Monday, April 19, 2010

Taking Sides

They say in Harlan County
there are no neutrals there.
You'll either be a union man
or a thug for J. H. Blair.
Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?
-- Florence Reece, Which Side Are You On?, 1931
In this week's Sift:
  • Connecting the Dots: Economy, Anger, Racism, Policy. A labor leader's speech at Harvard does a rare job of pulling it all together.
  • The Sift Bookshelf: Two Books on Social Justice. Unjust Deserts explains what's wrong with the it's-my-money argument against taxation. The Moral Underground reveals how middle-class people subvert the system when they see the reality of life among the working poor.
  • Thanks, Everybody. My April 15 message about how I benefit personally from tax-supported programs. Probably you do too.
  • The Doublethink Network. Learn from Bill O'Reilly: If people catch you making up facts, make up some more facts to prove them wrong.
  • Short Notes. Why airliners avoid ash clouds. The short supply of first-rate sociopaths. Who covers rural stories? Confederate History Month. Could Protestants be locked out of the Supreme Court? And more. 

Connecting the Dots: Economy, Anger, Racism, Policy
Two Wednesdays ago, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka gave a speech at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He put his finger on our economic problem in one sentence:
[F]or a generation we have built our economy on a lie -- that we can have a low-wage, high-consumption society and paper over the contradiction with cheap credit funded by our foreign trading partners and financial sector profits made by taking a cut of the flow of cheap credit.
Naturally, he says, people are angry about the results of this misguided policy -- lack of jobs, stagnant wages, unpayable debts, lack of opportunity for hard-working people. For similar reasons people were angry during the Depression, both here and in Germany. The question then was how that anger would be expressed: in violence against each other, or in united action to fix problems through the democratic process. 
Why did our democracy endure through the Great Depression? Because working people discovered it was possible to elect leaders who would fight for them and not for the financial barons who had brought on the catastrophe. Because our politics offered a real choice besides greed and hatred. Because our leaders inspired the confidence to reject hate and charted a path to higher ground through broadly shared prosperity.

This is a similar moment. Our politics have been dominated by greed and the forces of money for a generation. Now, amid the wreckage that came from that experiment, we hear the voices of hatred, of racism and homophobia.
In a good speech, you identify a problem and describe what people-in-general have to do to solve it. In a great speech, you bring it home. You look your audience in the eye and tell them what they have to do. You don't want people walking up the aisles in clumps saying, "What a good speech!" You want individuals staring at the carpet silently, thinking "What am I doing?"

So Trumka could just wring his hands about those know-nothing demagogues on cable TV and talk radio, and the policy wonks at the Kennedy School would eat it up. He could settle for denouncing racism, homophobia, nativism, and all the other distractions and conspiracy theories that the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs throw in our way -- and probably get himself a standing ovation. 

That's not what he does. He brings it home:
At this moment of economic pain and anger, political intellectuals face a great choice -- whether to be servants or critics of economic privilege. And I think this is an important point to make here at Harvard. The economic elites at JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and the other big Wall Street banks are happy to hire intellectual servants wherever they can find them. But the stronger the alliance between intellectuals and economic elites, the more the forces of hatred -- of anti-intellectualism -- will grow. If you want to fight the forces of hatred, you have to help empower the forces of righteous anger.

And at this moment, the labor movement is working to give voice to the justified anger of the American people. We need help. We need public intellectuals who will help design the policies that will replace the bubble economy with a real, sustainable economy that works for all of us.

... Let me be clear: There is no excuse for racism and hatred. All Americans need to unite against it. The labor movement must be a powerful voice against it. But you cannot fight hatred with greed. Working people are angry -- and we are right to be angry at the betrayal of our economic future. Help us turn that anger into the energy to win a better country and a better world.
Which side are you on, Harvard? Are you going to keep churning out those talking heads who explain why working people have to tighten their belts and produce more for less money, and why it's right and just for all the economic growth to go to the top 1%? Or are you going to help envision an economy that works for everybody, and find the practical steps that will get us there?

