December Wrapping

Four posts that are not really a year-end wrap up. Perhaps there will be time in the busy season to look ahead for new possibilities for American politics rather than assume the future is an extrapolation from the dreary present. But for now let’s take note that the older means of governing (such as the NLRB) stumble along to solve certain problems even as our elected leaders dither and demagogue.

1. As expected by all but the all-but-hysterical Republicans, the National Labor Relations Board’s General Counsel dropped his case against the Boeing Corporation. Last April when the case was lodged, the Republicans excoriated the Board and argued that the threat of penalties on Boeing was a prime example of the Obama administration’s hatred of free enterprise. Republican candidates for their party’s nomination for president called for the abolition of the NLRB. In fact, all along, the Counsel’s action was within the mode of labor law since the Supreme Court’s 1937 decision in the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation case. Boeing had publicly stated that it moved its new 737 plane’s production to non-union South Carolina in retaliation for strikes by the Machinists Union in Seattle. Americans have always had the right to strike and, since the NLRA, the federal government has protected employees in the exercise of these rights from an employer who acts to penalize them for doing so. The anti-labor rightwing has campaigned to delegitimize workers’ rights quite successfully since Reagan appointed a notorious anti-union apparatchik for the southern textile industry to head the NLRB in 1981, but the Board held firm this time against corporate intimidation. And the outcome also went by the book, which is to say that the company and the union negotiated a settlement. This used to be called “free collective bargaining” – in a nod to the ideology of “free enterprise” and in contrast to Communism – and it exemplified the genius of American pluralism. The fact that few Republicans support pluralism is telling about how far from democratic principles the Party has strayed. The negotiated settlement led the union to withdraw its complaint and to the General Counsel decision to withdraw his case.

2. After the House voted against the Senate compromise plan to extend the payroll tax cut and emergency unemployment compensation, the News Hour had a typical discussion in which the substance of the policy was never discussed. It was all horse race – which party will come out ahead. No analysis of the extremism of the libertarian rightwing’s campaign to build a bridge to the 19th century, as Jacob Hacker puts it. The mainstream media’s script that both parties are equally reasonable lets the journalists off the hook from asking questions about what politicians’ positions mean for real people. Who can live on a $300 unemployment check, let alone without these benefits? The late Irwin Knoll did ask such questions, but the News Hour never replaced him. Now we have fake even-handedness. So when Newt Gingrich surged in the polls among Republican voters in November and December, News Hour guest Dan Balz, the chief political reporter for The Washington Post, was asked by Judy Woodruff what we should expect from the Gingrich campaign. “The first thing he has to do, obviously, is not make mistakes. In one way or another, all of the other candidates were done in by their mistakes. And he has a history. We have watched him, all, for many, many years. He has a history of doing things that do himself damage. I think he’s well aware of that. He’s tried to run a disciplined campaign in this case.” (News Hour, December 5, 2011) When we realize that when Balz made this reasonable sounding statement Gingrich had recently called for the abolition of laws against child labor, we have to wonder what counts as a “mistake”. But that would be a substantive analysis. What Balz and Judy and the News Hour mean by “mistake” is something like losing your temper or mispronouncing Kazakhstan (or not knowing how to spell potato) or saying that life begins at implantation as Gingrich did, rather than conception, as the Catholic Church asserts, which led Gingrich to “correct” himself. These are mistakes that would undermine the candidate’s PR strategy. It has almost nothing to do with how government officials will solve the people’s problems.

3. President Obama gave a major speech for his re-election in Kansas on October 6, 2011 that has earned more comments than reproductions of the transcript in the pages of our newspapers. Even The New York Times – the self-identified paper of record – did not. Most papers reported on the commentary on the speech or simply characterized its tone, but the typical citizen was given no first-hand information. Obama invoked a speech 99 years ago in Kansas by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, who called for vigorous regulation of big corporations to make them serve the public interest during his comeback campaign in 1912. It was the Republican Roosevelt who had used the power of the government to break up the Standard oil monopoly and promote the progressive income tax. Obama made much of the parallel to today’s America in which big corporations, especially the financial titans on Wall Street, have gained all too much power over our democracy. Corporations are bigger than ever and they pay the smallest percentage of taxes in 60 years. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has emerged as the best-financed army of lobbyists according the Center for Responsive Politics. The citizens appear as left in their dust. But many conservatives were apoplectic that the President dared to call out our corporate masters. How dare the President call for fair play for everyone – imagine including the rich and powerful – to play by norms of honesty and earned income! 

In truth, we need a debate in the U.S. about fair play requires in our “democratic capitalist” society, as George Bush memorably called it in his nationally televised speech beseeching taxpayers to support his $700 billion bailout of the financial titans. Until then, it had been “the free enterprise system”, but now capitalism needed the government to survive and democrats had to rush to solve the problems that the marketplace could not. Does fair play mean that a person is entitled to whatever he can grab to own? (such as might be the Gordon Gekko or libertarian position); does it mean equal pay for equal work (the Civil Rights Act of 1964); does it mean equal shares from the increased productivity created by joint efforts (the contracts between the United Auto Workers and the Detroit Three companies); does it mean equal opportunities for individuals based on their inherited social status (the old Republican position of William F. Buckley); does fairness mean a commitment to mitigate the inequalities that arise from history and circumstance (John Rawls); does it mean instead the obligations we owe each other as members of a shared national community of fate and meaning (Michael Sandel); but whatever it may mean, the vilification of any one of these does nothing to advance the public interest. Some 69 years ago, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor when war fever and patriotic unity were riding high, the New Deal era U.S. Supreme Court nonetheless affirmed that no doctrine was orthodox in America because the government had no authority to impose an orthodoxy. Let the debate continue.

4. I have trouble seeing anything novel about Perry’s conservatism as claimed by Tom Barry’s essay on why we should take Rick Perry seriously (“The Return of State’s Rights”, Boston Review November-December 2011).

Perry’s anti-federal government rhetoric is firmly in the tradition of the previous generation’s southern politicians. As Barry correctly points out, Perry is not at all against government authority and the use of coercive power. Perry is all in favor of muscular preventive military power in the world and on the common border with Mexico. Like southern politicians during the era of legal white supremacy, Perry is opposed to federal power when it interferes with state political and business leaders’ preferences for social and economic policies. They too argued that local people could find innovative ways to handle problems of race and labor.

So, also like historical southern pols, Perry has no problem using state government authority to subsidize capitalist development (which many Texans call crony capitalism) and to suppress the rights of citizens (in the segregation era this included Jim Crow; today it notably includes stiff opposition to the NLRA, capping taxes and public services even though the population has increased dramatically, limiting unemployment compensation to about 20% of the unemployed, and dragging welfare benefits down to about 27% of the poverty level). However, of all of the southern states, Texas stands out as the one state that historically sent more tax money to Washington than it received in return, a history which greases Perry’s ostensibly contradictory acceptance of federal funds.

So, it is true as Barry says that the immigration issue doesn’t conform to “free market” values, but that’s because Texas conservatives aren’t really advocates of freedom for economic agents. Just ask whether immigrant workers have the right to bargain and one will be met with cold incomprehension. Texas elites have long favored immigration from Mexico as long as workers were directed to local employers through pass laws, licensing labor brokers, violence, and other techniques. Moreover, toughness toward immigrants does not distinguish Perry from the Obama administration’s actual record. The shoe that hasn’t dropped is Obama’s call for protecting the rights of immigrants who may be invited into a new guest worker program.

In short, arguments by the right, center, and left about what level of government is better at accomplishing public ends is better steered toward debates about substantive goals than formalist claims about state’s rights and centralized government.