September 24, 2015

The New New Deal

To close out our series on work, produced in partnership with The Nation, we’re looking ahead to the big proposals and spiritual realignments that might spell a major change for working and middle-class people who ...

To close out our series on work, produced in partnership with The Nation, we’re looking ahead to the big proposals and spiritual realignments that might spell a major change for working and middle-class people who feel as though the recession never ended.

Look no further than this chart, produced by one of our big thinkers this week, the Bulgarian-American economist Pavlina Tcherneva.

US-growth brings inequality-90vs10%

Today even as the economy grows the gains are topsy-turvy. In the latest economic expansion (from 2009 to 2012), the incomes of the top 10% rose more than 100% while for bottom 90%, they actually sank. But we still see a steady-as-she-goes approach to economic policy in the White House and in the primary campaigns, for the most part, too.

When Franklin Roosevelt first conjured a “new deal” for American workers, he was still a candidate. It was June 1932, Roosevelt was accepting the nomination of the Democratic Party. The state of the union was dire. Just as we’re shifting to digital, gig-based, flexible work, Roosevelt was witnessing the collapse of the agricultural economy and its replacement by organized industrial work.

Roosevelt had a story to tell about the Depression. “Enormous corporate surpluses… the most stupendous in history” had failed to pay out to small actors in the American economy: not in higher wages, lower prices, or in dividends. Those profits didn’t go into innovation, either, but into speculation and idle investments. A massive financial bubble had built up — then burst.


The speech was long on specifics — massive public-works projects, the reduction of tariffs, debt relief — in service of “a more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth.” (Some of Roosevelt’s fellow travelers in the Democratic Party went so far as to propose a second bill of rights around economic freedoms, including the right to honest work and to a fair wage. That never took hold.)

At the end, Roosevelt comes to his “true goal,” the spiritual underpinnings of the New Deal. It’s worth quoting at length:

What do the people of America want more than anything else? To my mind, they want two things: work, with all the moral and spiritual values that go with it; and with work, a reasonable measure of security — security for themselves and for their wives and children. Work and security — these are more than words. They are more than facts. They are the spiritual values, the true goal toward which our efforts of reconstruction should lead.

Our Republican leaders tell us economic laws — sacred, inviolable, unchangeable — cause panics which no one could prevent. But while they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving. We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.

With two shows on the triumph and troubles of working people behind us, we wanted to think F.D.R. big, and to name a solution (or three) that might represent a new new deal, a platform in search of a candidate for working people.


The workers’ cooperative

Our leadoff guest was the alternative economist, historian and activist Gar Alperovitz. The story of the New Deal was the consummation of experiments tested the state level, and Alperovitz says that’s happening again. So the top-down changes happen last he reminds us — for now we have ferment at the local level in the form of cooperatives.

Forget the Sixties-era variety: 130 million Americans take part in coops of one kind or another, like credit unions, CSAs, community gardens, and land trusts. There are worker-owned farms and solar plants in Cleveland, the public purchase of power stations in Boulder, a whole new-economy coalition in our hometown of Boston. Our guest last week, Astra Taylor, asked why Uber shouldn’t work like a cooperative, too: drivers sharing a simple technological platform — and the billions of dollars that comes with it. She’s not alone.

The child allowance

Look down a list of EU member nations’ public benefits, and you see — again and again — a recurring per-child benefit, varying in size from 30 dollars in Britain to more than 230 dollars in Germany. Canada, too, has what is called a “child benefit.” Our guest Matt Bruenig, policy expert and pundit at the Demos think tank, has written repeatedly that an American version of the allowance — say, $300 per month, per child — could cut this country’s startlingly high rate of child poverty in half, and force a 15% reduction in adult poverty, too.

Bruenig is impatient with the knee-jerk criticism of the child allowance that it will incentivize having children. Anyway, we may need a few more kids!

Children cost about a thousand dollars a month; the benefit’s only 300 dollars a month. Doesn’t take a genius to know that’s a money-losing proposition. Beyond that we do have some studies from elsewhere in the world that tend to show that these benefits, maybe, increase fertility by 3 to 7 percent. That’s really not problematic, and if anything, given the age structure of our population and the declining fertility rates that we’ve had recently, a little bump in fertility could actually be a positive thing.

