Liberty and License

December 11, 2018

With this Administration demolishing the regulatory state, we need to talk about the underlying claim of liberty. Conservatives once distinguished between liberty and license. Liberty was morally and socially responsible; license was not. That distinction seems to have disappeared from the conservative vocabulary. And with it the moral order in the country.

“Liberty” is now invoked whenever business confronts regulation. Citing “liberty,” business fought the exposure of Thalidomide even as it monstrously disfigured and eventually killed the child of one of my students. Citing “liberty,” some claim the right to waste energy and sell energy wasting products no matter the impact on the climate. Citing “liberty,” some claim the right to pollute with mercury, arsenic and an alphabet of poisons, to put anything into products, into or onto our bodies, earth, air and water unless and until someone else can prove it’s harmful. We don=t treat medicine that way but the claim is that it violates the “liberty” of supplement producers for us to ask for tests of whatever they don=t want to have to get FDA approval for. Some might think it also violates buyers= liberty to lead healthy lives B but perish the thought; that’s not economic “liberty.”

Because people Atook the risk@ B they called it Aliberty@ B financial institutions claimed the “liberty” to construct mortgage terms that made it virtually impossible for buyers to come out above water, destroying their savings, credit, health, homes, livelihood, families and future. In the Great Recession of 2008, those terms took the whole economy down as major companies, banks and markets failed in a cesspool of bizarre financial arrangements, subprime mortgages, mortgage backed securities, credit default swaps, and similar misbegotten deals. And it was OK to bail out those who were too big to fail because they just exercised their “liberty.”

To the free marketeers, the President and CEOs, regulation is generalized and undifferentiated. All restrictions are regulation and they are all bad unless and until regulators spend decades jumping through hoops. Meanwhile producers bear no responsibility to check whether their products are harmful. They accept no liability when harms become obvious to science, but only when it becomes obvious to the very people who pour their poisons into our bodies and our world.

Put it another way. There is no single definition of liberty. There are different definitions of “liberty” for you and me, different definitions for farmers, cattle ranchers, factory workers, lumber workers, guys, gals, easterners, southerners, people who want to graze their animals on public lands without paying B everyone has their own definition of “liberty” and their definitions pay no attention to the impact on the rest of us or on anyone else. Which means that “liberty” no longer means anything.

Liberty for the founders was universal. “Liberty” now seems to be a sacred word applied to whatever is good for us personally but with no binding meaning. Otherwise why can=t I do what I want to do on public land whether or not it conflicts with public purposes or Cliven Bundy’s insistence that he has the right to graze his animals there. Why isn=t that the same “liberty” he insists on? “Liberty” is whatever a president chooses to do whether or not it is good for the country. “Liberty” is what conservatives think we all should respect when it pertains to their clients. Their “liberty” is meaningless, a signal that we=re talking about selfishness, not rights. They’re talking about what used to be called license to do whatever they want regardless of whom it hurts.

Real liberty regards us equally. We all have the same rights. It makes no sense if you can do to me what I can=t do to you. True liberty is freedom to act short of injuring others. We all count. And that, equality, is as American as apple pie.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 11, 2018.

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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.


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.


Why law?

February 13, 2018

Governments, including democracies, make laws and rules. Lots of folk spend lots of time telling us we don’t need regulation, or at least we need lots less. Laws and rules are restraints on our freedom to do what we want. And most people are honest. So why do we need law?

Let me tell you about a janitor at Albany Law. John DeMateo was very much beloved. Our gymnasium is named for John. He was always ready to lend a helping hand, often going way out of his way to be helpful. He hired students for the maintenance staff, giving them ways to earn the money they needed to get through their schooling. During breaks, especially the summer break, John used to put out an urn of coffee strictly on the honor system. Put in a quarter and take a cup. No one was watching. What John told me was fascinating. He never had any problem with people helping themselves to free coffee. I’m sure some people must have paid a little later when they got that quarter. But they were honest. However, and this is a big but, every summer someone figured out where he kept the money. It only took one. John still put the urns out but he told me that it barely paid his expenses. The vast majority of us were honest, but one dishonest person changed everything.

