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.


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.

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.

Trump and Jobs

March 14, 2017

Last week I commented that scholars of intolerance tell us that feeling threatened often leads to hate. That’s one reason the economic threat to some American workers matters to all of us.

Trump is clearly working with the free marketeers. The free market is not about your, or workers’ rights; it’s about your boss’s or your company’s right to close your plant, move, lower your wages, reject your union, or just skip protecting your safety.

Trump makes different noises when talking about your jobs and when writing rules and hiring his cabinet. But his Republican Senate will insist on a free market, and Trump is counting on it.

Trump told us he wants to eliminate 75% of regulations. Those regulations protect employees and consumers; in other words, you and me. They protect our wages, require safer working conditions, ban poisons from our food and water and require companies to give us what we paid for. That’s how Trump shows us his true colors.

Obama saved thousands of jobs by saving American auto makers and growing the economy by hundreds of thousands of jobs per month – but gets no credit. Trump may have saved a few hundred but people think he takes action. With victories like that we can all starve.

Trump’s focus on the optics of small victories keeps us looking the wrong way. U.S. factory output is growing. But the jobs have changed. Missing are factory jobs for poorly educated people. I don’t say that out of disrespect. My Uncle Hershel, a truly lovely man, was a factory worker. I remember him sitting by my bed when I was ill. What I’m talking about is how to get good jobs for people like him. If we expect jobs to show up the same way they did a century ago, we’re whistling in the wind. If we think Trump can trump marketplace change by jawboning a few companies, we’re spitting in the wind. He doesn’t have the time or tax cuts to do it that way.

Central New York was once a manufacturing powerhouse. What’s left are mostly small towns far from traditional jobs. Yet one can now work thousands of miles from where things have to be made or done. We could be linked in to the world IF we invested in and rebuilt the economy, instead of jawboning the owners of obsolete factories.

And education must be available and affordable for everyone who wants a good job. Education sounds like elitism to many workers. But what made America an economic powerhouse was our system of mass education. And that’s part of why those who think we can go back to a prior era of American greatness are spitting in the wind – the rest of the world has caught up. To provide jobs, we need to provide retraining for mid-career workers on top of excellent schools, pre-school and after-school programs – all of which provide jobs.

Yes education will have to change. I’m a dinosaur, standing up in front of a class of students, even though the alternatives, so far, are not working very well. But when people figure out better methods, education will take off again – here or elsewhere. That’s where we need evidence-based experimentation – science. We rely on science from morning till night for the things we touch and use. Denying science is the height of idiocy, not a mark of greatness.

Trump yells about foreigners and markets. It’s our job to address reality.

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

The March in Albany

January 25, 2017

This weekend was busy. The New York Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild and others trained people in nonviolence and to serve as observers for the Women’s March on Washington, including a couple of training sessions at Albany Law.

Saturday I joined the Inaugurate Resistance March here in Albany. People joined the crowd from every direction, walking toward the planned start of the march. With so many people it was long before I saw anyone I knew. State Senator Neil Breslin commented to me that a march of this size had never happened in Albany. The only numbers I’ve heard seemed much too conservative – this was really big.

I saw speakers and marchers from women’s groups, Citizen Action, Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood, the Coalition Against Islamophobia, labor unions, religious leaders, community service groups, gay rights groups, and many others.

Eventually I ran into friends who’d served in the Peace Corps, or been mainstays of activism in this area. I got close enough to the rear of the platform to see the back of speakers’ heads.

A common theme was solidarity across all the causes we each primarily work on. United we stand and can protect each other. Divided we fall; we’re all vulnerable separately. All for one and one for all.

When John Dunne wrote the immortal lines, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,” he wasn’t whistling dixie. Our welfare is bound to each others’:

  • Slavery to northern workers was both morally indefensible and a threat to their own livelihoods.
  • Sweatshops bring down everyone’s paychecks and safety.
  • Minimum wages affect everybody’s wages. It’s about whether some people can take advantage of other people, and us.
  • Abuse of women threatens our families and our children – do I have to count the ways?
  • Abuse of any of us – racial minorities, immigrants, gays, lesbians and the trans-gendered, any of us – threatens all of us.

Treating people like trash threatens us all – by example, not to mention their business, their support for us, and the damage to all of us of making some people desperate – desperate for jobs at any price, desperate for food, clothing and shelter for themselves and their families, at any price. Desperation threatens everything and everyone.

The folks at the Inaugurate Resistance March got it. We celebrated our inter-dependence and we cared about each other. I like to quote the ancient Rabbi Hillel who asked the people, “If I am only for myself, who am I?” In that crowd I enjoyed the reaffirmation of our mutual concern. Need I point out for the doubters that a major reason for our country’s success was our ability to work with each other – it matters that we see each others’ humanity, brotherhood and sisterhood.