The basic income

The basic income’s substantially more ambitious: cash for every citizen just for breathing. But that hasn’t stopped Switzerland from considering just this kind of annual, universal grant. (And Alaska has distributed an annual check to all Alaskans since the 1970s — and even Sarah Palin loves it.)

After the recession, basic income seems to be gaining traction on the left and on the right, after a long period of discredit. In 1969 “minimum income” was a pet policy of the Nixon administration, supported by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his poverty-fighting mode and by the conservative economist Milton Friedman (see above). Back then the minimum income passed the House of Representatives, then died as senators quibbled over how much it would pay out and whether it’d stop workers from working.

Dylan Matthews, a policy wonk and senior editor at Vox, asks us to take a second look. He concedes it would cost “real money” — hundreds of billions, even a trillion dollars — but it could conquer poverty, strengthen low-wage workers by providing a fallback alternative to bad jobs, and finally provide something like real freedom to every citizen of a wealth country.

Pavlina Tcherneva: A Job Guarantee


Finally, there’s the Job Guarantee, a fundamental change in the American attitude towards work. Right now, the jobless depend on the thin and patchy safety net of unemployment insurance. Our guest, the economist Pavlina Tcherneva, proposes turning unemployment offices into employment offices, so that when you fall out of the workforce, you fall into a socially useful job: rebuilding infrastructure, urban agriculture in a food desert, and caring for kids or the elderly. It’s a Works Progress Administration for the digital age, taking its cues from social entrepreneurs and community leaders about the projects they need most.

Tcherneva’s insight is that high unemployment and social neglect tend to combine in poor neighborhoods across this country. Meaning that “we have a coordination problem” — it’s proof that our unemployment regime, as it is, isn’t working.

Alissa Quart: More Civic Poetry

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Alissa Quart wears two hats in these discussions: first, as a poverty reporter and the editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (also home to Barbara Ehrenreich and Astra Taylor), and as a poet. Quart tells us that as a child of bohemian Greenwich Village, she has a heightened awareness of how the last four decades of high capitalism have changed life on the street. And she argues for more “civic poetry,” poetry about “the hard stuff of life: money, crime, gender, corporate excess, racial injustice.” Quart points to Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr, to Robin Clarke’s Lines The Quarry, a poem composed from workers’ comp data. An excerpt:

917 assemblers & fabricators
150 athletes & sports competitors
1,104 car mechanics
4 writers & authors
160 bakers
471 bartenders
1209 bus & truck mechanics.

Here’s Quart’s argument, and a sample of her own poetry:

Sinking It All Into

They were afraid.

Subtraction was

their favorite term.


If we were arriviste

we’d have arrived all ready.


Securities speak.

They say, “Take comfort.”


Money cancels criticism.


If she were a he she’d be

indignant by now.


Her role, at this time:

an internal continuous

improvement consultant.


With one additional purchase,

you would have purchase.

With ability to purchase

you would be talking by now.


“Their Daily Bread”

Finally we return to the resonance of work. As Pope Francis departs, leaving a message of solidarity behind. As he spoke before a joint session of Congress, the pope addressed himself to our subjects in this series on work,

the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and – one step at a time – to build a better life for their families. These are men and women who are not concerned simply with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society.

The theologian Harvey Cox was in our studio to address the figure of Francis, in hopes that his next encyclical comes on the subject of human labor and human love:

Working is part of being human. The person should be at the center of the economy, he says that all the time. Working is central to who we think we are, our worth as human beings, our making a contribution to the society. It’s just heartbreaking to the pope, and to many of us, that there are millions and millions of people all around who are yearning to work — and they don’t have jobs. As one of your guests already mentioned, 30 percent in Spain, 40% in Italy, 25% of black people living in America. They want to work not just to earn a salary… but because that’s the way you are a part of the human enterprise.

This concludes a three-part series on work in America today: from labor history to precarious work. Thanks for listening and reading along. If you like the series, please come and subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher, and send any questions, comments, or suggestions to our Open Source inbox.

