Taking care of each other

September 5, 2017

Americans have been celebrating the reaction to Hurricane Harvey as an example of Americans taking care of each other. There is much to celebrate. But we have also wrestled for centuries with the problem of taking care of each other – the out of work, the working poor and others struggling to stay afloat.

An economic reversal in the lives of many of us is just temporary. But it does permanent damage when it unravels peoples’ lives, leaves them with debts that spiral out of control so that they cannot hope to pay, or leaves them homeless, in broken families, or housed in barred cells. When people have little, events that would be a minor inconvenience for most of us can drop them over the cliff, unable to climb back. As the Founders recognized, all of us can expect some of our offspring to be poor. So what are the options?

Welfare has been cut back but some pieces of a social safety net remain, mostly funded by the federal government. One reason they are funded nationally is because some local governments don’t want to do anything about the problems of poverty. Another reason is that the problems fall unevenly on local governments. The process of creating suburbs and new communities is a process of seceding from the places where people have problems and therefore avoiding any responsibility under our laws about local government. By shifting the obligations upward to the feds we all share those problems at least to some degree.

We could provide jobs. Instead of just giving things and money out, we could take advantage of the time, labor and skills of people who are otherwise out of work, to get some useful things done. But the city can’t save the money that goes into the social safety net because that money isn’t city money. Albany’s Mayor Sheehan pointed that out at a house party before she was first elected. Fair point. But turning welfare money over to localities would invite them to divert the cash. Some form of cooperative federalism might be better for everyone.

Public services for everyone are also an option. We have created many sorts of services that all of us have rights to. Clean water fit to drink is a lot cheaper for everyone than buying it in bottles – provided that government isn’t asleep at the switch and doesn’t let the water supply fill with lead and other poisons. Sewage systems make everyone better off than a crazy quilt of individual efforts to deal with garbage, their own and their neighbors. And it saves a lot of money both because of economies of scale and because sewage can breed disease for all of us. Roads, bridges, sidewalks, other transportation amenities, libraries, postal services and regulated public utilities like phone and electrical service make life better for everyone. And all of them make life cheaper which is especially important for the impoverished.

In other words, making some things available for all of is good for us all and are also ways of helping the least among us. That used to be true of the health care system until we privatized it, demolished the many county, municipal and not-for-profit hospitals, only to try to restore some of the benefits of a public health system with Obamacare.

Republicans call measures like that socialism. I just call it smart, efficient and decent – Americans taking care of each other.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 5, 2017.

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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.


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.


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.


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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