The System Subverts Our Values

May 4, 2020

This virus has been bringing out how much we depend on each other, rich and poor, black and white, men and women, immigrant and native. We used to talk about brotherhood and I’ve never found a good substitute for the vision of mutual concern and respect that people in my generation meant by brotherhood. Now two people who shouldn’t be named claim that Blue states don’t deserve help though we do a lot for the rest of the country, through our taxes, the business we generate and by repeatedly jumping to the aid of people all over this country when they suffer from natural disasters. What they’re really saying is that they feel no responsibility for those among us who need help, especially if they don’t have the skin color and ancestry that they honor.

I want to expand on how bad that is. When Mayor Sheehan was campaigning for her first term, I asked her about what the City could do for its poor. She pointed out that the City’s tax base was largely from property taxes. That meant that mayors inevitably had to focus on property values. She didn’t use the term but the implication was that Albany had to gentrify regardless of need and regardless of our values as human beings. Property taxes fund the schools and just about everything else the city does. So mayors have to function like developers.

It goes further. Suburbia contributes to the problems. Separately incorporated suburbs have no legal responsibility for city services. People there still work in the City, benefit from it, hire its workers, use all of the goods and services that are attracted to the area because of the City population. But they don’t share the legal responsibility.

The way this country has organized its laws is that only the federal government has responsibility for everyone in every part of the country and in communities at every level of the income scale and regardless of where its residents came from. When the federal government caters to the selfish instincts of those who are unwilling to help anyone else or who are only willing to help people who look like them and come from the same parts of the world, disaster is the result. You know the song:

Once I built a railroad, I made it run

Made it race against time

Once I built a railroad, now it’s done

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Just about everyone recorded it. But apparently America still has trouble sparing a dime for the people who built it and make it run. We’ve built that into the tax system and still it isn’t good enough for people who don’t want to accept responsibility for fellow Americans. On top of all the advantages they’ve given themselves they still cry about the crumbs that might fall off their tables because they might go to Blue states.

The unnamable man in the White House, the Majority Leader of the Senate and their enablers are doubling down on all the bastions of indecency they’ve already built into American law. But though they don’t understand it – and they don’t understand much – they will be bitten by the snake they’ve let loose because when the virus is free in any of the states, the people they cherish in Red states will end up in the hospital, the morgue and the graveyard. Pandemics don’t stop at political borders. We all suffer when we refuse to take care of each other.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on May 5, 2020.


What Lessons Will We Learn?

April 13, 2020

I’d like to look beyond this epidemic, beyond the people telecomputing and those taking bicycles to work instead of busses, beyond our fears of going to meetings to see and greet each other and work together, beyond elbow bumps at funerals as I had to recently, and think ahead to a better future.

What will we learn from this epidemic? We’ve faced horrible situations before and managed to improve ourselves based on those experiences. We don’t seem to have retained much of the lessons of 1918 but we’ve bettered ourselves in the face of other disasters.

In the Great Depression of 1929 through the 30s, many of us learned that being out of work is out of control for many of us. As the economy contracts there are fewer jobs, and people are forced to join lines to soup kitchens. We learned a degree of solidarity and learned to put compassion above blame. We learned supporting each other we could make a better world for all of us.

Others saw the mistreatment of workers. The so-called settlement houses of the early 20th century were largely efforts to improve the lives of immigrant workers. I took a college course from Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, who witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which killed 146 workers, and then dedicated herself in a succession of positions to make work safer. President Franklin Roosevelt brought her to Washington where she became the soul of the New Deal.

Out of those experiences came Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and labor laws that substituted collective bargaining for lockouts and strikes.

Then just as we began to recover from the Great Depression, we were tossed into the unimaginable horror of World War II – a struggle which took 60 million lives around the globe. Then too we responded with love and compassion to our veterans coming home, without regard to their where they came from or how they prayed. United, we had the political will to pass the GI Bill that put many veterans through schools they could not have afforded before. The progress we saw as a result was not an accident – we soon had the world’s best trained workforce and it showed in the accomplishments of our people. We had invested in the people of America, invested in each other, and together we reaped the harvest of good jobs, good incomes, real education and better health and housing.

Internationally we need to learn that everyone’s welfare matters: China and Iran affect our health here, freedom and democracy are indivisible. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the effort to draft the UN Declaration of Human Rights. We’ve had nothing to fear from countries that adopted freedom and democracy.

I spent a decade providing legal services to the poor and met a lot of wonderful people in the process. Recently I’ve been working with a different organization that helps the needy and, again, I’ve been impressed by people working as hard as they could to support themselves, their families and their communities. Climbing out of poverty is hard as people don’t have the resources to deal with problems that are almost inevitable – unexpected bills, illness, economic changes.

What lesson will we learn now? Will we learn the lesson that everyone’s health matters, that our ability to work and play depends on everyone else’s health too? Will we remind ourselves that unemployment and poor working conditions are problems we share, not just someone else’s problems?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 14, 2020.