September 17, 2015

Nine To Five in 2015

We continue a three-part series — produced in partnership with The Nation — on work in America. This is Part Two: what we do all day, and how we feel about it. Last week we spoke about the ...

We continue a three-part series — produced in partnership with The Nation — on work in America. This is Part Two: what we do all day, and how we feel about it.

Last week we spoke about the surprising history of the bloody, decades-long fight for a two-day weekend, an eight-hour workday, for pensions, worker safety, and a minimum wage.

But we also heard Calvin Coolidge’s famous line, that “the chief business of the American people is business.” Almost a century later, that’s still true. Ours remains the biggest economy in the world, and American workers remain more productive per capita than any (big) nation in the world.

Americans spend more time working than doing anything else, and more than almost any other developed economy. A pre-crash study by the International Labor Organization found that we worked 137 hours more per year than Japanese workers, 260 more than Brits, almost 500 more than the leisure-loving French. And 86% of American men and 67% of women — sons and daughters of the union movement — work more than the union-preferred 40 hours a week.

Then again, the United States is exceptional in other ways: among OECD nations for the share of our people living in poverty (more than 14%, or almost 47 million people), and among almost all nations for offering, as part of the law of our land, neither paid maternal leave, nor paid sick leave, nor annual minimum paid time off.

And then there are the problems we cannot quantify — or even always see: the stresses and disappointments that pile up, disproportionately upon the 35 million Americans who earn less than $10.55 an hour.

With all that in mind, we asked Barbara Ehrenreich to give us a status update. Ehrenreich dove into the hidden world of the working poor as a worker in her bestselling 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed. Her subjects and colleagues — waitresses, washers, and Wal-Mart greeters — endured a special set of difficulties: searches by bosses, backstabbing by coworkers, drug tests, late nights, and wage theft after long hours.


After the recession, Ehrenreich founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project to keep up the work of reporting on the things working people don’t get a chance to say in the halls of power. The project was prompted by Ehrenreich’s realization that the precarious working lives she witnessed in 1998 and ’99 were subject to new efficiencies. For example:

We’re seeing a degradation in even the notion of what a job is. Fifteen years ago I could go looking for jobs and find them pretty easily, because there was a lot of hiring going on then. And there was an expectation that a job was something like 40 hours a week in return for pay… [That’s] gone. People now, like at Wal-Mart, are struggling to get 30 hours a week. The trend is more part-time people, and no guarantee that you’ll make a living. And then one step beyond that, there’s the new emphasis by employers on just-in-time hiring. Meaning, they’re not going to offer you a job and say, “We’re going to give you thirty hours a week, show up at this time, et cetera.” They’re going to say, “We’ll call you when we need you.” That may mean you have three hours of work one week, twenty hours the next week. You can’t plan your childcare — you can’t do anything — because you’re waiting for the phone call.

Fewer employers are offering any of the accoutrements that went with a job in the old days: 40 hours of work a week, maybe you have benefits. That’s all pretty much deteriorating. The white-collar example of this would be something like TaskRabbit. You get a job to hang somebody’s curtains for them, you do that in an hour, you’re out of there, you’re paid for that, and you see if you get another gig.

She cited other symptoms in a case that the whole body of the American economy is sicker now than it was fifteen years ago: 24-hour daycare centers for the precarious worker, poor folks donating plasma to stay afloat, and wage theft on the rise.

When we asked her what sort of solution the working class needed —  FDR’s remaking ambition, LBJ’s “War on Poverty,” or more Obama moderation — she scoffed. “You know what that list leaves out? The actual workers. We have too many economic discussions in this country that consist entirely of lawyers and professorial types, talking about this as if it were a foreign country.”

Our World, At Work

With that in mind, we asked people outside our office to rate their job from one to ten. And we looked to our local labor force — caretakers, housecleaners, food vendors, office workers on break, and others — to give us their report: are they happy in their work? what’s hard about it? and are they getting by? Dozens of interviews later, we’ve learned workers may confess to be frustrated, underpaid or spiritually malnourished, but they almost all say they’re just happy to have a job and the satisfactions that go with it:

Sandra (R) and Olivia (L)

Sandra Lee is a personal care attendant in Brighton, Mass. She’s seen with her “consumer,” Olivia Richard, who has paraplegia.

