Thursday, February 28, 2013

Wage-Slavery, Republican Liberty, and Reining in Corporate Power

So I caught Wage-Slavery and Republican Liberty over at Jacobin Magazine and it got me to thinking about wage-slavery and what my coworkers might think of questions of liberty, freedom, and potentials to undermine the feudal nature of the modern workplace.

But as I pondered I thought more about the framing I use when talking to them about what our union is trying to do in the public/political arena--today was our lobby day at the state Capitol after all--which I normally frame as efforts to reign in corporate power. 
Rather than a framing of "reigning in corporate power" that I often use/see talked about within left and progressive circles, I have to wonder something.  Are we not better served with a re-frame of that? Should we not be better served by rebuilding the autonomy and capacities of working people to build and harness collective power to better leverage and counter balance corporate power? Efforts to undermine the wealth disparities that have crippled the economy could come in the form of top-down liberal do-gooder solutions which put a band-aid over the problems.  Obamacare is a great example.  The efforts to expand Mediciad going on right now in Republican states like Georgia.

We can focus on top down reforms and get people to send emails to their Representatives in Congress. Or we can work to empower working people with the tools/tactics they need to organize and agitate for their own interests.  Everyday at work I see working class people who lack the skill sets and background knowledge to meaningfully engage the political realm.  There is a lot of time needed, a lot of conversations and social uplift, a lot of motivation and maybe a few more anti-depressants and drug and alcohol treatment program enrolees.  I look at the fact that the "most powerful union in Georgia" as many of my labor/Democratic friends call UFCW Local 1996--has 96 "likes" on Facebook ; or the small number of followers the Georgia AFL-CIO currently has on twitter speaks to the need to network and build leverage and power within working class ranks.  The capacities for workers to build collective power, to communicate and engage the public and politicians in a new media age are there---the time and commitment it takes to start coalescing that collective power and directing it towards the seats of power as one voice is what is lacking.  There are positive signs all around me--so I'm not trying to knock those currently working to do just those things.  This post is more about a reframe in my own mind/way of talking about things that are going on around me in some circles.

This reframe won't be popular with many if not most of my friends in politics as they are placed within the political infrastructure that does and works along the agenda and priority lines of the first; their paychecks as campaigners, strategists, lobbyists and such place them outside the realm of most of the work that I would argue is most needed--and in many ways are a path towards putting them out of work altogether.  Full-time activists aren't "activists" they are doing a job.

Having run for State Senate, having run campaigns for State House and Senate seats, having worked as a Legislative Aide for two sessions of the Georgia General Assembly I've been more the knee deep in those efforts myself.  I've seen the upclose and personal the potential reforms and changes that can and should be implemented via policy.  So I'm not negating the positive work and efforts going on.  Its just, I don't feel thats the solution.

While I support the efforts of those trying to work through the current institutional mechanisms for a kinder gentler capitalism; I'm not looking to join their ranks any time soon as a paid organizer/operative/politico in some shape or fashion.  I'll keep loading trucks and working to educate and empower my coworkers as a union steward because I really feel that is where the action is.

Real sustainable reform is going to have to happen in the workplaces across this country--or it isn't going to happen at all.  The fact that increasing the minimum wage isn't a political slam dunk--since, if you didn't notice, there is is an army of workers who in theory have the power to bombard DC with emails, phone calls, and letters; who can take to the streets in communities and cities all over this nation gumming up the wheels of commerce and raising a ruckus loud enough that even the most right wing Tea Party Republican in congress fears grandstanding in opposition to their efforts.  But these workers aren't even paying attention--I asked my nephew what his coworkers thought of Obama's State of the Union proposal to which he shrugged and said  "nobody is talking about it," people really don't talk about "stuff like that," he said. "People stick to their own little groups and just hang out on break time talking about things that interest them."  

We are a nation of foodstamp workers and middle class managers;  tuned in to TV, video games, and every other distraction known throughout human history. Blaming one another and fearing our neighbors while the 1% take all of the fruits of our labor and live in opulence    Top down reforms aren't going to fix the fundamental impasse we are now facing---just some good old fashioned organizing.

For the Republic to sustain itself (are we still a Republic?) and head down a sustainable path economically the wage slaves themselves have to be the ones to do the heavy lifting in the political realm.  No amount of reform from on high will change that.

Friday, February 22, 2013

We need a better educated Representatives--why "ethics reform" is a Strawman.