The Pandemic

March 17, 2020

We’ve all been affected by this pandemic. People are telecomputing, taking bicycles to work instead of busses, and avoiding meetings to see and greet each other and work together. Things have been canceled that I was very much looking forward to. Virtually every step we take invites a calculation of how to do it safely. I found myself in Boston recently at a funeral for a nephew with people I really care about, everybody calculating whom to hug and whom to elbow bump. Many of us have been making frantic trips to the grocery and the drug store for needed supplies we think may go out of stock or just trying to buy things before the virus spreads any more widely.

I understand that the U.S. refused an offer of a test for the virus from the World Health Organization that has been used in a number of countries, and I gather others are annoyed that we apparently offered to buy a company that was preparing another test to make available worldwide. We used to be the leaders of the free world but the free world is a bit put out with us now. Unfortunately, there no longer seems to be a good solution to the health care crisis.

I completely understand the logic behind closing the schools. Children often become carriers of disease. They gather in large numbers in school where they pick it up and bring it out to parents and others. Shutting down schools like shutting down theaters can help slow the spread of disease.

But few of us are hermits or live on subsistence farms that can operate without contact with the outside world. Closing the schools leaves teenagers to their own devices, leaves homeless children on the streets, and leaves health care workers with no good places to leave their children.

It’s easy to think that we can take care of ourselves if only we keep everyone else off the street. But we aren’t islands. With schools closed lots of children will be on the streets unsupervised. Many parents will have to work anyway. Even if cities figure out how to care for the children of essential workers with a new system instead of the schools, aggravating an economic disaster on top of a health care disaster creates problems of its own. We need the groceries and drug stores and many other essential services. How many will our governments classify as essential and how quickly can they get it done?

We also need to take care of everyone else so their illness doesn’t threaten us. This illustrates why it’s mutually important that everyone have a right to health care and access to it. And it’s an example of why childcare and senior care have become fundamental. None of us are islands unconnected to the rest of society. My dentist just rescheduled for a month later. What do I do for exercise? Cabin fever isn’t fun.

By the way, this epidemic has not been infecting the poor and saving the rich. It turns out that the rich depend on the poor but are just as likely to infect them as the reverse. The only way to fight this epidemic is to defend and protect each other. None of us is an island alone by ourselves.

I wish you and yours all come out of this well.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on March 17, 2020.

 

 


Trump’s negligence in the coronavirus epidemic

March 10, 2020

Presidents are obligated to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” They are supposed to manage, administer and appoint people to carry out the tasks of government. Trump interprets that as his right to fire experts and replace them with yes-men devoted only to him. He’s reinstated the long disgraced spoils system in an era when everything is much more difficult and complex.

General and then President Ulysses Grant advocated and signed a merit system for federal employees when he was president in 1871. The federal Civil Service system was finally passed and reestablished under President Chester Arthur in 1883. It was designed to make sure that we have people competent to the tasks in front of them.

Trump is not a doctor or a scientific researcher. The medicine and science of protecting us from disease are the jobs of experts at the Center for Disease Control. As we would not ask our neighbor to diagnose and cure appendicitis or cancer, so we should have and listen to the experts at the CDC. But Trump muzzled and contradicted its experts, drastically cut CDC funding by three-quarters of a billion dollars, cut programs designed to prevent epidemics, and eliminated an office designed to deal with global pandemics, only to discover that we are in the middle of an emergency and try to restore some of the money when it’s already too late.

Unfortunately his handling of the coronavirus epidemic is evidence of Trump’s incompetence. It is also a disaster. Lots of people will die. Some people may think they are wealthy and immune and may survive. But as John Donne told us:

No man is an island entire of itself …

any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Minimum wage workers with minimal or no health insurance won’t get adequate medical care in time to protect the community. But their illness diminishes all of us. They are our food service workers; staff our groceries and drug stores; care for our parents in nursing homes and take care of our children in schools and day care; and do many of the other chores we daily depend on. In an epidemic everyone matters but who will take care of them? It horrified many of us that Trump ignored the hurricane damage to Puerto Rico. But there aren’t 1,000 miles of water between people infected with corona virus and the rest of us.

Neither Trump nor anyone else should be allowed to cut the budgets and eliminate the people who protect our health, try to blame them and their departments for failing to protect us, and then try to show how devoted they are to us by rushing to add dollars back after trouble has already broken out. It’s too late, too foolish, too demoralizing and too sickening. The time, damage and lives lost to incompetence cannot be restored.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on March 10, 2020.


A House Divided Cannot Stand

March 3, 2020

Trump’s base thinks they can make America great by kicking out people they don’t like, people with different heritage, faith or color. Yet the evidence is that there are more and better jobs available in communities with more recent immigrants. A larger economy creates jobs and opportunities. It needs more goods and services. By contrast the effort to get rid of people is what economists call a deadweight loss. Deadweight because it is costly but produces nothing. We accomplish more working together than working against each other.

