Archive for August, 2010

WHAT’S SO ETHICAL ABOUT THE AMERICAN WORK ETHIC? A Labor Day Meditation

August 31, 2010

What drives this train of thought is all the stuff I’ve been reading lately about how Social Security can be saved only by people retiring later. Since the SS retirement age is already creeping up slowly but surely, I’m not sure what else these guys have in mind. They could, of course, be following in the steps of Otto von Bismarck, who came up with the idea of retirement pensions in the first place back in the early 1800s, and who deliberately set the retirement age at 65 because, back then, that was the age by which most people were dead. So maybe the SS doomsayers want to raise the age to where most people are dead nowadays. Which, in the US, is somewhere between 77.5 and 80.

But that raises yet another issue. Raising the retirement age won’t necessarily increase the number of geezers and crones working for a living. What it will undoubtedly increase is the number of senior citizens looking for work. Unemployment and underemployment among older workers is already higher than in the general population; older workers take twice as long to find new jobs as their younger counterparts, and are far less likely even to get responses to their job applications, much less interviews and offers.

Presumably those recommending an increase in retirement age know this. They are the same people who brought us “welfare reform” back in the 1990s. Back then, the welfare moms who were moved into the work force actually had a good shot at getting employed, though not necessarily in full-time permanent jobs with benefits. That was a blip, an economic oasis in the desert most of us have been slogging through for the last 35 years. But the long-term result, and quite possibly the intended result, was the same as the result of raising the retirement age—more people looking for work.

The strategy of the New Deal was the very opposite: use Social Security to get the elderly out of the workforce; use Aid to Dependent Children to get widows with children out of the workforce; use stricter enforcement of child labor laws to get children out of the workforce; use Unemployment Compensation to give the jobless time to look for good jobs instead of day-to-day scrambling. In an era when there are 5 applicants for every available job, that strategy looks pretty good.

However, we Americans think holding a paid job, any job, is not just a nice way to keep hand and mouth together, but a moral and psychological benefit in itself. It means being “self-reliant,” which is in and of itself always Good for You. We also like to think that everybody who is really willing to work can get work. Having a job, any job, is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. And, contrariwise, not having a job is a deliberate choice, and proof of being a lazy, greedy, ripoff artist and freeloader.

We also think that, if somebody isn’t employed, the way to get him/her onto a job is to cut off all other means of survival. We think we’ve proved that, because once people run through their Unemployment Comp benefits, they stop reporting themselves as unemployed. Which must mean they’ve found work. What it actually means is that there is nobody to report themselves to, and no reason to take the time and the trouble to do it. It almost never means they’ve taken a job they had been turning down for the preceding 99 days.

And finally, we think that if people aren’t employed, that means they aren’t working, and are of no use to society. I still think of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in this context. There aren’t many people in his exalted position that I would cross the street to avoid shaking hands with, but he’s one of them. Not because of the Anita Hill stuff, but because of the way he bad-mouthed his sister for accepting welfare (and, he said, becoming “dependent” on it.) Turns out that she went onto welfare to care for their elderly aunt and uncle, who had raised them both. If you have never cared for two elderly relatives, or even one, believe me, it’s a full-time occupation. Brother Clarence contributed neither time nor money to this duty. Well, okay, he had a wife and a kid and a career to tend to, so that’s kind of understandable. But then, to bad-mouth the person who did take on that burden, because she didn’t have a paying job? Well, the sister, being a good Christian, has never said a word against him. The Wired Family has no such compunctions. Welfare did for Justice Thomas’ family exactly what it was intended to do—enable families to care for their own under the most difficult of circumstances. There should be no shame attached to those who accept it.

And then there’s my godson’s father, Tim Preston, of blessed memory. My godson has Down Syndrome, possibly with a touch of autism. His parents were just about the only people who could understand his speech. Tim got a bunch of paper routes for local publishers, and the two of them would go out delivering papers a couple of days a week. In the course of that work, Tim would introduce his son to the world—loading dock workers, bakery clerks, guys at the gas station—and make the encounters a joy to everybody on all sides. The money wasn’t much. But the earning of it accomplished two crucial things: it created a life for the young man, and it gave his mother time to develop a professional practice. And then Tim was killed by a collision with a truck. The owners of the trucking company provided the widow with the mingiest possible settlement, based, of course, on the fact that Tim didn’t have a “real job.” His widow has had to give up her profession. Fortunately, she and her son get Social Security survivor’s benefits. What she does, staying home with her son and managing his life, isn’t a “job” either, of course. Somewhere out there, a conservative is thinking of the two of them as freeloaders who should be forced to get “real jobs.” It would be good for them, he is thinking. It would free them from being dependent on the dole.

