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.

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The Economy and Those Left Behind

March 15, 2018

President Obama brought the economy back since the 2008 crash, and it grows steadily. But the rising tide didn’t lift all boats. Places like West Virginia, heavily dependent on coal mining, were left behind. I’ve taught there, knew coal mining families, shared a hospital room with one and a lovely boy in elementary school who obviously had very good taste took a shine to our daughter. I have very warm feelings about the state and am quite sympathetic.

But everything moves on. Since we lived there, coal has been reeling from competition with new forms of energy, competition from China, conversions from coal fired furnaces, and competing objectives that couldn’t be wished away, like cleaner air. China sells coal rather than burn it. So there’s little left for coal other than pandering to people with impossible dreams about irreversible changes.

Steel has become very specialized. We still produce but not all needed varieties. And production is much more automated, needing fewer, and different workers from the historical steelworker. Some steel producing communities, like Pittsburgh and Cleveland, have revived. But many capable people haven’t found comparable work in new and different industries.

They deserve consideration. Capitalism throws people away in the name of progress like so much garbage when their jobs disappear. People talk about risk as if it’s what entrepreneurs have. Actually, capitalism puts as much risk on workers, consumers and home buyers as legally possible, on those who had no responsibility for corporate failures, or the catastrophe of 2008, while it protects the financiers and CEOs. People we sometimes call average Americans or little people (regardless of their physical size) take it on the chin so that we can protect the people with the money, lawyers and control to protect themselves. American workers deserve our support.

But how? Many ideas are capable of relieving some of the distress but few will solve the problem. Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum will make former factory families feel taken care of. But as many economists have been pointing out, tariffs can do a lot of harm.

Education and retraining help some but it’s particularly hard for older workers to take advantage of the opportunities, often in distant places. Internet access connects some workers to distant jobs. Efforts to bring jobs to people are often based on wishful thinking – the casinos already seem to be turning into boondoggles. Some people come home for weekends from distant jobs but that’s hard to scale up without much better mass transit. Government sometimes puts programs or office buildings where they will strengthen the local economy like New York did some years ago in Harlem. Meanwhile infrastructure remains talked about and unfunded.

There are ways we can help share the wealth and should. We have to expect some good ideas to fail and some bad ones to succeed. I suspect that Trump’s tariffs will sound much better to the unemployed than what they will produce, and I think there are better solutions that a sympathetic government could develop. But yes, we should be helping.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 13, 2018.


Capitalism gone wrong: Too many left behind in our divisive economy

September 19, 2017

My latest piece for The Hill discusses the set of unacceptable choices we’ve been stuck with: thinking only of national economic growth and ignoring the local fallout, maintaining industries that do national damage for the sake of local workers, leaving the workers to fend for themselves when industry departs their communities, or moving able workers to better jobs but leaving the rest in dying towns. Each of those choices is both morally and politically unacceptable. Liberals must find more compassionate solutions.

 


The Future of Jobs

April 18, 2017

Automation is changing the workforce. It creates some highly skilled jobs but eliminates many others, from service jobs like taxis to previously professional tasks like document review. Factory jobs are decimated by automation.

The industrial revolution was largely built on repetitive factory production lines, based on physical dexterity, repetition and obedience, not higher education. Automation handles repetitive tasks well. Eliminating them affects people very unequally.

How can we deal with that change? The historic Republican free-market approach, now pushed by Tea Party Republicans who control Congress, is that it’s none of our business.  For them, it’s every man, woman and child for him- or herself. Millions in breaks for big corporations and no security for the workers whose lives and livelihoods are the playthings of  markets, financial institutions and corporate interests. But woe to countries that forget their people, engulfed in power struggles and bloody civil wars with the fate of ordinary, hard-working and decent people as talking points and engines of recruitment.