I see Olivia every morning from 9 o’clock to whenever I’m done. I got eight daughters, so she’s like my ninth daughter… I take care of Olivia with her bathing, from top to bottom, to rolling over, to you know what I’m talking about. And some people can’t do that. But for me, I’ve been doing this all my life.

Chris is an Italian-slush salesman in Codman Square, Boston.

They’re Richie’s Italian slushies. They’ve been around for years — decades now. Everybody loves them…

It feels great working for myself. Some days aren’t always good. You take a lot of losses. Some days you take wins. But it’s definitely a good feeling. I eat it every day, man. I’m addicted to it. That’s my problem. That’s why I sell them. Richie’s Italian slush: stand by it.


Marina is a software developer in downtown Boston, seen here on her lunch break.

It’s a lot of code. I got lucky in this way: the profession that I chose, all those years ago, is so popular now. I just liked it. I like to build things, I like to put together stuff and see how it comes alive and begins working. And I like abstractions, I think.

Cee the barber

Cee is a barber at Everything is Real Barbershop in Roxbury, Mass.

It takes a thousand hours to be a barber. It’s not hard work, but you gotta love what you do, you know. If you love what you do, it’s not hard work, you have fun doing it… Not only are we barbers, we’re therapists.

Sometimes a person comes in and they not feeling good. Maybe they got stuff on their mind, so as you cut their hair you talk to them, you try to, you know, give them some positive insight, and as you’re refining them mentally, you’re also refining them mentally.
Of course everything’s hard, but that doesn’t mean there’s no enjoyment in it. So it’s almost a yin-yang situation. I got five children — I take care of them all by myself.


Ji-Min Park is a jazz pianist at Berklee College of Music:

I basically play this little piano here every week: Wednesday. I’ve been playing music almost fifteen years. I started with classical piano and then I changed to jazz.

I know in every job, it’s really hard to make money, but especially the musicians — it’s really hard. There’s a lot of musicians, so it’s like a war.

To hear more of these conversations, come find Open Source on Soundcloud or follow us on Facebook.

The American Office, On The Way to Amazon

Ehrenreich knows that optimistic American consumers, especially in the middle and upper classes, don’t think about “economic hardships” until they see them under the right Dickensian light.

We knew, from EHRP reporting, that workers at Amazon “fulfillment centers” were underpaid and (until recently) overheated. What was a sensation, again, when the New York Times reported that the woes of the warehouses had spread to the corporate offices of Amazon, where managers are surveilled and snitched on, summoned in the middle of the night, and end up crying at their desks. Amazon, now the country’s biggest retailer, is building new offices, above, with room for 50,000 workers.

We turned to Nikil Saval, editor of n + 1 and author of the wonderful social history Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. Saval reminded us that this isn’t news — Amazon is the office for the age of disruption, and the product of more than a century of history.

His story begins with clerks on Wall Street in the age of “Bartleby, The Scrivener” (the first office worker to go on strike!) and the management theorist Frederick Taylor. There’s a long history to make the office both productive for the bosses and seductive for the workers — just as Amazon’s emphasis on efficiency contrasts with Google’s ping-pong tables and multicolored bikes.

September 10, 2015

The Fate Of The Union

When it comes to the politics of work in America, the times, they are a-changing. Scott Walker overtook Wisconsin, the one-time capital of organized labor, with a divide-and-conquer strategy — now he’s chasing votes on an anti-union platform. Bernie Sanders, once ...

When it comes to the politics of work in America, the times, they are a-changing. Scott Walker overtook Wisconsin, the one-time capital of organized labor, with a divide-and-conquer strategy — now he’s chasing votes on an anti-union platformBernie Sanders, once the lonely leftist in the Senate, has won over working people with straightforward talk of socialism. Union membership is way down since the 1980s, but public opinion of unions is rising after the 2007-8 crash.

