Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Which Side Are You On?

Do you have an appetite for terror? Do you enjoy a good horror story that depicts the depravity and stark darkness lurking in the human heart?

Well, “truth is stranger than fiction,” which may explain the appeal of reading history. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books are fantasy, but they accurately reflect the reality of life in medieval times – minus the magic, dragons, and ice zombies, of course. As medievalists frequently marvel, Martin did his homework - hence his edge. But it was for a purpose beyond entertainment. Like Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, I believe that Martin seeks to de-glorify the myth of chivalry that reactionaries from Klansmen to Nazis invoke to cloak their tyranny in pageantry. Yes, Martin's world has magic, but it still sucks to live in. And his archetypic chivalric knight, Jamie Lannister, is a flat-out sociopath.

There are degrees of evil, and evil acts can be boring as well as flamboyant, bureaucratic as well as bloody. But at the heart of all of them is wishing their targets harm or at least being indifferent to their suffering. In my book, Conservatism is Un-American & Other Self-Evident Truths, one self-evident truth I touched on Republican efforts to suppress the black vote:
Those who defend such bills insist they are not racist – they say they are just trying to hurt the Democrats’ chances at the polls. In other words, “We’re not bigots, just cheaters.” But I think there is definitely some bigotry in the mix too. After all, it is easier to violate others’ rights if you dislike them. Sympathy tends to interfere with victimizing others at both the planning and execution stages, while hostility obviously facilitates it.
This dynamic is undeniable and predictable. History illustrates that if you dislike your likely victims, it will make you more inventive in your designs and enthusiastic in their application. And nothing ignites conservative creativity quite like bigotry.

This applies to class as well as race. Just 
read this yuppie fuckwit luxuriate in class hatred:
I’d love the Teamsters to be worse off. I’d love the automobile workers to be worse off. You may say that’s inhumane; I’m putting it rather baldly but I want to eliminate a situation in which certain protected workers in industries insulated from competition can increase their wages much more rapidly than the average without regard to their merit or to what the free market would do, and in doing so exploit other workers.
Yeah, that’s inhumane. Shockingly, that was President Jimmy Carter’s economic adviser Alfred Kahn in a 1981 interview quoted in Thomas Frank’s book Listen Liberal - Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (1) This was how I first learned that the hostility toward unions among establishment Democrats predated the Clintons. No, they are not at fault for everything. 

Carter snubbed labor, vetoed public works projects, and pushed the first huge tax cut. Economically, Carter presaged Reagan, which is why Ted Kennedy challenged Carter in the 1980 primary. As with the Clintons, Carter's conservative efforts still failed to make Republicans love him.

Kahn’s callous rhetoric likewise anticipated the incoming Reagan Administration. He surreally reasoned that union members “exploit other workers” by being paid more than “the free market” would. Of course, that’s a stupidly deceptive argument: Those other workers are being exploited by their employers, not union members. If the market decided wages, most workers would be near-slaves. Recall comedian Chris Rock’s memorable routine on the minimum wage: "You know what that means when someone pays you minimum wage? You know what your boss was trying to say? 'Hey if I could pay you less, I would, but it's against the law.'”

As for "merit,” an assembly line worker’s job is to connect parts A and B. He or she has no control over how intelligently those parts are designed or if they are made out of inferior materials. Look at Detroit, for fuck’s sake. If the corporation decides to cut corners, ignore warning signs, or resist change, how is that the worker’s fault?(2) Competition is management’s concern. Damn right union workers - and all workers - should be “insulated” from management’s spectacular stupidity and avarice. To management, employees are just machines. It is so much to ask that they keep these machines well-oiled so they do not wear out too soon?

Moreover, the mere existence of strong unions improves the condition of all workers. Not too long ago, employers feared their workers would unionize, so they started offering similar benefits to prevent union drives: Vacation days, access to health insurance, etc. - they are the deteriorating legacy of the bygone days when unions were winning.(3) Does your job offer any benefits, however watered-down they are now? You can thank unions for normalizing those noble, battered, and now sabotaged concepts.  Also, weekends: Unions gave us weekends.(4)

In addition, unions push for legislation that also benefits and defends all workers, such as minimum wage laws and safety regulations. That is obviously the opposite of exploitation:  It is generosity toward those who shrank from the fight. Yes, union members benefit as well: Such legislation is an extra layer of protection - i.e. “insulation” - but it everyone benefits.

And more importantly, in so far as the big picture is concerned, unions were the backbone of the American middle class. But because establishment Democrats so hated working people and wanted them to be “worse off,”(5) they eagerly helped Republicans destroy the middle class on which our consumer-based economy so desperately depends. America’s postwar economic boom was fueled in large part by lifting working people into the middle class whose spending, in turn, stimulated the economy. The funny thing about a consumer-based economy is it needs consumers - the more, the better. Closet conservatives often forget that.

Let me expound. Without a broad base of consumers, markets for products are small and rapidly saturated. If everyone who can afford a particular type of product, say a washing machine, already owns one, the market for it evaporates and the employees who make them get laid off. But after “Big Government” and “Big Labor” expanded the middle class, employment became more continuous because there were more consumers for those products.  The economy did not stall so often and dips were not as deep.(6) To put it in the simplest possible terms: If more people can afford washing machines, the worker on the washing machine assembly line has more steady employment. This once was a novelty. Then it became the norm. Now it is a novelty again. That is a stupid decision that we, as a society, have made after listening to conservatives and their “liberal” apologists.

