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.

 

 

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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.


But Not for Me – based on Gershwin and Sinatra

January 2, 2018

My dad was a Juilliard trained musician

My daughter teaches in a conservatory of music

The refrain is simple, just f-g-f-g,

But I’ll do you a favor and will not sing

Still sometimes nothing will do

but Gershwin and Sinatra

Who had a way with words

and appreciated our dreams

Gershwin and Sinatra don’t write our laws though;

Others make the statutes and the rules.

So I’ll appropriate their refrain

“but not for me”

“A lucky star’s above, but not for me.”

Congress writes lovely language, but not for me.

Some can calculate if increased tax credits

Will pay for those they took away,

but that’s not for me;

details may be clear by April

Bigger consequences are clearer for corporations,

and people with a lot of money, but not for me

I understand the benefits are supposed to trickle down

but I can’t find the spout; I guess it’s just a leak

with an occasional drop,

that’s what’s for me

The president says it a giant tax cut, but not for me.

He said they made the cuts really big, but not for me.

They say I won’t have to pay a death tax

But I can’t feed my family on dreams of wealth

They are increasing the value of assets held by the super rich

But not by the middle-class like us

No nothing for the middle-class

not Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid or health care

They’ll end those to pay for the tax cuts

Because those were for us

It’s the holiday season, with Christmas, Kwanzaa and Chanukkah,

And from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other

They truly love their neighbors – on K Street and Bimini.

Yes, they took care of those needy billionaires, but not for you and me.

Somewhere there is a corporate island, but not for me.

Somewhere islands shelter taxes, but not for me.

That’s OK –

It’s my patriotic duty to contribute the little I’ve saved for retirement

Only parasites expect to be able to retire

No parasite me, they can cover the deficit

With my Medicare and Social Security

I’ve paid into for years

so taking those away

will be my chance to contribute to the corporate moguls’ luxury yachts,

bank accounts and hedge funds, things that are not for me

but make those wealthy folk look so dapper

Surely that’s a good use of my assets

I was a fool to fall for his promise – and get this way,

“Never tell me dreams come true” – they go astray

Although I can’t dismiss the memory of his words

I guess he’s not – he’s not for me

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 2, 2018.


Beggars, Soup Kitchens and the Poor

November 25, 2017

I’ve noticed a lot more beggars on the streets as our politics have become increasingly stingy. I’ve seen that before and once mentioned it to a candidate for dean. His response was that we could ban them. I was happy we didn’t hire him.

Recently I saw one of my former students at a charitable sale at our Temple. She told me she frequently works at a soup kitchen and has been doing it for some time. Bless her. I mentioned the people standing out in the cold. She commented that more people come for meals during the summer. She suggested several possible reasons but wasn’t sure why. A couple of days later, Chris Shaw, who has also been cooking for and organizing soup kitchens, told me the difference is the school lunch program. The kids are hungrier during the summer, without lunch at school.

Recently I flew to L.A. on business and arranged to see Mitch Tarighati, another former student. He asked me what I wanted to see or do. I told him I was curious and wanted to see Tehrangeles, an area of Los Angeles populated by Persian shops and restaurants. My friend is Iranian-American, Muslim, a lovely guy and doing well. After showing me around, he took me to another area, looking for the beggars to help out. He tried to do it anonymously so they would not be embarrassed by his generosity. Actually, I think the poor appreciate eye contact, but my friend’s motives were pure gold.

Nobody stands on a street corner for hours for their health, especially in this weather. I’m satisfied they are in need. Begging is an equal opportunity task – white, black, men, women, people recovering from tragedies, girls who ran away from home, veterans, the disabled.

It used to be that political parties took care of people. They’d call one of their people and say so-and-so needs a job. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Roosevelt Administration created programs to help the needy. But we’ve been taking that apart and little remains. Now it’s largely up to us, except that it’s beyond us.

That’s why I often discuss economic issues. We no longer talk about giving people jobs. It’s all about that impersonal force known as the economy. But the economy is heartless. And what we do for the economy doesn’t necessarily create jobs for the needy.

My family and I have been lucky. We’re celebrating 50 years of marriage. Our children are each doing what they enjoy. Our granddaughters are healthy. I’m conscious that those are blessings too many don’t enjoy. Luck doesn’t just come to the worthy nor tragedy to the evil.

I once commented in class that I understood that but for luck, or the grace of God, I could be in the position of the least among us. One student found that hard to accept. I think she was kind but naïve. My heart goes out to the less fortunate people out there struggling to keep body, soul and family together.

There are many ways to help. And we need to remember that the poor are with us all year.

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


Capitalism gone wrong: Too many left behind in our divisive economy

September 19, 2017

My latest piece for The Hill discusses the set of unacceptable choices we’ve been stuck with: thinking only of national economic growth and ignoring the local fallout, maintaining industries that do national damage for the sake of local workers, leaving the workers to fend for themselves when industry departs their communities, or moving able workers to better jobs but leaving the rest in dying towns. Each of those choices is both morally and politically unacceptable. Liberals must find more compassionate solutions.

 


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.


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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