No Time for Moderates

May 27, 2019

We’re suffering a worldwide attack on tolerance, the brotherhood and sisterhood of all peoples, and the principles of democracy and equality that make it possible to share the country and much of the globe in peace. The results, from Brexit to White Nationalism, the resurgence of Nazism in Europe, intolerance in India and China and ethnic warfare over the scraps of economic failure endanger us all. America, founded on tolerance, equality and democracy, should be leading the world out of this dangerous morass instead of smoothing the path to hell.

Commentators have long seen and feared the separation of national politics from the needs of the great mass of working people. Both national parties partook of that separation. Republicans revere Reagan but he crippled the unions, the organizations of working men and women. And claiming that government is the problem, not the solution, Reagan crippled efforts to address their problems. Democrats followed national economic trends without paying enough attention to the dislocations among working people. That combination made white working people feel left out, instead of uniting us in pursuit of a better world for everybody.

That’s recent history. Much further back, Alexis de Tocqueville, famous French nobleman, toured the U.S. in the 1830s and had the genius to see far into this country’s future. Tocqueville told us that democracy required widespread economic well-being.  The very first paragraph of the U.S. Constitution talks about the “general welfare” but many poo-poo it as merely precatory language, not authorizing government to take care of the people. Those who poo-poo that language think the Constitution is merely about freedom from government rather than the creation of a government capable of providing for the people. Their misreading of history is perverse and dangerous.

Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the twentieth century’s great political scientists, pointed to the world-wide connection between democracy and economic welfare. Germany, which had been a great economic power, lost its illustrious and democratic Weimar Constitution after going through economic hell between the world wars.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told America that he was saving capitalism by protecting the great mass of Americans from the ways capitalism went awry. The big shots of industry couldn’t understand that their behavior wasn’t sacrosanct. They couldn’t understand that capitalism too has to operate by standards of ethics and principles of sharing. Roosevelt was the architect of American economic success for the next half century precisely because he put in place the rules by which it could operate for the benefit of the entire country, not merely the captains of industry and finance. We have forgotten and dishonored Roosevelt’s legacy of making government serve the people. He rescued this country from the Great Depression, “promote[d] the general Welfare,” as the Constitution provided, and set the country on a sound economic keel, a legacy that would honor any leader.  Fools now sneeze at his accomplishment so they can promote something new – poverty for all.

There’ve been plenty of warnings. Now we have a chance. It’s not enough to beat Trump. We need a victory for the principle that everyone counts and everyone needs to be protected. It doesn’t matter whether it’s called “socialism” or something else. The idea that it’s a bad idea to take care of each other has got to go – permanently – and all the conservative nonsense about the damage of helping each other. Either we care for each other or we will suffer a war of all against all regardless of what you call it – fascism, communism, totalitarianism – the results won’t be good for anyone except the oligarchs.

Forget “moderate” Democrats. If “radical” describes the philosophy of taking care of each other, we need it NOW. Bless all the people with the decency and humanity to care about their neighbors, fellow citizens and fellow human beings. The blessed are those who care.

– This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 28, 2019.

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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.

 

 


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.


Workers’ Rights Dishonored Again by the Supreme Court’s Conservative Majority

May 29, 2018

Once again, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court demonstrates the Court’s and the president’s hostility to worker rights. In cases testing whether companies can require their employees to sign agreements that abandon any right to go to court or bring class actions, Gorsuch’s opinion for the Court sides with the companies. That prevents employees from pooling their resources when contemplating expensive litigation.

The Norris-LaGuardia Act, passed in 1932, protects workers’ right to collective action on labor issues:

the individual unorganized worker is commonly helpless to exercise actual liberty of contract . . . , wherefore, . . . it is necessary . . . that he shall be free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers . . . in … concerted activities for … mutual aid or protection . . . .

The National Labor Relations Act, passed and signed in 1937, reaffirms that

[e]mployees shall have the right . . . to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.

Both statutes were passed with the understanding that “the individual unorganized worker is commonly helpless” against employers. But the Court held that the Federal Arbitration Act, passed and signed in 1925, protects arbitration agreements. Usually, later statutes are held to overrule or limit earlier ones, not the other way around. So the Court decided that the later statute didn’t mean to limit the Arbitration Act. Of course, Gorsuch and the Court didn’t and couldn’t know that. What they threw at us was pure preference – anything that helps companies against their employees fits their labor policy. Gorsuch and this Court doesn’t read the law, as they like to claim; they make it. And they have been consistently turning against workers’ rights.

