Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Capitalists Against Socialism... Unless It Puts Money In Their Pockets!

Yesterday Sam Stein, of the Huffington Post, broke the news of a conference call (hosted by Bank of America) in which leaders of major American corporations voiced the need for a collusive conspiracy to influence the lawmaking process. Not only did bailout-beneficiary Bank of America host the call, but the best known name on the corporate welfare dole, AIG, was represented as well. AIG, a very well known insurance company, was asked to pressure its customers and clientele to give Republican lawmakers 'large contributions.' The co-founder of Home Depot was quoted, in the same story, as rallying fellow corporate pirates to prevent 'the demise of a civilization.' In the same quote, he referred to himself as an 'elder statesman', which shows serious chutzpah for a guy who helped start a hardware store.

What is the horrible threat to American civilization as we know it that mobilizes these titans of the business world to put the welfare dollars they received in the biggest socialist program of 21st Century America to work in political donations to the legislators who opposed the very program that gave them those welfare dollars?

Well, you see, labor unions are Evil.

The same issue that is leading one or two Republican Senators on the comittee responsible for her confirmation to attempt to hold up the appointment of designate-Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis is mobilizing American business: The Employee Fair Choice Act. Having spent the last not-quite-thirty years stripping away the protections workers receive from membership in labor unions and the protections against abusive corporate policies available to workers, it appears that big business is mortally afraid we will go back to the dark days of the 1950s when labor unions protected the rights of workers, who made more money than they ever had before, and American business was more profitable than it had ever been before. It is too horrible to imagine.

As I wrote about the EFCA last week, I am not going to repeat myself on that score. Instead I am going to echo a theme I touched upon earlier in the month. The United States of America is not a corporate nation. The preamble to the Constitution does not begin with the words 'We the Chief Executive Officers' or argue the 'need to control the lives of workers on and off the job.' This is the reason that the Gettysburg Address includes its famous reference to government 'of the people, by the people, and for the people.'

It is the issue of 'government for the people' that most concerns me. The Republican Party claims to champion 'individual rights over group rights' and argues that every law which regulates human activity reduces the freedom of individual citizens. However, I deny the validity of the conservative claim that government is the most real and most serious threat to individual American liberties. I deny this despite the attempt of our previous president to behave like a tin-pot dictator whenever possible, despite the Patriot Act, and despite warrantless wire-tapping.

I have written, several times, that I am a capitalist. I believe in an economy based on private enterprise and the profit motive. I do not consider the desire to make a profit, in itself, to be evil. We all want to be as successful as we can be.

However, I believe that the greatest threat to individual American freedom is the American corporation. Health care companies make fortunes managing people's health for a profit, and the only way to make a profit is to charge more than you spend. In the case of health care, this means that people who need health care must be denied it or over-charged for it for the corporation to make money. Someone, somewhere, has to be screwed. Automobile insurance, which began as a means of making sure you could get your car fixed or replaced if you had a wreck, has become a massive state-sanctioned protection racket in which the government is frequently the leg-breaker. This metaphor can be more broadly applied across a wide range of industries. The corporate deregulation of the past four presidential eras has not made Americans more free. It has made corporations more free to make a buck by denying Americans their rights.

Free speech rights go out the window, because your employer (under 'at will' policies) can fire you if he doesn't like the way you vote, what you post on the internet, or what you say when not at work. The freedom to assemble is likewise out the window, that is the reason for the demand for the EFCA: employers can fire employees who attempt to assemble to vote for a union. Employment agreements constrain you from starting your own business or working for a competitor after leaving corporate employ. All of this is possible, along with a host of corrupt business practices that would be felonies if practiced by individuals and not corporations, because of the federal government deregulated corporations in the name of 'freedom' at the behest of champions of 'individual rights over group right.'

Ladies and gentlemen, we live in an age of piracy. In the Golden Age of Buccaneering, during the 17th Century, men like Henry Morgan and Jean-David Ney (famous as Captain L'ollonais) were able to make a fortune plundering, raping, and murdering because of the money and power their activities gave the politicians who supported them. Henry Morgan eventually became Lieutenant-Governor of the Crown Colony of Jamaica.

