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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Choose Life

February 28, 2017

I want to focus on a serious issue that is being ignored in favor of all kinds of fake news and grandstanding. In college, I took a course on demography. That means we were looking at the explosion of population in parts of the world, which then leveled off, but at much higher levels than before. Everything we are struggling with in this twenty-first century is related to that explosion of population.

The most significant advances in our longevity were the result of public health advances, precisely the things that people don’t want to spend on right now, on our water and sewer systems. I remember my dad asking every owner of places where we stopped for the night whether the water was potable, meaning it was drinking water from which we would not get sick. That was new in his lifetime. And by the way, my dad grew up in Brooklyn, in New York City, using an outhouse. Sure many of us have used outhouses at one time or another but they are not the best protection for public health in large communities – septic systems take lots of space.

After water and sewer systems, penicillin probably made the biggest difference – it’s probably why I’m talking with you today but never met my sister who died at the age of three before the discovery of penicillin. Those advances added decades to our lives by comparison to very short advances from modern medicine and surgery.

And they are a large part of the problem of global warming. There are lots more of us burning things, driving cars, using electricity, getting what we need for business or pleasure from the furthest corners of the world. That takes energy. Energy has been produced by burning things. And so the world gets hotter, the oceans expand, tropical diseases proliferate, and life threatens to get nasty, brutish and short once again. And efforts to mitigate that will be overtaken if population continues to expand – worldwide it’s doubled in my lifetime.

So when I hear about advances in medical science, like the possible elimination of malaria, I think how wonderful for the likely victims, and then I wonder about the global impact. There is no free lunch. We can make lots of advances. But the world has its limits. More people will put more stress on the environment. And stress on the environment is already heading us toward the next major extinction – us, human beings, our children and grandchildren.

And so I think there is a trade-off between our health and our numbers. There is no human life after we are extinguished – only death and tears. So let’s be clear, I am very pro-life, but to be pro-life demands support for birth control, especially the kinds that prevent conception.

There is no so-called pro-life position that is not also a position about death. It seems to me that The Church and all houses of worship, must rethink their positions about death and destruction along with their positions about conception. The two are intertwined by laws well-beyond our ability to control. Yes the Bible says choose life, all our bibles say that in some form. But are we choosing life if we ignore the reality of death, destruction, and extinction?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Feb. 28, 2017.


Investing in the Environment

February 21, 2017

The White House isn’t explaining government’s environmental options.

The environment is the crux of emerging industry. It doesn’t just enable us to breathe better and protect our children’s lives. It is a growing industry which America could dominate if we tried. It is and will be crucial to housing materials, and protecting existing investments of all kinds. Places and countries that don’t protect their environments will not attract entrepreneurs, workers or investments. Their infrastructure will clog along with people’s lungs.

And as it becomes cheaper solar and wind make other industries possible – sun and wind don’t charge by the hour. Falling behind in environmental infrastructure means disaster, abandoned communities if they don’t first fall into the sea.

As simple a gesture as writing land-planning rules so that new construction has the best orientation to the sun cuts expenses forever. Supporting science, instead of taking scientific findings off government websites, will lead to other helpful steps America could take. Plus everything we do for the environment will depend on putting people to work to get it done.

Yes I know, there are shifts in world temperatures that are not man made. New York was once covered with a huge sheet of ice. Nevertheless, we also know, independently, that carbon and methane are driving global warming. Even if natural processes affect the temperature of our world, mankind is making it much worse. We could take action to bring that down unless we put our heads firmly in the sand. Fighting to minimize climate change is good for the economy. Losing that fight isn’t. It means rescuing people, pulling them away from the coasts, crowding them into smaller less productive areas. More than that, it means that many of the places we live will become uninhabitable. Only the mortuaries will do well.

I once chatted with an engineer about the effects of climate change. I knew that his house is in New York City, only 8 feet above sea level and not far from the coast. So I suggested he move to higher ground. He responded that if the sea rose 8 feet, New York City would be unlivable. The infrastructure of the city wouldn’t work. Roads and streets would be submerged or collapse. It wouldn’t be worth staying even on higher ground. So I suggested moving up here – the Hudson may be at sea level but most of us are much higher than that. His response was chilling but one would be a fool to assume he was wrong. He said that none of us would be safe if 8 million New Yorkers, or more from the metropolitan area or the East Coast, became refugees. Wow. His point is that if large numbers of us become desperate, and remember that most Americans live near the coasts, then all bets are off.

Remember the resistance in Congress to repairing the damage from Sandy. That doesn’t even compare to the costs of a rising sea.

