Today the U.S. Senate voted to give the President “fast-track” authority to pass a new, comprehensive trade agreement with Asia-Pacific countries (better known as the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership/TTP). U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has fought this measure. He notes that similar trade deals have led to a decline of the middle class and wealth inequality in America. TTP could make these problems worse. Sanders notes that American workers will now have to compete with workers in Vietnam, where the minimum wage is 56 cents an hour. Who wins this game? Major corporations and the billionaires who invest in them. Who loses? Look in the mirror.
The TTP has not been approved by either the Senate or the House. What happened today means it will likely pass the Senate. One thing we can count on: Bernie Sanders will keep fighting for working people and the middle class.
Laura Clawson of Daily Kos reports on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s take on the minimum wage. According to the governor, the minimum wage and income inequality are only problems because Democrats keep talking about these subjects. Christie thinks that more “opportunity” is the real solution to what plagues the U.S. He refers to President Obama as a “class warrior.”
In my view, Christie is the one playing politics. He is a leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, and he is now on the trail campaigning for other Republican candidates. The issue of the minimum wage is political, but it is also about people’s lives. It’s a fact that most working people and those in the middle class have fallen further and further behind since 2008. “Opportunity” works well for the investor class and corporate executives. For everyone else, income and benefits have been problems. Not talking about the problem won’t make it go away.
Huffington Post offers an enlightening look at CEO-worker pay ratios at top companies. For example, CVS Caremark pays its CEO 422:1 to the median worker’s salary. While no one denies that leaders of large, successful corporations should be well paid, how can we justify such a difference in the U.S. when similar ratios are not as drastic in Europe and Japan? Take a minute to look at this chart and ask yourself if it’s fair for the top to make so much while those on the bottom struggle.
Aljazeera America has a mind-blowing profile of one of America’s top paid CEOs, Charif Souki of Cheniere Energy. Souki “earned” $142 million in 2013. Not bad for the leader of a company that has never turned a profit. His company is building a natural gas processing facility in Louisiana that is projected to be a big money maker. Investors must agree because the company’s stock has doubled. Aljazeera America points out that the industry is very risky. That doesn’t seem to matter to the people paying Souki or those investing in his company. Profitable companies lay off workers to keep their share price up. Some people win, and some people lose. Charif Souki is a winner, and that says a lot about what’s wrong with the U.S. economy and its politics.
Writing in Huffington Post, Robert Reich explores the power billionaires like the Koch brothers and the Ricketts family, former owners of TD Ameritrade, current owners of a team I root for, the Chicago Cubs. Reich lays out the different ways these super rich families have used their wealth to influence politics. While Reich cites a Democratic billionaire and middle-of-the-road Michael Bloomberg as non-Republican super PAC bosses, most of the action is conservative. And it is anti-worker.
Rather than look at this as a conservative/liberal issue, it would be better to think about the growing influence of neoliberal ideology, which unites people like Democratic Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his former boss, Republican candidate for Governor of Illinois Bruce Rauner. Neoliberals believe that the public sector is always superior to the private. They also hate unions the way Joe McCarthy hated communists. These groups control the money, which means they control the media, which – as McLuhan taught – is the “message.” Most Americans distrust unions because they have heard the same propaganda for over 30 years. It’s gotten so bad that 35% of Americans are against raising the minimum wage. I wonder what percent would agree with reversal of the 13th Amendment?
Paul Ryan claims to care about poor people. During a speech at a conservative conference, he said Democrats support school lunch programs so children can have “full bellies and empty souls.” Disgusting. How can anyone talk about poor children in such a callous way? I understand that Ryan and his fellow conservatives believe that the state should not provide a safety net. While I disagree with that belief, it is not the same thing as claiming that state programs empty our souls. The last time I checked good Pope Francis was teaching Jesus’ message to care for the poor. Ryan must understand the message to be that Jesus wants us to cut food programs for children – in the name of saving their souls.
Paul Krugman discusses this story in a much more intelligent way. I’m too livid to try to be rational about this. Over 20% of the children in America live in poverty. Most of the nutrition they receive comes when they are at school. Save their souls – and transfer the money to billionaires and corporations. That’s true morality.
Writing in Daily Kos, Laura Clawson examines the plight of temporary workers. In many cases, especially if the worker is employed in a factory, a temp job will pay less, be more dangerous, and not be temporary. Temp workers are performing the same tasks as full-time employees with few being on hired to full-time status. Some of these jobs pay as little as $10 per hour. As the U.S. came out of previous recessions, the rise of contract work preceded increased hiring. Now,employer leverage temp workers as a way to hold down labor costs while getting the same level of productivity. Workers have low pay, few benefits, and no security. If this is the way manufacturing will come back to America, it might be better if this type of job stay overseas.
I heard an interesting report on the radio today via CNBC. The good news is that ADP estimates that the U.S. economy added nearly 240,000 in December. Here’s the bad news: Retail sales are down. What I found most interesting was CNBC’s interpretation of this situation: “People have jobs, but not enough money.”
