it an important issue to think through. Hope you do too.

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Stop Dumping All the Risks on Blue Collar Workers

June 5, 2018

I have been thinking about all the blue-collar workers who believed that Donald Trump would do a great deal for them.

We often talk about the risks that entrepreneurs face but capitalism does its best to outsource risk to blue-collar workers. If there are environmental problems, poisons in the air or water, blue-collar workers and their children will be the first to become sick – they are the canaries in the coal mines. But the irony is that they are also the first to be affected by any attempt to remedy the situation. Prohibitions may force their workplaces to shut down or lay them off.

Liberals often respond by saying that new methods will create jobs. But blue-collar workers have good reason to assume that any jobs created will probably be for other people. Liberals also argue that the proper method for creating jobs is with public works, renovating American infrastructure, etc. But who’ll get the infrastructure jobs? And even more important, no one has been able to promise those jobs. Obama tried but Congress blocked much of what he wanted to do. Trump promised a huge infrastructure program but he put it in the budgets of the states, not his own budget. In effect American politics has not been able to deliver on that jobs promise for the people whose jobs are at risk.

Other relief programs are more automatic: Except for Puerto Rico, we regularly protect people flooded by major storms even when they should have known better than to build on flood plains. The farm program, whatever its shortcomings, protects farmers with formulas that can be calculated in advance. Unemployment insurance is statutory but often grossly inadequate. Social security and Medicare have been reliable though they have become political footballs. Obamacare still exists despite Republican attempts to kill it. But you can’t feed and house a family on medical care. The earned income tax credit comes annually after April 15.

All of this suggests political winners and losers – we like some folks and we don’t trust others with whatever we might do for them. Government has not been willing to become the employer of last resort, so that there are always jobs and wages, although some candidates are urging it now. A negative income tax has been deemed too expensive. And Trump has spent huge tax dollars on enriching the super rich instead of reducing or eliminating the payroll tax in order to encourage hiring more workers for jobs that pay well. There’s lots that could be done if we have the will.

The result is that our political system has not been willing to care for workers. They are not the only ones our politics has left to hang in the breeze. Our unwillingness to insist on decent, honest and ethical behavior for everything from payday lending to mortgage loans, from manufacturing to toxic waste, leaves masses of people at risk, unable to protect themselves or their families.

We need statutes that protect all workers when employers reduce their workforce. Protections need to be reliable so that people don’t have to fear for their jobs when they demand safe working conditions and decent contractual terms that don’t shift all the risks to the people who are most vulnerable and least able to protect themselves. We need reliable worker protection so that people needn’t fear for their jobs when we demand safe products and safe byproducts of business activity. We need to rethink how we protect American workers so that they don’t become the losers whenever we try to improve the American environment and working conditions for everyone.

— This commentary posted by WAMC on their website on June 5, 2018 but the audio was pre-empted by the Pledge Drive. It was broadcast in its usual spot the following week on WAMC Northeast Report, June 12, 2018.


Workers’ Rights Dishonored Again by the Supreme Court’s Conservative Majority

May 29, 2018

Once again, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court demonstrates the Court’s and the president’s hostility to worker rights. In cases testing whether companies can require their employees to sign agreements that abandon any right to go to court or bring class actions, Gorsuch’s opinion for the Court sides with the companies. That prevents employees from pooling their resources when contemplating expensive litigation.

The Norris-LaGuardia Act, passed in 1932, protects workers’ right to collective action on labor issues:

the individual unorganized worker is commonly helpless to exercise actual liberty of contract . . . , wherefore, . . . it is necessary . . . that he shall be free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers . . . in … concerted activities for … mutual aid or protection . . . .

The National Labor Relations Act, passed and signed in 1937, reaffirms that

[e]mployees shall have the right . . . to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.

Both statutes were passed with the understanding that “the individual unorganized worker is commonly helpless” against employers. But the Court held that the Federal Arbitration Act, passed and signed in 1925, protects arbitration agreements. Usually, later statutes are held to overrule or limit earlier ones, not the other way around. So the Court decided that the later statute didn’t mean to limit the Arbitration Act. Of course, Gorsuch and the Court didn’t and couldn’t know that. What they threw at us was pure preference – anything that helps companies against their employees fits their labor policy. Gorsuch and this Court doesn’t read the law, as they like to claim; they make it. And they have been consistently turning against workers’ rights.

