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 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.


Our Common Stake in Affirmative Action

October 15, 2013

The Court just heard argument in another affirmative action case. It is often put as if it is all about them and the rest of us are just losers as the result of any affirmative action for African-Americans. But do we have a stake in affirmative action, or whether African-Americans remain a permanent underclass? Read the rest of this entry »


But for the Grace of God

November 20, 2012

I have often thought back to a conversation I had many years ago with one of my students. She had come from a rural background with a strong, and in many ways admirable, streak of self-reliance. She was dumbfounded when I quoted the saying “There but for the grace of God go I,” often attributed to a sixteenth century evangelical preacher and martyr, John Bradford. How could I, her professor, imagine myself in the position of people who were down and out, people without jobs who needed help? Read the rest of this entry »


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