So fighting climate change is good for jobs, protects us from economic collapse, and gives our children and grandchildren something to live for. That’s a heck of a worthwhile investment, and a collective, patriotic goal.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Feb. 21, 2017.


Labor Economics

February 14, 2017

The White House isn’t explaining what’s happening to jobs. I once taught labor economics, an issue close to my heart. To some extent, labor is like any other commodity and that’s the problem. Jobs go wherever business can find all the things it needs – the land, transportation, materials, markets, reliable legal relations, at the right prices. And it keeps changing.

We talk about the rust belt as if we did something wrong. Actually we had about a century-long run on the best factory jobs in the country – a ribbon through this state after New York’s government built the Erie Canal and made New York City gateway to the west, turning every city along the Hudson, Mohawk, Erie Canal, and then the great Grand Central Railway into a powerhouse. This area long dominated clothing, technology, science, heavy industry and spawned radio and television networks. Each industry provided resources for newer ones.

But New York’s advantages couldn’t be permanent. For bigger plants with newer methods, business looked for virgin land. Other governments built ports, the Interstates and St. Lawrence Canal, while the aging infrastructure of older cities led firms elsewhere. It couldn’t be permanent. Economic fundamentals inevitably dominate jawboning and presidential rhetoric.

Workers get cast aside unceremoniously. One of my law students was also a human resources specialist at GE, missing class whenever GE announced layoffs. They had long since let the weakest workers go. Now she had to fire the best and it hurt. But big corporations aren’t sentimental.

What’s a city or region supposed to do? The market doesn’t automatically find the next big thing and put it where former employees can get jobs like those they lost. The market didn’t build America automatically. Government changed British rules. Government built a banking system with resources to fund business, and smooth their cash flow – if you read or saw Hamilton, that’s what he was about, government providing what companies couldn’t. Government built ports, canals, highways, and had the railroads built. Government provided public health facilities, water, sanitation, disease control – which became crucial for business. Government invested in schools, and President Lincoln laid the foundation for the modern state university system. President Wilson sparked the country’s first broadcasting system for the war effort. Almost everything in your hands today has government fingerprints on it – the research and development in fundamental physics that led to the lasers, transistors and chips that run almost everything today.

Yes, governments make mistakes. You think private industry doesn’t? Most businesses fail. But only government can provide the fundamentals, the things that all the businesses in the country, region or route need. Only governments are motivated to look beyond individual companies and work for the region.

Governments have been investing in new forms of power. If governments in coal producing states had the sense to invest in emerging industries instead of dying ones, the coal miners might face a much better transition to good jobs than anything presidential jawboning can produce. But government cannot do it if it is afraid to fail.

Governments need to be thinking about what the emerging industries are, what resources will support growth. Not individual businesses that any group of investors could build on their own, but the underlying fundamentals that make broad development possible. And we may only know which ideas work when we try them.

If government thinks small, we all shrink.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 14, 2017.


Regression to the Mean

August 18, 2015

Social scientists have a phrase, “regression to the mean.” What they mean is that the law of averages eventually fells families, companies or countries that are doing better than average, and eventually lift those doing much worse than the average. Now for all of us who like to say the United States is the best in the world, there is a prospect to consider.

We could just get fatalistic; it’s going to happen so what can we do about it. But of course we didn’t succeed by fatalism. Americans escaped, trekked, traveled, by rickety sailboats and steerage and every other way imaginable to get here and then they cleared the wilderness and conquered the continent and then took on the world. No fatalism about that.

They didn’t stare at each other saying we can’t do or build this or that; they joined together or got the government to help. Until the fatalists took over. Reagan said government is the problem. Strange remark, from a man who either should have known better or did, because when he took over the U.S. Government was actually remaking the world, our world. Perhaps you didn’t know that the internet was developed by DARPA as a national security project to make up for a strategic weakness of the old fashioned telephone system. Or that the transistors that run everything you use were developed as part of a government war effort. There isn’t much that you and I touch that weren’t connected in some way to the government space effort.

I could tell that story for every American generation. Government that is devoted to the welfare of the people, began here. The banking system, the transportation system repeatedly rebuilt as new technology developed, schools and the university system, the list of government projects for us is endless – until we stopped trusting each other and our own government.

So how do we stay strong, healthy, and successful? Some think we do it by fighting everyone. They must have grown up in a very tough neighborhood. Those who crunch the numbers figured out a long time ago that arms are what economists call a deadweight loss. Sometimes you really need them but they contribute zero to the economy except for the research. And like the barroom brawler, everyone’s gunning for the top gun.