We’ll begin a three-part series, produced in partnership with The Nation, on the state of work in America today with a little history. It’s a contradictory story of a century marked by incredible change, of a great boom and then a slow bust of labor power that brings the story current and into the presidential campaign of 2016.


In 1900, a railway fireman turned organizer and politician named Eugene Debs — the hero of Bernie Sanders’ youth — looked out at his country and declared: “Promising, indeed, is the outlook for Socialism in the United States… No sane man can be satisfied with the present system.”

When Debs was writing, 10 percent of Americans owned 75% of the wealth. (That number is back up to around 76% and rising now.) The average annual wage was $438 (about $12,000 in today’s dollars), the industrial work week ran almost to 60 hours, and child labor was still a fact on factory floors.

So individual workers and craft unions combined to form groups like the Congress of Industrial Organizations and American Federation of Labor which organized sit-down strikes and boycotts and nonstop political pressure. Debs himself would go on to win almost a million votes for president at the top of a socialist ticket — against war and for workers’ rights. In short, throughout the 20th century, organized labor — and worker protest — was a central feature of American life.

The question, then: what happened — between Roosevelt and Reagan, between the UAW and Uber?

Our guide, the historian Steve Fraser, presents an important version of that history in his new book, The Age of Acquiescence. It’s the story of a resistance movement to the market’s hard edge that collapsed under attacks and also under its own success. It was a populist politics that was caught up and co-opted by the institutional Democratic Party, and recast as consumer freedom — the liberty to buy — that replaced collective political action.

Underneath the story of the collapse of the American labor union there’s a pressing story for today about what work means in this country — then and now — and how our politics makes room, or doesn’t, for the people who wait tables, clean, cook, and take care of children and the elderly. It’s a story full of surprises and twists and lessons for the bosses and the laborers who still power our economy, and always will.

This show begins a three-part series about American work: what it is, what it could be, and where we’re all going together. Let us know what you make of your own work, how you look at labor unions in 2015, and what you’d go on strike for.

The Story So Far

Here’s a timeline of the capsule history of the rise and fall of organized labor in America over almost 150 years:

But Steve Fraser’s history goes beyond the highlights to include more than a few surprising turns — here are five of our favorites.

1. FDR bailed out American capitalism.

Franklin Roosevelt signs the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (Public domain).

Steve Fraser reminds us that Franklin Roosevelt, even as he won the hatred of the plutocrats, conceived of the New Deal as a way to civilize — and save — a capitalist system in what appeared to be its “terminal crisis.” The New Deal brought corrective changes long favored by labor unions, including outlawing child labor, imposing mandatory wage and hour laws and safety regulations, establishing affordable tenement housing and promoting public health.

But as the American standard of living began its world-leading climb, the changeover to a fundamentally different economy — to European-style social democracy, peopled with a Labor Party and a strong single-payer state — didn’t follow. Fraser writes:

From this time forward , all criticisms of capitalism from the left, no matter how militantly or defensively expressed, accepted the underlying framework of civilized capitalism installed by the New Deal. If that system failed to deliver the goods, so to speak, or violated the newly established elementary rights of working people, then it should be called to account. But not otherwise.

It was in the post-Deal context that Walter Reuther of the UAW, pioneer of the sit-down strike in the 1930s, signed the 1950 “Treaty of Detroit” with General Motors management: trading the right to strike and bargain over some issues for pensions and other employee benefits.

UAW negotiators with Walter Reuther (center) arrive at an agreement with General Motors.

2. The McCarthy era contaminated our vocabulary.

When asked about the first great defeat of organized labor in America, Fraser doesn’t point to a failed strike or a single piece of legislation. He points to the McCarthy years. It wasn’t just public service but public language that was purged: there would be no more talk of “wage-slaves” or “plutocrats,” even of “capitalism.” A 1955 Army pamphlet on spotting communists advises that communists might use phrases like:

“McCarthyism,” violation of civil rights, racial or religious discrimination, immigration laws, anti-subversive legislation, any legislation concerning labor unions, the military budget, “peace.”

When Walt Disney testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he identified suspected communists among his workers and insisted that the Bolsheviks had “really ought to be smoked out and shown up for what they are, so that all of the good, free causes in this country, all the liberalisms that really are American, can go out without the taint of Communism.”