There was a time in this country when workers were completely dependent on their employers. They were required to live in company homes, buy from company stores, and were paid in scrip that was only honored by the company. Thus any attempt to leave left employees bereft of everything.

This Court will not be satisfied until workers have to sign away their right to seek better jobs, leave town, or buy their goods anywhere but the company store. There is a term for that, serfdom, and it is still practiced in some countries. When the Tsar of Russia freed the Russian serfs, the change there rivaled the end of slavery here. We needn’t go into all the other rights that serfdom gave the masters, like the right to violate the women. Serfdom stank. The claim that employers can get anything they want by putting it into a contract shreds all our rights.

We’ve been seeing that lately in the sexual abuse claims that have been made since the Harvey Weinstein revelations. Employers didn’t put those claims into the contracts but their right to reject applicants or fire people at will worked for a long time.

Law exists to protect people – except that the U.S. Supreme Court with Gorsuch solidifying its position doesn’t think ordinary people deserve any rights. In my view, it’s the Court that deserves none.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 29, 2018.


Are We Overplaying Our Hand?

May 29, 2018

I’ve tried to state these comments not in all or nothing terms but in more realistic degrees. My question is what happens to the extent that a country overplays its hand?

That the U.S. pulled out from the nuclear agreement with Iran, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United Nations Security Council means, first, that the U.S. will surrender some commerce and trade to Iran’s other trading partners and that some of the others will move to fill some of the gap. If the U.S. tries to assert secondary sanctions against companies based abroad that trade with Iran, that will certainly offend others of our trading partners, including the E.U. and its members. They are likely to conclude that they cannot allow the U.S. to determine their trading practices and rules. If so, they can look elsewhere. Some companies can decide that trade with the U.S. is unpredictable and decide to scale it back. In other words, one consequence of the pull out can be that the U.S. becomes a smaller, less attractive country to trade with and a less powerful international voice. We may want to isolate Iran but we might increase our own isolation instead.

I objected to the arbitration provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership because it gave too much power to corporations to free themselves from labor and environmental regulation – grounds of little interest to the Trump Administration. But when the U.S. pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China stepped up to fill the vacuum. That’s a real cost that could have benefitted from continuing diplomacy rather than precipitate withdrawal. Insisting on having our own way can leave us celebrating our purity of principle but also isolated and irrelevant. And to the extent other countries can’t trust American politics and reach agreements with the U.S., America’s power and influence shrink.

Democracy generally depends on compromise. When people refuse to compromise, they lose the ability to reach a policy that the country can pursue successfully. We pursued a policy of containing communist countries for more than 50 years and it succeeded because the two parties preferred to work together than make a political issue out of that strategy. Republicans like to credit Reagan, but it was initiated under Truman, in line with the recommendations of George Kennan, and followed by Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush – presidents from both parties. These men were too wise and honorable to follow or reject policies because someone else started it. The ability to reach a consensus across party lines meant that it was stronger than party and America was strengthened as a result.

Some people who portray themselves as patriots want the U.S. to act independently of what other countries and international organizations want. But it’s questionable whether that’s actually patriotic because ignoring real world constraints runs us up against walls of resistance and sacrifices too much. The U.S. has about 1/23 of the world’s population. Running the other 22/23rds by sanctions, threats and intimidation is a heavy lift, likely to backfire. Wisdom comes harder. But it is important.

  • This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 22, 2018.

Realism in Foreign Policy

May 29, 2018

May I have the luxury of going back to basics?

It’s important to understand the different dynamics of foreign policy. Countries often see foreign affairs through the lens of the balance of power. If the balance gets out of whack, conquest is likely, further upsetting a regional balance.

Balance of power thinking can be important but we often miss the complexities. Seeing communist states only as Red blinded us to the hostilities between Vietnam and its larger neighbors. Whether or not we could have defeated Vietnam, we never had to fight them to protect our own interests. In fact, the war in Vietnam was a great gift to China much as the war in Iraq was a gift to Iran.