Today, politicians grant corporations license to plunder the American economy in return for the money and power they gain from corporate campaign donations and corporate lobbyists' perqs. Carly Fiorina, the failed CEO of Hewlett-Packard, was responsible for shipping thousands of American jobs overseas and putting thousands of Americans out of work. She served on Senator John McCain's presidential campaign and is said to be considering a run for governor of Washington. Today the piracy is happening not on the high seas, but in the shopping malls, downtown marketplaces, and agricultural communities of America. The victims of piracy are not foreign 'heretics', but Americans. The victims of this new Golden Age of Piracy are American workers, American small business owners, and American farmers who are crowded or crushed out of the 'free' market by corporate money and power back by government sponsorship.

Clearly, America's modern pirates are not opposed to socialism that strengthens their corporations and keeps them well-fed and looking pretty. Yet when the rights of working American citizens are advocated, they are the defenders of the bastions of capitalism.

Get mad. Stay mad. Do something about it.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Bipartisanship In Action: Senate Republicans Rush to Confirm Labor Secretary

While lack of subtlety can ruin sarcasm, sometimes too much subtlety can cause sarcasm to be lost, especially in print. So I want to point out that when reading the title above in your head, you should lend it the most acidic tone you can imagine.

Republicans on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee may place a procedural hold on the nomination of Labor Secretary-designate Rep. Hilda Solis of CA. While they claim that their reluctance to confirm her is connected to what they perceive as her failure to answer questions, it really comes down to one issue. They have been trying to bait her into answering toxic political questions they can then use as an excuse to vote against her. Most notably, the fact that she would be a Labor Secretary devoted to defending the rights, safety, and livelihood of people who actually labor.

Rep. Solis co-sponsored the Employee Free Choice Act (card-check) in the House. Most Republicans (and some Democrats) oppose card-check because it would make it much easier, procedurally speaking, for workers to unionize. Big business, as a rule, opposes card-check for the same reason. They claim that card-check would make it easier for unions to intimidate workers into joining, but I suspect their real concern is that card-check makes it much harder for them to intimidate their employees into not joining. Card-check is one of the reasons that Wal-Mart held meetings to attempt to order its employees to vote for Senator John McCain in our late election. Considering Wal-Mart's employee policies, and indeed considering the employee policies of many employers in the South and lower Midwest and the expansion of such insidious policies as 'right to work' (which is more properly the right to deny your workers their rights to unionize or defend themselves from exploitation) and 'at will' (which the employer's right to fire the employee at anytime without notice or cause and the employee's right to quit at anytime... and to be penalized for failure to give notice) one can see that big business has a lot to lose both from card-check and from a Labor Secretary concerned with protecting the rights of workers.

While corruption among union management has sometimes been a real problem, it is ridiculous to paint labor unions as corrupt institutions by nature in the manner conservatives have always attempted. One only has to look at the top level management of nearly any American corporation to argue that big business is the last American institution to have any right to accuse any other of corruption. Certainly the last to have any right to claim to be the hero, protecting the rights of their workers against evil unions.

It comes down to a question of power. As our current system stands, the big corporation has all the power and their employees have very little recourse. This is due to a combination of factors into which I will not go in this posting, but many have mentioned many times. American wages have gone down as a result of these factors, as have opportunities for employment. As a result, the people supplying 'the good jobs' have a tremendous advantage over their employees: they can simply fire anyone they please and find someone else eager to replace them and desperate for a job. They can then repeat the process, avoiding the need to give costly raises or benefits that hurt the bottom line and cut into multimillion dollar bonuses for the CEO who tanked the profits last year.

Free Choice takes a step in giving employees some share of power over their lives, and some small semblance of power to protect their rights. Senator Orrin Hatch (R - UT) has been quoted as giving Rep. Solis a stern warning not to become a rubber stamp for the forces of big business or big labor.

Considering the source, that's ridiculous.

Friday, January 16, 2009

This Land is Our Land: Woody Guthrie, Martin Luther King Jr, and Poverty

As I write this, I am conscious that yesterday was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's birthday and that Monday is the national holiday honoring that birthday. As my first post of the year was concerned closely with race, and the editorials and blog posts on that topic have already begun, I am instead going to speak about another issue about which Dr. King felt very strongly: poverty.

Indirectly, of course, poverty is a racial issue. A great percentage of minority Americans are in poverty than white Americans. However, with the working class decimated by outsourcing in the name of 'free' trade and by feral deregulation of business combined with federal policies that have favored agribusiness over the traditional American family farm, poverty affects many white Americans as well. The current economic crisis only makes that worse, as the people who suffer the most when things get tight are the people who already have the rubber band stretched near the breaking point.

