Our love affair with capitalism

February 25, 2019

Bernie reopened a national debate about capitalism and socialism. I think we need to understand that no economic system carried to the limit produces justice. We’ve been most successful using mixed systems to gain the advantages and smooth the problems created by both capitalism and socialism.

Actually socialism is hiding in plain sight: the post office, libraries, public schools, the water supply, fire and police protection, highways, roads and streets. We buy our capitalist cell phones on an internet system that government created for military and academic use before turning it over to private systems.

Capitalism has a fraught relationship with workers. It can and often does enlarge the total economy, the whole pie. But it doesn’t distribute that pie among the workers. It distributes the pie to those who make the decisions, and they keep what they can for themselves.

Workers and farmers have every right to be dissatisfied with the impact of capitalism on their lives. Capitalism makes farm prices unpredictable. I’m convinced the programs could be tweaked for the benefit of both the environment and of family farmers, but government programs nevertheless make prices for farm produce sufficiently predictable for farmers to stay in business.

The crumbling safety net leaves workers at the whim of other people’s investment decisions. The disruptions capitalism causes are well illustrated by the argument over the Amazon plant in Queens. There were several appropriate solutions, but the problems were clear – capitalism was preparing to push people out and their fate depended on government. Unemployment insurance and the social safety net were never enough or well attuned to the needs of families who work for others for their living. And the social safety net has been weakened considerably in the last decades along with weakening the legal position of unions. So, government has a job to do.

That doesn’t mean that we should abandon capitalism, but it does mean that capitalism is not the answer to every problem, and it’s not a sufficient answer to our economic problems. Nor are incentives for decision makers adequate answers. Capitalism is well described by the board game Monopoly. It’s so familiar, I wonder if you realized it was created to teach people what capitalism does. As its name implies, the effective object of capitalism is monopoly. Even though the holders of that monopoly change in real-world capitalism as we experience it, ordinary folks are constantly squeezed out. If our objective is the welfare of the people, capitalism is not a sufficient answer. We cannot and must not be ideological purists. Our country has been most successful when we have implemented a mixed system – capitalism as an essential disruptor, and public planning to smooth the impact for workers and communities.

There is a huge difference between saying that capitalism is valuable and the conclusion that socialism is useless, and vice versa. The truth is that both are useful, and we have to be ready, willing and able to reap the advantages of both without losing sight of their limitations.

It was my pleasure, years ago, to meet Robert A. Dahl, one of the intellectual giants of our era. He and Charles E. Lindblom teamed up to prepare a wonderful book, Politics, Economics and Welfare, to show us the different advantages of public and private action. Those of you who frequently listen to my commentary know that I often try to break the ideological mindset that only private action solves problems.

So, I’m looking for candidates this year whose answers are not ideological knee jerks for one system or the other, but who are pragmatically open to the best solutions from whatever source. Bernie is certainly right that some socialist solutions are necessary and important. Some candidates are staying clear of the word but nevertheless get the point. Any candidate who doesn’t get that point deserves a reeducation at public expense beginning with kindergarten where they might finally learn to share.

—  This commentary is scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 26, 2019.

 

 

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How do you talk about climate change?

February 4, 2019

I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about climate change. It’s a scary subject. Climate change is likely to injure and embitter people we care a lot about, our children and grandchildren – hurt them with disease, draught, famine, floods and storms, destroying their homes, houses and business too, indeed their towns and communities. That’s scary all right, but what do people do when they’re scared? Fight or flight? But where do you go? Unfortunately a lot of people do neither. They just can’t bear to think about it. But climate change will find them and their children and grandchildren anyway. What they don’t know will hurt.

Climate change is a big problem. The scale of the problem leads people acting individually to come up with platitudes like don’t cross that bridge ‘til we get there. Of course, the bridge won’t wait. If we don’t plan in advance it won’t be there when we want to cross it, and that’s not just a statement about infrastructure.

My hybrid and my solar panels make me and my family feel good but they only make a small dent – of course they’d make a bigger dent to the extent that the example catches on and government organizes a much bigger, more wide-scale reaction. That after all is what we’re trying to do. Our hybrids and solar panels are like very large lawn signs saying “Join us.” Like lawn signs, the signs don’t make the difference but the cultural statement that this is the right thing to do can carry the day.

That’s the kind of problem government is for, the kind of problem that is way beyond our abilities acting individually. Handling climate change requires coordination on a scale that only government can make happen. When government takes charge, those of us trying to do something about climate change become part of a powerful movement, not weaklings and suckers. Even the most ideological free marketeers have a name for situations where only government can solve the problem – they call it market failure.

Government will organize a powerful response when the people make clear with their votes that they demand action. It will happen when people see their personal welfare, not in opposing climate change, but in demanding that government direct opportunities to those whose livelihoods may be injured by efforts to fight climate change. It will happen when the rest of us understand that we are all in this together and demand that we all have to share the benefits and burdens. This is a war against forces that will destroy our families, our country and our world and it’s not a private opportunity to make big profits at everyone else’s expense. This is a shared problem, a shared opportunity and a shared job. In the past we’ve used an excess profits tax to share the burden of war. And to build the weapons of war we spread the factories all over the country.