Law is for the few people whose unscrupulousness can make life miserable. I’ve heard a Harvard dean claim that a code of professionalism is better than law because scientists will follow it. But if there is any significant profit to be made from being unscrupulous, someone will follow that path too. Business tells us that most businessmen are honest. I’m sure that’s true. But how many unscrupulous business people does it take to make life miserable for the rest of us – especially when the unscrupulous, who cut corners that endanger the rest of us, can brag about how cheap their stuff is. Cheap indeed. And that puts pressure on everyone else. It puts pressure on other businesses, especially when it’s hard to find out who’s doing what. How easy is it for us to know that the workers who make our beloved running shoes are treated well? Or to understand the medical implications of all the stuff that goes into our food. Competition isn’t a level playing field. Many regulations are appreciated by business because they squeeze out the unscrupulous and make it easier to treat customers well and still stay in business. Generic chants about regulation are just sloppy reasoning that hide serious issues.

So when Trump and his cabinet officers tell you they’re going to weaken or eliminate regulations, does that mean everything is going right so we can trust what people are doing? Or does it mean a green light for those who are going to take advantage of non-enforcement to do us harm? Most people want to treat others well, but the few that don’t care will make life difficult for the rest of us. Sloppy language covers serious mistakes.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Feb. 6, 2018.


Freedom for the Boss; Drudgery for the Rest of Us

May 16, 2017

I keep looking for ways to talk with supporters of the Administration. President Carter started the deregulation frenzy. That has become half of the Republican cut-and-deregulate refrain ever since, consistently repeated by the current White House and the Republicans in Congress. I’d like to focus on the things that will affect those of us who are, financially speaking, ordinary, middle-class Americans.

Here are changes the Administration and congressional Republicans are considering that affect working conditions:

  • The White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has been postponing and considering cutting down a Labor Department rule that limits “workers’ exposure [to] toxic material, which can cause a deadly lung disease.”
  • The same White House Office is also “considering a proposal to roll back protections for workers in construction and shipbuilding.”
    • Those rules allow our employers to save cash by risking our health.
  • The Working Families Flexibility Act … would give employees a choice between taking time off or being paid time-and-a-half when they work more than 40 hours in a week.”
  • Either way, Republicans oppose changing overtime rules to raise eligibility for overtime above the current $23,660 per year.
    • Those rules allow our employers to save cash by shortchanging us.

Here are some that affect the health of financially ordinary Americans:

  • The Administraton has already taken steps to “roll back healthy school lunch standards”
  • The new head of the FDA “has invested in or consulted for dozens of healthcare companies” which suggests that the Food and Drug Administration won’t be much help in preventing unnecessary complications and expenses.
  • The House health care bill would eliminate Obamacare requirements that insurance plans cover prescriptions drugs and mental healthcare. Like all insurance, drug and mental health care coverage are intended to protect people from unplanned changes in the costs of survival.
  • Senate Republicans narrowly lost an effort to roll back a regulation that “limit[s] methane emissions from oil and natural gas drilling.” Methane is even more damaging to the climate than carbon.
    • Those rules risk our health for the sake of other people’s profits.

On savings for retirement:

  • “Trump’s Labor Department delayed the so-called fiduciary rule, ordering financial advisers to act in … [your] best interest[s] … [if you] are saving for retirement.”
  • The CHOICE Act would allow the banks that brought us the crash of 2008 to opt out of regulations adopted after the crash and intended to prevent another. And the bill renames the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and “reduces its power to enforce pre-existing consumer protection laws.”
    • Those rules risk our financial security for the sake of other people’s profits.

Meanwhile, Republicans on the Supreme Court show little respect for working men and women.

  • With Breyer’s help they have blessed “Professional debt collectors … [who] built a business out of buying stale debt, filing claims in bankruptcy proceedings to collect it, and hoping that no one notices that the debt is too old to be enforced by the courts.”
  • The Court continues to apply a 1925 statute intended for interstate business transactions to consumer contracts and the Court bars state regulation entirely.

What Republicans continue to give us is freedom for the boss and drudgery for the rest of us. As the old folk song has it, “same song, second verse, could get better but it’s gonna get worse.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 16, 2017.


It’s Government’s Job to Make Work Available

April 19, 2016

Bernie and Hilary argue about trade pacts. We know trade pacts cost some jobs and open up others. That’s not a satisfying trade-off if your skill is suddenly unmarketable and you’ve become unemployed or underemployed. An effective response is crucial.

But protecting specific jobs will ultimately hold America back, diminish our competitiveness, and damage our ability to develop in new directions. Government should not protect specific, unsustainable jobs or avoid trade pacts that promote economic progress, national security or other international objectives.

But – and it’s a very important but – government should make sure that we can all work to support ourselves and our families. That’s why Republican insistence on scaling back Obama’s stimulus package in 2009 and then blocking more investment in infrastructure was very much the wrong move. It shirked our responsibility to each other and made moving forward politically more difficult.

