Nuts, Liars, Suckers and the Rube Goldberg Disease

November 28, 2017

I just heard that Jeff Bezos is worth $100 billion. What is he doing with that net worth? Is he putting it all to work? If not, why not? Ya think if we just gave Jeff another billion he’d put that money right to work putting Americans to work? Why can’t he do that with the $100 billion he already has?

Republicans keep telling us that if they give tax breaks to the wealthy they’ll put it to work, like another billion for Bezos. They have to be either nuts or liars. If you like nuts or liars, that’s your business. But the question is whether we are suckers.

Republicans want us to give the money to people who don’t need it in the hope that now, with even more money they don’t need, they might decide to go to the trouble of running another business and the other business would be somewhere in America and would use people and equipment made in America, or they might find others, like venture capitalists who might use the money in, by and for Americans.

Rube Goldberg, a giant of comedy who died in 1970, certainly would have gone that route in his satirical cartoons. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines Rube Goldberg as “a comically involved, complicated invention, laboriously contrived to perform a simple operation.”

The Rube Goldberg website describes “A Rube Goldberg contraption” as “an elaborate set of arms, wheels, gears, handles, cups and rods, put in motion by balls, canary cages, pails, boots, bathtubs, paddles and live animals – [which] takes a simple task and makes it extraordinarily complicated. He had solutions for How To Get The Cotton Out Of An Aspirin Bottle, imagined a Self-Operating Napkin, and created a Simple Alarm Clock – to name just a few of his hilariously depicted drawings.”

Sound familiar? We could give large tax breaks to people and companies that don’t need it on the prayer that they would use it in helpful, constructive ways, and provide decent, useful jobs to Americans.

Or to get the economy going, nationally or locally, we could just do whatever was needed. Instead of praying someone else would do it with unseemly incentives, we could build roads, bridges, updated electrical grids, schools, universities and water systems, all of which would employ lots of people and provide the resources people and businesses need to function. We might even organize cultural attractions that make places more fun and attractive. Just last week the Times had a front and multipage article on the ways the New York City subways have been starved of maintenance dollars. We’re always postponing maintenance but what do we get for that – paying the rich more for the privilege of being their patrons?

People who tell you that we have to give tax breaks to people who have money lying around that they already don’t know what to do with are either Rube Goldberg creations, nuts or liars. If you like nuts, OK. If you like liars, that’s your business. But the question is whether we are suckers.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 28, 2017.

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Labor Economics

February 14, 2017

The White House isn’t explaining what’s happening to jobs. I once taught labor economics, an issue close to my heart. To some extent, labor is like any other commodity and that’s the problem. Jobs go wherever business can find all the things it needs – the land, transportation, materials, markets, reliable legal relations, at the right prices. And it keeps changing.

We talk about the rust belt as if we did something wrong. Actually we had about a century-long run on the best factory jobs in the country – a ribbon through this state after New York’s government built the Erie Canal and made New York City gateway to the west, turning every city along the Hudson, Mohawk, Erie Canal, and then the great Grand Central Railway into a powerhouse. This area long dominated clothing, technology, science, heavy industry and spawned radio and television networks. Each industry provided resources for newer ones.

But New York’s advantages couldn’t be permanent. For bigger plants with newer methods, business looked for virgin land. Other governments built ports, the Interstates and St. Lawrence Canal, while the aging infrastructure of older cities led firms elsewhere. It couldn’t be permanent. Economic fundamentals inevitably dominate jawboning and presidential rhetoric.

Workers get cast aside unceremoniously. One of my law students was also a human resources specialist at GE, missing class whenever GE announced layoffs. They had long since let the weakest workers go. Now she had to fire the best and it hurt. But big corporations aren’t sentimental.

What’s a city or region supposed to do? The market doesn’t automatically find the next big thing and put it where former employees can get jobs like those they lost. The market didn’t build America automatically. Government changed British rules. Government built a banking system with resources to fund business, and smooth their cash flow – if you read or saw Hamilton, that’s what he was about, government providing what companies couldn’t. Government built ports, canals, highways, and had the railroads built. Government provided public health facilities, water, sanitation, disease control – which became crucial for business. Government invested in schools, and President Lincoln laid the foundation for the modern state university system. President Wilson sparked the country’s first broadcasting system for the war effort. Almost everything in your hands today has government fingerprints on it – the research and development in fundamental physics that led to the lasers, transistors and chips that run almost everything today.

Yes, governments make mistakes. You think private industry doesn’t? Most businesses fail. But only government can provide the fundamentals, the things that all the businesses in the country, region or route need. Only governments are motivated to look beyond individual companies and work for the region.

Governments have been investing in new forms of power. If governments in coal producing states had the sense to invest in emerging industries instead of dying ones, the coal miners might face a much better transition to good jobs than anything presidential jawboning can produce. But government cannot do it if it is afraid to fail.

Governments need to be thinking about what the emerging industries are, what resources will support growth. Not individual businesses that any group of investors could build on their own, but the underlying fundamentals that make broad development possible. And we may only know which ideas work when we try them.

If government thinks small, we all shrink.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 14, 2017.


Listening, Learning and Law Enforcement

May 12, 2015

Not long ago, I met the daughter of two of my wife’s high school teachers. Grant and Joyce Banks were legendary in Rutherford County. They traveled to the homes and met the families of every one of their students. Their purpose was to get to know and understand the circumstances of each of the people in their classes. They had no grading pad with them, just the warmth of their own personalities. When we got married, my wife took me to see them and we visited in their home. The last time I saw them was at my mother-in-law’s funeral – Mrs. Banks was too ill then to get out of the car but we stepped outside and talked with them.