We got where we are because of our economy. You can look at the economic numbers and see when Germany got ahead of England and France and then when the U.S. surpassed Germany. It’s all in the numbers. Ever since that other fatalist, George Bush said “read my lips; no new taxes,” Americans have imagined that progress was free. But we got where we are because government did the things needed to facilitate what the rest of us could do, travel, save, study, communicate, ship, research and on and on.

But now America feels so poor that it can’t repair its infrastructure, can’t fix the cables, the water and sanitary systems, can’t fund its university system except on the backs of students who haven’t yet had a chance to earn a living. If America is truly that poor, it will regress to the mean.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 18, 2015.


How America Would Handle Greece

July 14, 2015

What are the lessons from the Greek crisis? Their economy had major problems. People with plenty of money weren’t bothering to pay taxes. And the Greek government provided benefits beyond its means and beyond the pace of investment to maintain. So the EU was certainly correct that Greece had problems that Greece has to deal with. But that’s not the whole story. Greece needed multiple remedies, to cure its mistakes but also to stimulate its economy.

Think about what we do in America. Periodically states are bankrupt or depressed. We don’t offer secession or a sale to Mexico. We didn’t ignore problems in Appalachia, Arkansas and other struggling states. Within states, we don’t ignore depressed areas. Sometimes we put communities in receivership, but that’s not our only tool. Although Tea Party Republicans don’t want to recognize it, we do have another American strategy – we invest. The Cuomo Administration is investing in areas around colleges and universities, spread throughout the state. We’ve had business empowerment zones. Military bases have been used for economic purposes. And we build infrastructure or housing or convention centers. Some investments are unwise wishful thinking. But the instinct is shared, American, and, used intelligently, it works. Conservatives don’t like to admit the Keynesian economics behind it, but they use these techniques wherever they are in control. They just call it good business.

States are barred by the Constitution from printing money. If Greece exited the Eurozone, it could issue currency or pay its employees with i.o.u.s for use as currency. Either way a devalued currency could make Greek goods and services worth buying.

Greece’s finance minister accurately explained that austerity deepens recession. The EU has responded with the same economic strategies that had been discredited before the Great Depression of the ‘30s. If the economy shrinks in response to austerity, nothing is left to pay debts, much less to invest. For an economy in trouble austerity alone is the wrong prescription at the wrong time for the wrong disease. It works only if the desired outcome is to kill the patient. Unfortunately, the EU hasn’t used other tools needed to deal with the recession.

The lesson here is the contrast. Cutting expenses cannot be the only tool. Investment works. Infrastructure, science and educational investments work. Congressional conservatives are too skittish about investing in America. They need to do what their own state governors do – invest in economic development. There is plenty of room in the U.S. for investment that will contribute to the American economy. Intelligent public investment can yield multiple rewards: the immediate reward of assisting people get back on their feet, the return of some of that money as taxes, and the longer term rewards of facilitating business. That is the virtuous cycle that every good economy needs.

Neither taxes nor tax cuts automatically yield economic benefits. Cutting business taxes will probably not raise the chances of business investment if they are already sitting on money. Cutting personal taxes won’t put us on the road to recovery to the extent that consumers buy abroad. The devil is in the details. But the visceral objection to all investment by government because it is government needs to give way to a more intelligent discussion of the investment we need and the investment that will pay dividends for years.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 14, 2015.


Putting people to work in cities and towns

January 21, 2014

Nationally, Republicans are still fighting unemployment relief and virtually every piece of a public safety net. Their solution to every problem is to blame the victim. Out of work? Must be because people didn’t look, or just like poverty. Never mind people spending their days looking for work. It must be their fault, because the only victims worth caring about, of what we politely call the business cycle, are businessmen. Everything would be fine if people would work for pennies a day like much of the world, so the companies they work for could pocket the difference while workers forego food, clothing, shelter and health.

Republicans just don’t get that people are looking, trying, wanting to hold jobs, their only prospect of living a decent life. Blaming the victims for the misbehavior of many captains of industry makes them feel better and helps fend off regulating or taxing their contributors. Let everyone else suffer. They turn the pain of unemployment into an argument for giving their contributors yet another tax break, claiming this, finally, will result in jobs – though business has the cash if it wants to invest. Republican economic policy, at least as they describe it to you and me, is all about the power of magical thinking.

There’s a better way to provide jobs and use taxpayer money more efficiently – just think about the things we could do that would make our neighborhoods more livable, from safety services to taking care of playgrounds and parks. Read the rest of this entry »


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