The other part of this American Mythos is that jobs, those sources of all personal good, are “created” by business. Therefore anything that is good for business is good for jobs, and for those who hold or seek jobs. We woo and coddle businesses; our local governments give them tax cuts, land, and all kinds of breaks in local regulation, all because they “create jobs.” The fact that one of the breaks we often give them is the right to shut down and move away or sell off or even leave the country without consequence, thereby destroying jobs, makes this adulation of business a bit counterintuitive. The fact that businesses often cut jobs in order to make their stockholders happier doesn’t exactly make sense either. There is almost nothing many businesses won’t do to avoid hiring American workers at wages sufficient to live decently in America. Move the jobs out of the country; move immigrants (whether legal or not) into the country; move jobs around the country in endless flight from unionization (some economists refer to this practice as “rotating the crops”) –whatever it takes.

Which leads us right back to the beginning. One of the things business wants to do in pursuit of forcing wages down and eliminating fringe benefits entirely is to increase the number of people looking for work, even as they do everything possible to decrease the number of jobs available to American workers. This is not only “rotating” the crops, it is creating a bumper crop and then plowing 80% of it back into the ground.

Such policies might be at least marginally acceptable if our culture as a whole were willing to recognize unemployed people as providing at least one major service to the economy—keeping other people’s wages low and making stockholders happy—and often other major services to their own families as well. Why not hold occasional ceremonies to distribute medals to the casualties of the war against inflation? Why not honor those who hadn’t “made the cut” in an increasingly selective employment market, for having so valiantly tried, and so heroically endured?

But this is the grim final feature of the American Mythos: we honestly believe that the only reliable way to motivate civilian workers to do the Right Thing and refrain from doing the Wrong Thing is Fear Itself, the fear of losing a job, or not having a job, or never again having a job. It doesn’t work in the Army, of course. What works in motivating soldiers is the bond between them. That works even when the brass has betrayed them and the politicians are ignoring them. It works even when the giving of medals and commendation is shamelessly politicized. If we can’t offer workers at the bottom of the food chain a living wage, can’t we at least give them honor and comradeship?

Okay, in keeping with our earlier pledge to focus on our visions of the good in political discourse, Red Emma’s vision of the good is a world in which everybody who wants to work for wages can find work, everybody who needs to work for their own families can have the resources to do it, and anybody who can’t find work can at least feel like a normal human being. Would this increase the number of freeloaders in our economy? Not sure. Dunno. This may depend on how one defines “freeloader.” Let the reader decide.

Red Emma

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YELLOW LINES AND SAFETY ISLANDS

August 29, 2010

Several of the newcomers to this blogsite use words like “conservative” to describe themselves, and apparently feel besieged by the “liberals” who share the site with them. I’m pretty sure Our Leader had something more nonpartisan in mind when he set up this joint, and that he was especially interested in avoiding “culture wars” rhetoric, in contrast to That Other Blog Over There. Being, at the moment, three personas, the Wired Sisters can legitimately be of several minds about this. Mostly we use those personas to denote our religious/scholarly side, our political/satirical side, and the meeting place of the two. But there is a hint of bipartisanship in this structure, too. RedEmma is the flaming liberal; Jane Grey is the cautious not-quite-conservative; CynThesis is somewhere in between. We are toying with the idea of inviting another sibling to join us: Ben Trovato, the purveyor of conspiracy theories and urban legends (“Si non é vero, é ben trovato.” Which is Italian for “When accurate information is unavailable, rumor, speculation, and outright seditious libel will rush in to fill the gap.”) Conspiracies and urban legends, of course, are endemic to all sides of the culture wars. We could re-introduce ourselves as the Geschwester Wired (which is German for “brethren and cistern.”)

Do we want this site to be multi-partisan, or non-partisan? Multi would ordinarily appeal to the three (four?) of us. It sounds like more fun. But in practice, it seems to degenerate quickly into precisely what has become of That Other Blog Over There. So let’s consider the possibility of something like non-partisanship. Accentuate the positive. Let’s talk about our respective visions of The Good, which is what all politics start out with. I know it’s hard, and we sisters are no better than anybody else at restraining our sharp elbows. But the alternative is either That Other Blog Over There, or two different sites in which partisans of each side, respectively, talk amongst themselves. The Blogosphere already has enough of both, and therefore doesn’t need another of either of those outcomes.

If we are to compare visions of The Good, we need to accept the fact that my fondest dream is probably H-A’s worst nightmare, and vice versa. Maybe we can try to talk about matters more related to material fact and therefore less subject to partisan dispute.

Like, say, the made-for-TV movie on SyFy last night, called Meteor Armageddon. The opening credits included a production credit to “FaithFilm,” which made me a little uneasy at first. Was this going to be a redo of Left Behind? Well, no, it wasn’t nearly that coherent or well done. The plot made no sense at all. To the extent that there was a plot, it was what Roger Ebert used to call an idiot film, in which the plot depended entirely on the main characters choosing the dumbest alternative whenever they got to a fork in the road. In addition, most of the scientific “fact” behind the plot was never comprehensibly explained. What, pray tell, does a heavy-duty meteor shower have to do with water contamination producing convulsions and death in those who drink the water? And why does the “plot” presume that bottled water would be immune to such problems? A couple of utterly irrelevant references to church and the bible were all that FaithFilm seems to have contributed. None of the references, BTW, had anything to do with the last book of the New Testament. So, regardless of your political, cultural, or religious affiliation, find something else to do with your time if Meteor Armageddon crosses your TV listings. Like root canal work, which won’t be any more enjoyable, but will at least leave you with better teeth.

