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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Does America still respect labor?

Advocate-Messenger, September 8, 2011

            As another Labor Day came and went, I found myself wondering whether this important national holiday has lost some of its original meaning. The U.S. Department of Labor explains on its website, that Labor Day is “a creation of the labor movement . . . and a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”
            Yet today the “labor movement” is struggling for its life. Since 1945, union membership has declined from a historic high of 35% of workers to only11.9% in 2010.
           The Republican Party has been very effective in its decades-long campaign against the labor movement. For instance, in 1947 a Republican congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act over the veto of President Truman.

          One of its most important provisions allowed states to pass so-called right-to-work laws that prohibit union shops. (Union shops are workplaces in which, by collective agreement, all employees must be either union members or pay their fair share of the union’s costs in representing them.)

           There are twenty-two right-to-work states, predominantly in the South and upper Midwest. Right-to-work laws invite new hires to be free riders, benefitting from union contracts without paying dues. And of course they weaken unions by depriving them of funds.

          Another major provision of the Taft-Hartley Act allows management to mount a vigorous campaign against a union’s effort to organize its workers. Interpretations of this provision by the National Labor Relations Board and the courts have given a green light for management to make union organizing of a workplace very difficult and hazardous.

         Most companies facing a union organizing effort hire union-busting “consulting” firms to give them tactical and legal advice. On its website, one of these firms (Labor Relations Institute, Inc.) boasts of “more than 25 years of experience in thousands of elections—and a management win rate of over 90 percent.”

        The UN’s Declaration of Human Rights says that “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” In 2000 Human Rights Watch issued a very critical report on the precarious state of this right in the United States.

        It found that “Firing a worker for organizing is illegal but commonplace in the United States.” The fired worker faces years of hearings and appeals in order to get reinstatement.

       The report noted that in the weeks before a vote on unionizing, management forces employees to attend group meetings in which the union is described in the worst possible terms. It also forces workers to attend threat-filled, one-on-one meetings with their supervisors.

       Thanks to such tactics under the coaching of professional union-busters, the union participation rate for private-sector workers is down to 6.9%. The overall rate of union membership is higher (11.9%) only because 36.2% of public-sector workers are unionized.

        Federal law does not give public-sector workers the right to unionize. However, beginning in 1959 most states granted their workers this right.

       Unions have been more successful in the public than in the private sector because state and local officials sit across the bargaining table from their fellow citizens. So these officials haven’t adopted the intensely adversarial role of private-sector corporations concerned only with profits.

       Until recently, that is. Fresh from electoral victories in the 2010 elections, Republican governors and state legislators began a nation-wide campaign against public-sector unions. As the L.A. Times reported on April 2, “Nearly half of the states are considering legislation to limit public employees' collective bargaining rights.”

      The growing weakness of the labor movement has resulted in three decades of stagnant wages for workers, even as worker productivity has steadily risen. The added wealth American workers created in the last thirty years has been gone mostly to rich CEOs and shareholders.

      According to the Economic Policy Institute, between 1980 and 2008 the richest 10% of Americans got 98% of all income growth, while the bottom 90% shared the 2% remainder. The GOP and its mouthpiece, Fox News, want Americans to ignore these facts. They say it is unions who are selfish and greedy.

      In fact, unions have played a large role in creating a workers’ middle class by pushing for Social Security, civil rights, Medicare, aid to education, health insurance and retirement plans. Without union power, this middle class is headed toward destruction.

      In a healthy capitalist democracy, there needs to be a countervailing power to prevent the capture of government by entrenched wealth. As Thomas Donahue, a prominent official of the AFL-CIO, succinctly put it: "The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labor."

      In 1954 President Eisenhower said: “Today in America, unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.” What would he think of his party today?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A budget engineered for a dysfunctional national family