Before the first Gulf War, Iran and Iraq balanced each other in the region. And Iran and Israel had a decent working relationship. It was true that Ahmadinejad said some hateful things, but both countries understood that public language between countries often had little to do with their actual policies. In that case, Shi’a Iran was trying to suppress the potential enmity between it and its Sunni neighbors. But that was largely confined to talk.

When the U.S. defeated Iraq, it upset the regional balance of power in Iran’s favor. Israel then surprised everyone by screaming about the danger of Iran. Cooperation no longer mattered. Iran was large, without significant local enemies. And Israel wanted the U.S. to need Israel as its regional agent. Friendship between Iran and the U.S. made Israel less important. Woops. For all its bluster, that made Israel feel both vulnerable and reckless. Ironically, power is often greatest before it’s exercised, and Iran’s clerics actually had a broader view of Iranian interests, but the U.S. refused to discuss it with them.

Ideological rivalry was the major dynamic of the cold war. We built radio towers and beamed broadcasts into the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Unscrupulous politicians can use ideological and ethnic divides to stir up trouble. Ideological unity can hold people together. But like the balance of power, ideological unity is fragile, and keeps changing. In the Middle East, before Trump, we largely tried to balance the ideological power of Islam with a commitment to democratic revolution and to Israel. But we’ve always limited our commitment to democracy by our own economic preferences, leading others to perceive us as hypocritical.

The European Union reflected a third approach. France and Germany fought a succession of brutal wars culminating in World War II in which France was overrun and which made refugees of a large portion of the continental population. In response, after the war, statemen in Europe brought the two countries and others in Europe together in a customs union which united former adversaries and built a sense of unity among them. The E.U. gave America the blessing of a powerful ally plus the freedom not to worry about divisions among the countries of western Europe. A declining E. U. also weakens American power.

Rock, paper, scissors? Nothing is pure or stable. Thinking about foreign affairs in terms of a single demand, issue or policy while ignoring everything else is equivalent to an infant’s temper tantrum. Thinking about Iran as if all we need to know is its clerical ideology, as if that can be simplistically defined as an axis of evil, is an invitation to disaster.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 15, 2018.

 


IRAN, the Nuclear Agreement and Donald Trump

May 8, 2018

America sees itself as altruistic and believes we should be trusted because we proved it in World War II. But, in 1953, Americans in the Embassy in Tehran helped engineer a coup d’état against the democratically selected Prime Minister of Iran. Persians admired us for our power but hated what we had done.

Americans did not understand that history when, during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Persians stormed the Embassy and made hostages of the staff. That breached international law and was very hurtful for those involved but it was brought on by the memory that the earlier coup was managed from the Embassy. Now we both had reason to hate each other.

But the subsequent history is more interesting than the popular stereotypes. Diplomatic relations and even cooperation between Iran and Israel as well as major trade ( including Iran supplying oil in exchange for Israeli weapons and ballistic missile technology) lasted long after the Islamic Revolution and persisted despite Ahmadinejad’s hateful rhetoric. America and Iran continued cooperating about many Middle Eastern issues despite the effort of a succession of American presidents to isolate Iran.

Isolation threatened Iran. The religious division of the Middle East between the Shia, principally in Iran, and the Sunni, dominant everywhere else, provide opportunities for politicians to whip up animosities when it suits their purposes – much as Trump has whipped up animosities over racial differences and guns to dangerous levels. To stay on good terms with most of its neighbors, Iran supported Sunni positions on Palestine.

America stood back while Iran and Iraq fought a brutal war in the 1980s but then defeated Iraq under Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush. Since Iraq had been Iran’s major antagonist, its defeat at the hands of the U.S. was a great gift to Iran and destabilized the power relations in the Middle East. Meanwhile Iran continued seeking rapprochement with the U.S. and offered to be helpful to the U.S. in our conflicts in the area, but no president was willing to talk until Obama. Obama had larger goals, to get Middle Eastern disputes out of the way while addressing problems in Asia.

