Posted: November 11, 2015
By: Clay Cerny

During yesterday’s Republican Primary Debate, Donald Trump and other candidates stated that they would not raise the minimum wage. Trump took this level of thinking even lower, proclaiming “Our wages are too high.” He thinks the only way for America to be competitive is for “people to work really hard” to “enter that upper stratum.”

This kind of language is out of touch. Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich teamed up to “end welfare as we know it.” Most poor Americans work, but they don’t make enough money to get ahead. It’s easy for a billionaire who was born into a wealthy family to tell others to work hard. It’s also dishonest. Our economy does not produce enough jobs that pay enough for people to enter the middle class, much less Trump’s “upper stratum.” Complex problems need thoughtful solutions, not cliches.

Posted: July 28, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that looks beyond the world of jobs and careers.]

A Movie You Should See

Over the past few months, America has again wrestled with questions of race and justice as it debated the case of George Zimmerman and the killing of Trayvon Martin. The movie Fruitvale Station explores a similar situation.  22 year old Oscar Grant was killed by transit police in Oakland on January 1, 2009.  Several people on the train captured the killing with cell phone cameras.  Clearly, whatever Grant’s actions, he did not deserve to die.

Some might argue that Fruitvale Station gives too kind a portrait of Grant who spent time in jail and dealt drugs.  I look at it differently.  While the movies shows him doing those things, it also depicts him as a father, son, lover, and friend, a complex human being, not a cartoon cutout.  In one scene, he helps a stranger in a store who doesn’t know what kind of fish to buy for a fish fry.

This incident might seem trivial, but it is very significant, especially given some of the fall out from the Zimmerman trial.  Some conservatives have dredged up the myth of the dysfunctional black family as a way to buttress arguments in favor of Zimmerman’s “innocence.”  In the film, Oscar calls his grandmother who tells the young woman how to make a fish fry.  Later Oscar’s grandmother makes gumbo as part of a birthday celebration for her daughter, Oscar’s mother.  Four generations share the food as part of a tradition and as an expression of love.  There is nothing dysfunctional about this family.

Similarly Oscar and his girlfriend are portrayed as loving parents who are struggling members of the working class.  Oscar has lost his job because he was late for work too often.  His girlfriend works in the service industry.  At one point, Oscar looks at a calendar and sees the words in red “Rent Due.”  He arranges to sell pot, but then, remember his time in prison, dumps his bag in the ocean.  He’s trying to change his life.

After Oscar gets in a fight on a train, transit police pull him and his friends onto a station platform.  During a tense altercation with several officers, Oscar is shot by a young officer who overreacted.  Several passengers filmed the incident as the police took Oscar’s friends away in handcuffs.

Again, we see family in hospital as surgeons try to save Oscar’s life.  His mother, played by Octavia Spencer, leads prayers and pushes his friends to look beyond their anger.  We see in this scene how much Oscar was loved, how his life had value that goes beyond a college degree or rap sheet.  As almost everyone attending this movie will know before buying a ticket, Oscar dies.  The film ends with scenes from a protest in 2013 that show Oscar’s daughter Tatiana outside Fruitvale Station.  We are left with her loss and pain.

The man Oscar fought on the train was a white ex-con he had also battled in prison.  When the transit cops entered the train, they only took off Oscar and his friends.  Most of the officers, including the one who shot Oscar, were white.  Justice seems more selective than blind.  Similarly, in the Zimmerman case, much was made of how Trayvon Martin dressed, the words his friend used on the stand, and other criminal actions in the area that were attributed to African Americans.  The details of the case are under dispute.  However, this is certain.  Trayvon Martin died at the age of 17, five years younger than Oscar Grant.  Neither young man deserved to die, whatever reason the justice system gave for excusing the men who killed them. (Zimmerman, of course, was found not guilty.  The officer who shot Grant only served 11 months on a two year sentence.)

I strongly recommend Fruitvale Station as a beautifully told tragic story.  We are introduced to a young man and get to see the world through his mind and feel through his heart for 90 minutes. Fruitvale Station is great art because it challenges us to change not just how we think, but also how we feel.  If this country ever rises above its racial conflicts, we will need to engage in this kind of exercise of understanding that takes us beyond simplicity and stereotype, prejudice and fear.

Posted: March 25, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

Travis Waldron of Think Progress has written a thoughtful piece about tax cuts and their false promise of job creation.  States that cut taxes most also had the slowest pace of job growth.  Worse still, several of these states want to give more tax cuts and balance them by raising taxes on low and middle income families.

I’m not an economist, but I do know this:  If consumers have less money to spend, there will be more job cuts.  Austerity and tax cuts do not create jobs.

Posted: December 23, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blogs looks beyond the work world in “Sabbath.”]

Simplicity and Lies

Everyone was shocked a little over a week ago when one man with a gun killed 26 people at a school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.  We can’t understand why anyone would do such a thing, which is logical since such actions betray any definition of reason.  The President and other officials weighed in on the event, and quickly the subject turned to how to prevent such event in the future.  That’s where it gets messy.

From Revolutionary War heroes to Civil War heroes to cowboys to tough guy detectives, America has always told stories of heroes that use guns.  Today’s action movie posters frequently show a well-known star holding a weapon he or she would never touch in real life. We are also a culture of hunters and sports shooters, law-abiding citizens who use guns to pursue happiness.  None of these examples are meant to knock guns or their owners, just to show how pervasive guns our in our cultural.

What can we do about gun violence?  I don’t know.  But I do know what we should do: Stop talking to each other like adults talking to young children.  Last week, the NRA and its allies claimed that armed guards or teachers could have stopped the killer.  There logic is that it takes “good people with guns to stop bad people with guns.”  Such a claim simplifies reality, and it is a lie.  The organization’s real goal is to prevent any kind of restriction on guns sales.  Rather than address that question, it turns to pseudo-moral language that clouds policy issues.

On the day of the shooting I was listening to political talk radio.  A caller said that we shouldn’t have any kind of gun control because the real problem is evil.  That kind of thinking is also a dangerous simplification through a false moral rhetoric.  If we say a problem is rooted in “human nature,” it cannot be changed.  The classic way of framing this claim is “Guns don’t kill people.  “People kill people.”  However, if they are doing the killing with a gun, if they kill more people at one time with guns, it’s nonsensical to dismiss the role of the gun in the murders.  In recent decades both Australia and England changed gun laws after mass killings, and the number of mass killings has greatly decreased in both countries.  My point is not to argue for any type of law.  It’s about language and how we talk to each other about solving a problem.

If we speak to each other in language that simplifies reality, we will never change.  In fact, we will move backward to a time where fear ruled over reason.  Do adults have the right to own any kind of weapon?  If not, what are the restrictions?  Should we have national laws, or should the laws vary from state to state?  This kind of question brings us to a place where we can debate specific actions.  White hat and black hat language is an excuse for inaction.  People who really care about the deaths of the children and teachers in Sandy Hook should honor their memory with honest language about the tragedy and its aftermath.