Unemployed men queued outside a depression soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone
This short piece has nothing to do with workers’ compensation. It does have much to do with US workers. In the recent State of the Union speech, and its accompanying hoopla, President Obama and the Republican “counterpoint” presenters predictably extolled the underlying greatness of the good ol’ USA, essentially ignoring the primary rot to our nation that has occurred during my adult lifetime.
Few in our national power structure – – either on the left or right – – want to acknowledge the devastating impact of income and asset inequality on our core social, economic, and political values. Occasional bursts of activity here and there to raise minimum wages to realistic levels chip around the edges of the problem. But until there is the political will to rebuild our decaying infrastructure, rethink our hemorrhaging defense budget, and massively transform our taxation scheme in this country, the future is not a rosy one.
Some factoids underscoring the problem were recently outlined in Rolling Stone magazine:
The amount of new income generated since 2009 going to the top 1%: 95%
Financial wealth controlled by the bottom 60% of all Americans: 2.3%
Record combined wealth of the top 400 richest Americans: $2 trillion
Real decline in median middle-class incomes since 1999: $5000
Federal minimum wage: $7.25
What the minimum wage would be if it kept pace with worker productivity since 1968: $21.72
Number of US workers earning at or below minimum wage: 3.6 million
Taxpayer subsidies to the fast–food industry to pay benefits to fast-food workers earning poverty wages: $7 Billion
US defense spending in 2012: $682 billion; amount spent by China, our nearest plausible military rival: $166 billion
Federal deficit in 2013: $680 billion
Official unemployment rate: 6.7%
Unemployment rate which includes Americans who have given up looking or only have part-time employment: 13.1%
That there are at least some stirrings of recognition here and there of the corrosive effect of these conditions on our way of life is a somewhat hopeful sign. However, don’t count on the national media – – owned by six or seven behemoth corporations – – to elevate this conversation above the whispers and murmurs below. This issue usually only gets its attention, as recently occurred, when some clown–like multibillionaire capitalist equates complaints about the ultra-rich to the attacks on Jews in Nazi Germany. And every so often a former corporate “insider” or CEO will blow the whistle on his cronies, such as acknowledging that since 1950 the ratio of CEO to employee pay increased by 1000% and that these execs sit on the governing boards of companies dramatically underperforming against the market while they draw millions for the “value” of their “expertise.” But, it will take a sea-change in the political representation of the economic underclass – – that is, of about 90 to 95% of the population – – before anything happens.
But we’re the greatest, aren’t we?! A Canadian journalist recently authored a book entitled Merger of the Century in which she proffered the merger of Canada with the United States as the solution to both countries’ problems. This thesis prompted another well-known Canadian columnist and author to react and observe some reasons not to take this course:
“Over the past decade, the US has debased its currency and destabilized the world financial system, thanks to venal and incompetent Wall Street tycoons. Its foreign-policy has lost its way into costly wars that have made the world less safe, not more. American education and health care are both outrageously expensive and deliver relatively poor outcomes while its once–admired justice system has become a conveyor belt into the bloated and corrupt prison system. Absorbing Canada would be great for the US – – it would gain an immense source of natural resources and an infusion of some 34 million educated and law-abiding citizens. But Canada is by every measure a better–governed country than the US. So why would Canadians want to take such a great leap backward?”
So, will the general public of this country actually find the willpower to insist we do what is needed to make the USA the truly exceptional place it was 50 years ago? Or are we just going to sit around mouthing the words and beating our chests about past glories?
I recall only a sense of numbness during the long walk back to the main campus in New Haven, Connecticut from an outlying athletic field where the Yale-Harvard freshman football game had been going on that Friday. It had been eerily quiet in the stands for 30 minutes or so before the final announcement, with small transistor radios pressed to the heads of many as events unfolded in Dallas. Then, but for a random police siren with no apparent purpose, there was mostly silence as people walked slowly away.
1963 was a dramatically different time in the perception of the general public about what government could, or should, do. I had gone to Yale imbued with the dynamic challenge of the inaugural speech in January of 1961 – “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” I envisioned a potential State Department career, so I loaded up with Russian language, political science, and Russian and Eastern European history in my freshman year. It was a real and palpable sense of mission experienced by many of us in that period that I’ve never quite seen again among similar age groups in the aftermath of presidential elections, even Barack Obama’s.
I hope that in the not distant future a large cohort of 17 and 18 year-olds will get to experience the same exhilarating inspiration and sense of purpose about the governance of our country that I felt for too brief a time over fifty years ago.