Disney’s instinct — to keep the unions ‘clean’ — involved what Fraser calls broad “linguistic cleansing.” (There’s a reason it took more than 60 years for a presidential candidate to speak of socialism in America!)

3. We forgot pre-capitalism.

Many have asked why America never experienced successful capital-S Socialism. Fraser’s interested in a different question: how do you account for the rich tradition of American anti-capitalism, from communes to self-sufficiency and rural gift economies?

Fraser says the age of resistance had essentially foreign, pre-modern roots — a perspective that saw quantified, appropriated wage-slavery as heartless: “not as civilization, but as anti-civilization”:

People back then, because they knew other ways of life other than industrial capitalism — they had come from a handicraft backgrounds, or were peasants from southern and eastern Europe: they knew there were other ways of living, not that they glorified those ways, but they knew there were alternatives to the dog-eat-dog world of American capitalism, which offended them and was driving them out of social existence.

Those people were still hunting and fishing. They had their own garden plots or their own workshops or small businesses. They could still imagine alternatives to capitalism. And I think by the mid-twentieth century that recedes into an almost unremembered past. We had left that kind of of life. There are no more roots that take us back there.

4. First came Carter, then came Reagan.

The 1981 PATCO strike is thought of as the Waterloo of the American labor movement. Air-traffic controllers, stressed by their responsibility and overworked, made an ambitious request for a shorter work-week and for special status under labor law.

Ronald Reagan  — whom the union had endorsed over Jimmy Carter — was the first and only president to have served in a union: the Screen Actors Guild. But on the day the PATCO strike began, it was Reagan who stood in the Rose Garden and  invoked a precedent set by Calvin Coolidge in 1919, forbidding public-sector strikes against the public safety. He issued an ultimatum, demanding that air-traffic controllers return to the job. Two days later, he followed through: firing the stragglers and banning them from work in federal government.

But Fraser tells a more complicated story: he says that this last great anti-union slide began under Carter, whom he considers “the first neoliberal president.”

In this week’s podcast, you can hear Carter trumpeting his widespread deregulation of sectors of the American economy. And the speechwriter and Democratic Party operative Bob Shrum defected from the Carter campaign when he heard Carter, in private, back off public pledges for black-lung relief, saying of victims “they chose to be miners.” (FWIW: Christopher Lydon, host of Open Source, published a 1977 story in The Atlantic describing Carter as a “Rockefeller Republican.”)

Jimmy Carter signs the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 (NARA/Wikimedia).

5. The unions go exclusive, and the culture goes consumer.

No longer the emancipation organizations of the 1930s, late-phase labor unions turn into what Fraser and others call “private welfare states,” determined to serve their members but all the while representing a shrinking portion of the American workforce. Fraser traces a union retreat beginning in the 1950s, with agreements like the Treaty of Detroit:

The decision was, “We’re not to fight for the welfare state generally, but to fight for it in our industry.” And they won that battle, in the electrical industry and so on: great long-term contracts, cost-of-living escalators, wage increases, vacations — all of that.

This was about private welfare states. And what that meant in the long term was they were cutting themselves off to unorganized workers: that is to say, agricultural workers, black workers in the South… domestic workers, retail and service-sector workers… They [gave] up that much more challenging crusade for the entire working class.

Meanwhile, consumption set in as the new cardinal behavior of the American public — hence the advertising drive to ask the audience to “look for the union label” while out shopping. Together, the two trends represent a turn against the “freedom” felt by a successful striker — of collective strength aimed, successfully, at a common goal. Today, Fraser concludes with a sigh, Americans find ourselves in a more atomized political environment — a “source of acquiescence” to inequality today.

