I like E.J. Dionne, and I don't disagree with his recent column at all. But the advice William Goldman put in Deep Throat's mouth is still the best general admonition in American culture: "Follow the money."
Dionne hearkens back to Abraham Lincoln to find a Republican praising labor: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” I have to point out Lincoln was the last pre-Industrial Revolution President this country ever had.
The Industrial Revolution actually took hold in America during the Civil War, and it was one reason the North defeated the South. When Grant retired from the Presidency, he moved to a farm in St. Louis, MO. He built a fence for his farm from rifle barrels left over after the war. It's quite a long fence, with 2563 rifle barrels. It's the result of factory production. Capital soon swamped labor, because while factories needed workers, machines could outproduce persons, whether they were John Henry, or not. So when Lincoln praises Labor over capital, it's almost an historical anomaly. We all moved away from labor after the war (the South, of course, was built on staying away from labor, and making someone else do it. Small wonder the South is still almost completely anti-union.)
So it would take a brave man to point out that unions “grew up from the struggle of the workers — workers in general but especially the industrial workers — to protect their just rights vis-a-vis the entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production,” or to insist that “the experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life.”Yes, Pope John Paul II was right; but then, how many shareholders does the Pope have? And yes, "That the language of Lincoln and John Paul is so distant from our experience today is a sign of an enormous cultural shift." But that cultural shift started in my childhood, if not earlier. The South has risen again; and as a soi-Southerner, all I can say is: I'm deeply, deeply sorry.
I was thinking last night about the '70s, and how the economy started to crack and jobs became a widespread problem for the middle class. There was a huge amount of economic displacement in the '70's, and not just because of inflation. One might even say that economic disturbance, which was tied (probably falsely) to government spending such as Vietnam and the Great Society, paved the way for Reagan and the Tea Party today. Labor was still powerful then, but its power was already ebbing, and labor was already widely seen as "advocates of arcane work rules, protectors of inefficient public employees and obstacles to the economic growth our bold entrepreneurs would let loose if only they were free from labor regulations." Anyone remember Reagan "breaking" PATCO? It was the next decade over, but he was practically sainted for that feeble and unnecessarily cruel action.
But in the '70's labor was already unable to protect workers from foreign competition. As gas prices rose (laughably small increases by today's standards, but stunning near 100% jumps at the time), small Japanese cars began to dominate the market as people looked for alternatives to "gas guzzlers." More jobs lost, and even less job security. In the '80's, you may or may not recall, the economy wasn't really so good, except for the yuppies. Reagan oversaw the collapse of the savings and loans, an event that devastated the economy of Texas and other southern states, and was simply prelude for current economic troubles. Clinton eventually steered the economy into better seas, but the 80's were reflected, not in "Morning in America," but in "Executive Blues", G.J. Meyer's record of being laid off as the economy of the 80's soured the early '90's. That experience was repeated again with the bursting of the Internet bubble, and again just a few years ago. So at least four times in my adult life I can count major economic reversals; and all have been blamed, more or less, on labor (well, they never led to a rise in the minimum wage, and even today no one seems interested in reviving the labor intensive portions of FDR's "New Deal.").
Not a one of them, at least, led to the appreciation of labor that the Great Depression finally fostered (briefly, and then it was extinguished).
I do remember regular news reports, on TV network news, about labor. That has vanished so completely I might as well recall when unicorns were prevalent, and fairies lived at the bottom of everyone's garden; or the time before everything came from factories. Now the only news is about finance and "business," the DJIA is reported as if it were the oracle of Delphi, and every news outlet a priest explaining the message of the daily numbers. And one thing Mr. Dionne didn't note: how many workers had to go to work on Labor Day.
The banks were closed. Wall Street was closed. Probably state and municipal contracts for road construction had a day off.
But the stores were open. And somebody had to labor there. What was the holiday of Labor Day supposed to honor, again?