In hindsight, and with all we now know about John Kennedy’s presidency behind the scenes, it’s perhaps easy to deride the level of enthusiasm and inspiration for change and service to country that a huge number of 17 and 18 year-olds had at the time. But for me, and I think many, November 22, 1963 was – stealing from Don McLean’s American Pie – the “day the political music died.” With the loss of what the Kennedy “magic” had inspired, I lost the drive sometime later in my freshman year, and wandered off into an American history major, and then to law school with no particular purpose in mind. I’ve been a political junkie since I was 11, and while still engaged in politics for fifty years following JFK’s death, it’s never felt the same.
Surfing the internet, you can find quite a number of so-called “alternative histories” – books and articles by historians and political analysts playing out what might have been the course of American history if Kennedy had not been assassinated. Most of these focus on what would have happened with Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the rise of the counterculture, etc., with differing conclusions. I have a longer view about how JFK’s death, in my view, likely affected the next generations right up to the current era. Some of those who have speculated about the future, had President Kennedy not died, haven’t even lived through the entire period, as I have. Since I’m pretty well-read on Vietnam and our history from the mid-60’s through the 70’s, I’ll take my shot.
Many think that because Kennedy was, nominally, a “hawk” in the early period of our Vietnam intervention, he would have continued to engage our country in that misadventure — that we would have experienced involvement on a scale not much different than what occurred under President Johnson, since the same so-called “best and the brightest” of the Kennedy administration would still have been forming policy. I conclude differently. One core belief of Kennedy’s was that American troops would not be fighting on the ground, contrary to the sabre rattling plans of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. JFK’s people had essentially faced the Chiefs down in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when they were pounding the table for invasion and nuclear strikes. And I think with Kennedy controlling Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, in a way Johnson really couldn’t, with his prior experience holding back the Chiefs, and with his ability to evolve in his thinking on critical matters, we would have de-escalated our involvement in Vietnam in his second term. (Like Johnson did, JFK would have easily swamped Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election.) I believe as the situation in Vietnam eroded, Kennedy would have sided with the opinion of those in his kitchen cabinet vigorously counseling against increasing American troops on the ground, and that this would have happened well before Walter Cronkite’s famous pronouncement in March of 1968, after seeing Vietnam first hand, that the best we could achieve there was a stalemate, faced with an unwinnable war.
So what’s the point of going through the above “alternative history?” Without the nation being mired in Vietnam in 1968, without an incumbent president consequently withdrawing from another term, and without the disarray of the Democrats due to all of the above, Richard Nixon would not likely have made his comeback and become president. If no Nixon, then no Watergate, and no resulting miasma created by the implosion of the executive branch, the final degradation of which being President Ford’s unconditional pardon of Nixon for his “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
By this point in the mid 70’s, the American public was pretty exhausted by the seeming incompetence and venality of its government and the deceits of the Vietnam debacle then coming to light, and had become largely cynical about what the Beltway-driven federal government could do. A fairly feckless administration under President Carter — a man of enormous intellect but who would not likely have risen to national prominence as a viable “outside the Beltway” candidate if the table had not been set by the prior eight years — did not help.
During the 70’s, as Watergate dragged the national psyche into the dumpster and we watched the final collapse of Saigon, as the last helos lifted off the U.S. embassy, there was a sense we’d lost our “mojo,” our “toughest kid on the block” status. In this environment arose a hardened right wing arguing, as many still do, that we failed the troops by not letting them “win the war,” and that, overall, government was the problem, not the solution to any problems. Of course, the concept of the Vietnam conflict being winnable was, and always has been, an absurdity under the lens of cogent military and historical analysis, but this thesis became a driving force in getting the U.S. military back to a supposed position of supremacy in subsequent years, and the consequential hemorrhaging of the national budget. More importantly, the “we” that government had traditionally been seen as – spearheading huge national projects – was increasingly replaced in societal hierarchy by the “I” of the supposedly heroic, self-made man or woman, whose success was all their own and which benefitted society more than any collective effort of the people.
Fifty years ago there was consensus among even the most diametrically opposed politicians from opposing political parties that a fully functioning government was an absolute requirement for the country and our democratic processes.