Last night, while idly checking news before I went to bed, I came upon 'Eight Commonly Misinterpreted Songs' in Yahoo's news links. The last song on the list was 'This Land is Your Land', by Woody Guthrie. While the author of the piece is correct in pointing out that the song is not an expression of mindless, jingoistic patriotism, she misinterprets her attempt to correct the public's misinterpretation when she claims 'This song is often grouped with “God Bless America” as patriotic tunes, but Guthrie had the opposite intention.' The song was intended to be, and is, intensely patriotic.

There is a biting irony in Guthrie's criticism of the belief that property rights trumped individual rights and that the government existed to protect the wealthy from the poor, yes. Certainly the song is bitterly critical of those who hoard what they possess jealously and assume those less fortunate than themselves to be criminals and wastrels. The song was written during the Great Depression, at a time when many 'haves' became 'have nots' and those who did not were determined to avoid that fate at any cost to the greater good of society. Many of the conservatives of the day believed, as they do now, that government exists to protect property rights and that any government defense of the rights of the 'have nots' violates the rights of the 'haves.'

'This Land is Your Land' is a ringing left wing endorsement of the rights of the 'have nots' and of the fact that all Americans have a share in America. It is a revolutionary call for the 'have nots' to consider where their own interests lie and use what power they have together, for their own protection and improvement. It is a reminder that we are all Americans and that we can do something to change our circumstances if we remember that this is our country too. We have the right to vote and the right to organize and we can use both. Citizen for citizen, vote for vote, there are more of us than there are of them. We choose to squander our power or act against our own best interests, but we do have the power to change course.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered that same message to America in a different context. He proved, by his life, ministry, and activism, that Americans could make a difference in America. He was an affirmation of the better angels of our nature, despite flaws and foibles. He had a dream and he believed that this was his land too, and he could work to make his dream come true and inspire others to do the same.

We have that power now. We have a new President and a new Congress. We can lobby them for meaningful change on a plethora of issues relating to poverty and individual rights at a time when economic necessity weighs in favor of that change. The government needs to actively work to bring economic opportunity to rural America and inner city America while actively protecting poor Americans from the more predatory side of American business. This is not impossible, and it grows the tax base which pays our government's bills. 'Spreading the wealth around', as highly criticized as it is by those who have wealth as it is, is ultimately good for everyone. Even the wealthy benefit, as people who could not afford to buy cars and homes find themselves able to do so without predatory mortgage practices and risky mortgage securities. We need to invest in productivity, not debt and price indexes.

Healthcare is one place to start. Common sense, firmly enforced regulation of the capital market is another. Special prosecutors to investigate the credit industry might restore a great deal of faith in the government, and in the long run faith in the government will go a long way to rebuild faith in the economy. All of these goals, however, require effort. Not only from our elected officials, but also from their constituents to push them to do so.

I am a working class (currently unemployed) white man in a Southern state. I voted for President-elect Barack Obama in the general election because I understand that my interests have more in common with a black family in the inner city or the Mexican-American family that owns my favorite restaurant, up the street, than with investment bankers, auto manufacturers, or oil barons. I write this blog in an effort to express that understanding to as many people as possible, especially other people like me. However, ultimately, whether you are an oil baron or a waitress, what is good for me is good for you too. If my circumstances are bettered, I can afford to buy gas and to eat out. That betters their circumstances. There is logic in liberalism. We can make America the place it claims to be if we put in the work.

After all, this land is our land.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Blame Games: The Toxic Issue of Race In American Politics

I had considered making my first posting of the New Year about one of the various controversies currently brewing among liberals. I had thought about writing on the topic of Leon Panetta's predicted appointment as Director of Central Intelligence (which I support), Dr. Sanjay Gupta's predicted appointment to the post of Surgeon General (which I do not support), or the ugly and constantly compounding mess of gubernatorial and senatorial politics in Illinois.

However, I recently read an article on the Huffington Post by Ed Kilgore entitled Can the GOP Expand Its Demographic Base While Moving Right? that changed my mind. Mr. Kilgore (and Paul Waldman, whose own article is linked in Mr. Kilgore's posting) addresses the racial tones of American conservative politics. Mr. Waldman started out with the simple items, Mr. Kilgore expanded to more subtle and sophisticated racist messages. I want to take it all one step further and talk about race and politics across the board, conservative and liberal.

