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.


The Chemical Contamination in West Virginia

January 28, 2014

Before moving to Albany thirty-five years ago, we lived in Morgantown, West Virginia – a university town and a mining town. We knew people in both worlds. Our daughter was only seven, but after we moved she got letters from a little friend there who was the son of a miner. Miners lived all around.

Morgantown was very special, but the chemical leak and contamination in Charlestown reveals the naiveté of many in West Virginia and elsewhere in the U.S., who believe that whatever is good for the companies is good for us, that the companies are looking out for our welfare. Read the rest of this entry »


Polygamy and American Constitutional Law

January 7, 2014

A conversation on The Roundtable convinced me to address polygamy. A judge in Utah decided that state could ban formal legal polygamy but could not ban people living in comparable arrangements without formal legal sanctions. Some people argue that legalization of polygamy follows from constitutional protection of gay and lesbian relationships. If one consensual relationship is OK, therefore so are all the others. That is a mistake. The law does not work that way.  Read the rest of this entry »


This is an Emergency

October 16, 2012

During the fund drive I heard Joe Donahue and this station working hard to bring Bill McKibben to this audience and lead us away from the catastrophe of global warming. He and the station did a great service and I am proud to be associated with them.

If your house was on fire you wouldn’t stand like a bystander waiting for it to collapse; you’d call the fire department and get anyone you could reach out of there fast.

If you child or your grandchild were about to drown, you would not turn your back moaning that it was too awful to contemplate; you’d raise hell to get your children out.

If your children disappeared on a camping trip, you wouldn’t sit around moaning; you’d search, call the rangers, find those children.

If your baby was dying of thirst, you’d find water. If your child was dying of hunger you’d find food. I met one six year old girl whose mother released her to others who brought her to America after the young girl’s brother had died of starvation in Liberia. It’s awful to contemplate but as parents we do what we have to in order to protect our children.  Read the rest of this entry »


Public Health

April 23, 2012

As I write this, I just listened to another story about people who want to drink raw milk. When I was 11, recovering from an illness, my doctor, the chairman of pediatrics at a New York City hospital, told my parents to put me on raw milk – but specific milk medically supervised to make sure that it didn’t carry the botulism and other diseases that could have killed me quickly.

Let me make one other disclosure. I never met my sister. She died in 1927 at the age of three. I came along many years later. It was only in my generation that parents no longer expected to lose some of their children. So I have a foot and a heart in and an understanding of both worlds. Read the rest of this entry »


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