To put this in as much context as I can muster, what I remember of Reagan's era was inflation, which was broken by Paul Volcker's Keynesian application of high interest rates (remember when credit card interest was limited by usury laws, and passbook savings accounts paid 5%? If you do, you remember the era before Volcker broke the back of inflation with high interest rates. States eventually had to scrap their usury laws in order to allow credit cards and banks to keep up with the Fed. Of course, the Fed's interest rate is now down to zero, and credit card interest is in double digits. But at least we don't have inflation, right?), inflation and the Savings and Loan collapse, which took the economy of Texas with it and took bankruptcy from an obscure practice almost no one bothered with, to the centerpiece of law firm incomes across the state and across the South. Unemployment went down under Reagan, but only four years later his Vice-President lost the Presidency because "It's the economy, stupid." Clinton actually left the country with a surplus, but he also left us (coincidentally or not) with the "dot.com bubble," which burst and took a lot of jobs with it. Then another bubble grew under George W. Bush, only to burst with the consequences we are suffering today, where "experts" are finally realizing (as in, just now!) that housing was overpriced and the overheated market had to correct itself (and still is). Is it coincidence that we were told, from the '70's on as manufacturing started to fade here and grow overseas (mostly, it seemed, in Asia), that this was now a "service economy," and yet it now seems the backbone of the economy was still manufacturing? But this time, of housing?
I think not. But we certainly disparaged, and were taught to disparage, labor in all that long process. And we've been through boom and bust cycles so rapidly it would seem that even the most obtuse and ahistorical of Americans would start to see a pattern here.
And yet we don't. And to prove I can, like the poet, connect nothing with nothing, consider the attitude toward the poor today. I've mentioned before the pictures of Bobby Kennedy walking through Appalachia, or talking to obviously poor (certainly not white, middle-class) people in Harlem, and how we'd never see any politician today staging such photo-ops (partly because of RFK's assassination, partly because no one wants that visual today). This, too, is connected with labor. Why else get a college degree, except to avoid jobs involving labor or, worst of all, "Do you want fries with that?" Now we don't feel compassion for the poor, we feel disdain:
To address the jobs crisis, the Obama administration championed more generous food stamps, unemployment benefits, tax cuts, and health insurance subsidies for layoff victims, among other things. The broader safety net prevented a record poverty rate in 2009, yet it gets no respect in Congress, where Republican and even Democratic lawmakers spent 2010 describing the unemployed as a bunch of lazy drug addicts unworthy of the federal deficit spending lavished on them.A disdain not limited to David French and Walter Russell Meade; a disdain that is being incorporated into our laws:
The myth that unemployed workers would rather watch TV than look for jobs helped lawmakers take away much of the expanded safety net, and most of the rest will be rolled up soon as federal spending continues to lose popularity in Washington. In particular, it's likely that extended unemployment benefits will be dropped at the beginning of 2012 in an unprecedented abandonment of the long-term jobless during a weak economy.
John Stossel (Fox News): “Let’s stop saying everyone should vote.”These are sentiments from the founding of the nation, when only white male property owners were allowed to vote because, after all, the purpose of government was only to protect property. Need I add that, at that time, people could still be property, that only 40 years after the Constitution was written Charles Dickens would experience the concept of the poor as chattel, as persons to be incarcerated until their debts were discharged? Are there no prisons? Are there no work-houses?
Rush Limbaugh: “If people cannot even feed and clothe themselves, should they be allowed to vote?”
Steve Doocy (Fox News): “With 47% of Americans not paying taxes – 47% – should those who don’t pay be allowed to vote?”
How very far we have not come. Or how very far we have already gone backwards. Rep. John Lewis has called this new spate of voting laws “a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in a democratic process.” Can there be any real doubt he is right? Can there be any real doubt there is a concerted effort to punish and marginalize the poor more than our system of indifference and exploitation already does? And if a brave person, in Mr. Dionne's words, were to speak up: who would listen? Surely someone would.
Is someone enough?
UPDATE: And when you think it can't get worse, sure enough, it gets worse:
Congress should follow in the footsteps of state legislatures and pass a federal voter ID law that requires voters to present photo identification at the polls, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said Thursday.I'm not sure how fake ID's prove we can rely on voters not to use fake ID's, but I'm sure there's an explanation in there somewhere....
Graham even raised the Sept. 11 attacks to justify restrictions on voter access.
"All the highjackers had -- five or six -- had fake drivers licenses, so I think sanctifying the voting process in a way that makes sense, in a way that makes sure we're electing people based on registered voters, is a goal that we should all be concerned about," Graham said.