March 2015 Archives

Bobby Jindal, Meet Pope Francis

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       By all accounts, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is an extremely well-educated person who was once considered to be an up-and-coming star of the Republican Party.


        Before he became involved in politics, Jindal received a Bachelor of Science in biology and public policy from Brown University thereafter earned a Master of Letters in political science from New College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar.  In 1996, Governor Murphy Foster appointed Jindal Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, and in 1999, he was appointed President of the University of Louisiana System. In 2001, Jindal was appointed as the principal adviser to Tommy Thompson, the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services by President George W. Bush.



        In 2004, Mr. Jindal was elected as to the United States House of Representatives, reelected in 2006 and in 2007, he became the very first Indian-American to ever be elected as a governor.


       It's been all downhill since. In February of 2014, Jindal accused President Obama of appeasement and poor stewardship of the economy.  "What I worry about is that this president and the White House seem to be waving the white flag of surrender after five years under this administration," Jindal announced to reporters. "The Obama economy is now the minimum wage economy. I think we can do better than that. I think America can do better than that."


        More recently, New York Times columnist Charles Blow reminded readers that, in January of this year, Jindal repeated a preposterous claim that parts of Europe were "no-go" zones because of Muslim extremists and recalled British Prime Minister David Cameron reply to that claim: "When I heard this, frankly, I choked on my porridge and I thought it must be April Fools' Day. This guy is clearly a complete idiot."


       Blow also noted that on March 19th of this year Jindal appeared on Fox News to defend his statement that America "shouldn't tolerate those who want to come and try to impose some variant, or some version, of Shariah law." Jindal added that, "In America we want people who want to be Americans. We want people who want to come here. We don't say, 'You have to adopt our creed, or any particular creed,' but we do say, 'If you come here, you need to believe in American exceptionalism.'"        


       In a letter to the editor, Jindal took umbrage at Blow's comments and at recent New York Times' editorial that criticized him and other GOP governors for their failures as chief executives of their states. With regard to Jindal, the editors observed, "Mr. Jindal is blithely dealing with a looming budget gap by proposing draconian cuts of $1.2 billion. Even Louisiana Republicans were decrying a 40 percent cut for the state university until Mr. Jindal on Friday reduced that to a 6 percent cut by adjusting certain tax break programs to increase revenues. Mr. Jindal, in a recent interview with Politico, said he was proud that he had slashed the budget by a quarter and the state work force by almost a third. Mr. Walker seems no less proud of the way his new budget

avoids tax increases by relying on borrowing and spending cuts, particularly for state universities."          


        Jindal's reply tends to confirm Blow's conclusion that, "The smart-on-paper Jindal increasingly comes across as nuttier than a piece of praline." Jindal first raised the usual right-wing canard about the alleged ideological bias of the newspaper and its reporters: " Mr. Blow's column and your editorial critical of my record as governor provide good examples of how liberals at The New York Times and I have a different opinion on how to measure successful governance and what it looks like in practice."


       Jindal continued, "When I campaigned for governor seven years ago, I promised to make the government smaller and the economy larger. That's exactly what I have done. We cut taxes and reduced the size of government. In fact, the government is smaller by more than $9 billion and 30,000 workers. This fiscal responsibility resulted in eight straight upgrades by the major credit agencies. And what did lower taxes do for our economy? They spurred growth. Louisiana now has higher incomes, a larger gross domestic product, more exports, more jobs and more people than we've ever had in the history of our state. That's a record of which I am proud. I measure success not in the prosperity of government, but in the prosperity of citizens."


       Left unexplained by Jindal was how cutting $9 billion dollars in public spending improved the quality of life and public service for the average citizen of his state, nor did he explain how eliminating 30,000 public jobs reduced the overall unemployment rate in Louisiana.


       Jindal presides over a state that is, by almost all measures, a rural, third-world, low-wage state. The economy of  Louisiana, aside from tourism, some ship building and commercial fishing, is still largely dominated by oil, gas and extractive mining interests  - i.e. the production of minerals, oil and natural gas, sulfur, lime, salt, lignite; petroleum refining; chemical and petrochemical manufacturing - and agriculture. 


        According the U.S. Census Bureau data, Louisiana has fewer high school graduates than almost all other states in the union, and the number of adults who have earned a bachelor's degree or better is well below the national average, as is the number of residents who have ever served in the Armed Forces of the United States. In addition, between 2008-and 2012, Louisiana's median household income lagged almost $10,000 below the national median while the number of persons living in poverty between 2008-2012 - 18.7% or almost one fifth of the states' population - was the second largest recorded number among the 50 states.