Trump’s current effort to scuttle the multi-power agreement with Iran plays out stereotypes while sending terrible signals with ominous consequences:

  • Since US intelligence and military leaders and every involved head of state except the current U.S. President thinks Iran obeyed the terms of the agreement, what could count as obedience?
  • If obedience to the terms of the agreement doesn’t count, why should any country reach agreements with the U.S.?
  • If the U.S. terminates agreements at will, what is the value of diplomacy?
  • If the U.S. rides roughshod over non-nuclear countries, then nations need a nuclear capacity to hold us off.
  • And if diplomacy with the U.S. is a sterile enterprise, is war better? The origin of the Joint Agreement was European concern over the possibility of yet another war in the Middle East. Are we back to that?

Iran has become an American boogey-man, and too many think we look weak if we even talk with them. Israel’s concern has been to avoid letting any other country play a significant role in American thinking about the Middle East. That’s a recipe for trouble. It substitutes pure power for diplomacy and respectful negotiation. In fact, Iran has been anything but a loose cannon and has shown both the capacity and the willingness to resolve conflicts among us, provided that Iran be consulted and treated respectfully regarding Middle Eastern events. Only in a respectful climate can Iran play the constructive role we claim to want.

But Donald Trump wants an enemy for the political benefits. Risking the lives and safety of American and other men, women and children so Trump can look tough is a cynical abuse of his office. And if it misfires, we’ll be counting more body bags and amputees.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 8, 2018.


The Misplaced Questioning of Mark Zuckerberg

May 1, 2018

Before it recedes further into the past, I want to get back to the testimony of Mark Zuckerberg, founder and head of Facebook, before two Senate committees. The central issue was consumer choice. But that issue entirely missed the problem that precipitated the hearing – the behavior of Cambridge Analytica using data to manipulate user preferences for the 2016 election.

Members of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees questioned Zuckerberg for hours about the privacy of consumer choices. Privacy could solve the problem if the law or our Facebook choices prevented entities like Cambridge Analytica from getting the information they needed to manipulate our preferences. But that won’t happen.  Several senators asked Zuckerberg about allowing users to control their information with European style opt-in rules. Consumers can opt out of various services now and Zuckerberg accepted the value of opt in rules. In many circumstances Facebook already requires something like opt in.

None of the committee members got at the underlying problem of manipulation of user preferences by the apps unleashed on Facebook. Those apps were based on extensive testing of users who responded to a program seeking information, then Cambridge Analytica generalized its findings from that program to other Facebook users it had detailed information about, and used what it had learned to redirect their preferences. It is tempting to think that the fundamental problem was the violation of standards of user privacy. Unfortunately, user control doesn’t solve the problem, either in theory or in practice.

It falls short in theory because no one has the right to sell his or her vote. Society works hard to prevent people from selling votes because it fouls up our political system. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention spoke about owner control of worker votes in English factories. Anything that would allow one or a few to control the votes of others destroys meaningful democratic choice and does so on behalf of those who may have bad intentions for the people and their democratic system. The paper ballot was standardized over a century ago to make it harder to pay people for their votes or for voters to extract a fee. So voter/user control does not solve the problem in theory.

Internet businesses that collect data and use it to manipulate us present the same problem. People don’t have the right to consent to their own political manipulation any more than they have the right to agree to sell their votes and for the same reason. That should be the starting point of discussion, not consent. Consent doesn’t sterilize corrupt anti-social transactions.

Voter control doesn’t solve the problem in practice because few voters seem sufficiently interested in keeping their data private to cut off Cambridge Analytica types of manipulation. Plus the complexity of Facebook compounds the problem.

As a result, most discussion about privacy doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Committee members did hit paydirt with questions about users who should have been banished, shut out or stopped from misusing the system, like users touting violence or users targeting Rohingya in Myanmar. These are serious issues, but the risk of foreign manipulation, was largely undefined and unaddressed.

The hard question is what manipulation is and how it can be regulated consistent with the First Amendment. Those are also serious questions and the answers aren’t obvious. But privacy is a distraction.

 This commentary was broadcast on WAMC on May 1, 2018.

 


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