I am going to begin by violently breaking ranks with many on the right and in the center: one can never afford to stop talking and thinking about racism in America. Even were it to be taken as one hundred percent true that racism in the United States is a thing of the past, as conservatives and some moderates like to claim, the racism of the past has left a deep wound in our nation's politics, society, and culture that has never been properly treated. More importantly, this is simply not the case.

From the primaries on, race played a toxic role in the 2008 Presidential election. Let's ignore all the right wing propaganda of the general election and instead focus on the Democratic primary. It was the Clinton campaign that turned Jeremiah Wright into a campaign issue and it was Senator Clinton who told blue collar white Democrats in Pennsylvania that she was 'one of them' in tones that implied Senator Obama was not. The racial divide is an endemic political problem in the United States, not merely a conservative or Republican problem. Nor is this merely a black vs. white issue, even if that is certainly a great segment of the issue and will be until America's wounds are truly healed. Republicans and Democrats alike support un-American, nativist policies that make many Hispanic Americans feel singled out as criminals.

The worst part of the problem of racial politics is that so few of our leaders appear to be willing to address our country's racial divides as problems to be solved, rather than wedge issues to be exploited. We like to assign the blame for much of this to obvious demagogues, like the Reverend Al Sharpton or Louis Farrakhan. The problem is, despite their demagoguery and their abuse of the problem for their own self-aggrandizement, they are right on many core issues whatever their faults, errors, or sins regarding others. When Reverend Wright accuses the American government of failing the urban black poor, he is correct.

The problem with the blame game is this: ultimately, white America is to blame for America's racial divides. White America imported African slaves and maintained black Americans in slavery for several generations after ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade. White America invaded Mexico and waged vicious wars with American Indians in the name of Manifest Destiny. The American government, largely controlled by white Americans, has been dragged into every civil rights reform kicking and screaming. White America's attempts to shift the blame for racial divisions to minority leaders is petty and self-serving, and ignores the fact that even the most radical, militant, and extreme minority leaders (no matter how self-serving their motivations) are still correct in the basic principle that white America has wronged and continues to wrong minority Americans. This is not merely a conservative Republican problem. Moderates in both parties have stood in the away of meaningful reform or attacked civil rights causes as 'radical'. Liberals have advocated half-measures (lowering standards for minority schools in inner cities and affirmative action) that treat symptoms of the basic problem but do not solve the deeper issue. Neither party can escape its fair share of the blame.

This not to say that individuals are not morally responsible for their own choices. The fact that white America is to blame for the country's racial divides has all too often become someone's convenient excuse or political tool. 'The race card' is played on a regular basis by whites and minorities, and minority communities have been all too willing to fight with one another for their 'fair share' rather than to join together to address the larger problem. The real issue should not be of civil rights for blacks, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, or any other minority group but civil rights for all Americans.

The problem shared by all is that all the solutions to this problem are radical and anti-establishment. They threaten the power of the wealthy and successful, of corporate America, and of entrenched aristocracy. We claim the latter does not exist in the United States, but it does. Likely, we will never be free of some kind of aristocracy. The greatest failure of the civil rights movement is that those who have succeeded the most in our modern 'free society' have joined 'white America' regardless of their race or ethnicity.

If we truly wish to solve America's racial problems, the solutions are not most closely linked to racial issues like affirmative action or adjusted academic standards, that 'benefit' one minority group. We will not solve America's racial problems with legislation against 'hate crimes', all acts of violence are 'hate crimes' regardless of the race or ethnicity of the perpetrator or victim. The real solutions to America's racial pitfalls are equality of economic opportunity, equal protection under the law, programs to fight poverty, ending the misguided 'War On Drugs' (which is, if one reads the fine print and the disparities in sentencing for black and white drug users and dealers, the single most racist government policy in American history), and providing all Americans with health care. This will benefit all Americans, and it will benefit poor whites in the rural South and poor minorities in inner cities equally.

Americans must accept that racism is real and must do all they can to rise above it. White Americans must accept that there is a real problem and that the American government has done too little to stop it and too much to contribute to it. Minority Americans must fight injustice, not each other, and must fight racism rather than perpetuating it.

We must all accept that the United States of America has the greatest ideals of any nation on Earth, but has fallen tragically short of living up to them all through its history. We must all strive to improve upon our nation's ability to live up to its dreams. Perhaps that should be our country's New Year's resolution.

Sadly, for most Americans, that would be too radical.