       A Gallup study reported in USA Today, February 27, 2014, descried Louisiana as the "tenth most miserable state" in the union based upon its misery index. The report summarized its findings: "Louisiana residents suffered from limited access to basic needs. Last year, nearly 9% of those surveyed in the state noted they did not have easy access to clean and safe drinking water, while nearly 12% of residents lacked easy access to medicine, both among the worst rates in the nation. Just 61.4% of respondents felt safe walking home alone at night, the lowest rate in the U.S., and significantly lower than the national rate of more than 70% who felt safe in the same circumstances. Louisiana also ranked among the lowest in healthy behaviors because of its residents' high smoking rate and limited healthy eating. As of 2010, there were 229.4 deaths due to heart disease per 100,000 people in the state, fourth-highest nationally. That same year, life expectancy at birth in the state was just 75.7 years, one of the worst figures in the nation."


       Although Jindal claims to be a conservative, to the contrary he is, in fact, an exemplar of a virulent and discredited strain of 19th century classical liberalism that still insists, all evidence to the contrary, that a competitive marketplace with minimal government regulation somehow promotes economic growth and protects personal freedom.


       Jindal is unable to reconcile this professed belief with his unwavering support for Louisiana's "right-to-work" laws. Those laws - which epitomize government inference in the most basic unit of economic organization - the work place - impair the ability of employees to organize unions and to bargain freely and collectively with management over wages and working conditions. Those laws also make it virtually impossible for agricultural workers - who are often among the most vulnerable and exploited - to ever be able to improve their standard of living through mutual, collective action.


       Gov. Bobby Jindal is also unable to explain how, given his rejection of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Health Care Act, the "free-for-profit - market" is a more efficient way and effective to improve access to health care, when U.S. Census Bureau data showed that in 2011, 886,000 residents -or roughly 20% of the population of Louisiana-  were uninsured.


       Jindal's defense of minimalism and unfettered capital is is utterly alien to the authentic conservative political tradition that traces its lineage from the Greeks and Romans  through Thomas Aquinas to contemporary Catholic thinkers.  In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium ("Joy of the Gospel"), Pope Francis restated the historic essence of Catholic social philosophy as he called upon people of good will everywhere, believers  and non-believers alike, to work for a better, more just world.


       In unequivocal terms, the pope condemned the free market ideology that has become the conventional wisdom in today's GOP: "Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape."


       The pope lamented that, "Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a 'disposable' culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society's underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised - they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the 'exploited' but the outcast, the 'leftovers.'"


        Pope Francis concluded that the status quo is no longer acceptable because it is incompatible with human dignity. Passionate defenders of the status quo who are enamored of conventional wisdom - such as Governor Jindal - counter that the pope's call social justice is far too radical and that our economic needs are best served when decisions about the resources of the public are made in private, behind closed doors. 


        One would not expect Governor Jindal to agree with Pope Francis, nor would he understand the import of Anatole France's observation that "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." But perhaps he might heed the advice of one sage, Neapolitan political thinker whose writings Jindal possibly read at Oxford - Niccolò Machiavelli: "He who blinded by ambition, raises himself to a position whence he cannot mount higher, must fall with the greatest loss."



A Death Spiral for the Middle Class

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       This past Monday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Monday signed into law a measure that prohibits requiring a worker to pay union dues, striking another blow against organized labor four years after the state effectively ended collective bargaining for public-sector employees.


            As The New York Times reported the new law, effective immediately, made Wisconsin the 25th right-to-work state and the first to do it since Michigan and Indiana in 2012. Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee, claimed the action now puts pressure on other Midwest states to follow suit.  "Every worker deserves freedom of choice when it comes to union membership and dues payment, and if states like Michigan and Wisconsin can pass Right to Work then Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Ohio can too," Mix stated.


            Mix's professed concern for the freedom of workers is little less than disingenuous propaganda since the economic evidence and historical record show that "right-to-work laws" have significantly weakened unions, and that the decline of a viable labor movement is  inextricably linked to rising economic inequality among Americans. As employers inevitably engage in a collective "race to the bottom" the ability of employees to negotiate and demand higher wages and better conditions for work declines. 


              The labor history of the United States in the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth century was often violent and bloody. Most state courts treated labor unions and strikes as illegal conspiracies in restraint of trade and labor organizers and striking union members were regularly arrested, imprisoned and often shot by Pinkerton detectives, private militias raised by employers, and National Guard soldiers who were mustered into service by business-friendly governors in many states.


              Ever so slowly, the tide began to turn. In the 1930s, as the effects of the Great Depression became pronounced, industrial unionism, organized under the auspices of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), emerged. With the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, the right of all workers "to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing" was pronounced for the first time to be national public policy. Other New Deal legislation included the Walsh-Healey Government Contracts Act, which required the payment of prevailing wages on government contracts in excess of $10,000; the Railroad Retirement Act; and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which provided for the first time, with certain exceptions, a nationwide minimum wage floor and maximum workweek of 40 hours per week within three years of its enactment date.


            Courageous individuals such a Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, Eugene Debbs, John L. Lewis, and Walter and Victor Reuther, among thousands of others, struggled to secure social and economic justice for American workers. Organized labor brought to America the right to grieve mistreatment in the workplace, "just cause" termination standards, the eight hour day, weekends off, overtime and rest break regulations, workers' compensation, unemployment insurance and pensions. 