I've always thought that the "ethics reform" bandwagon--especially in state politics--is at best a solution in search of a problem that doesn't exist; at worst, a Trojan horse to undermine democracy/citizens voices.  

Let us not forget that democracy and the ability of citizens to influence lawmakers--without having lawmakers be bought off or manipulated--is the fundamental origin within public discourse that is pushing for "ethics reform" to begin with.

Sitting in the HB 361 hearing on Wednesday I was reminded of a few things.  

First, most of our State Representatives in Georgia don't understand the fundamental political economy of America in the 21st century.  

They are clinging to cliche orthodox "Econ 101" which is based in and on neoclassical economic theory long ago discarded in its fundamentalist form by legitimate economists.  Not only that, but the major challenges facing us do not fit within the frame/narrative/plight of small business owners in small town America of yore and are rather set within a framework of multi-national corporations in a global marketplace--and the massive economic inequality that has been created since the late 70's neoliberal era began.

But not only do we need to be electing people who understand the fundamental political economy questions before us.  We need to be electing State Representative's that have caught up to speed with the economic data/empirical research we have acquired as a society.  We've come a long way in improving our understanding of how markets function, and how human beings function within markets.

So rather than focus on "ethics reform"--since it will likely just end up keeping citizens from being able to go to the Gold Dome without paying a fee.  Maybe we should just start making sure we elect people who understand the major challenges that undermine neoclassical "econ 101" such as Information asymmetry  and Principal–agent problem --both of which were stunningly missing from the arsenal of the Republicans sitting on the HB361 subcommittee hearing I testified at on Wednesday. 

While some people blame ALEC and the Chamber for just buying off these Republicans at the hearing I don't think its quite that simple. The questions and comments from the Representatives during the committee hearing exposed that they literally don't even have the first clue about some really important things the economics profession has learned over the past few decades; not to mention the day to day challenges, struggles, and realities of working class people who make up the majority of the constituents in districts.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Your daily Epictetus

"Look for and come to understand your connections to other people. We properly locate ourselves within the cosmic scheme by recognizing our natural relations to one another and thereby identifying our duties. Our duties naturally emerge from such fundamental relations as our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, our state or nation. Make it your regular habit to consider your roles--parent, child, neighbor, citizen, leader--and the natural duties that arise from them. Once you know who you are and to whom you are linked, you will know what to do." --Epictetus

Monday, February 18, 2013

stuff worth your time...

Organizing in the South | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Special Report: Class Struggle - How charter schools get students they want | Reuters

How to Worry About the Deficit: (1) Don't; (2) Wait a Few Years; (3) Then Worry About Healthcare Costs - Alan S. Blinder - The Atlantic

On the ethics of voting » 3:AM Magazine

Liberty before liberalism & all that » 3:AM Magazine

Health exchanges, with a side of legalese | project millennial

Why the free market fundamentalists think 2013 will be the best year ever | Slavoj Žižek | Comment is free | The Guardian

No, the Euro Crisis Is Not Over. An Interview with Jörg Bibow « Multiplier Effect

What Is a Good Life? by Ronald Dworkin | The New York Review of Books

Exclusive Interview: Meet Alexis Tsipras, the Most Dangerous Man in Europe | Alternet

Judicial conservatives as activist judges

In an obituary to Ronald Dworkin in The Guardian (Ronald Dworkin: a modern-day Mill ) I was struck by one point:

Dworkin was ranged against those who conceive the judge as neutral referee with a rulebook – tasked with mechanically imposing the law. The problem with so-called black-letter law is that there are not enough letters to deal with the complexities that statute must govern.

America's judicial conservatives seek to resolve ambiguities by imagining their way into the constitutional convention of 1787, but in presuming to know what Madison or Hamilton might have thought about stemcell research or internet regulation, they afford as much leeway to their own whims as any activist judge. Dworkin's twist on the argument is that laws are bound up with moral ideas; we can't hope to make sense of 18th-century notions of liberty or cruelly unusual punishments without moral interpretation.

The stipulation that we should look to the original intent of our founders has always seemed rather silly to me personally.  I mean do those who seek original intent of the founders argue that medical Doctors should bleed their patients, or say, apply leeches where appropriate?  While I'll admit fundamental principles resonate throughout human history I'm not sure all aspects of the past should be venerated--in fact some things in our past supported by our Found Fathers should be nothing short of detested and vilified.