And if you side with Wall Street, Harvard, don't get all huffy when ordinary people line up behind yahoos and hooligans. Don't wag your finger about how they just don't understand history or Econ 101. What other choice did you give them?

The Sift Bookshelf: Two Books on Social Justice
Put together, two well-written recent books tell a powerful story: 
  • Our economic system is unjust. What individuals receive has very little to do with what they earn as individuals
  • The injustice becomes undeniable when you look at the lives of the working poor. 
  • When middle class people have to deal with the working poor, many of them start subverting the system to mitigate that injustice.
The books are Unjust Deserts by Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly and The Moral Underground by Lisa Dodson. Each is about 200 pages and easy to read, but both have deep roots in academic research.

Unjust Deserts splits neatly into two halves. The first half is economic and explains the primary illusion of our market economy: Even though we get paid as individuals, most of the value in our paychecks comes from our participation in a system that we did not build ourselves, based on know-how largely inherited from past generations. 

We don't work harder or have more talent than Americans did in 1800, so that can't possibly be the basis for our much higher standard of living. And we didn't inherit this know-how as individuals, from the ancestors in our particular family trees. The knowledge base that has increased our productivity is primarily social. Our generation as a whole inherited it from previous generations.

And that raises the moral and political question discussed in the second half of Unjust Deserts: If this productive economic system is our common inheritance, what justifies extreme inequalities of wealth? Yes, people deserve to receive the value they personally create through their work and talent, but why should a few people also get the lion's share of the common inheritance?

Unjust Deserts argues that they shouldn't. Progressive taxation and social spending aren't some kind of theft, they're a (fairly feeble) attempt to restore the usurped inheritance. (I made this case independently last year -- after Unjust Deserts was published but before I had heard of it.)

The Moral Underground picks the story up from there. The poor are often portrayed as lazy welfare collectors, but a lot of them are in fact working much harder than the rest of us. They are stuck in low-wage jobs with little flexibility and no future, and they have to juggle that small amount of money and limited free time to take care of their children.

The dirty secret of our moral vision is that it has a class bias. Solid upstanding reliable citizens are supposed to maintain certain standards: They fulfill their commitments. They show up where they're supposed to be, ready to do what they've committed to do. People who can't or won't do that are judged to be deficient morally, not economically.

But all that showing-up-well-prepared requires a support system. You need reliable transportation. You need people to watch your kids when you have to be on the job. And most of all you need someone to cover for you during those small emergencies that happen to everybody: You get sick; your kid gets sick; the baby-sitter doesn't show up; there's a problem at school -- and so on.

Many of the working poor don't have that support system, so they're forced into choices that wealthier people in more flexible work environments don't have to make: Do you send a sick kid to school, leave her at home by herself, or stay home with her and get fired? Do you cut out on work early to make the bus, or rely on your 9-year-old to take care of the toddler until you can get home some other way? Do you bring the kids with you to your night job and hope that you can keep them safely out of sight while you fulfill your duties? No matter what you choose, you are immoral from somebody's point of view. You're a bad worker, a bad parent, or both.

When middle-class people are forced to confront the realities rather than the stereotypes of minimum-wage life, they are often shocked into subverting the system -- breaking company rules and sometimes breaking the law so that hard-working people are not punished for the impossible choices they are forced to make.

Lisa Dodson is a social scientist who researches that rule-breaking and tries to identify the unstated moral code that pushes otherwise law-abiding people to commit fraud, theft, and other crimes rather than participate in what they perceive as a greater injustice. Her book focuses focuses on three types of middle-class people who see the reality of life among the working poor: managers of low-paid workers, teachers, and health-care providers.

The Moral Underground's nitty-gritty stories humanize the theory in Unjust Desserts. What, for example, should teachers and principals do when a high-school student's performance suddenly collapses because her mother has gone back to Haiti to care for a dying grandmother, leaving the 16-year-old to manage three younger children? Should a doctor prescribe an unneeded drug to a Medicare-covered mother if that's the only way to get it to the uninsured daugher who does need it? Should a store manager fake his employee's time card rather than fire him for going to a meeting demanded by his son's teacher?