The way government can make jobs available is to hire people to do what we should be doing and building. Once people are working, business and investors will take advantage of the extra income flowing and build their businesses and inventory to satisfy the demand.

But businesses don’t invest in order to create demand. Individual businesses can’t assume their investments will change the economic picture significantly, certainly not enough to repay their investments. Individual businesses can’t assume that they will reap the benefits of having created more jobs – people spend their paychecks in many places only a fraction of which will come back to the company.

That’s just one of the reasons pouring more money into the hands of what Republicans like to call job-creators is worthless, like a Rube Goldberg invention in its totally confused complexity. Business invests to meet demand or to create a product they think will sell – they don’t invest just because they have money. And since in fact they have lots of money on hand, many have been engaging in various forms of financial manipulation, buying back stock, sending money abroad, anything but job-creating investment or investments here.

That means that both Bernie and Hilary are hitting the nail of economic doldrums for the many people who can’t find decent jobs right on the head. It’s a problem that needs government to work for us.

Putting people to work solves many problems at once. Putting people to work supplies the person-power to re-build, update and renovate infrastructure. Putting people to work, pushes the wage scale for the best of reasons – not just a legal minimum wage pegged to an arbitrary number, marketplace pressure for employees raises the payscale. Putting people to work improves the business outlook. And infrastructure improvements improves the feasibility of successful investment for everyone – not just the favored projects of a few but improved access for all of us means that people with a good idea will have the opportunity to get the resources they need and access to the customers they want.

Of course whether government can pay for doing the right thing depends on whether government can actually impose taxes on the people and companies who have money. Arguing about protecting the so-called job-creators bv reducing their taxes is actually a way of starving government so that those so-called job creators can squeeze workers who are uprotected because government can’t afford to do anything about it. A successful modern economy requires a government with the resources to play its part.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 19, 2016.

 


People bear the cost for rulers’ misbehavior

March 29, 2016

In a still unpublished manuscript on the way conservative economics has failed us, my friend Eric Zuesse remarked, “The ‘Greek debt’ is really not a debt of the Greek people.” He goes on to identify the “institutional creditors  … Euro-banks … high risk kleptocrats, oligarchs and bankers who siphoned most of the euros into overseas Swiss accounts …. [and other foreign investments] devoid of any capacity to generate income to pay back the debt.”

Eric’s statement is profound, pointing to the ways that those in power play with our lives and then displace the responsibility to their innocent victims. While I’m sure that some will argue that elections gave the Greek people some complicity, Eric accurately points to the ability of those primarily responsible to displace the costs of their own misbehavior.

I think we can see that pattern all over modern public affairs. What responsibility did the refugees in Syria or Iraq have for the wars that took their lives, homes and livelihoods? What responsibility did unemployed Americans have for the depression that was engineered by banks too big to fail, banks which traded worthless securities in an enormous Ponzi scheme for which they have not been prosecuted? The Supreme Court has cleared the manufacturers of failed medical devices for rupturing in our bodies but why is it somehow the responsibility of the victims to absorb the injuries and the costs? This is a pattern – the rich and powerful do the damage and outsource the costs to the rest of us.

Terrorists take advantage of that. They attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11. But the people of Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East have paid the price of our response, innocent men, women and children, polarizing regions and sweeping us into the worldwind. Our failure to calibrate the response had much wider repercussions.

The British, French, Germans and Spanish have suffered similar terrorist attacks, actually over many decades from many different groups, but they have managed to restrain their responses. England fought in the so-called “troubles” of Northern Ireland but finally learned that their response was devastating the wrong people and making the problem worse. The Spanish restrained their response to the Basques. All restrained their response to leftist terror. They responded with police work, ultimately capturing and trying many of the terrorists.

For many Americans anything but an all-out response seems unacceptable. Politicians attack restraint as weakness, not strength. And of course ordinary Americans pay the price. We pay it in the deficit, in taxes, in the lives of our loved ones in foreign wars, and in civil liberties at home. But those who benefit are immune. Major suppliers of paramilitary forces abroad like Blackwater and Halliburton get more contracts while they supply deniability to American leadership for their violations of human rights.

These are bad bargains. Will we have leadership capable of leading, capable of explaining to the American people and standing strong in the face of hotheads for whom an indiscriminate overreaction is the only so-called “manly” response. Will we have leadership capable of zeroing in on the perpetrators of economic collapse, mortgage failure, and malfunctioning products?

Isn’t it time to stop blaming the people for the misbehavior of the oligarchs? Or will the rulers, paraphrasing Thomas Hardy’s conclusion to Tess of the d’Urbervilles, end their sport with us?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 29, 2016.


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