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 Future

January 17, 2017

What are the lessons of the election for the future of democracy?

First, leaving part of the population far behind is dangerous. Democracy properly gives everyone the right to vote, so everybody counts. When a segment of the population feels ignored, like those who lost their factory jobs, they sometimes revolt. But it’s easier to destroy what they don’t like than to shape a better future. Many, disliking Hillary and the gridlocked Congress, knocked her and Democrats out of their way, but are likely to regret the results unless the Republicans change and start working for the workingmen they’ve ignored.

For a century, Republicans have been fighting the unions of working people, and the legal protections for working people and consumers with increasing success. Can Republicans change and actually side with those same people. That’s the claim of Trump’s empty jawboning. But his methods will do the opposite.

  • He can’t bring coal back now that other forms of energy are cheaper.
  • He can’t bring steel back when other countries produce it for less.
  • There are opportunities in technology, science, education, research, infrastructure, the environment, and retraining but Republicans prefer to count pennies and dream about a world they can’t have back.

Progress requires investment. But Republicans only support tax relief for the wealthy with prayers they’ll do something useful, not complex and destructive financial maneuvers, mergers, buyouts and monopolization – all strategies for beggaring the rest of us.

I don’t expect Republicans to change their colors.

But political campaigns will change, effective immediately:

  • Candidates will repeat slogans like “crooked Hillary” or “wicked Donald” ad nauseum, expecting people to be more affected by repetition than evidence.
  • Accomplishing something will be downgraded to the level of an accidental coincidence because candidates will expect people to be more moved by rhetoric than reality.
  • Appeals to people’s guns and hatreds will no longer seem self-defeating; instead, appealing to people’s basest instincts and group hatreds will be mandatory.

Is there another way?

The economic polities of FDR, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, stuck for more than half a century and kept this country depression-free until the recent W years.

Roosevelt understood that policies had to be good for everyone. He designed Social Security so that everyone got it, conveniently, through the post office; our checks came in the mail, although now it’s often direct deposit.

His economic policies got everyone back to work – Roosevelt didn’t shrink from hiring people with government dollars to get them working. He didn’t rely on a private market when it obviously wasn’t working. And he took our economy out of the Great Depression and put it on a powerful footing for an economic surge that lasted the rest of the century.

It’s not about jawboning. It’s about figuring out what will actually get people to work. That’s what America got out of the New Deal. What he didn’t do was turn the rest of us into the serfs and slaves of the wealthy. He didn’t celebrate the kind of jobs done only by those too desperate to refuse endless hours for peanuts, in what we used to call sweatshops and labor camps, no matter how dirty, diseased, dangerous, disgusting, illegal or improper.

Let me end by asking what we will also be doing to reign in global warming, protect Americans,  democracy, and the country we were blessed with?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 17, 2017.


The Outdated Economics of Conservative Ideologues

April 26, 2016

Some of you may have been following Shankar Vedantam on NPR or the discoveries of Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist on the Princeton faculty, and their demonstration of the irrational ways that people very naturally and ordinarily reach decisions. Indeed, for quite a long time it’s been apparent that rational decision making often demands too much of people. As Cornell’s Vicki Bogan said in a talk in Albany, the rational choice model of economics assumes that people:

  • Think like Albert Einstein
  • Can store as much memory as IBM’s Big Blue
  • Can exercise the will power of Mahatma Gandhi
  • … [and] make unbiased forecasts

Nobel Prizes have been awarded to psychologists and economists who have been studying human decision making, showing that people literally can’t do what conservative economic theory expects them to. The rational man doesn’t exist, and for that reason, markets often don’t protect us. For both businessmen and consumers, rational choice is often impossible; it’s just too hard. Sometimes things aren’t currently knowable. Sometimes they’re beyond the capacity of individuals, even if institutions can figure it out.