Some jobs have been divided into a large class of “aids.” In Iran everyone from middle class up had a bagi, their term for servant. It’s a world of dependency, power, and deep social division, a world in which people can be taken advantage of. The market, so sacred to the ideologues, is pushing more and more people to join the service economy as maids, waiters, servants and sometimes as sex workers.  Notice the contrary pressures on the women’s movement, with some vying for the few high-end jobs and others being pressured into demeaning and dangerous activity.

We might share good jobs. Labor unions once looked toward a five-hour day. Or we might create jobs, keeping everyone busy and satisfying more of the community’s needs, from building and repairing bridges, roads, water systems and electric and internet grids, to watching over playgrounds. But actually we’re going the other way. Jobs that can create opportunities are being dropped. The pressures are all on workers to find or create ways to survive. We all feel the taxes but don’t notice the benefits.

I see our separation by wealth, color and origin blinding us to common problems. John Adrian Witt, a Yale historian speaking at Alumni House last week, sees organizational failure, like the 1920s before unions and public service organizations finally jelled, leading toward the New Deal reforms in the 1930s.

The New Deal gave us a powerful administrative state, capable of opposing and controlling corporate greed that demeaned and poisoned workers with dangerous equipment, noxious chemicals and contaminated foods. But that effective administrative state became the Republican target, stated theoretically as “regulation” – regulation everyone can be against unless broken down to the safety and honesty it is designed to protect.

There is also an ideological issue, especially when the unchecked power of the market is pushing the public to turn on each other and itself.

Workers are entitled to security. Graduates of high school, colleges, and universities are entitled to good jobs. Our job should not be to ask workers to justify their lives to the market; it should be to employ people to make a better America, much as the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt founded the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration and many others. We can support each other, and make a better America for all of us. The market isn’t the answer; the market is the problem. When it doesn’t do what we need, we need to do what it screwed up.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 18, 2017.


How Can We Protect American Workers

March 11, 2017

Trump’s power, and his policies on jobs, immigrants, religious and ethnic hatreds and the Alt-wrong are all related.

Scholars of intolerance tell us that threat breeds hate. I suspect that all we can say about why immigrants and Muslims are really good people only makes those who feel threatened feel more threatened, because instead of talking about their needs we’re praising someone else.

So I want to talk about the needs of Americans who feel threatened economically and what can be done regarding their economic losses, recognizing that the disfunction in American politics is partly due to the desperation of workers who’ve lost once good jobs.

Protecting American workers is crucial both because people suffer when they can’t find good jobs, and because desperate or threatened people take dangerous risks at the polls and elsewhere. We must protect workers both for their sakes and for ours; it’s much the same thing.

It’s our job because government fiscal, tax, programmatic and other policy decisions daily determine how many jobs there are. Some people can make their own opportunities, but, to be fair, most good, decent, hard-working people can’t.

What can we do about it? Sometimes it helps just to set out the options. Here are the choices I can see:

FDR created unemployment compensation and Nixon proposed a negative income tax – safety-net approaches based on direct income transfers. Many object, including those who benefit from handouts, tax loopholes, deductions, farm price supports, subsidies etc. – the tax code and the budget are replete with them. But direct financial transfers are one possibility.

A second approach is to pay for jobs indirectly through trade policies. All three presidential candidates talked about that. I understand the fear of foreign competition even though there are reasons to look for other solutions for American workers: limiting foreign imports hides the cost in the price of things we buy, and isolates the American economy from developments elsewhere. It also might not work; actual hiring decisions would rest on other people’s decisions. But we can’t overcome the fear if we can’t commit to other steps, and all the talk about the risk to Social Security fans that fear.

A third approach, the conservative free market approach, is not really a solution for the working person at all – it simply puts the monkey on workers’ backs to find jobs or starve.

A fourth approach is to create new jobs by government action – fiscal stimulus, infrastructure development, and investment in science and education, all of which call for construction, maintenance and technical jobs. That’s what Obama called for but Congress drastically whittled his effort down.