There was a time in this country when workers were completely dependent on their employers. They were required to live in company homes, buy from company stores, and were paid in scrip that was only honored by the company. Thus any attempt to leave left employees bereft of everything.

This Court will not be satisfied until workers have to sign away their right to seek better jobs, leave town, or buy their goods anywhere but the company store. There is a term for that, serfdom, and it is still practiced in some countries. When the Tsar of Russia freed the Russian serfs, the change there rivaled the end of slavery here. We needn’t go into all the other rights that serfdom gave the masters, like the right to violate the women. Serfdom stank. The claim that employers can get anything they want by putting it into a contract shreds all our rights.

We’ve been seeing that lately in the sexual abuse claims that have been made since the Harvey Weinstein revelations. Employers didn’t put those claims into the contracts but their right to reject applicants or fire people at will worked for a long time.

Law exists to protect people – except that the U.S. Supreme Court with Gorsuch solidifying its position doesn’t think ordinary people deserve any rights. In my view, it’s the Court that deserves none.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 29, 2018.


Unions, Anarchy and the Court

February 27, 2018

The Supreme Court, the one in Washington, heard argument Monday in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The case challenged whether unions, elected by a majority of the workers as their bargaining agent, can charge what are called agency fees, that is, fees for the work they do negotiating for better wages and working conditions. The argument against the unions is that the unions might advocate things that some workers disagree with and, therefore, worker dues are being used in a way that violates their freedom of speech.

The question is how far the Court majority is likely to take us toward anarchy. But first, three short paragraphs of explanation of the terms involved. Unions are selected in a carefully supervised process to be the exclusive bargaining agent for the workers in the shop. The union officers are elected in turn by the membership. The officers are always on those electoral hooks. The union can be decertified if people conclude that the workers no longer support that choice. And the officers can be defeated at the next election.

Unions are exclusive bargaining agents because a plurality of competing unions can’t represent the workers as effectively. Employers could just deal with compliant unions and leave the others out on strike. The responsibility to share the cost of the bargaining unit is necessary because without it, workers can be “free riders,” getting the benefits of their unions’ efforts while refusing to pay for it. That would undermine the unions’ ability to do their work.

From the perspective of the challengers to the part of union dues that supports collective bargaining and handling of grievances, those expenses are as political as lobbying and candidate support. For them, elections don’t matter, just whether union leaders say and act in ways that individual workers dislike. Their argument is that they shouldn’t have to pay.

So now I want to talk about the next case. Obviously many people object to the use of their tax dollars by President Trump to say things that they believe are horrendous, not to mention all the things he does that many taxpayers object to. Can they demand freedom from paying for his press officers and for any portion of his salary which is used for the purpose of making speeches, twits or statements. The logic is similar. The question is how far this union case can take us toward anarchy?

The same argument can be extended to the statements of whichever party opposes their own beliefs. Can taxpayers sue to defund all the press offices, and all the speechwriters, and the congressional TV studio?

There are problems with taxpayer suits. The Supreme Court might bar the door, but the principle is the same. And there are organizations and other parties who could probably make arguments that they are more injured than an ordinary taxpayer.

The same issues come up on the state and local levels too.

We might also raise the same questions about the Court itself. It is taking American law in directions many Americans strongly disagree with. There are costs involved in preparing opinions and publishing them. Do they also violate taxpayers’ First Amendment rights?

The Founders believed that elections solved the speech problem. But the Court views it differently. For the Court, corporations have First Amendment rights to speak for a majority of their boards, with the funds of their consumers. The dissenting board members, shareholders and purchasers, however, have no right to object to the use to which their funds are put.  Unions, by contrast, can’t speak for a majority of their members, despite the fact that they have available to them an electoral process that consumers don’t.

The logic of where the Court appears to be going is not law and order. Instead it is about anarchy. There is no law or government if each of us is a law unto ourselves, including those uses of speech that are necessary to the various jobs that officials and representatives have. There are anarchists in this country, and the gun owning, self-proclaimed “sovereign citizens,” are among them. The Republican Party, however, is anything but. Their party stands for social control. The issue for them is not authority itself but who controls what. Anarchy is anathema to majorities of both major parties and inconsistent with democratic government. But the Court may not understand the connection and the implications of what they are doing.


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