A trip to the grocery store helps make the point clear. Even though much of the information exists, I can’t know enough about all the ingredients of the goods I buy, and their impact on my body, and still take the time to do my work and have a life to live. I have to trust someone or something else. But consumer ignorance shapes what businessmen have to do to survive. Those who cater only to the most informed, cater to small markets and often go under.

One consequence is that the market doesn’t protect us. That’s why workers’ compensation was started many decades ago – workers couldn’t figure out the odds of injury and didn’t have the ability to protect themselves as cheaply and effectively as informed employers could. Government stepped in to move that burden of knowing and choosing from the employee to the employer.

Those are examples. The broader impact of what is now called behavioral economics is that the economic theory of market ideologues is thoroughly discredited nonsense. It doesn’t work. A couple of decades ago there was a big debate about the efficient market theory which claimed that the market had it right even though individuals could be wrong. But they couldn’t tell me whether the market had it right the day before or the day after the crash. In other words it was nonsense on stilts.

That’s one of the reasons the public, all of us, have to get out of the glare of the outdated economics coming from conservative ideologues. It’s one of the reasons why it has been so important that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have moved the Democratic Party to the left. That shift also clears the way for Hilary Clinton to return to the roots of the modern Democratic Party in the Great Depression, in Roosevelt’s New Deal, in being a party with heart.

Hilary and Bernie both have a lot to offer, but just as big a key to progress will be the Senate and the House of Representatives, which have blocked Obama’s efforts to push this country toward better, more caring solutions at every turn.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 26, 2016.


Hillary

September 22, 2015

We were delighted when Kermit Hall, a friend since the early 80s, became president of the University at Albany. A week before he died, we had breakfast with Kermit at the President’s house. So I went to the memorial service at the University with a heavy heart. There was a woman standing in the crowd I didn’t recognize. She was just standing around quietly. My ability to recognize faces is poor, good enough for most things but it often fails me. She eventually made her way to the makeshift outdoor stage that had been organized for the memorial. Once the memorial got under way, she was introduced – as Senator Clinton. I don’t remember her reading anything. What I heard was a warm, heartfelt eulogy of my friend, a eulogy that flowed easily from her, filled with memories of their work together to strengthen the University in New York.

I know Hillary has a heart. I know she is a warm person with strong feelings. And I do not care in the least whether she would want to have a drink with me. I don’t care whether a president is spontaneous or funny when you get to know them.

I admired FDR enormously, not because of his dog, but his good sense. Thank heavens that he knew German well enough to understand how dangerous Hitler was before anyone else in America. I admired his wife and regret the pain it caused her that some women were sufficiently devoted to do anything for the president, but in the scheme of things, I have no ill feelings toward FDR for it. What mattered most was that he put his energies into turning this country around in the middle of the Great Depression, and preparing this country for what he knew was the inevitable battle with Hitler. He was the man we needed and thank the Lord for him. To heck with who his drinking buddies were.

I don’t want Hillary to be spontaneous so I could imagine enjoying her company or she mine. I want her to be thoughtful. I don’t want her to take us into foolish wars on wild hunches, or to come out with whatever thoughts she has in the moment. We don’t need a president whose calculations are as bankrupt as some of the companies he ran into bankruptcy. A president needs the mental equipment to calculate carefully. And a candidate needs to position herself or himself to win, lest we find ourselves with one of the clowns on the other side who compete for the privilege of exercising their free speech in the most vicious ways, arguing we should deprive friends and neighbors of their citizenship, breaking up families, and throwing as many people as possible behind bars in a collective orgy of prejudice.  That may be spontaneous but it’s also small-minded and stupid.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have long had my admiration and I support the message they have been taking to America. I want them to give Hillary cover to move leftward without losing the public in the process. But I think Democrats have been misevaluating Hillary. She has many of the qualities we need. She surprised many in both parties by just how good a senator she turned out to be. Democrats need to appreciate her toughness, experience and ability to navigate the challenges that confront presidents, not her ability to handle a stein of beer.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 22, 2015.

 


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