Danville Advocate-Messenger

            Last week’s debt ceiling agreement was a striking victory for Republicans, although they almost threw it away under pressure from the Tea Party fringe. They got nearly $3 trillion in spending cuts with no tax increase.
How did they extract this from a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in the Senate? They did it by cloaking an act of extortion with the language of fiscal responsibility and family budgets.
            Their message went something like this: the American people are like a self-indulgent family. Through their government they are spending more money than they actually have. The only responsible, adult thing to do is cut their spending.
            Even President Obama has used this simple-minded argument, and the mainstream media repeat it constantly. It makes people afraid that scary things will happen to the national family unless they mend their ways.
            This message of fear builds on the stress and anxiety most Americans have about their own household budgets. Average household incomes are stagnant. Over 10 million households owe more on their home than it's worth. Jobs and income are insecure, even as health care and educational expenses rise.
             Republicans got Americans to transfer this anxiety to the national budget. Then they presented themselves to a frightened public as rescuers: tea-partiers, “young guns” and Ayn Rand devotees became a patriotic posse galloping in to save us from government fiscal abuse.
This clever rhetorical trick allowed Republicans to get away with political terrorism. They took the American people hostage by threatening to inflict a great harm (sovereign default) on our society unless they got what they wanted.
By agreeing to the debt deal, Obama and the Democrats have rewarded the GOP hostage takers. The GOP will come back for more.
            Republicans took the nation hostage in order to save the wealthiest Americans from paying a cent more in taxes. This is the most important and morally indecent feature of the debt deal.
            For a second time Obama has broken his campaign promise to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of taxpayers. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, ending them would raise $826 billion in ten years. That would be a big help in reducing the deficit.
            The simplest way to reduce federal deficits is for the economy to grow, thereby increasing the amount of tax revenue. As economists across the political spectrum have warned, major cuts in federal spending will further weaken the economy, thereby shrinking government revenue and worsening the deficit.
            The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in January 2010 issued a report examining various options for achieving economic and job growth. Its conclusions were similar to those of Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics: you get the most economic growth per dollar from spending on extending unemployment insurance, fiscal relief for state governments and infrastructure spending.
Cutting taxes for the wealthy is the least effective option. It’s not hard to see why.
Consumer spending accounts for 70% of economic activity in the U.S. As the CBO report explains, wealthy families are more likely to save than to spend the money they get from tax cuts. Programs to relieve poverty and unemployment or to help states pay the salaries of teachers and construction workers immediately increase consumer demand.
The Republican threat to send the United States into default unless they got huge spending cuts was in effect an attempt to harm the nation in one way or another. The GOP forced us to choose between harming our country by going into default and harming it by reducing consumer demand in an already fragile economy.

Let’s go back to the comparison between a family budget and the national budget. It’s a sad truth that the average American household is less able to buy into the “American dream.”
But the nation as a whole (the national family) is quite rich. The national income is the GDP (Gross Domestic Product—the dollar value of the sum of goods and services produced by our economy). The U.S. has one of the highest GDPs or incomes per capita in the world.
But our national income is very unequally distributed, to a degree that is common in third world countries. In the economic expansion of 2002-2006 under Bush, the top 1% captured almost three quarters of national income growth. During that same period, the Bush tax cuts fattened their after-tax income.
            Our national household has quite enough income to pay for social security, universal health care and other valuable social programs. The problem is that a minority in the national family are hogging so much of the household income that the rest of the family is suffering.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The brain behind Republican strategy

Danville Advocate-Messenger


When I listen to the bickering in Congress over raising the debt ceiling, I’m tempted to succumb to “misology.” In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, Socrates warned us not to “become misologues … There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse.”

The GOP has stubbornly committed to policies that are proven failures over three decades. As conservative columnist David Brooks said recently, Republicans “have no economic theory worthy of the name.”

What tempts me to misology is the continuing failure of reasonable discourse, of established facts and logic, to influence most politicians and voters.

Republicans threaten to make our country default on its financial obligations and precipitate an economic crisis. They are, as Brooks put it, “willing to stain their nation’s honor” rather than accept the slightest tax increase on wealthy Americans.

Democrats lack the courage to forcefully denounce the GOP agenda. Their complaints seem like passionless invocations of values they and their president are willing to abandon, as long as the surrender is gradual.

American voters seem caught up in the irrationality of the moment, resigned to letting politicians damage their nation’s future. There is a great paradox here, one that reflects a dangerous aspect of human nature.

The recent history of our species is full of reasonable discourse that has led to great scientific and technological prowess.

But it is also a history of massive violence and cruelty, global warfare and genocide.

Human moral and political progress lags far behind that of science and technology.

Why can’t reasonable discourse prevail there too? After all, we’re the only rational animals, right? Some nonhuman animals can use very rudimentary tools, and some can communicate in ways that resemble language. Yet there is such a chasm between them and us! Consider our art, our cityscapes and gleaming technological civilization.

Five million years ago, there was an ancestral species common to us and apes.

But the hairier and smaller-brained hominid species linking us to this ancestor are extinct. So we see ourselves at a great remove from apes, as if we were spirits shoe-horned into animal bodies.

But our minds really are embodied in mammalian brains. That’s why the faces of kittens and puppies as well as human infants arouse nurturing feelings in us.

As the early mammalian brain evolved in a human direction, nature didn’t discard behaviors and strategies that helped our ancestral species survive. Instead, it refined them by giving the brain further capacities, such as language and thought.

The older mammalian strategies and behaviors are still there, wired into the tissues that make up what brain science calls the limbic system — a part of our brain heavily involved in emotional experience and behavior.

That’s why we so often talk about what we do in dead metaphors for fighting/fleeing, eating/drinking and sex.

Why else do we “eat up” everything a con artist says, “run away” from problems, “hunger and thirst” for justice, “give birth” to ideas, “kick butt” in debates and “taste” the victory?

These metaphors are “dead” in the sense that we’re no longer conscious of how their meaning is being extended. We don’t advert to the fact that victory doesn’t literally have a flavor and debates are not won by kicking.

The metaphors may be dead, but the link between our higher-level, distinctively human behaviors and the more primitive drives programmed into our limbic systems is alive and strong. This link can be good or bad depending on how it affects our activity.