The working poor should be heirs to the vast social inheritance of America, but they are not. They deserve not handouts and charity -- which they usually don't get either -- but a fair social contract: In exchange for your hard work, you can not only survive, but thrive. You can raise children and give them a chance to thrive as well.

If your intuition tells you there's something fundamentally unfair about our economic system, Unjust Deserts explains why you're right. And if you feel driven to subvert that unjust system in your everyday life, The Moral Underground tells you that you're not alone.
J. K. Rowling is a billionaire now, but she can't vote Tory because she remembers belonging to the working poor:
Nobody who has ever experienced the reality of poverty could say “it’s not the money, it’s the message”. When your flat has been broken into, and you cannot afford a locksmith, it is the money. When you are two pence short of a tin of baked beans, and your child is hungry, it is the money. When you find yourself contemplating shoplifting to get nappies, it is the money.

Thanks, Everybody
Thursday was April 15, so I assume that Sift readers have either filed their tax returns or asked for an extension. Every year around this time the newspapers are full of columns about the evils of our tax system and how the government wastes our hard-earned money. So I thought I'd say something different.

Thank you, taxpayers.

I grew up hearing the story of how my grandfather stalled his Depression-era creditors long enough for Roosevelt's federal farm loan program to take effect. So our 160-acre farm didn't get foreclosed, my father farmed it all through my childhood, and my parents still own it today. Thank you.

I went to a public high school and a state university. My graduate education was paid for by a National Science Foundation fellowship. Thanks.

I've lived with the benefit of government regulation all my life. My food has been inspected. My drugs have been tested. The SEC has kept an eye on the people who sell me investments. The FDIC has kept my bank accounts secure. God knows how many unsafe or fraudulent products were taken off the shelves before I could make the mistake of buying them. Thanks.

My wife has had cancer twice and survived both times. I've never traced the history of the drugs and procedures that saved her life, but I'll bet there's a lot of federally-funded basic research involved. Thanks.

The air I breathe and the water I drink are cleaner than when I was in grade school -- I was 12 the last time the Cuyahoga River caught fire -- because laws to clean them up were passed and enforced. Thanks.

I drive on interstate highways in cars that are safe because government regulators forced the car companies (kicking and screaming, usually) to make them safe. I ride in airplanes guided by federal air traffic controllers, often flown by pilots who learned their trade in the Air Force. And those planes probably wouldn't exist at all without research paid for by the Pentagon. Thanks.

My parents are in their upper 80s and failing. I live a thousand miles away, my sister only a little closer. I don't know how we'd manage without Social Security and Medicare. This past year several of my friends have been out of work. I'd have been seriously worried about them if not for unemployment insurance. Thanks.

Thanks for the Internet, which started out as a federal program. Thanks for taking care of the poor, so that I don't have to live in a place where people drop dead in the streets. Thanks for FEMA, which I haven't needed yet, but you never know. Thanks to the CDC for all those infections that I haven't been exposed to. Thanks for the National Weather Service. Thanks for the national parks. 

I'm sure I left some stuff out, but you get the idea. Thank you for paying your taxes. Thank you for participating in this society where we take care of each other, and where we buy stuff collectively that none of us could buy as individuals. (The free market can give us Disneyworld, but it takes a government to give us Yellowstone or Yosemite.)

Every day, I read about a government that gives us nothing and steals our money, money that we earned by our own individual hard work, without any help at all. Maybe someday NASA will discover the planet those writers live on. When it does, let's not go there.

The Doublethink Network
When somebody nails you for making facts up, don't apologize. That's wimpy. This is your fantasy world and you can't let people push you around in it. Go make up some new facts to bash the person who nailed you.

