Tuesday, September 21, 2010

If Billionaires Really Want To End Poverty

I recently came across GivingPledge.org. It's an effort by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to have the wealthiest Americans commit to giving more than half of their wealth to charity. There are currently about 40 billionaires who have made the pledge by posting an open letter on the website. I've been pleasantly surprised by some of the letters. Oklahoma billionaire George Kaiser's letter stands out:

"I suppose I arrived at my charitable commitment largely through guilt. I recognized early on, that my good fortune was not due to superior personal character or initiative so much as it was to dumb luck. I was blessed to be born in an advanced society with caring parents. So, I had the advantage of both genetics (winning the "ovarian lottery") and upbringing. As I looked around at those who did not have these advantages, it became clear to me that I had a moral obligation to direct my resources to help right that balance..."

"As I addressed my charitable purposes, all of this seemed pretty clear: I was only peripherally responsible for my own good fortune; I was morally duty bound to help those left behind by the accident of birth; America's root principle was equal opportunity but we were far from achieving it..."

"I am entranced by Warren's and Bill's visionary appeal to those who have accumulated unconscionable resources, to dedicate at least half of them back to purposes more useful than dynastic perpetuation."

This is not exactly the "by my bootstraps" mantra that you hear from a lot of the American Right. In fact, I think I know conservatives who would cringe at reading this letter. It's strange how people who view themselves as upper middle class or perhaps soon-to-be rich are often more interested in justifying extreme inequality (blaming the poor for being poor) than are the super rich.

Kaiser's letter and others discuss focusing their philanthropy on the causes of poverty and not just the symptoms. What they mean is breaking the cycle of poverty for families and providing equal opportunity for those dealt a losing hand at birth. That really is good work. And its obvious from their letters that many of these billionaires are good people with good hearts. But aren't these "causes" of poverty actually symptoms of a deeper sickness?

The sickness I'm thinking of is the very social and economic system that makes billionaires possible. You cannot have a tiny billionaire class without a big, poor working class. There can be no "unconscionable wealth" without unconscionable poverty somewhere else.

What I would like to see from The Giving Pledge is a promise from America's billionaires to fund efforts for systemic change in a progressive and democratic direction: a more progressive tax system, a national living wage law, a maximum wage law for CEOs, an Economic Bill of Rights for all Americans, greater taxes on inherited wealth, public financing of elections, an end to "corporate personhood," enforcement of workers' rights to organize, a constitutional amendment for full employment. These are just a few ideas to start with, and they could supplement, not replace, the philanthropic causes and charities already supported in The Pledge. Think of them as gifts that keep on giving. The point is, we could end poverty in America. We know how to do it. We could build a country where no one is poor, but it would probably mean that no one is a billionaire either.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pardon Our Progress! Blog Renovations Under Way.

You may notice a slightly new look around here. I've gone with a wider template and added an extra column. This means less scrolling for everyone. I'm still figuring out what to do with all the new space and considering other upgrades, so bear with me. (If you'd like, you can bare with me too.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Fall And Rise Of The American Labor Movement

At the beginning of the 21st century, labor unions in America may be weaker, politically and socially, than at any time since World War II. It's certainly the case that union membership has declined sharply since it's peak in the 1950s.
It's no coincidence that the same period has also brought:
The decline of union power has meant the rise of corporation owner and management power. The privileged few who sit atop our economic structure are now better off compared to the rest of society than at any time in at least the last 80 years, maybe longer. By some measures, you would have to go back to the 1920s to find comparable economic inequality; by other measures, you'd have to go back to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. Unions built the middle class, and the decline of unions means the decline of the middle class.

Two sweeping changes have tipped the scales against working people, in other words against the great majority of society. First, there's the change in the kinds of jobs available in America. The shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy has deservedly received a lot of attention. That shift has often meant trading high-wage union jobs with benefits for low-wage non-union service sector jobs. The labor movement, for its part, is doing its best to mirror this change and organize the industries of the new economy. But the evolution from a manufacturing economy to a service economy is not just about trading one industry for another.

Consider the kind of job your father or your grandfather had. There are pretty good chances he worked a single job for many years, perhaps his whole career. He may have worked with the same group of people the whole time. I'm thinking of my father-in-law, who started working for a telephone company when he was 18, climbing telephone poles. He stuck with it, became a job steward with the union, and today he's close to retirement with a job that he loves and that has provided a comfortable middle class life for his family.

Now compare that to the job situation of young people you know today. Odds are they change jobs pretty frequently--maybe every year or two. Sure, there may be some benefits to hopping around. We like to think we can choose jobs like we choose consumer goods. But what does that do to a worker's willingness and ability to work for changes in any particular workplace or industry? There's not going to be much organizing or activism in a workplace when no one is there long enough to really get to know their co-workers.

And maybe that's the point. We're becoming a nation of itinerant workers. Worker power has been dispersed. Management power has been concentrated.

The second big factor tilting the scales in favor of corporate power is the phase of "globalization" in which we currently live. The big capitalists have gone global, but labor is mostly still local. This obviously gives capital tremendous leverage against labor, like a boxer who bobs and weaves and circles the ring fighting one who stands still. A corporation that experiences "labor difficulties" can simply pack up and move to the other side of the planet. So-called "free trade agreements" mean that borders and certain laws do not apply to corporations, but you can bet they still apply to workers.

But here's the chink in the armor of corporate power. Corporations need workers to serve them. The capitalists may have virtually all the wealth, but labor creates all wealth. It is, by definition, a parasitic relationship. If the host cuts off the parasite, then the parasite dies. For now, big business may trot the globe looking for the place where workers are easiest to exploit. They may create an American foreign policy that casts workers' movements in other countries as dire threats to American security, justifying the use of American military power to keep their foreign labor cheap. Industrialist Richard B. Mellon once said, "You can't mine coal without machine guns." Today he might say, "You cannot run multinational corporations without the occasional Western-backed military coup."

But eventually, God willing, corporations will find popular resistance everywhere they go. Eventually the same technologies that enable corporate management to span the globe will also enable workers to unite around the globe in shared struggles. We see glimpses of this now. But if a global democratic movement is going to challenge global tyranny (undemocratic governments and corporations), then international labor solidarity will have to become a more potent force.

Which brings us back to the good ol' USA. American unions will not be able to effectively reach out around the world until they build their own strength right here. We're going to have to organize strong, fighting unions of fast-food workers, big-box store employees, office workers. There was a time in American history when union organizing could break out almost anywhere, even the military. We need to stoke that fire again. We'll have to think globally and act locally in order to act globally and benefit locally. It's a tall order but one that's worthy of the history of the American progressive movement.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Happy Labor Day

I hope you all enjoyed your Labor Day weekend. I had to work, but I managed to squeeze in a Jimmy Buffet concert, so it wasn't all lost.

Tune in tomorrow for what I intended to be my Labor Day post. I'm going to talk about what I see as the future of the labor movement in America and why the movement will matter to you, regardless of whether or not you currently give a damn about unions.

Oh, and since it's not yet midnight, it's still not too late for you to thank a union member for being part of the movement that has kept America from drifting into fascism! After all, the labor movement is the democratic movement.