But if one is arguing we should seek the original intent of our founders on modern topics that our Founding Fathers couldn't have possibly thought of due to their nonexistence at the time we are actually seeking to provide ourselves with the leeway to create whatever interpretation our heart desires--which in many ways is the epitome of a conservatives definition of those killjoy "activist judges."

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Markets are social institutions--we built those profits together.

The collective nature of markets and their dependency on the state to even exist are vitally important facts to understand when discussing policy questions.  Markets are social institutions that depend, not on individual actors making private decisions, but the collective whole and social investments to sustain and maintain. The true nature of markets and the dependency of state investment for markets to exist are under-appreciated within our current political and economic discourse. 

Especially at local levels of political debate, the "I don't depend on Government" small business narcissists tend to drown out the voices of actual economists when it comes to economic/market regulatory questions.  But markets are not what these self-made men and women [sic] claim they are; and their failure to understand (or maybe have YOU understand) what markets actual are skews the political debate in ways that just so happen to hide their rent-seeking and regulatory capturing ways from everyones view.

Debra Satz has a nice succinct explanation of markets: 

The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines a market as “a meeting or gathering place of people for the purchase and sale of provisions or livestock” and as “the action or business or buying and selling.”6 But markets are not merely meeting places or a series of individual transactions: they are social institutions that must be built up and maintained.7 Initially markets may be thrown up spontaneously, but in the end they are socially sustained; all markets depend for their operation on background property rules and a complex of social, cultural, and legal institutions. For exchanges to constitute the structure of a market many elements have to be in place: property rights need to be defined and protected, rules for making contracts and agreements need to be specified and enforced, information needs to flow smoothly, people need to be induced through internal and external mechanisms to behave in a trustworthy manner, and monopolies need to be curtailed. In all developed market economies governments play a large role in securing these elements. 

For this reason it is mistaken to consider state and market to be opposite terms; the state necessarily shapes and supports the process of market transacting. In Lewis Kornhauser and Robert Mnookin’s memorable phrase, all (market) bargaining occurs in the shadow of the law.8 Transacting individuals depend on the state for their basic security when they walk to the corner store to purchase food for their meals; they expect the state to enforce health and safety requirements concerning food production and handling; and they expect the shop owner to be sanctioned if he fails to keep up his end of the transaction. The fact that laws and institutions underwrite market transactions also means that such transactions are, at least in principle, not private capitalist acts between consenting adults, as the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick famously claimed, but instead a public concern of all citizens whether or not they directly participate in them.

Satz, Debra (2010-06-10). Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale:The Moral Limits of Markets (Oxford Political Philosophy) (Kindle Locations 266-281). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. 

Shop-floor organizing within the AFL-CIO to stop Republicans in Congress.

So I got an email from the AFL-CIO today (technically I got an email from "Rich" Trumka) that reads in part:

We’re getting as many signatures from working families as we can—families who want to make clear our priorities are fixing the economy first and restoring economic security. Please sign the petition today:

So I signed.  But then I paused and wondered if the AFL-CIO is really "getting as many signatures from working families" as they can?  

If so that means the AFL-CIO has sent marching orders down the ranks so that union stewards on the shopfloor are reaching out to members to sign and get their friends and family to sign as well.  Which would be awesome and vitally important if we are going to be successful in stopping Obama from cutting deals with the Republicans.

The Teamsters aren't within the AFL-CIO at the national level so I'm unsure if this is happening or not.  I can say we've used such all hands on deck platitudes in the past when it wasn't actually happening--and I can tell you I have never ever received any marching orders from Change to Win as a union steward. So, to be clear, I'm not pointing fingers at other institutional actors within the movement--I think this is a major problem within the labor movement as a whole.  But I still can't help but wonder if it is happening?

Are there any stewards within the AFL-CIO who can confirm if such shop-floor organizing around this petition is happening?  If it isn't, maybe we all should be asking: why the hell not?  

Protecting Social Security from the likes of Obama and the Republicans has to be priority number one for unions since these people have made it abundantly clear to us through past proposals that cuts to Social Security, Medicaid  and Medicare are palatable to them.

Online petitions are all well and good, but shop-floor organizing is, in the end, the only thing that's going to turn around the dwindling political power of the labor movement. 

So go sign the petition (and if you are a union steward start passing it along to your members at work).