We can be fair. We can protect and provide for each other. What we can’t be is cowards looking the other way.

As we gear up for the 2020 election, the politicians must declare what they will do to stop climate change from destroying us all. I know some relish the opportunity to be a war president, to be the great leader that pulls us from the brink of disaster. OK then, this is the war we have to fight. Now lead the charge.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 5, 2019.


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.


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.


But Not for Me – based on Gershwin and Sinatra

January 2, 2018

My dad was a Juilliard trained musician

My daughter teaches in a conservatory of music

The refrain is simple, just f-g-f-g,

But I’ll do you a favor and will not sing

Still sometimes nothing will do

but Gershwin and Sinatra

Who had a way with words

and appreciated our dreams

Gershwin and Sinatra don’t write our laws though;

Others make the statutes and the rules.

So I’ll appropriate their refrain

“but not for me”

“A lucky star’s above, but not for me.”

Congress writes lovely language, but not for me.

Some can calculate if increased tax credits

Will pay for those they took away,

but that’s not for me;

details may be clear by April

Bigger consequences are clearer for corporations,

and people with a lot of money, but not for me

I understand the benefits are supposed to trickle down

but I can’t find the spout; I guess it’s just a leak

with an occasional drop,

that’s what’s for me

The president says it a giant tax cut, but not for me.

He said they made the cuts really big, but not for me.

They say I won’t have to pay a death tax

But I can’t feed my family on dreams of wealth

They are increasing the value of assets held by the super rich

But not by the middle-class like us

No nothing for the middle-class

not Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid or health care

They’ll end those to pay for the tax cuts

Because those were for us

It’s the holiday season, with Christmas, Kwanzaa and Chanukkah,

And from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other

They truly love their neighbors – on K Street and Bimini.

Yes, they took care of those needy billionaires, but not for you and me.

Somewhere there is a corporate island, but not for me.

Somewhere islands shelter taxes, but not for me.

That’s OK –

It’s my patriotic duty to contribute the little I’ve saved for retirement

Only parasites expect to be able to retire

No parasite me, they can cover the deficit

With my Medicare and Social Security

I’ve paid into for years

so taking those away

will be my chance to contribute to the corporate moguls’ luxury yachts,

bank accounts and hedge funds, things that are not for me

but make those wealthy folk look so dapper

Surely that’s a good use of my assets

I was a fool to fall for his promise – and get this way,

“Never tell me dreams come true” – they go astray

Although I can’t dismiss the memory of his words

I guess he’s not – he’s not for me

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 2, 2018.


The Middle Class and the Poor

December 19, 2017

This is a season in which many of us make donations to help those with less than we do. But in the larger context, we need a better understanding of the poor.

For years now, politicians have been talking about the middle class. Being in the middle class doesn’t mean that one has it made. There are unfulfilled hopes and potential financial shocks that could knock almost any of us down and out. We know that and many of us are rightly concerned about it. The market has no feelings. It dispenses with people like so much trash. That should leave all of us concerned.

But when politicians talk about the middle class, I hear something else. I hear them telling us that no one else counts, especially not the poor. Many people treat the poor like trash. We even have names for it. A lawyer working for me once described his own family as poor white trash. He was nothing of the sort of course and his family couldn’t have been either – they brought up a very decent young man.

Tom Paxton wrote a song in which he says “If the poor don’t matter, then neither do I.” I had the pleasure of telling him after one of his concerts that song was very meaningful to me. I spent about ten years as a poverty lawyer in various positions in three different states. My clients weren’t trash and they did matter. They were decent, hardworking people who had suffered some reversal. Often, just as hard as the loss of income was the blow to their pride when they were out of work. The poor don’t have a financial cushion when things go bad. They can’t retire and rely on the pensions they don’t have. I remember working to get one of my clients who did have a right to a pension – it was thirty dollars a month.

With no money coming in, they spend most of their time trying to find things cheap enough to squeeze into their meager budgets. When people are poor, they are also very vulnerable not only to emergencies but also to fraud – they have little time or capacity to compare or investigate. Everything looks like an opportunity, even though too many offers are a mirage, squeezing out what little people have left.

We in the middle class are also linked to the poor because the worse they are treated, the worse we can be treated. That’s hardly a new observation. Free laborers in the pre-Civil War north objected to the way slavery lowered what they were paid for their labor. We are all affected by everyone’s wages. When the minimum wage goes up, so do lots of other peoples’ wages as well. When wages are set or negotiated it is always done with an eye to what other people are being paid.

The poor matter in another way. It’s very damaging to all of us to treat people like trash. Treat people like trash and train them to behave like it, and train ourselves to misbehave. George Mason spoke from experience when he told the Constitutional Convention that slavery made tyrants of the slaveholders. Civilization and civility require civilized behavior from all of us.

It’s also political. For all our fussing about corruption, Commonwealth United, respect for people of all backgrounds, and other issues of concern to those of us who feel like we are in more comfortable circumstances than the poor, who are our allies? And if we want allies, are we theirs?

Tom Paxton was right, if the poor don’t matter then neither do I.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 19, 2017.


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