It’s always about the bottom line

Despite record government handouts, ostensibly to keep jobs from leaving the state, Chicago-based Boeing company cares more about profit than labor wellbeing. Its recent decision to jettison staggered work shifts is one more case in point. In a brief memo, the company said:

“This change supports the factory vision of standard work, continuous flow and scheduled job times; and is anticipated to support our competitive advantage in the market.”

There is nothing unusual about Boeing’s behavior. It will seize every opportunity to reduce costs and increase revenues. Avoiding taxes in the form of government subsidies is certainly one way to achieve the former. Exploiting federal programs like the Export-Import Bank helps boost revenues by transferring a portion of the sticker price to taxpayers from foreign businesses and countries seeking to purchase airplanes.

Getting our attention

Much has been written about Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the National Anthem, which is performed before all major sporting events. His action, joined now by dozens of other professional football players, has stirred debate and, of course, considerable controversy, which was his intention, feeling strongly, as he does, about racial injustice, especially as it pertains to perceived unequal treatment of blacks by police officers.

But I would suggest a far more effective way to raise awareness. Since blacks comprise the majority of both basketball and football teams, should they withdraw their labor en masse the NBA and NFL would essentially shut down, putting billions of dollars at risk.

Now that would cause a ruckus.

A cartel and its impoverished workers

No, I will not be talking about some Latin American or Middle Eastern operation. Rather, I’ll be briefly discussing major league baseball, specifically its minor league affiliates.

But first a brief story about my almost-career in our “favorite pastime,” the sport of heroes and, more recently, multimillionaires.

Let’s go back to 1965, the first baseball draft ever. I was a headlines-grabbing pitcher for Mt. Diablo High School, located in Concord, Calif., about 30 miles or so east of San Francisco. The New York Mets took a chance on me, though not too big of one. My name was not called until days after Rick Monday became the first player ever drafted. My number was 660. The scout who recommended I be drafted, Mr. Partee, met with my parents and me in our cozy living room. While I had visions in my head of great fortune, the Mets thought otherwise, offering me a signing bonus of $5,000 and a salary of $500 a month to play baseball in some small West Virginia town I had never heard of. In the end, I opted to accept a scholarship to Cal, figuring that if I did any good in college, the scouts would take another look. A string of injuries and mostly less-than-stellar performances later, I found myself with a degree in history and no prospects for playing professional ball, though I continued to play semi-pro for several years thereafter.

One occasionally looks back at life’s forks in the road. Pace Yogi Berra, you have to choose one; you can’t take both. What if I had signed with the Mets? How would things be different?

Well, disturbing statistics suggest that I’d have lived in poverty for as many seasons as I might have survived in professional ball. Indeed, according to this article in the Washington Post:

More than 80 percent of draft picks will never reach the big leagues, and most live on salaries of less than $10,000 per season; the starting salary for a first-year player, paid only during the regular season, is $1,100 a month.

Some current and ex-minor leaguers are pushing back in a lawsuit against Major League Baseball. Here’s a summary from NBC News:

The class action suit, brought on behalf of minor leaguers for all 30 Major League teams, alleges violations of federal law requiring fair wages and overtime. Filed in February, and twice expanded ahead of a September hearing, Senne vs. MLB portrays minor league baseball players as the game’s exploited underclass. They toil year-round with no overtime, unpaid extra assignments, and no right to switch teams or renegotiate, the lawsuit alleges. In exchange, they get a maximum starting salary of $5,500—a sum far below minimum wage.

“No one is saying that minor leaguers should be getting rich,” says Garrett Broshuis, a minor league baseball player turned attorney who helped build the case. “But if McDonald’s and Wal-Mart can pay a minimum wage, then Major League Baseball can too.”

Remember: Liberty and justice for all.

Yep, it’s the goddam Republicans

Again, I should add. This time, via the Economic Policy Institute, we confirm through actual numbers that Republicans have retarded economic recovery. It’s a familiar theme, unfortunately, and has much to do about two important issues.

