Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Labor Day 2011

Since it's Labor Day, it's a good time to revisit some labor history, both from the last century (the Great Depression and the New Deal) and more recent times (the battle in Wisconsin and other states, and the lackluster discussion of jobs in Washington). Here's a roundup of sorts.

A new book is out on labor icon Joe Hill. New evidence strongly suggests that he was innocent of the murder charges brought against him and was unjustly executed.

PBS' American Experience has a series of episodes on the 1930s, including an excellent one on The Civilian Conservation Corps you can watch online. I wish the New Deal was better remembered, understood, and emulated.

Mike Lux, who occasionally blogs at Crooks and Liars these days, wrote a book published in 2009 titled The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be.

Over at Hullabaloo, Dennis Hartley has put together a list of the Top Ten Labor Films. It's a good list, with further discussion in the comments. I'm particularly fond of John Sayles' Matewan, and Barbara Kopple's Oscar-winning docs, Harlan County U.S.A. and American Dream. (There are a few mentioned in the list and in comments I still need to see.)

Jill has posted labor songs at Brilliant at Breakfast, and links a list of Ten things you can thank labor unions for:

1. The creation of the middle class in America

2. Employer sponsored health insurance

3. Your pension

4. Forty hour work weeks

5. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

6. Paid sick leave

7. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

8. Workers’ Compensation

9. Vacation leave

10. Child labor laws

At Balloon Juice, DougJ has set up a Labor Day Music Thread. Also at BJ, Anne Laurie quotes Harold Meyerson's " The fallacy of post-industrial prosperity," E.J. Dionne's "The Last Labor Day?" and an old line attributed to robber baron Jay Gould: "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half."

Kevin Drum offers "My Jobs Plan: A Trillion Dollars For Infrastructure" (H/T Ursus.)

To the Point's show today was "Labor Day, Unemployment and Obama's Jobs Plan."

It bears taking a closer look at the New Deal and similar policies, and their misguided or disingenuous critics. Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March 1933, and his policies proved far more effective at combating the Great Depression than those of his predecessor, Herbert Hoover. FDR's New Deal was extremely successful at reducing unemployment, most notably by creating infrastructure projects, which in turn stimulated economic growth. FDR wasn't perfect, and his biggest mistake economically was probably bowing to pressure about deficits and cutting back on the New Deal in 1937. There are quite a few articles about this, but David Woolner's piece "The history lesson Obama has ignored" is a good summary. (Salon covers labor and economic issues pretty well.) Roughly speaking, the New Deal was extremely helpful but insufficient (FDR resisted going further); full recovery wasn't achieved until higher WWII spending kicked in. Paul Krugman has explained these dynamics countless times, and that non-military spending can accomplish the same thing. Christina Romer and Krugman recently explained this once again.

Despite – and because – of the success of these policies, there are people who oppose them, for ideological and/or political reasons. Gene Lyons explained the Republican Party's political angle well in his June piece, "How to sabotage a recovery":

Balance the budget during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression? Should Obama repeat Franklin D. Roosevelt's bad mistake of 1937, when "budget hawks" prevailed, very nearly stifling the New Deal?

That's certainly what the GOP wants. Whether leading Republicans actually believe that returning to the economic practices of the 1920s would be good for the nation is hard to say. Some may be pretending.

The House's freshman contingent appears sincerely misguided. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asks sarcastically if what Tea Partyers want is a low-tax, limited government haven of conservative religious values like ... Pakistan.

Not really. What most have in mind is something more like the Deep South of the 1950s -- an imagined paradise with comfortable "aristocrats," a timid middle class, and beaten-down peasants at each other's throats.

Pretty much, although this ideal isn't always conscious, and certainly isn't sold honestly to the American people as a whole - it's just understood by conservatives as "the way things should be."

Conservative think tanks have long attacked the New Deal and similar programs, and hackery on the subject can pay well. Historian Eric Rauschway, who's written quite a bit on the Great Depression and the New Deal, has often debunked the false claims of New Deal foes, particularly Amity Shlaes. Basically, Shlaes and other conservatives pretend that government jobs don't count as jobs, which would come as a shock to the many families and communities who have prospered because of them. In this 2007 piece, Rauschway critiques Shlaes and Grover Norquist. He followed this up in 2008 with a series of posts, "(Very) short reading list: unemployment in the 1930s," "Stop lying about Roosevelt’s record," and "When is it lying?" (Megan McArdle shows up in this series, and you'll be shocked to learn she attacked the New Deal and was wrong yet again.) Brad Delong and Rauschway have also fact-checked Lee Ohanian, who bizarrely claims that "Herbert Hoover's pro-labor stance helped cause the Great Depression."

