Nuts, Liars, Suckers and the Rube Goldberg Disease

November 28, 2017

I just heard that Jeff Bezos is worth $100 billion. What is he doing with that net worth? Is he putting it all to work? If not, why not? Ya think if we just gave Jeff another billion he’d put that money right to work putting Americans to work? Why can’t he do that with the $100 billion he already has?

Republicans keep telling us that if they give tax breaks to the wealthy they’ll put it to work, like another billion for Bezos. They have to be either nuts or liars. If you like nuts or liars, that’s your business. But the question is whether we are suckers.

Republicans want us to give the money to people who don’t need it in the hope that now, with even more money they don’t need, they might decide to go to the trouble of running another business and the other business would be somewhere in America and would use people and equipment made in America, or they might find others, like venture capitalists who might use the money in, by and for Americans.

Rube Goldberg, a giant of comedy who died in 1970, certainly would have gone that route in his satirical cartoons. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines Rube Goldberg as “a comically involved, complicated invention, laboriously contrived to perform a simple operation.”

The Rube Goldberg website describes “A Rube Goldberg contraption” as “an elaborate set of arms, wheels, gears, handles, cups and rods, put in motion by balls, canary cages, pails, boots, bathtubs, paddles and live animals – [which] takes a simple task and makes it extraordinarily complicated. He had solutions for How To Get The Cotton Out Of An Aspirin Bottle, imagined a Self-Operating Napkin, and created a Simple Alarm Clock – to name just a few of his hilariously depicted drawings.”

Sound familiar? We could give large tax breaks to people and companies that don’t need it on the prayer that they would use it in helpful, constructive ways, and provide decent, useful jobs to Americans.

Or to get the economy going, nationally or locally, we could just do whatever was needed. Instead of praying someone else would do it with unseemly incentives, we could build roads, bridges, updated electrical grids, schools, universities and water systems, all of which would employ lots of people and provide the resources people and businesses need to function. We might even organize cultural attractions that make places more fun and attractive. Just last week the Times had a front and multipage article on the ways the New York City subways have been starved of maintenance dollars. We’re always postponing maintenance but what do we get for that – paying the rich more for the privilege of being their patrons?

People who tell you that we have to give tax breaks to people who have money lying around that they already don’t know what to do with are either Rube Goldberg creations, nuts or liars. If you like nuts, OK. If you like liars, that’s your business. But the question is whether we are suckers.

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


Universalism vs. the What-About-Mes

May 10, 2016

This primary season has made plain Americans’ dissatisfaction with American politics – dissatisfaction because someone else seems to be getting all the goodies and concern. The right wing thinks the poor are the government’s favorites. The left wing sees its wages and taxes mostly benefitting the super wealthy. Both Sanders and Trump mined the political backlash from special interest politics. Trump’s apparent nomination increases the urgency for both parties to respond to this problem.

And for anyone who wants to argue that impoverished or minority Americans are being short changed, one runs a minefield of envy, and the “what-about-mes.” The same weighs down discussion of the advantages of international trade agreements. If we don’t all share, the biggest issue is me. Similarly, for too many people the environment never seems to be about themselves but someone else, people on islands, lowlands, the next generations, but not themselves. That makes all our problems tougher to deal with.

When he wanted to establish a program for the elderly and the injured, the genius of President Franklin Roosevelt was to make it seem universal. Social security insurance applied to all kinds of people and most kinds of jobs.[1] We pay into the system long before we know whether and how much we’ll need. Many get social security who would be excluded by any need based program. But that’s the point. There is no stigma to social security. FDR did it as an insurance program; most of us contribute and collect. Roosevelt wanted to make it simple – you did your social security business at the post office. And when some politicians wanted to tamper with it for ideological reasons, they found that social security was a third rail of politics. FDR had hit that nail on the head.

Now, however, simple, universal programs like medical insurance have become a political football, and the very possibility of the government pursuing the general welfare is under attack from the not-with-my-money crowd. But because it is under attack, because we cannot count on government even to pull us out of a recession that would involve spending tax dollars, no matter how good the investment, the very possibility of economic changes are much more threatening than they should be.

Investment in infrastructure should be an investment in the general welfare, full of benefits for everyone, putting people to work building it, making jobs and businesses easier to reach, and creating benefits for all of us, from clean water and more reliable utilities to better education and internet services. The best way to protect people from unemployment is to provide jobs that provide benefits for the public. Infrastructure can pay dividends, in jobs and services that make everyone better off, and that only government can build.

Unfortunately politicians prefer big showy projects, dramatic new bridges and buildings rather than maintenance, repair and cost effective options. They prefer projects targeted for their contributors, Or they prefer to get on their soapboxes and try to get us to tear down the very government that made this country a great one. The cost of political behavior that breeds distrust of American government is enormous. Good government, self-government was the signal contribution of America to the world and we are allowing our political infrastructure to crumble along with the water, utility, transportation and electrical infrastructure.

It’s not just who we tax; it’s also what we do. Government matters; it does things for the public that no one else will take care of. We need good government, fair government, government for all of us, but government – strong, effective government – and the confidence that comes from doing it right.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 10, 2016.

[1] On the original exclusions, see Larry DeWitt, The Decision to Exclude Agricultural and Domestic Workers from the 1935 Social Security Act, Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 70, No. 4, 2010, https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v70n4/v70n4p49.html, but he is less convincing regarding motivation. For summaries of current exemptions, see Intuit Inc. (U.S.) at https://turbotax.intuit.com/tax-tools/tax-tips/General-Tax-Tips/Who-Is-Exempt-from-Paying-Social-Security-Tax-/INF19965.html or http://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/013015/who-exempt-paying-social-security-taxes.asp.


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