Think about the possibilities of taking policemen around to meet every family on their beats, hat in one hand, the other outstretched and weapons back in the car, just to meet, and get to know the people. “Hi, I’m so and so.” “Are there things you’d like me to know?” “Have you had any problems with the police?” And just listen, without response except to make it clear you’re listening. In law school classes we call that active listening, so people understand that you hear them, understand what they are going through, and care about them. This isn’t the time for advice, instruction or explanations. Just “I hear what you’re telling me. I can’t make any promises but I will certainly bring up your concerns at the station or with my boss.” It’s a listening tour, but a very personal one.

That can be hard. I’ve had to endure criticism for some things I’ve run. It really didn’t matter whether the criticism was correct, helpful or plain nonsense – I’ve learned from hard experience that when people tell you what they want you to know, they are not waiting around for you to contradict them. They want to know you’ve heard. Responding is a separate problem and a skill in itself. The best lawyers understand that counseling their clients isn’t as simple as telling them what’s what. I remember one of the named partners of the corporate firm I started with telling our client over the phone from New York to California what my research made clear he had to do. Listening in Marty’s office I knew the client would not. A few weeks earlier, our client had his picture on the cover of Business Week. A few weeks later his company was delisted from the stock exchange. Counseling people, even when you’re right on the money, is not as simple as telling them.

For the police, it is crucial not to get into arguments with people – just to listen. Both the police and the residents have a good deal to learn about each other. And it can’t be done in the first conversation. In some fields this is called soft power. Police are used to thinking in terms of hard power – the power of guns and force. But without soft power, the power of empathy and trust – BOTH ways – their jobs are virtually impossible. I’d make every cop do it, and collectively I’d make sure they covered every family in the neighborhood – here, Baltimore, wherever. Cops have to learn to internalize the value of listening to people even, especially, when people are upset. If and when they learn to understand what people are struggling with, if and when they start cheering and rooting for the people in the neighborhood, we may be able to put most of the violence behind us.

Oh, visiting people like the Banks did might work in the schools too!

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 11, 2015.


World-Wide Radiance of the American Melting Pot

February 24, 2015

In this world the grossest of inhumanity is euphemistically described as ethnic cleansing. The mutli-directional genocide of the old Yugoslavia has become routine. Boko Haram takes aim at education and at religious difference in Africa, targeting connections with America and the west. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Middle East, with tentacles into much of the Muslim world, target whoever doesn’t belong and subscribe to their version of Islam or dare question their authority, They have targeted America, England, Spain, France Norway and counting. It is terrifying how quickly decent peace-loving communities have been dismembered and destroyed.

The past is prologue, but can’t be undone. The question is what do we do now. This is partly an ideological struggle because terrorists depend on recruits. How can we handle such a high-stakes ideological struggle? One aspect of that is at home.

Urging the U.S. Supreme Court to end segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 both the Democratic Truman Administration and the Republican Eisenhower Administration explained to the Court that our respect for people of all races, faiths and national origins were central to American worldwide success, especially in the fight against Communism.

Our melting pot and mutual concern and respect define the best of America. Our unwillingness to give in to bigots and bigotry, racists and racism, our willingness to see, confront and deal with bigotry and racism, our determination to stop it, make our strongest appeal. It is our tolerance, our neighborliness, our welcome to all from everywhere that makes us the shining city on a hill that our Founders hoped we would be. It is not our bloodlines but our coming together to make ourselves and welcome each other as Americans that makes us so. That e pluribus unum is what the world admires. They want our neighborliness; they crave the American idealism that gives anyone and everyone a chance to make a decent living and a decent life. They crave the welcome that glows from our melting pot.

People dream of America in corners of the world where they are crushed as if they are worthless except for the masters’ business, worthless unless they are of the masters’ bloodlines, worthless unless they have something to offer, at least a bribe. We need to keep the dream of the American melting pot alive both for their sakes and for ours.

Our American melting pot is more important than ever to the world we inhabit. But make no mistake it is crucial here at home. If the hatreds that once fanned the Old World and now fan the so-called Third World land on our shores, none of us are safe. We were all melted in that pot and we all live or die together. There is no safety in a cauldron. We have to sustain the values of our shared tolerant American culture.  For all our sakes. We are all beneficiaries.

I pointed out last week that the American melting pot, one of our most fundamental of institutions, was the result of very deliberate decisions to educate us all together, without regard to wealth, faith, gender, national origin or spoken language, and then, finally, without regard to race. And yet, the Court that once announced Brown v. Board of Education is not helping to preserve that centuries-old melting pot. Instead it is making it easier, in some respects even forcing us to re-segregate ourselves by race, religion and wealth.[1] By doing that, the Court is plunging a dagger into the heart of America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 24, 2015.

[1] See, e.g., Ariz. Christian Sch. Tuition Org. v. Winn, 131 S. Ct. 1436 (2011); Parents Involved in Cmty. Sch. v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007); Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002); and see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press 2010); Erica Frankenberg, Chungmei Lee and Gary Orfield, “A Multiracial Society with Segregated Schools: Are We Losing the Dream?”  The Civil Rights Project Harvard Univ. (Jan. 2003) available at http://www.civilrightsproject.harvard.edu/research/reseg03/AreWeLosingtheDream.pdf (June 22, 2007).


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