Unfortunately, Alfred Kahn’s attitude is not an outlier. A lot of establishment Democrats despised what makes the Democratic Party great - FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. (Some are not too enthused about LBJ’s civil rights legislation either.) And so there has been a well-funded effort by some nominal Democrats to declare the New Deal dead.  This self-sabotage has a lengthy history as Thomas Frank wrote in Listen, Liberal:
“The collapse and end of the New Deal is one of the most frequently announced events in American media,” wrote a political scientist in 1985. It was announced so often and so predictably in those days that cataloging it became an academic exercise in itself. The historian William Leuchtenburg filled several chapters of his 1989 book, In the Shadow of FDR, with New Deal death notices. [Here Frank gives several examples] ...
On the eternal return of the death-of-the-New-Deal, Leuchtenburg himself wondered, “It was far from clear why if, as Gary Hart claimed, the New Deal was dead in 1974, it was necessary for him to kill it off in 1980 and again in 1984.”
What applies to civil rights also applies to economics. There is an FDR quote that is on-point. “We must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all our citizens, whatever their background. We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilization.” He was echoing Thomas Paine’s principle that “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression: for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach unto himself.” Or as a union called the Industrial Workers of the World puts it, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Establishment Democrats have enthusiastically collaborated with Republicans in the destruction of our country’seconomy. And, as is always the case, those toward the bottom of the socio-economic ladder felt the effects first.

Conservative thought sabotages the Democratic Party just as it sabotages America’s economy. Indeed, it sabotages America itself. By its inherent nature, conservatism is corrosive to any free society. The right despises America’s three central ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy. 

The corruption starts with callousness towards others and ultimately poisons the proverbial village well. We can look as the poisoned water in Flint, Michigan and say, “Well that only affects them” - i.e. black people. But similar water quality issues exist all across the county. Eventually, our empathy succumbs to inertia. Callousness becomes habit and infects our views on other issues. And, at the end of the day, you discover that the well of empathy is dry when you need something to drink. And perhaps you discover that your gated community or bomb shelter is not as secure as you think.

It's something to think about, isn't it?


1) As Thomas Frank explained, the hatred of working class America among establishment Democrats began in the 1970s. Popular culture was rife with images of pro-Vietnam War hardhats bullying hippies. They shot the protagonists in Easy Rider. Never mind all the union support of the Civil Rights Movement. As Frank added, these things should have alerted pundits that the Archie Bunker stereotype was not the whole story. Also, Fun Fact: Alfred Kahn was Jimmy Carter's "inflation tsar." He was also the architect of energy and airline deregulation. 

2) In the 1970s, consumers demanded safer, more fuel efficient cars; but CEOs ignored them. They insisted “safety doesn’t sell” despite their own market research which said the opposite and continued to manufacture treacherous gas-guzzlers. Should their employees be punished as a result? Yes, shit rolls downhill; but justice says it shouldn’t. As always, arrogance leads to clue-less self-sabotage. The ancient Greeks called this “hubris.” Or, as I always say, "Cocky becomes sloppy."

Interestingly, one of the things that unions were demanding was more input into the design of cars. It seems that a lot of autoworkers liked to tinker on cars at home, so their understanding of cars was thorough. They knew their products both backwards and forwards, warts and all. Folks in the Motor City loved cars. Who knew?  It was the nadir of classism and hubris to assume these people had no valuable input. Well, they saw the writing on the wall and knew how to improve the product. If only corporate were somehow forced to listen.

3) The late, great Wobbly folksinger Utah Phillips explained this quite plainly. He was talking about the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strike. After mentioning that the women in the mills were dying at the average age of 26 from breathing the airborne particles in the weave rooms and describing the police beatings they received, he added: “Did you know, I never had to work underground in Pennsylvania at the age of 12 in a coal mine. My sister never had to work at the age of 8 or 9 at the looms in Lawrence Massachusetts or anybody else. None of us have had to do those sorts of things. And why? Why do we have that 8 hour day? Why do we have those mine safety laws? Why do we have those laws busting the sweatshops? Were they benevolent gifts from an enlightened management? No. They were fought for, bled for, died for by people a lot like us. They died not on the battle field to fight another dumb bosses’ war. They died on the picket line to give all of us a better future.” (Utah Phillips & Ani Di Franco, Fellow Workers, “Lawrence,” track 8, Righteous Babe Records,  1999.) Highly recommended listening.

4) Yes, the Bible says “Remember the Sabbath day,” but capitalism isn’t particularly religious. It has to be forced to pay workers enough to live on a five day week and “big labor” and “big government” are the only things that have ever successfully accomplished that. Faith alone has historically been woefully insufficient. Otherwise, the middle ages would have been a paradise, which it was obviously not. Mechanisms matter. They succeed where moral exhortations fail.

5) The sheer evil of that sentiment simply astounds me. It just goes to prove what Voltaire said. "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities."

6) What those ignorant of industrial history do not understand is that the giant dish washing machines you see behind the scenes in hotels, restaurants, etc. are not actually giant versions of home appliances but the opposite: Home appliances are miniaturized versions of the behemoths that came first. (It was the same with computers.) Before the consumer revolution, companies primarily sold to other companies. If you worked on an assembly line making giant dish washing machines, your employment was often temporary because the market for that product was small and quickly satiated. But if you make home dish washing machines and fellow working people are paid decent wages, they can afford to buy what you make and your employment becomes more regular. We discovered this after WWII. We seem to have forgotten it since.

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