What Lessons Will We Learn?

April 13, 2020

I’d like to look beyond this epidemic, beyond the people telecomputing and those taking bicycles to work instead of busses, beyond our fears of going to meetings to see and greet each other and work together, beyond elbow bumps at funerals as I had to recently, and think ahead to a better future.

What will we learn from this epidemic? We’ve faced horrible situations before and managed to improve ourselves based on those experiences. We don’t seem to have retained much of the lessons of 1918 but we’ve bettered ourselves in the face of other disasters.

In the Great Depression of 1929 through the 30s, many of us learned that being out of work is out of control for many of us. As the economy contracts there are fewer jobs, and people are forced to join lines to soup kitchens. We learned a degree of solidarity and learned to put compassion above blame. We learned supporting each other we could make a better world for all of us.

Others saw the mistreatment of workers. The so-called settlement houses of the early 20th century were largely efforts to improve the lives of immigrant workers. I took a college course from Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, who witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which killed 146 workers, and then dedicated herself in a succession of positions to make work safer. President Franklin Roosevelt brought her to Washington where she became the soul of the New Deal.

Out of those experiences came Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and labor laws that substituted collective bargaining for lockouts and strikes.

Then just as we began to recover from the Great Depression, we were tossed into the unimaginable horror of World War II – a struggle which took 60 million lives around the globe. Then too we responded with love and compassion to our veterans coming home, without regard to their where they came from or how they prayed. United, we had the political will to pass the GI Bill that put many veterans through schools they could not have afforded before. The progress we saw as a result was not an accident – we soon had the world’s best trained workforce and it showed in the accomplishments of our people. We had invested in the people of America, invested in each other, and together we reaped the harvest of good jobs, good incomes, real education and better health and housing.

Internationally we need to learn that everyone’s welfare matters: China and Iran affect our health here, freedom and democracy are indivisible. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the effort to draft the UN Declaration of Human Rights. We’ve had nothing to fear from countries that adopted freedom and democracy.

I spent a decade providing legal services to the poor and met a lot of wonderful people in the process. Recently I’ve been working with a different organization that helps the needy and, again, I’ve been impressed by people working as hard as they could to support themselves, their families and their communities. Climbing out of poverty is hard as people don’t have the resources to deal with problems that are almost inevitable – unexpected bills, illness, economic changes.

What lesson will we learn now? Will we learn the lesson that everyone’s health matters, that our ability to work and play depends on everyone else’s health too? Will we remind ourselves that unemployment and poor working conditions are problems we share, not just someone else’s problems?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 14, 2020.


No Time for Moderates

May 27, 2019

We’re suffering a worldwide attack on tolerance, the brotherhood and sisterhood of all peoples, and the principles of democracy and equality that make it possible to share the country and much of the globe in peace. The results, from Brexit to White Nationalism, the resurgence of Nazism in Europe, intolerance in India and China and ethnic warfare over the scraps of economic failure endanger us all. America, founded on tolerance, equality and democracy, should be leading the world out of this dangerous morass instead of smoothing the path to hell.

Commentators have long seen and feared the separation of national politics from the needs of the great mass of working people. Both national parties partook of that separation. Republicans revere Reagan but he crippled the unions, the organizations of working men and women. And claiming that government is the problem, not the solution, Reagan crippled efforts to address their problems. Democrats followed national economic trends without paying enough attention to the dislocations among working people. That combination made white working people feel left out, instead of uniting us in pursuit of a better world for everybody.

That’s recent history. Much further back, Alexis de Tocqueville, famous French nobleman, toured the U.S. in the 1830s and had the genius to see far into this country’s future. Tocqueville told us that democracy required widespread economic well-being.  The very first paragraph of the U.S. Constitution talks about the “general welfare” but many poo-poo it as merely precatory language, not authorizing government to take care of the people. Those who poo-poo that language think the Constitution is merely about freedom from government rather than the creation of a government capable of providing for the people. Their misreading of history is perverse and dangerous.

Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the twentieth century’s great political scientists, pointed to the world-wide connection between democracy and economic welfare. Germany, which had been a great economic power, lost its illustrious and democratic Weimar Constitution after going through economic hell between the world wars.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told America that he was saving capitalism by protecting the great mass of Americans from the ways capitalism went awry. The big shots of industry couldn’t understand that their behavior wasn’t sacrosanct. They couldn’t understand that capitalism too has to operate by standards of ethics and principles of sharing. Roosevelt was the architect of American economic success for the next half century precisely because he put in place the rules by which it could operate for the benefit of the entire country, not merely the captains of industry and finance. We have forgotten and dishonored Roosevelt’s legacy of making government serve the people. He rescued this country from the Great Depression, “promote[d] the general Welfare,” as the Constitution provided, and set the country on a sound economic keel, a legacy that would honor any leader.  Fools now sneeze at his accomplishment so they can promote something new – poverty for all.

There’ve been plenty of warnings. Now we have a chance. It’s not enough to beat Trump. We need a victory for the principle that everyone counts and everyone needs to be protected. It doesn’t matter whether it’s called “socialism” or something else. The idea that it’s a bad idea to take care of each other has got to go – permanently – and all the conservative nonsense about the damage of helping each other. Either we care for each other or we will suffer a war of all against all regardless of what you call it – fascism, communism, totalitarianism – the results won’t be good for anyone except the oligarchs.

Forget “moderate” Democrats. If “radical” describes the philosophy of taking care of each other, we need it NOW. Bless all the people with the decency and humanity to care about their neighbors, fellow citizens and fellow human beings. The blessed are those who care.

– This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 28, 2019.


Why Its Values Made America Great & the alt-Wrong Would Impoverish It

March 25, 2019

Last week I spoke about Trump’s other threats to American principles, unity, democracy and world power. This week I’d like to address why they matter.

Equality is a central American value, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and throughout the Constitution. Racial, religious and ethnic discrimination are at the heart of Trump’s attacks on refugees from Islamic countries, the so-called caravan from Central America, Puerto Ricans after the hurricane, and kudos to his alt-wrong loyalists after deadly attacks. But discrimination is extremely costly to all of us, not just to the victims. It denies us the best available people for jobs and wastes our efforts in unproductive battles with each other. Lincoln told us that “a house divided cannot stand.” Economists describe such battles as deadweight loss – deadweight because they add nothing to national welfare, income or resources; loss because the battle is expensive in time, money, and lives. The Civil War was an extreme example, killing and maiming a large proportion of American men. Economists add opportunity costs – all the time, money and lives that could have been put to productive and useful purposes. In effect by dividing us and dividing our politics on unproductive issues, the alt-wrong is beggaring America, making it poor again.

Democracy is also central to American values, enshrined in our founding documents. But Trump tries to shred the freedom of the press to criticize elected leaders, principally him. He tries to dismantle the obligation of office-holders to obey the law. And he tries to dismantle democratic processes to solve issues by verbal discussion, not guns, what he has called “Second Amendment rights.” His misbehavior proves that democracy makes mistakes. But democracy invites America to focus on the general welfare, not the welfare of the “dear leader” as Kim is described in Korea or his American friend here. Sure, there is plenty of corruption which our emoluments clause would have reduced had the Republican leadership paid more attention to our Constitution. But the Constitution provides the means to kick the bastards out, encourages competitors to try and parties to appeal to the great bulk of us, not just the rich and famous. Democracy could do better if more Americans took the principles of democracy seriously, including fair elections with universal adult suffrage and honest campaigning. Democracy is the scaffold; we get its benefits only if we cling to it.

American values of equality and respect have had a unique power in this world, allowing people across this globe to see the value of our principles to them, as respected members of the world that America tried to create. Chris Giannou said on Alternative Radio that people in much of the globe “love you for your values. They hate you for your hypocrisy, because you do not live up to your values.” Our values galvanized a unified free world. They underlay all the institutions the free world created to keep us united and working together. We still talk freely about working together in the context of sports. But Trump and his alt-wrong see no value in unity and working together and despise it in politics and world affairs. They waste their energy and ours in destroying the ways this country spread its influence across the world and led the world in the protection of freedom and democracy.

So yes, America can be torn apart. But what awaits is the whirlwind, the war of all against all, in which none of us is safe. All the blessings of unity, democracy and world power are at stake.

—  This commentary is scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 26, 2019. For comments on the Mueller report that I included on air, see the next post.


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