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.


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.


Workers, the labor movement and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

August 7, 2017

I was driving home from the grocery store. The radio was tuned to this station. Wanda Fisher was playing a song that I hadn’t heard but I knew what the woman was singing about – it was the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Hundreds of girls died because the doors were locked shut. They died from the fire, the smoke or jumping from windows like people did on 9-11.

You may or may not like unions. But no one who knows the history of the workers’ movement can doubt the need for regulation. Without regulations too many workers get treated like trash – locked in, poisoned and sickened by noxious toxins and cut down by unprotected machinery. My uncle was lucky – he just lost part of an ear.

Even worse, whatever profit one business can make by treating its workers like trash pushes other businesses to treat their workers like trash. That’s what business means by the need to stay competitive, skimping on what they have to do for their employees.

Regulation is pushback. That’s why we need it and that’s why those businesses that do most of the lobbying don’t – so they don’t have to spend money on the people they think of as nothing more than the means to make profit, essentially trash.

Politicians and courts have broken up the alliance among workers, white and black, by destroying the unions that united them. A large part of the decimation of unions was done through union finances. When all workers benefit from union bargaining but don’t have to contribute to the union treasuries, most people could save their dues and be free riders on the unions’ efforts – until the union becomes unable to help because its treasury is empty. So-called “right-to-work” laws have done that in many states. Those laws prohibited the union shop in which everyone paid for the unions’ services. The laws should have been called management’s-right-to-fleece-their-workers laws because they made the relation between management and labor one sided. The U.S. Supreme Court played a part in these developments, increasingly denying unions the right to charge for their services. Labor unions have lost the majority of their former strength and most workers have no organization to support them. Without labor unions creating common agendas, workers have been much easier to divide.

In past years the Supreme Court has whittled away which unions could charge what dues, and in which unions workers could opt out of paying the full union dues even though the union had been selected as the workers’ representative in negotiations.

This past term of Court, the Supreme Court was poised to block collection of a collective bargaining fee from government workers who took advantage of union bargaining but chose not to pay full union dues. Put that together with the Court’s decision in Citizens United and you get a much clearer picture of how this Court has reshaped American politics against the working man. Scalia’s death blocked the Court from reaching a decision on that issue. But the case will surely come back in some form now that Gorsuch is on the Court.

The Court has not finished playing with the relative strength of workers and bosses or of Democrats and Republicans. It has chosen a president, in Bush v. Gore. It has reshaped political finance in Citizens United. So far it has refused to touch gerrymandering, letting its Republican friends keep themselves in power like Maduro in Venezuela or Erdoğan [phonetically Erdowan] in Turkey. We are not getting the government we deserve; we are getting what the Court dictates.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 8, 2017.


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.


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.


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