But that cannot be enough to deal with the blowhard in Chief. The Tea Party’s example was its organizing. Their targets were primaries to take over the Republican party and publicity to take over the public agenda. Obviously it worked. And it will work for liberals too.

It must. Obama’s election was a major step toward a just, decent world. The blowhard-in-Chief is poised to take the brotherhood of mankind apart. It’s our job to make that fail, never to be resurrected, and drive its proponents out of American politics. It’s our job to keep in touch, stay united, publicly push for a decent America until the racist blowhards are sobbing in their caves. We’re the majority and we’ll make OUR muscle felt.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 24, 2017.

Sotomayor’s dissent in Utah v. Strieff, Part I

August 31, 2016

I want to read you a portion of a recent dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor in which she explains what I think many do not understand about what happens when police stop people on the street.[1] I will skip her citations but you can read them on the website. She wrote the last part of her dissent for herself alone. I think it is well worth your hearing that portion of her dissent in Justice Sotomayor’s own words:

Writing only for myself, and drawing on my professional experiences, I would add that unlawful “stops” have severe consequences much greater than the inconvenience suggested by the name. This Court has given officers an array of instruments to probe and examine you. When we condone officers’ use of these devices without adequate cause, we give them reason to target pedestrians in an arbitrary manner. We also risk treating members of our communities as second-class citizens.

Although many Americans have been stopped for speeding or jaywalking, few may realize how degrading a stop can be when the officer is looking for more. This Court has allowed an officer to stop you for whatever reason he wants—so long as he can point to a pretextual justification after the fact.[2] That justification must provide specific reasons why the officer suspected you were breaking the law,[3] but it may factor in your ethnicity,[4] where you live,[5] what you were wearing,[6] and how you behaved.[7] The officer does not even need to know which law you might have broken so long as he can later point to any possible infraction—even one that is minor, unrelated, or ambiguous.[8]

The indignity of the stop is not limited to an officer telling you that you look like a criminal.[9] The officer may next ask for your “consent” to inspect your bag or purse without telling you that you can decline.[10] Regardless of your answer, he may order you to stand “helpless, perhaps facing a wall with [your] hands raised.”[11] If the officer thinks you might be dangerous, he may then “frisk” you for weapons. This involves more than just a pat down. As onlookers pass by, the officer may “‘feel with sensitive fingers every portion of [your] body. A thorough search [may] be made of [your] arms and armpits, waistline and back, the groin and area about the testicles, and entire surface of the legs down to the feet.’”[12]

The officer’s control over you does not end with the stop. If the officer chooses, he may handcuff you and take you to jail for doing nothing more than speeding, jaywalking, or “driving [your] pickup truck . . . with [your] 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter . . . without [your] seatbelt fastened.”[13] At the jail, he can fingerprint you, swab DNA from the inside of your mouth, and force you to “shower with a delousing agent” while you “lift [your] tongue, hold out [your] arms, turn around, and lift [your] genitals.”[14] Even if you are innocent, you will now join the 65 million Americans with an arrest record and experience the “civil death” of discrimination by employers, landlords, and whoever else conducts a background check.[15] And, of course, if you fail to pay bail or appear for court, a judge will issue a warrant to render you “arrestable on sight” in the future.[16]

More next time.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 30, 2016.

[1] Utah v. Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2056, 2069-71 (2016) (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

[2] Whren v. United States, 517 U. S. 806, 813 (1996).

[3] Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S. 1, at 21 (1968).

[4] United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U. S. 873, 886-887 (1975).

[5] Adams v. Williams, 407 U. S. 143, 147 (1972).

[6] United States v. Sokolow, 490 U. S. 1, 4-5 (1989).

[7] Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U. S. 119, 124-125 (2000).

[8] Devenpeck v. Alford,  [2070]  543 U. S. 146, 154-155 (2004); Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. ___,  (2014).

[9] See C. Epp et al., Pulled Over, at 5 (2014).

[10] See Florida v. Bostick, 501 U. S. 429, 438 (1991).

[11] Terry, 392 U. S., at 17.

[12] Id., at 17, n. 13.

[13] Atwater v. Lago Vista, 532 U. S. 318, 323-324 (2001).

[14] Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington, 566 U. S. ___,  182 L. Ed. 2d 566, 573 (2012); Maryland v. King, 569 U. S. ___, 186 L. Ed. 2d 1, 30 (2013).

[15] Chin, The New Civil Death, 160 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1789, 1805 (2012); see J. Jacobs, The Eternal Criminal Record 33-51 (2015); Young & Petersilia, Keeping Track, 129 Harv. L. Rev. 1318, 1341-1357 (2016).

[16] A. Goffman, On the Run 196 (2014).

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