First, Republicans, as a rule, really have no interest in improving the lives of the Rest of Us. The party has long been dedicated to the proposition that the rich should get richer and everyone else should suffer. That’s certainly evident in their tax policies, currently promulgated by Paul Ryan and more recently by Donald Trump. With straight face, Republicans want us all to believe that good fortune will trickle down from above if we only let the rich become even wealthier. Facts, as we know, have a well-known liberal bias, and the facts absolutely destroy the argument, such as it is. The following two charts show that as marginal tax rates have fallen (assessed against the highest tax bracket), inequality has risen.

marginal tax rates over time

gini index us since 1947

Second, Republicans have traditionally favored smaller government as an end in itself. They are rarely challenged to explain why smaller governments would be better. It’s simply an article of faith. Part of the great intellectual void amongst conservatives is their ideological antipathy toward the public sector, of which governments are the major factor. In this distorted and ignorant view, free market outcomes are always preferable to collective programs and policies. Wrong.

Keynes argued way back in the 1930s that during recessions, and the Great Depression was the worst, only federal governments can generate economic recovery. He understood that the private sector was hampered by reduced demand for goods and products, a direct consequence of too many people out of work and underpaid. State and local governments were hamstrung by constitutional requirements to balance budgets. When tax revenues fall, government expenditures must also decline. But central governments are not so constrained, making them the only viable avenue for escape. Unfortunately, the size of the spending required in the 1930s and 40s was underestimated. It really took a world war and its necessary expenditures to restore the U.S. economy.

The Great Recession was second only to the Great Depression. Once more, policy makers significantly underestimated the amount of federal spending required to spur economic recovery.

In the linked study above, the authors conclude:

Given the degree of damage inflicted by the Great Recession and the restricted ability of monetary policy to aid recovery, historically expansionary fiscal policy was required to return the U.S. economy to full health. But this government spending not only failed to rise fast enough to spur a rapid recovery, it outright contracted, and this policy choice fully explains why the economy is only partially recovered from the Great Recession a full seven years after its official end.

And who is responsible for this “policy choice”? The damn Republicans, of course. They opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal and fiscal expansion. They opposed Obama’s efforts to enact a stimulus package, forcing the administration to significantly reduce its congressional request.

Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 3.57.11 PM

There is no larger challenge facing America than reducing the number of Republican officeholders. Period.

Surplus males

As I walk the streets of downtown Everett, Wash., I invariably encounter single males standing about or trudging along the sidewalks, often with all their worldly possessions packed into bags or carts. Such a waste, I think. So many men with nothing to do.

The situation is not unique to Everett, of course. In every city the sorry scene I describe is replicated. On occasion the media report that local governments are trying this or that remedy to combat rising homelessness, which affects women as well as men. But the picture does not change; it may be worsening.

Nor is the problem reserved to America. Europe also has its share of idle masses, though on a much lesser scale than here. Moreover, those unable or unwilling to find work have a far more generous social safety net to soften the impacts of chronic unemployment.

Still, the following chart indicates the troubling trend among several nation-states:

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 11.04.33 AM

The figure shows us the percentage of working-age males to participate in the workforce. The green diamond shapes tell us the rate in 1990; the blue columns represent the numbers in 2014.

The United States has the third lowest participation percentage, while Italy appears to have suffered the largest decline over the period. Only Germany has improved their situation.

Some suggest, including Harvard’s Larry Summers, that we are in the midst of a “secular stagnation,” marked by low economic output and persistent un- and underemployment. The capitalist system, which has indeed yielded better lives for millions, has nevertheless failed to provide the basic necessities to millions more. Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the 21st Century, agrees, adding that return on capital investment is and will continue to be greater than GDP growth.

Politics reflects, sooner or later, economic and social conditions. Trump, Brexit, and the rise of far-right parties in Europe may be only the beginning of what may be a wholesale unraveling of the established neoliberal order. Polarization reigns. Unity can only be a distant hope.

Discouraged, am I.


UPDATE: 7/11/2016

I neglected to provide the source for the above graphic. Here ’tis.

Weep for America

Tragedies abound, here in the good old USA. Judging by the concerted inaction among those parading as our representatives to stop the mayhem and bloodshed, we can look forward to more of the same, if not worse.