Cue the rise of Reagan, and Reaganism, which offered the comfort of a new feel-good, Hollywood-like “Morning in America” with the iconography of the mythical cowboy of the American west leading us out of our national torpor. As Reagan intoned: “The eight scariest words you’ll ever hear are: ‘I’m the government and I’m here to help’.” The celebration of the “I”, and the demotion of “we the people” begins with Reagan, as does the inculcation in at least a generation of younger Americans the precept that government can’t, and shouldn’t, interfere with the unfettered functioning of the “free market” (except for the gargantuan outlay for national defense). The political philosophy Reagan, his staff and enablers embraced and the his administration’s policies jump-started the serious erosion of government controls on business and industry, the rampant growth of corporatism and financialization of the economy, and the dismantling of the middle class that continues today. “Greed was good,” it was encouraged by policy, and made many of the “I”s rich beyond comprehension, as they produced nothing but their own wealth.
Economists date the stagnation of the middle class beginning about the time of Reagan, when wages for working Americans flattened and are today barely above where they were then, in constant dollars. Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981 emboldened a broad attack on organized labor that has continued for over thirty years. The decline of the middle class is directly attributable to the decline of organized labor, its former bulwark, now down to 8-9% of the workforce from well over 30% when I began my practice of workers’ compensation in 1977. The spread of “right to work” laws (for lower wages) has continued since the Reagan years. And over the last thirty years wealth has become concentrated in a small sector of the population to an extent not seen since the era of the Robber Barons.
Would all of this have happened if the country had not gone through the post-JFK assassination turmoil? Perhaps some of it was inevitable. But I think the post-Kennedy era demonization of the role of government in a democracy with a complex market economy has had a far more profound effect on where we find ourselves today than would have happened, absent the assassination of 1963 and its aftermath.
And what has all of that bred in today’s politics? The rise of “leaders” on the fringes of the far right so dedicated to the proposition that government is trampling freedoms secured by the founding fathers that they will ensure it doesn’t work by any means necessary. With galactic ignorance of our history, and spewing scripted sound bites of misinformation on any topic, they come to Washington not to govern but to dismantle government. But while the extremes they advocate are largely unimaginable even by their political forbearers on the right, their roots are squarely in the anti-government philosophy that erupted on such a wide scale three decades ago.
Fifty years ago there was consensus among even the most diametrically opposed politicians from opposing political parties that a fully functioning government was an absolute requirement for the country and our democratic processes. The arguments were principally about which processes, priorities and methodologies to be used, not whether the government was going to run. Arguments, debates, and analysis of government policies and process were largely substantive and advocated by legislators who mostly knew what they were talking about, not spouting talking points fed to them by media spinmeisters.
Would we still have some semblance of that today with a different fifty-year history after 1963? You decide. I’ve personally come to believe our history, and where we find ourselves in 2013, would be different – and better. I hope that in the not distant future a large cohort of 17 and 18 year-olds will get to experience the same exhilarating inspiration and sense of purpose about the governance of our country that I felt for too brief a time over fifty years ago.
Looking for information in the media that is supportive of the nation’s transition to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), aka “Obamacare?” At the moment Republican and right wing noise is drowning out much of the lower–decibel cheerleading by the Administration on why this is a good thing.
In 1974, Pres. Richard Nixon proposed what is essentially the 2010 healthcare act – all but the smallest employers would provide medical insurance to their employees or pay a penalty, expansion of Medicaid would insure the poor, and subsidies would be provided to low–income citizens and small employers.
In a recent op-ed piece, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton and leading economic expert, now at the University of California, Berkeley, Robert Reich summed up the history of the origin of “Obamacare,” pointing out the irony of the right wing’s fuss over it.
In 1974, Pres. Richard Nixon proposed what is essentially the 2010 healthcare act – all but the smallest employers would provide medical insurance to their employees or pay a penalty, expansion of Medicaid would insure the poor, and subsidies would be provided to low–income citizens and small employers. While private insurers liked this plan, Democrats favored a system more like Social Security and Medicare, so there was no consensus.
Fast-forward to 1989, and the right–leaning Heritage Foundation proposed a plan that would mandate all households obtaining adequate insurance. This plan worked its way into several bills introduced by Republicans in 1993, supported by Senators Hatch (R–Utah) and Grassley (R–Iowa), along with subsequent Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, all now vocal opponents of the ACA.
When in 2004 Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made the original Nixon plan the law in his state, with the same mandate to buy private insurance, he said, “we got the idea of an individual mandate from Newt Gingrich, and he got it from the Heritage Foundation.”
Health insurance companies, now retooling their policies around the individual mandate, are jubilant about the possibilities of long–term membership growth through the insurance exchanges. These giant corporations have traditionally supported conservative and Republican politics.
So as Reich notes – – why are Republican spending so much energy trying to sabotage the ACA, and act they designed and about which a huge sector of their patrons are wildly enthusiastic? The answer: it is the singular achievement of the Obama Administration, the head of which is still considered by a large segment of the right to Illegitimately occupy the White House.