Returning to the present day, Steve Benen recently wrote a good series of posts political opposition to successful economic policies. "'Republicans are Listening'? To Whom?" points out that Republicans are trying to slash regulations yet again, even though business owners are not seeking this and some welcome new regulations. In "A recipe for failure," Benen examines our screwed-up political landscape, and how Republican obstructionism (or sabotage) helps them:

Arguably one of the most dramatic Democratic dilemmas of 2011 and 2012 is overcoming the realization that Republicans are getting their way on economic policy and then denying any responsibility for the results. Indeed, it’s a rather extraordinary con: GOP officials see much of their agenda implemented, then see it fail, and then blame Obama when their policies don’t work.

Under ideal circumstances, the president would come up with an economic plan and execute it. If the agenda succeeded, he’d get the credit. If it faltered, Republicans would call him on it. Voters could evaluate the results and decide whether to keep the president around or go back to GOP economic policies.

Yeah, a functioning republic would be nice, huh? Benen looks at some Jared Bernstein charts in "What works?":

Put away the spin, the polls, the talking points, and the ideological axes to grind, and we’re left with a pretty simple truth: things were getting worse, then the stimulus started, then they got better. This isn’t even controversial; it’s as plain as day.

Bernstein added, “I know — this ain’t about the evidence. But I will never accept that condition and neither should anyone else. That’s the way societies decline and I’d kind of like to avoid that.”

Agreed. If, as [David] Leonhardt put it, the only meaningful question is, “What works?” then the answer matters for those who care about the consequences — and everyone should care about the consequences.

Now, under the Republican worldview, the results highlighted in Bernstein’s charts should be impossible. Democrats spent a lot of money, imposed their preferred regulations, prevented public-sector layoffs at the state and local level, and added a lot of money to the federal budget deficit.

And yet, almost immediately, the economy grew and the job market got significantly better.

I imagine some conservatives will look at this and say, “Well, yeah, but it didn’t last and now we’re slipping backwards.” That’s true, but it only reinforces the left’s argument — the stimulus made things better, but as the funding faded, so too did the economy. Common sense, again, should tell us do more of what worked, and in this case, fairly aggressive public investments expanded the economy and created jobs.

Ergo, if we now want to expand the economy and create jobs, we know what to do because we already know what works.

It’s not theoretical or some abstract idea — we know what we tried and saw what made a difference. Likewise, here we are in 2011 trying conservative austerity ideas, and we see that they’re not working.

So here’s a radical idea: why not go with the most effective policies again?

Alas, basic competence and practicality are viewed as radical by conservatives. It's not that the New Deal or the more modest 2009 stimulus didn't or don't work; it's just that conservatives don't support them, for ideological and political reasons. Sadly, the Republican Party as a whole has no interest in responsible governance, and this has been the case for some time now. Some conservatives actively seek to destroy a functioning government, through starve-the-beast and other measures. It's important to remember that for conservatives, the evidence often just doesn't matter, and the "epistemic closure" and the right-wing echo chamber of falsehoods are features, not bugs. Conservatives didn't read Amity Shlaes' work and become convinced she was right – and then somehow surprisingly miss all the fact-checking that debunked her false claims about the New Deal and the efficacy of jobs programs. Shlaes simply told conservatives what they wanted to hear, and what some of them actually believe (perhaps winning some converts along the way). She didn't offer them greater knowledge or understanding of the New Deal; she offered them lies as ammunition for their preferred policies.

Overwhelmingly, movement conservatives just don't care about the people Lance Mannion described in his 2009 piece, "The Invisibles":

I'm getting used to the fact that in the minds of Republicans, working people whose paychecks come from the local, state, or federal government don't exist. Their jobs don't count as jobs and the money they earn and spend on food, clothing, rent or a mortgage, and to pay taxes doesn't work its way into the economy as a whole but vanishes into the ether, its existence proved only by red ink in the budgets and higher taxes Republicans have to pay.

This is how Right Wing agitprop minister and pseudo-historian Amity Shlaes is able to argue that the New Deal didn't reduced unemployment. She counts government workers as unemployed---until 1942; government workers who wear uniforms and carry rifles belong to a special category of government workers who somehow don't count as government workers.

This is how the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, is able to claim that the government never created a job, despite the paychecks he has collected from government and despite the fact his job is to help lots of Republicans get government jobs.

This is how Senator John Ensign can blithely suggest that his home state of Nevada can cut services without the workers who provide those services losing their jobs. Those workers don't exist to him as people. They're just bloat.

And it's not only people whose checks are signed by a government employee who are invisible. People whose companies depend on the contracts they have with the government, people who build and repair roads and schools and dams and canals and levees and ports, people who sell things for money from cashed government paychecks, and fix roofs and serve meals and wash cars and deliver flowers and pick up trash for money from cashed government paychecks---they're all invisible too.

Exactly, and it's crucial that everybody doesn't play along and buy into this irresponsible and cruel mindset. NPR is running a story called "Bumps on the Road Back to Work" today. It's part of an ongoing series on unemployment, and does a good job of showing the lives of some of those "invisibles." To combat all the bad economic policies, plutocracy and callousness out there, it's important to remind people of history, to point out the facts on effective policies, and to direct attention to the very, real present-day struggles of many Americans. Things don't have to be this way. (Plus, don't forget the arts.)

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