Indeed, on nearly every issue that matters, from health care and employment security to skewed priorities favoring military spending over basic services like education and guaranteed pensions, America’s elected officials consign us to an ugly, nasty, and brutish existence. Except, of course, for the billionaires, who have fashioned a legislative-economic-and-political system that redounds to their benefit, while the Rest of Us practice a crude, spiteful form of social Darwinism. The many must fend for themselves against increasingly miserable odds.

Much of this was brought into sharp, albeit somewhat ironic relief in the newest film by Michael Moore, Where to Invade Next. I commend the movie to you, but here is the quick takeaway: most European countries have those basic services as a matter of right and culture. The promise of our Constitution’s Preamble is being fulfilled elsewhere. Meanwhile, we Americans have been beaten down, denied necessities, and been forced to worship at the altar of unbridled capitalist greed.

I mentioned culture. The many people interviewed by Moore across Europe embraced their countries’ general welfare policies as common-sense givens, integral to the widespread notion that decent society demands people care for one another. Let’s take a quick look.

Moore spoke with several Italians who benefit from extended vacations, holidays, and generous family-leave programs. Italians, both business owners and their employees, believe that happy, well-rested workers make for improved productivity and company balance sheets. Despite receiving upwards of two months or more of paid time off, Italian productivity is just a shade lower than America’s, said Moore.

In Portugal, drug possession and use has been decriminalized completely. As a consequence, usage has plummeted, in part because the Portuguese spend resources on curing addictions. America’s wars on drugs, in contrast, targeting mostly African-Americans, has stocked our nation’s burgeoning prison system. Moore suggests that America reintroduced slavery via its draconian drug policies. And it was no accident.

Moore took us to a public school in France. The cafeteria, to be exact. There a full-time chef plans and produces three-star meals for children, who sit at round tables to which food is delivered by servers. No greasy pizzas. No cans of soda pop. Nothing that is found in the typical American child’s lunch. All healthy stuff, with plenty of vegetables and fruit, eaten over a leisurely hour or so.

In Slovenia Moore found American students earning degrees from that countries’ universities. And get this, at no cost to themselves. Education is completely free, and there is no such thing as student debt. The benefit is afforded to anyone from anywhere, and a hundred or more classes are taught in English.

Workers comprise half the corporate boards of German companies. Moore visited the Farber pencil company. He interviewed workers and managers alike. They reported that the employee involvement in decisions at all levels yielded a better-functioning workplace. Moreover, employees earned a living wage, supplemented by free health care, of course.

What about education? Moore flew north to Finland. I’ve written often about Finnish lessons. (Just search for the term on this site.) Finland completely reformed its education system, which bans private charter schools, by the way. That system is now the envy of the world. Shocking to Americans bombarded by Race to the Top, and No Child Left Behind, not to mention the excessive impositions of Bill Gates, et al.—Finnish children spend the least amount of time in the classroom of all OECD children. They do no homework, and there are no standardized tests.

Iceland was the first nation to elect a woman to its highest political office. That was in 1980, five years after a nationwide strike by women. Today, political bodies and company boards must have at least 40 percent of their membership female, though no gender can exceed 60 percent. During the 2008 global economic crisis, those Icelandic banks led by men all failed. The one dominated by women survived. Also, and worth noting, the male bankers are now spending time in a remote prison. No prominent U.S. banker was ever prosecuted. One woman CEO interviewed by Moore said that she could never live in America, because America is all about the individual and getting more of everything. There is no sense of caring for others, demanded of a decent society. Amen.

I admit to shedding a tear for what could be here in America. We could have all the services and cultural amenities enjoyed by our European counterparts. Indeed, as Moore emphasized at the end of his film, most of the ideas that have become reality in Europe had their origins in the U.S., including the abolition of the death penalty (Michigan in 1846). The Finnish education transformation is based on the teachings of John Dewey, an American philosopher and educator. The Equal Rights Amendment predated Iceland’s woman’s movement, though its ratification failed by three of the 50 states.

Alas, we’re confronted by a growing fascist spectacle and a citizen-less democracy. You, too, should weep for America.