            Sadly, however, since the 1940s, the American labor movement has been forced into retreat. After the death of Franklin Roosevelt and the election of a Republican Congress in 1946, right-wing liberalism and laissez-faire economics one again became resurgent. The first great success of New Deal critics was achieved with the enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which was passed over President Truman's veto. The effect of this legislation was to outlaw "closed shops" and to permit individual states to allow "open shops"--i.e. shops in which elected unions could not require all of the employees to belong to the unions, irrespective of whether the non-union employees also received and enjoyed the benefits of collective bargaining.


            As a result of that legislation, corporations began an inevitable migration to the South where welcoming state legislatures hastily enacted "right-to-work" laws. The migration of these manufacturing companies away from the unionized urban centers of the Midwest and North left hundreds of mill towns impoverished and desolate, and the union movement, over time, has been effectively eviscerated.

            By 2010, according to the U.S Department of Labor,  only 12.3 per cent of employed wage and salary workers were union members. Not surprisingly, many of the same non-union employees did not seem to understand that their ability to influence working conditions and wages, as solitary individuals who lacked comparable bargaining power with managers and owners of business, was virtually nil. Apparently, however, the myth of the autonomous, self-made individual who can receive recognition, remuneration and advancement solely by dint of one's own hard work continues to resonate in the workplace to the present, notwithstanding all of the evidence to the contrary.

            Even among the few unionized workers still employed in manufacturing, downward economic pressures have forced many unions to acquiesce to a two-tier pay system imposed by management: younger workers now make substantially less per hour than more senior employees who perform the same work. The effect of this two-tier system denies younger workers upward mobility and divides workers based solely upon dates of hire: "The changing job market is undercutting entry-level wages for those who do not go to college. In the 1960s and 1970s, you saw high school graduates getting good jobs at Ford and AT&T, jobs that in inflation-adjusted terms were paying $20 or $25 in today's wages," said Sheldon Danziger, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. "Nowadays most kids with just high school degrees will work in service-sector jobs for $10 or less..."


            Perhaps as worrisome are the long-term trends which suggest that, absent substantive structural reform, unemployment will remain even more intractable long after the economic meltdown that began in 2008.  Between 1975 and 2005, entry-level wages for male high school graduates who did not graduate from college declined 19 percent after adjustment for inflation while the incomes of their female counterparts fell 9 percent. Lastly, men who were in their thirties in 2004 are reported to have had a median income of 12 percent less, after adjusting for inflation, than did their fathers' generation when the latter were in their thirties.


            Robert H. Frank, a  Cornell University economist reported in a New York Times op ed column in 2010 that during the decades after World War II, incomes in the United States rose rapidly and at about the same rate - approximately 3 percent a year - for employees at all income levels. As a consequence, America had an economically dynamic middle class; its roads and bridges were well maintained; and Americans as a whole were optimistic as investments in infrastructure and public goods increased. In that era of relative economic equality, Frank noted, that public support for infrastructure - paid for by taxes - enjoyed wide support.


            By contrast, Frank notes that, from 1980 to 2010, as the economy has grown much more slowly, America's infrastructure has fallen into grave disrepair. Simultaneously, all significant income growth has been concentrated at the top of the scale with the largest share of total income going to that top 1 percent of earners.


            Harold Meyerson has described the correlation between union membership and economic equality in article in the American Prospect in 2012. He observed that "From 1947 through 1972, productivity in the United States rose by 102 percent, and median household income rose by an identical 102 percent. In recent decades, as economists Robert Gordon and Ian Dew-Becker have shown, all productivity gains have accrued to the wealthiest 10%. In 1955, near the apogee of union strength, the wealthiest 10 percent received 33 percent of the nation's income. In 2007, they received 50 percent."   


            Colin Gordon, a Professor of History at the University of Iowa, has argued that "One hallmark of the first 30 years after World War II was the "countervailing power" of labor unions (not just at the bargaining table but in local, state, and national politics) and their ability to raise wages and working standards for members and non-members alike. There were stark limits to union power--which was concentrated in some sectors of the economy and in some regions of the country--but the basic logic of the postwar accord was clear: Into the early 1970s, both median compensation and labor productivity roughly doubled. Labor unions both sustained prosperity, and ensured that it was shared."


            As the labor movement declines, the American workplace will increasingly be governed, once again, by the nineteenth century doctrine of employment-at-will, a legal fiction  created by state courts in the United States during this country's First Gilded Age and one that that embodies an ideological worldview informed by Social Darwinism. That legal fiction - which posits some kind of equality of bargaining power between individual workers and employers - further circumscribes the ability of most Americans to protect their livelihoods or to improve their conditions of work.


            The mythology behind "right-to-work" laws and companion efforts have largely succeeded in gutting this country's labor laws but they have produced have produced results quite different from the economic theory their proponents endorse. As Isaiah Berlin sagely noted, "Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep." In a world of unrestrained competition, only the few, the wealthier, the more powerful, the more resourceful, the better educated, the more mobile, will be able to maximize their opportunities; everyone else gets left behind or becomes "road kill."