Podcast • August 9, 2011

The Fisherfolk of Karachi: a Parable of Pakistan

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mohammed Ali Shah (16 minutes, 8 mb mp3) Mohammad Ali Shah, Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum KARACHI — We are taking the fishermen’s measure of Pakistan’s distress here in a ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mohammed Ali Shah (16 minutes, 8 mb mp3)

Mohammad Ali Shah, Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum

KARACHI — We are taking the fishermen’s measure of Pakistan’s distress here in a fishing village that goes back to antiquity, that fights the present-day odds with spirit. The fisherfolk all around us are the sea-level “canaries” in a shrinking and severely polluted fish-farming system, centered on the Ibrahim Haidri neighborhood on the south shore of Karachi. Make of it what you will that the young men repairing nets and wooden boats for a day’s work tomorrow on the Arabian Sea don’t look out-of-luck yet. And they have a notably serene and good-humored leader in Mohammad Ali Shah, who is giving us the awful litany of threats to their way of life.

The city of Karachi (pop. roughly 20-million) dumps 500-million gallons of waste into its harbors every day — “into the bowl of our livelihood,” as Mohammad Ali Shah puts it, and that’s just the beginning. “Land grabbers,” whom we’d call developers, are encroaching on their land, as fish factories at sea are gobbling their catch. Two of the allied activists fighting the “land mafia” that has targeted their mangrove forest were murdered this past May. Fishing families suffer the cold war between Pakistan and India acutely, in the periodic arrest (and long arbitrary sentences) of fishermen who stray across territorial borders. And on top of everything, says Mohammad Ali Shah, nobody seems to care — certainly nobody with much political power. Pakistani politics, he instructs us, is an inside brokers’ game that shuns “people power.”

In short, we are looking at what seems a hopelessly broken system — a metaphor for all of Pakistan, perhaps. And yet the people talking with us seem anything but hopeless. The air about them suggests solidarity, savvy, global awareness — the “resilience” that Pakistanis seem to count as their last card. It counts, too, that fishermen paint their own boats in Pakistan (as teamsters paint their huge trucks) with brilliant floral designs, colorful splashes in their workplace at sunset.


Podcast • June 15, 2010

Vishwas Satgar: the Political Economy of FIFA

Vishwas Satgar has a half-time message from South Africa for World Cup watchers. It’s a quick introduction to “the political economy of soccer” that won’t dent any grown-up’s pleasure in the athletic or human spectacle ...

Vishwas Satgar has a half-time message from South Africa for World Cup watchers. It’s a quick introduction to “the political economy of soccer” that won’t dent any grown-up’s pleasure in the athletic or human spectacle — no more than, say, the endless buzzing of those vuvuzelas. Short form: most of the money that comes with the games will leave with the games. South Africa will be stuck with four new white-elephant stadia and public deficits and debts much worse than California’s. The engine of Africa’s development will still be a site of rising unemployment, falling life expectancy (at just under 50 years, below Sudan and Ethiopia), and a health-care system in shambles. There’s money in those Budweiser and VISA ads around the World Cup matches that might have been invested in universities, not in FIFA, the football federation.

Vishwas Satgar is a labor lawyer and leftwing activist, an insurgent ex-Secretary of the South African Communist Party who’s way out of alliance with the ANC on the uplift politics of the World Cup. Satgar’s message resonates with the remarkably fair-and-balanced film Fahrenheit 2010 by South Africa-born Craig Tanner. Archbishop Desmond Tutu feels “a world of good — well worth the price” in a South Africa’s month in the sun; “if we’re going to have white elephants,” he says in the film, “so be it.” But the argument that lingers is that “public funds have been looted for a moment in our history. People are still going to be living in shacks.”

Like the Beijing Olympics in Summer ’08, this World Cup is a coming-out party, and a historic marker for Africa at the center of the maximum stage… without anything like the long-term strategic planning China put into its primetime debut, Satgar argues:

This World Cup has been done, technically and in terms of construction, in sort of record time. There was a grand display of engineering capability and technology and so on. And people in South Africa’s squatter settlements, and in what we could call our slums, I am sure are wondering, ‘If they could do all this grandiose stuff, why haven’t they built us houses over fifteen, sixteen years of democracy?’ So I think these contradictions are going to come back to haunt the political forces that have stood by this.

Vishwas Satgar in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown University, June 15, 2010.

Consciousness-raising is over. You may now watch Spain v. Switzerland, then South Africa v. Uruguay in peace.