Reich goes on to observe that had the Democrats prevailed on the idea of a system built on the Social Security and Medicare model – – cheaper, simpler, and more widely accepted by the citizenry – – Republicans would nevertheless be making the same noise.
Ted gets up at 6 A.M. and fills his coffeepot with water to prepare his morning coffee. The water is clean and good because some tree-hugging liberal fought for government-enforced minimum water-quality standards.
With his first swallow of coffee, he takes his daily medication. His medications are safe to take because some stupid commie liberal fought to have the government insure their safety and that they work as advertised. All but $10 of his medications are paid for by his employer’s medical plan because some liberal union workers fought their employers for paid medical insurance – now Ted gets it too.
He prepares his morning breakfast, bacon and eggs. Ted’s bacon is safe to eat because some girly-man liberal fought for laws to regulate the meat-packing industry.
In the morning shower, Ted reaches for his shampoo. His bottle is properly labeled with each ingredient and its amount in the total contents because some crybaby liberal fought for his right to know what he was putting on his body and how much it contained.
Ted dresses, walks outside and takes a deep breath. The air he breathes is far less polluted than decades ago because some wacko liberal environmentalist fought for laws to stop industries from polluting our air.
Ted begins his workday. He has a good job with decent pay, medical benefits, retirement, paid holidays and vacation because some lazy liberal union members fought and died for these working standards. Ted’s employer pays these standards because Ted’s employer doesn’t want his employees to call the union. If Ted is hurt on the job or is laid off, he’ll get workers’ compensation or unemployment because some stupid liberal didn’t think he should lose his home because of his temporary misfortune.
It’s noontime, and Ted needs to make a bank deposit so he can pay some bills. Ted’s deposit is federally insured by the FSLIC because some godless liberal wanted to protect Ted’s money from unscrupulous bankers who ruined the banking system before the Great Depression and nearly collapsed the banking system again in 2008, saved only by a tax-payer bailout.
Ted is home from work, and drives to visit his father this evening at his farm home in the country. His car is among the safest in the world because some America-hating liberal fought to have the government enact car safety standards.
He arrives at his boyhood home. His was the third generation to live in the house financed by Farmers’ Home Administration because bankers didn’t want to make rural loans. The house didn’t have electricity until some big-government liberal stuck his nose where it didn’t belong and demanded rural electrification.
He is happy to see his father, who is now retired. His father lives on Social Security and a union pension because some wine-drinking, cheese-eating liberal made sure he could take care of himself so Ted wouldn’t have to. Ted gets back in his car for the ride home, and turns on a radio talk show. The radio host keeps saying that liberals are bad and hate their country. He doesn’t mention that his radical, anti-government Republicans have, over many decades, fought against each and every one of these protections and benefits Ted enjoys throughout his day.
Ted agrees: “We don’t need those big-government liberals ruining our lives! They’re taking away our freedoms! After all, I’m a self-made man who believes everyone should take care of themselves, just like I have.”
For those of you — particularly the younger generation voters — who watched the pageantry of the Republican National Convention and saw the platform of the Tea-Party-dominated Republican Party, you may find it enlightening to put that platform in the historical context of what the Republican Party used to stand for – supporting workers’ rights, securing benefit programs and securing the rights of labor unions.
Here is the platform of the Republican Party of 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower was seeking re-election to a second term:
“The Eisenhower Administration will continue to fight for dynamic and progressive programs which, among other things, will:
Stimulate improved job safety of our workers, through assistance to the States, employees and employers;
Continue and further perfect its programs of assistance to the millions of workers with special employment problems, such as older workers, handicapped workers, members of minority groups, and migratory workers;
Strengthen and improve the Federal-State Employment Service and improve the effectiveness of the unemployment insurance system;
Protect by law, the assets of employee welfare and benefit plans so that workers who are the beneficiaries can be assured of their rightful benefits;
Assure equal pay for equal work regardless of sex;
Federally-assisted construction, and maintain and continue the vigorous administration of the Federal prevailing minimum wage law for public supply contracts;
Extend the protection of the Federal minimum wage laws to as many more workers as is possible and practicable;
Continue to fight for the elimination of discrimination in employment because of race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry or sex;
Provide assistance to improve the economic conditions of areas faced with persistent and substantial unemployment;
Revise and improve the Taft-Hartley Act so as to protect more effectively the rights of labor unions, management, the individual worker, and the public. The protection of the right of workers to organize into unions and to bargain collectively is the firm and permanent policy of the Eisenhower Administration.”