Not enough money. Progressives and liberals have been beating the drum about the economic consequences of inequality for several years. Conservatives still cling to their sacred truths about deficit reduction and tax cuts, neither of which have done much to spur the economy. What about alternatives, such as raising the minimum wage or passing a jobs program or doing more to promote manufacturing in the U.S. The solutions are out there. The rich and their allies have done a great job of concealing them or repackaging them in a way that makes working people vote against their interest. CNBC captured the problem: “Not enough money.”
Normally on Sundays I write about issues outside of the world of careers and work. But today I read a letter in the Chicago Sun-Times that made my blood boil. John Babush of Big Rock, Illinois defended the disparity in pay between CEOs and front line workers, citing the example that McDonald’s CEO makes in an hour what it takes a minimum wage worker three and a half months to make.
Babush’s first point is stunning – stunningly absurd: “How many hours do you think he or she [a minimum wage worker] would last in that job [CEO]?” No one who supports a living wage suggests that front line workers should be paid what their mangers are making much less what a CEO of a Fortune 50 company should be compensated. The question is one of degree. In the 1970s, CEOs in the U.S. earned 30-50:1 to the average employee salary. Now that ratio is often 250-300:1. Mr. Babush says we are asking the wrong question. He needs to go back to school for a little training in logic.
Worse still, Babush writes: “Anybody working a minimum wage job, should they want more income, ought to do whatever necessary to increase their value to their employer. If that doesn’t work, do whatever is necessary to makes oneself a potentially valuable asset to another employer. Keep it up and one day that minimum-wage worker might end up a CEO.” Is it possible to follow this map to success? Sure – for the very lucky few. Most successful people in the U.S. today had parents who were also successful. Fewer and fewer children born into poverty have options to rise from the class into which they were born.
“Do whatever is necessary”? Nice advice. It fits well in the myth of American Exceptionalism which conservatives like to push as a rationalization for the wealth distribution they claim to hate. Since the 1980s, middle class and working class people have seen their earnings fall, especially for those without a college degree. In the same period, the most wealth Americans have seen their incomes go up and up. Babush’s model of working hard sounds great, but is it possible in an economy where most of the new jobs pay $15 or less? Is it possible in a culture where greed drives the richest Americans to find new ways to avoid paying taxes that fund what we share in common as a society? Is it possible in a country where politicians of both parties, following neoliberal economic policies, ignore the needs of the middle class, working class, and the poor.
John Babush’s ideas have the strength of simplicity: Work hard and you will succeed. Push that balloon just a little bit, and it bursts. At first, I didn’t know why the Sun-Times published this letters, but the more I think about it, I’m glad it did. This letter gives us a chance to think about so many hard working people – now two generations since Ronald Reagan was president – have worked so hard and “done whatever it takes” to go nowhere or just tread water. We need to take a hard look at the American Dream. Is there still “equal opportunity”?
[On Sundays, this blog looks beyond jobs and careers in “Sabbath.”]
The Man Inside the Hero
I just finished rereading David Herbert Donald’s biography of Abraham Lincoln. I read the book some years ago and found it even more impressive on a second reading. Donald states early in the book that his goal was to follow Lincoln’s voice and words, which he does to a great degree. Every historian has to select examples and design a narrative. Donald’s Lincoln is a struggling human, not a superman. He wrestles with political as well as moral questions. Most importantly, for most of his presidency, his peers see him as indecisive and a failure.
Many of Lincoln’s critics did not understand how his mind worked. They were serious people who thought they had all the answers. Lincoln was humble and often tortured by self-doubt. At the same time, he was a leader who knew when to make a decision and take responsibility for his action. Donald depicts Lincoln as often being too involved in decisions related to military strategy. Frustrated by his generals’ lack of success or aggressiveness, Lincoln would devise his own battle plans. That all changed when he named U.S. Grant to lead the Union Army. Lincoln put his faith in Grant, and, despite early setbacks in 1864, his final choice of generals proved to be wise.
As a politician, Lincoln had to balance a Republican Party that was divided on the question of Emancipation. Many in the party agreed with Northern Democrats who want peace with the South even if it meant leaving slavery in place. Lincoln himself wavered on this question. He sought various compromises that included compensating former slave holders and colonizing the former slaves. In the end, influenced by anti-slavery advocates like Frederick Douglass and inspired by the sacrifice of African American soldiers, Lincoln became a strident champion to end slavery. Again, he adapted with the conditions of his time.
Lincoln’s genius was not so much his intellect or even his words as it was his lack of ego. Where other leaders could only see one path, Lincoln kept an open mind and accepted the fact that he could be wrong. When reporters pressed him to explain his policy, he answered, “My policy is to have no policy.” Throughout the war, Lincoln changed his mind and tried different approaches. Some, such as suspension of habeas corpus and shutting down opposition newspapers, were condemned as dictatorial. However, as Donald outlines in his biography, Lincoln faced such opposition that he had to bend the law to save the Union. Long before William James or John Dewey, Lincoln was a pragmatist who judged actions on results rather than ideals.
History never repeats itself. It is useless to speculate about how Lincoln would address contemporary issues, such as health care, civil liberties, or political division. The one lesson I think we can take from his life and political career is the need to balance principled belief with an openness to change. Maintaining the Union was Lincoln's primary mission as President. That never changed. How he achieved that end in the face of so many challenges was the magic.
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