America’s great accomplishments have all come from making it easier to work together. Even before the Constitution, the states gave each other’s citizens all the “privileges and immunities” they gave their own. Sadly, they left most African-Americans in slavery, but they created a common economy to take advantage of America’s size and scale. The Constitution tightened and enlarged those promises. A single economy gave us the resources to do what a great nation must do and do well.

Before we could adopt what were called internal improvements like roads and canals, we had to learn that jealousy beggars us all. Projects wouldn’t pass without spreading the benefits to the vast majority of us. The Washington Administration designed the first American financial system. The Jefferson Administration purchased the Louisiana territory from the French and built what they called “the national road,” connecting the seaboard with the Ohio River valley. Steps like that laid the foundation for America to connect the oceans and stave off the European powers that still kept land and garrisons to our north, west and south.

The Civil War threatened everything but for the fact that Lincoln kept the British from intervening on behalf of Confederate cotton, and he kept the Union together.

American power solidified after the Civil War made ours one country, ended slavery, and Lincoln signed, in 1862 alone, the transcontinental Railroad Act, the Homestead Act and the act that built the great land grant universities, which together laid the agricultural, commercial, industrial and intellectual basis for America as the dominant twentieth century power.

We can’t have a great nation by fighting among ourselves. We can’t maintain national infrastructure by jealously keeping others from the benefits. We can’t maintain a great educational system by fighting over whom to keep out. We can’t continue to grow and prosper by jealously excluding each other from important national institutions. As Lincoln told us, “A house divided cannot stand.”

Armed ethnic, religious and racial animosities threaten American power and success. We’re all threatened by domestic terrorists who target people because of the color of their skin, the words and language they use to pray, or where they came from.

America’s strength has always been Americans’ ability to work together. Our major institutions understood the importance of cross-cultural cooperation. The U.S. Army worked to unify soldiers with different heritage, faith or color and who spoke different languages so that all could work as a team. Corporations unified their workforces, capped with ceremonies in which new Americans stepped out of what were labeled melting pots. Major sports leagues learned to take advantage of talent regardless of where it came from. Schools taught each new wave of Americans about democracy and gave them the skills to participate in our government and our economy.

It’s time that all Americans get with the program for the greater good of all of us – including any orange-Americans.

—This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 3, 2020.

 

 


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.


The March in Albany

January 25, 2017

This weekend was busy. The New York Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild and others trained people in nonviolence and to serve as observers for the Women’s March on Washington, including a couple of training sessions at Albany Law.

Saturday I joined the Inaugurate Resistance March here in Albany. People joined the crowd from every direction, walking toward the planned start of the march. With so many people it was long before I saw anyone I knew. State Senator Neil Breslin commented to me that a march of this size had never happened in Albany. The only numbers I’ve heard seemed much too conservative – this was really big.

I saw speakers and marchers from women’s groups, Citizen Action, Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood, the Coalition Against Islamophobia, labor unions, religious leaders, community service groups, gay rights groups, and many others.

Eventually I ran into friends who’d served in the Peace Corps, or been mainstays of activism in this area. I got close enough to the rear of the platform to see the back of speakers’ heads.

A common theme was solidarity across all the causes we each primarily work on. United we stand and can protect each other. Divided we fall; we’re all vulnerable separately. All for one and one for all.

When John Dunne wrote the immortal lines, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,” he wasn’t whistling dixie. Our welfare is bound to each others’:

  • Slavery to northern workers was both morally indefensible and a threat to their own livelihoods.
  • Sweatshops bring down everyone’s paychecks and safety.
  • Minimum wages affect everybody’s wages. It’s about whether some people can take advantage of other people, and us.
  • Abuse of women threatens our families and our children – do I have to count the ways?
  • Abuse of any of us – racial minorities, immigrants, gays, lesbians and the trans-gendered, any of us – threatens all of us.

Treating people like trash threatens us all – by example, not to mention their business, their support for us, and the damage to all of us of making some people desperate – desperate for jobs at any price, desperate for food, clothing and shelter for themselves and their families, at any price. Desperation threatens everything and everyone.

The folks at the Inaugurate Resistance March got it. We celebrated our inter-dependence and we cared about each other. I like to quote the ancient Rabbi Hillel who asked the people, “If I am only for myself, who am I?” In that crowd I enjoyed the reaffirmation of our mutual concern. Need I point out for the doubters that a major reason for our country’s success was our ability to work with each other – it matters that we see each others’ humanity, brotherhood and sisterhood.

But that cannot be enough to deal with the blowhard in Chief. The Tea Party’s example was its organizing. Their targets were primaries to take over the Republican party and publicity to take over the public agenda. Obviously it worked. And it will work for liberals too.

It must. Obama’s election was a major step toward a just, decent world. The blowhard-in-Chief is poised to take the brotherhood of mankind apart. It’s our job to make that fail, never to be resurrected, and drive its proponents out of American politics. It’s our job to keep in touch, stay united, publicly push for a decent America until the racist blowhards are sobbing in their caves. We’re the majority and we’ll make OUR muscle felt.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 24, 2017.


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