Why can’t government be employer of last resort? That would automatically support a minimum wage, create better communities, and make life better for all of us. It’s not the free lunch some people worry about; it’s a job. What’s so terrible about giving people what Tom Paxton called “a job of work to do”? There’s plenty to do if we were willing to invest in our people, our workers, our infrastructure, and our environment. Sometimes spending a little can make the community more attractive and the economy zing while providing a decent income to people who need a job.

Some countries use all of those methods and have quite robust economies.

Those are the alternatives I can see: the free marketeers’ defining it away as the workers’ problem, the safety net approach of income transfers, paying indirectly through trade policies or subsidies for the appearance of helping workers, or creating jobs through fiscal stimulus or hiring people to do needed work. My preference is to put people to work – that way protecting others is good for us all. One way or the other, standing up for each other is essential.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 7, 2017.


Labor Economics

February 14, 2017

The White House isn’t explaining what’s happening to jobs. I once taught labor economics, an issue close to my heart. To some extent, labor is like any other commodity and that’s the problem. Jobs go wherever business can find all the things it needs – the land, transportation, materials, markets, reliable legal relations, at the right prices. And it keeps changing.

We talk about the rust belt as if we did something wrong. Actually we had about a century-long run on the best factory jobs in the country – a ribbon through this state after New York’s government built the Erie Canal and made New York City gateway to the west, turning every city along the Hudson, Mohawk, Erie Canal, and then the great Grand Central Railway into a powerhouse. This area long dominated clothing, technology, science, heavy industry and spawned radio and television networks. Each industry provided resources for newer ones.

But New York’s advantages couldn’t be permanent. For bigger plants with newer methods, business looked for virgin land. Other governments built ports, the Interstates and St. Lawrence Canal, while the aging infrastructure of older cities led firms elsewhere. It couldn’t be permanent. Economic fundamentals inevitably dominate jawboning and presidential rhetoric.

Workers get cast aside unceremoniously. One of my law students was also a human resources specialist at GE, missing class whenever GE announced layoffs. They had long since let the weakest workers go. Now she had to fire the best and it hurt. But big corporations aren’t sentimental.

What’s a city or region supposed to do? The market doesn’t automatically find the next big thing and put it where former employees can get jobs like those they lost. The market didn’t build America automatically. Government changed British rules. Government built a banking system with resources to fund business, and smooth their cash flow – if you read or saw Hamilton, that’s what he was about, government providing what companies couldn’t. Government built ports, canals, highways, and had the railroads built. Government provided public health facilities, water, sanitation, disease control – which became crucial for business. Government invested in schools, and President Lincoln laid the foundation for the modern state university system. President Wilson sparked the country’s first broadcasting system for the war effort. Almost everything in your hands today has government fingerprints on it – the research and development in fundamental physics that led to the lasers, transistors and chips that run almost everything today.

Yes, governments make mistakes. You think private industry doesn’t? Most businesses fail. But only government can provide the fundamentals, the things that all the businesses in the country, region or route need. Only governments are motivated to look beyond individual companies and work for the region.

Governments have been investing in new forms of power. If governments in coal producing states had the sense to invest in emerging industries instead of dying ones, the coal miners might face a much better transition to good jobs than anything presidential jawboning can produce. But government cannot do it if it is afraid to fail.

Governments need to be thinking about what the emerging industries are, what resources will support growth. Not individual businesses that any group of investors could build on their own, but the underlying fundamentals that make broad development possible. And we may only know which ideas work when we try them.

If government thinks small, we all shrink.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 14, 2017.


The Chemical Contamination in West Virginia

January 28, 2014

Before moving to Albany thirty-five years ago, we lived in Morgantown, West Virginia – a university town and a mining town. We knew people in both worlds. Our daughter was only seven, but after we moved she got letters from a little friend there who was the son of a miner. Miners lived all around.

Morgantown was very special, but the chemical leak and contamination in Charlestown reveals the naiveté of many in West Virginia and elsewhere in the U.S., who believe that whatever is good for the companies is good for us, that the companies are looking out for our welfare. Read the rest of this entry »


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