This election has been about everything but the economy, stupid (according to John Harwood of The New York Times). Americans are split right down the middle—48 to 48—on which candidate will handle money matters better; ...
This election has been about everything but the economy, stupid (according to John Harwood of The New York Times). Americans are split right down the middle—48 to 48—on which candidate will handle money matters better; instead the wedge issues are tolerance, territory, immigration, constitutional rights, political (and factual) correctness. Why is that?
There are a lot of theories bouncing around this week, and we imagine them all overlooked by John Maynard Keynes, the economic wizard behind the Bretton Woods world order and the boom years between 1930 and 1970. He may have been the last genius of economics who also understood human life, in all its excesses and “animal spirits.” What would his keen mind have brought to a moment with so much ambiguity?
1. We’re on the comeback.
Harwood argued last Thursday that the lukewarm economy gives neither side an advantage: the Obama recovery was neither strong enough to gloat over nor weak enough to attack.
But early this week, a Census survey of economic indicators revealed that in fact, 2015 looked like a historic uptick: median household income rose 5.2%, the biggest jump since 1967. 3.5 million Americans climbed out of poverty; unemployment dropped to 4.9%, half its post-crash high. All three stock indexes have hit record highs, and more than half of Americans say the economy seems “good”—there’s genuine relief in the air.
2. But we’re still a long way from “morning in America.”
Yet 60% of Americans still think the country’s headed in the wrong direction. The median wage may be up this year, but it’s still below its balmy 1999 high. The body is recovering, but the collective psychology is still anxious and depressed. When people look in their wallets—or toward their futures—they feel shortchanged and blame Washington.
Our guest, the protest journalist Sarah Jaffe, calls attention to the people who are really still feeling the squeeze—of anti-Keynesian austerity and casino capitalism, for example—in her new book, Necessary Trouble. It’s a chronicle of people on the march against punitive student debt, foreclosures, and slashed public budgets—and for moving the conversation forward.
3. Growth may be ending.
Heavy-hitting economists like Larry Summers have started to worry aloud about “secular stagnation”: a period in which growth itself may slow—or stop—in our Energizer-bunny economy. What would that mean for the American dream, which depends on rising wages buying more and better goods at cheaper prices?
4. But our minds are changing, too.
A radical shift that the new bipartisan consensus emerging in the candidates: that signing onto NAFTA, letting infrastructure languish, and cutting spending was a mistake—in short, that the government still has a stimulating role to play in the American economy.
To make the case, our good friend Mark Blyth—the Brown University political economist whose magisterial book Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idealowered the hammer on the false promise of cut budgets. Mike Konczal, one of the big-thinking financial reformers and fellows at the Roosevelt Institute, will make the case that this fraught election might be concealing a new and healthy economic consensus.
Finally, Lord Robert Skidelsky paints us a portrait of Keynes himself, as a cosmopolitan elite who nonetheless empathized with those out of work and on the dole. Keynes is the kind of economist we wish we still had around, offering not only timely economic prescriptions (extend global financial regulation, double down on government infrastructure spending, experiment with basic income plans), but also a model—of a holistic, cross-disciplinary, concerned mind:
The master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts …. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular, in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must be entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood, as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near to earth as a politician.
The English classicist and historian, Mary Beard, has become a T.V. star and a bestselling author. SPQR, her new capsule history of the Roman empire, remains hard to find on bookstore and library shelves weeks after its ...
The English classicist and historian, Mary Beard, has become a T.V. star and a bestselling author. SPQR, her new capsule history of the Roman empire, remains hard to find on bookstore and library shelves weeks after its release.
That has a lot to do with Beard’s rising profile — the New Yorker‘s Rebecca Mead named her “the troll hunter” for taking on critics of her frazzled onscreen look. But are we also wrestling with something like an imperial anxiety? Americans, and Brits, still remember that famous final fall, and wondering whether or not we’re doing as the Romans did.
Since Edward Gibbon, people have wondered what drove the demise of the glorious Roman empire, but Beard wants us to ponder the unlikelihood of its rise. Rome began as a humble backwater in the Italian hills, self-mythologized as a haven for outsiders and asylum-seekers, founded by the Trojan exile Aeneas or maybe by the murderous twin, Romulus, raised by a she-wolf.
It wasn’t at all obvious that Rome would become the hub of the ancient universe. It’s a place where a raucous democracy sprang up, then withered. Massive inequality of wealth is written all over the ruins of the city. Its histories are full of stabbings, corrupt bargains, usurpations, and rapes. And yet, in Beard’s long view, Rome’s essential openness — to the enslaved, to the poor, to the conquered outsider — gave it the military, economic and social strength required both for world takeover and for the pax Romana to follow.
Mary Beard’s short course is in our heads. With Chris Hedges, the political critic with an interest in antiquity, and Kathleen Coleman, one of the vivid minds in the Harvard classics department, we’re wondering where we stand now in the endless parade of fragile empires, and what kind of lessons we can draw from a far-off history that still feels close at hand.
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 ...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Atlanticdescribing Carter as a “Rockefeller Republican.”)
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.
The protests chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” in the wake of the police killings in Missouri, New York, and elsewhere, will draw comparisons. They’re less pious than the Civil Rights Movement and they have the same ...
The protests chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” in the wake of the police killings in Missouri, New York, and elsewhere, will draw comparisons. They’re less pious than the Civil Rights Movement and they have the same problem as Occupy: a loose organization with no clear demands. But there are demands, and leaders, too, who are a big part of the story here. Young people of color, more women than men, and lots of them gay and lesbian, with a new common culture and , here and there, a critical analysis: of a society that they say has been resegregated, defunded, and overpoliced for too long.
A generation is on the march in the nation’s poorest places and on college campuses everywhere. Where do they want to take us? If you’ve led or joined the protests in Ferguson or anywhere in the past on the subject of police brutality, justice or inequality, please leave us a message by clicking here or on the microphone icon above. If you prefer, you can use your phone and call (617) 353-0692.
We’d like to know why you’re protesting, what you’re hoping for, and the details of your experience. (Onlookers, feel free to leave us a message, too!) Is there something building here, something new and maybe vital? We’ll include the best ones on the air and on our site.
In 2000, Chris interviewed the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, who died today at 94. Here is Pete Seeger on “The Connection.” As Chris noted in introducing him, Pete Seeger never sang a song that ...
Pete Seeger performing on February 13, 1944, at the United Federal Labor Canteen, with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in attendance.
In 2000, Chris interviewed the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, who died today at 94. Here is Pete Seeger on “The Connection.” As Chris noted in introducing him, Pete Seeger never sang a song that didn’t have meaning. He wrote and popularized folk music for over 60 years and he always aimed his voice and his banjo to a purpose. His convictions about social justice were deep, and his performances changed lives. There’s little doubt the FBI had a huge fat file on him back in Washington, and for his liberal politics he was the target of mob attacks too. He sung anti-American songs in Moscow, and was at one time banned from television. He continually inspired other people to action to stop the Vietnam war, to fight racial inequality, and to save the world.