Our society would be better off if we all pursued justice like starving people wanting food. But we shouldn’t try to win a debate in a way that resembles kicking an opponent.

You can “win” a debate by outshouting or intimidating your adversary, or by deceiving the audience. But if these tactics become the norm, society will be deprived of important truths and necessary information. The primitive desire to fight and win can lead to degraded, irrational public discourse.

This primitive desire was on display when Senate Minority Leader Mitch Mc-Connell freely admitted last October that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Our primitive fight/flight response leads what psychologists call the “backfire effect.” When people are confronted with information from a reliable source that contradicts a cherished belief, that belief often gets stronger.

We react to the contradictory information as if it were a threat that we must flee or fight, all the while clinging protectively to our belief. For instance, Republicans repeatedly claim that spending cuts are our only hope for creating jobs and economic growth.

(Warning: what follows may be distressing.) The Congressional Budget Office and Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, have demonstrated that direct spending by the federal government is much more effective for economic and job growth than tax cuts. (Google: stimulus bang for the buck zandi cbo.)

Brian Cooney is emeritus professor of philosophy at Centre College.






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Brian Cooney

Contributing Columnist

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Danville Advocate-Messenger

The mythology of individualism

In her “Textbook of Americanism,” GOP saint Ayn Rand wrote: “The basic principle of the United States of America is Individualism.” At a 2005 celebration honoring Rand, Republican young gun Paul Ryan declared every battle fought by Republicans “usually comes down to one conflict — individualism versus collectivism.”

Randian conservatives are OK with private collectives — even corporations powered by the activities of hundreds of thousands of employees and revenues larger than many nations. What they fear and loathe is the political collective, a people or community pursuing a common good through government action.

As the influential libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick put it, “There is no social entity with a good … There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives.” In other words, society is nothing but a multitude of individuals for whom there is no public good, only private goods sought by different individuals and groups.

Nozick would add, in a free society, no individual or group should use the power of government to force others to contribute to their private goals, such as food or medicine. Doing so amounts to enslavement. As Rand Paul said, if you want to legislate universal health care, “you believe in slavery.”

The only acceptable role for government is to protect individuals’ property and liberty from aggressors.

Individualists want a political system built around self-made, self-reliant and value-creating agents whose connections to other humans are purely voluntary or contractual. That’s why they see the free market as society itself, as the natural environment for human nature.

Of course, the very idea of a market society is hard to reconcile with the individualist picture of humans. Our constant transactions with one another show our dependence on goods and services provided by others.

Individualists would respond that these transactions are voluntary in a free-market society.

Each of us can choose with whom to deal and which things we do for ourselves rather than rely on others.

We make ourselves who we are, and we create values by these choices. When we get what we want through market transactions, we draw on our own resources to offer something that another person needs in return.

Behold the individualist’s new Adam — a gift to the world from our exceptional culture. This muscular ego is the creature of what Herbert Hoover called “the American system of rugged individualism.”

There is something very appealing about this picture. All of us want our children to become self-reliant and value-creating individuals, and a healthy society needs to nurture these traits in all its citizens.

However, this picture is deeply flawed because what it leaves out is just as important as what it includes. No one is self-made. A society makes individuals just as much as individuals make a society.

Nothing is closer to the very core of individuals than their thought processes. Yet it is language that makes thought possible by supplying the mind with ideas and rules for combining them. There is no private language — it’s community property.

A few individuals manage to put words or ideas together in very original ways, like Shakespeare or Einstein.

Yet, even they would have been impossible without their societies’ language and education, and without institutions (such as the theater and science) that they did not create.

Every individual’s life is an intersection of pre-scripted roles (e.g. being parents, spouses or professionals) that we did not invent, and without which our behavior would be unintelligible to others or to ourselves. Like actors on a stage, we play these roles more or less well.

All our labor, however skilled, is a social product, a joint production of the labors of countless others, such as teachers, farmers and city employees. They build and maintain the environment or infrastructure without which our own work would be impossible.

The self-made individual touted by Randian individualists is a fiction, a distortion. People who believe in this fiction suffer from what we can call Trumpism. Donald Trump is the perfect symbol of the craziness of individualism. His brief candidacy collapsed as he was laughed off the political stage.

Because of his ridiculous selfimportance and exaggerated sense of power, people quickly saw him as a clown.

Trumpism makes Americans tolerant of extreme inequality in wealth and income. The top 5 percent owned 62 percent of the nation’s wealth in 2007. Trump-ists would say that these numbers reflect the immensely greater individual contributions of the very rich.

Finally, it’s simply false to say that there are only private goods, and the only legitimate function of government is to protect them.

The society that makes our individual lives possible has many important and essentially public goods.

These include infrastructure, education, a clean environment, social insurance, and basic scientific research of the sort that created the Internet and will launch nanotechnology. These public goods empower and liberate our individual lives.

Brian Cooney is emeritus professor of philosophy at Centre College.






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Brian Cooney

Contributing Columnist




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