Learn from the master, Bill O'Reilly. When Republican Senator Tom Coburn reassured a constituent that she wouldn't go to jail if she didn't buy health insurance, he strongly implied she must have gotten that false information from Fox News. That ticked O'Reilly off. Nobody at Fox, O'Reilly told Coburn, had ever said people would go to jail if they didn't have health insurance.
It doesn't happen [on this show], and we researched to find out if anybody on Fox News had ever said you're going to jail if you don't buy health insurance. Nobody's ever said it.
Nobody. Well, TPM's researchers must be more thorough than O'Reilly's, because they put together more than three minutes worth of clips in which one Fox talking head after another -- including Glenn Beck being interviewed by O'Reilly himself -- says that people will go to jail if they don't buy health insurance.

I'm wondering how the doublethink works. How long does it take Fox viewers to go from "You can go to jail -- I heard it on Fox" to "Where does that Tom Coburn get off? Nobody at Fox ever said you could go to jail!"? Is it instantaneous or is some kind of process required? And is the jail meme dead now or just inactive? Could O'Reilly go back to claiming the health care bill puts people in jail and have his fans make the switch with him? How quickly?

Short Notes
Cocktail Party Physics explains why airliners can't fly through volcanic ash clouds: A jet engine's combustion chamber melts the ash particles, which then stick to its turbine blades. Eventually the engine stops. (In addition to an ash cloud, the Iceland eruption is producing some great pictures.)
KFC's new Double Down -- two chicken patties surrounding cheese and bacon -- sounds like the unhealthiest sandwich ever, but it can't hold a fat-dripping candle to Wendy's Triple Baconator.

A former CEO passes on this interesting theory of why CEOs make so much money. It really is supply and demand, but not the way some economists would have you believe:
the CEOs of the world largest corporations daily make decisions that destroy the lives of many other human beings. Only about 1 to 3 percent of [people] are sociopaths-- people who don't have normal human feelings and can easily go to sleep at night after having done horrific things. 
The other skills a CEO needs are rare enough, but when you add in sociopathy it becomes a hard slot to fill.

I just ran across The Rural Blog, based at the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Issues and Community Journalism. It's mostly an aggregator rather than a source of original stories, but it aggregates stuff that you can miss if you just read big-city papers. Want to know the connection between union-busting and mine safety? The investigative journalism that won a Pulitzer for the tiny Bristol Herald Courier? What Obama's education people don't get about rural schools? What actual Kentuckians think of FX's new Harlan-County-based series Justified? Rural Blog's got it covered.

I had to smile at the implied smugness of Rural Blog's recent coverage of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. It's as if they're saying "You city folks just noticed this guy, did you?" Yes, RB, I did just notice him.

Yet another panel says Climategate amounted to nothing: "We saw no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit."  
Stephen Colbert and Ta-Nehisi Coates comment on Confederate History Month.

Rick Perlstein's piece on the Tea Party is worth a read. This "spontaneous grass-roots anger" shows up like clockwork every time a Democratic administration takes office.
John Paul Stevens is the only Protestant on the Supreme Court, serving with six Catholics and two Jews.
The death toll at Big Branch Mine is only twice the daily national average of workplace deaths.


DavidWinSF said...

Regarding Bill O'Reilly, Fox, John McCain and the proud legacy of bare-faced BS, see Hunter's dead-on column at DailyKos "Ceci n'est pas une Maverick" (

If you want a far less-restrained calling-out of the usual BS, visit the ascerbic and definitely NSFW Driftglass on the many crimes of BS of (for example) David Brooks (

Anonymous said...

" ... low wage, high consumption ..."

Could the contradiction be resolved with low consumption?

Implicit in most contemporary ideologies, progressive or otherwise, is the assumption that the lifestyle of middle class citizens of industrialized western democracies (let alone upper middle class citizens) is sustainable, if only we were politically and/or economically "just" or "rational".

Hidden deeper is the assumption that such lifestyles are exportable to the rest of the world in a sustainable manner (how could we justify such a lifestyle for ourselves if that lifestyle dictated the others elsewhere live in relative deprivation?)

Both assumptions are false.