There! See? It can be done! Let’s give this a try.

CynThesis

Right Turn Only?

August 25, 2010

Most Constitution-watchers agree that a successful call for a constitutional convention is unlikely in the foreseeable future, since it would require a super-duper majority of Congress to agree on something. If that happened, our elected representatives would probably be too enthralled with the sight of all those flying pigs out the window to pay much attention to business anyway.

Most progressive legal scholars think that’s just as well. A constitutional convention, they believe, would be a jurisprudential disaster. The Bill of Rights would be up for grabs. The essential function of a constitution–restraining the power of the majority and its elected representatives–could easily be thrown out the window by a bloodless majoritarian coup. The only serious proposals for a Constitutional Convention are being made by the Far Right, and include such unnverving suggestions as the abolition of the income tax, the restoration of a property qualification for voting, the establishment of Protestant Christianity as the national religion, the elimination of the “natural born citizen” requirement for the presidency, the Right to Life Amendment, the Defense of Marriage Amendment, and the elimination of birthright citizenship.

So the progressive response to calls for a constitutional convention has been a simple and oft-repeated “no.” While not unreasonable, that leaves the Left with nothing intelligent to say in the admittedly unlikely event that a constitutional convention actually happens.

Progressives need an agenda for a constitutional convention, for two reasons. The first is the reality of any negotiating situation: the party that begins with the status quo as a negotiating position is

    guaranteed

to end up with less. The only way to have even a chance at maintaining the Bill of Rights in its present shape, if a Constitutional Convention actually happens, is to demand something that will be perceived by the other side as even more radical.

And the second is that the Constitution in its current form really could use some changes.

First, of course, is the Equal Rights Amendment, which needs no introduction and very little comment. Illinois and several other states have such amendments in their constitutions and have used them quite successfully to combat sex discrimination through state litigation.

Next is the power to initiate military action and international alliances. Currently, the President has the power to commit troops to military action, but only Congress can declare war or vote funds for it. The technology of both communications and warmaking has far outstripped this anomalous political mechanism, set up when the speed of the horse and the sail was the limiting factor for both. The War Powers Act, enacted to resolve this dilemma, may itself be dubiously constitutional. Similarly, no treaty is valid unless ratified by Congress, but the President can accomplish by executive order virtually everything the treaty-making power can achieve.

And these awkward dilemmas are merely a special case of the greater conundrum bequeathed us by the Framers–when does the system of “checks and balances” among the three branches of government encroach on the “separation of powers”? This is no mere academic debate; it was crucial to the Watergate proceedings, for instance. What did the federal courts have the right to order the President to do? Could the executive branch resist the power of the judicial branch to demand evidence? And so on.

Next is the equally awkward dilemma woven into the fabric of the First Amendment, between “free exercise” of religion and “no establishment.” As a practical matter, the Supreme Court has dealt with it so far by importing into the public realm as “secular” observances, piece by piece, one ritual or artefact of mainstream Protestantism after another, under the “free exercise” rationale, while barring similar concessions to other religions under the “no establishment” clause. It’s okay to require businesses to close on Sunday, because Sunday isn’t a religious day of rest any more, it’s a secular observance. It’s okay to make Christmas a national holiday, for the same reason. It’s even okay to display statues of the Virgin Mary, the infant Jesus, and miscellaneous angels and shepherds, on public property, so long as they are, as constitutional scholar Alan Dershowitz says, “flanked by two plaster animals in sufficiently bad taste.” (He calls this the Pink Flamingo Rule.) But it’s

    not

okay for a federal contractor to provide that all its Jewish and Seventh-Day Adventist employees automatically get Saturdays off, when its other employees have no such “privilege.” That’s discrimination against the others on religious grounds.

Then there is the Second Amendment, dealing with the right to keep and bear arms. Much of the current dispute about its meaning (from the point of view of an ex-English teacher) results from the fact that the nominative absolute (“…a well-regulated militia being necessary…”) has dropped out of use. So the Second Amendment needs to be rewritten in modern grammar. Some gun control advocates find such a prospect terrifying, but it is difficult to conceive of any way the Amendment could be redrafted that would be any

    worse

than the way the NRA and the Supreme Court interpret the current version. (Well, okay, incorporating into the Second Amendment the Kennesaw, Georgia ordinance requiring every citizen to own a firearm could be worse…)

Additionally, there are the affirmative rights not clearly protected by the Constitution, at least as read by the current Supreme Court. Most crucial would be an unambiguous enactment of a right to privacy as such–a limitation on the right of state and local government to intrude into people’s personal lives. The Warren Court found this concept obvious, and used it to protect the right of married and unmarried people to procure and use contraception; the Rehnquist Court eroded it by holding that a state government can forbid consenting adults to engage in “sodomy” in the privacy of their own bedrooms. The Roberts Court seems a bit squishy on privacy too.

    Education has never been held to be a fundamental right.

A state or local government which is unwilling to provide equal school facilities to all races and nationalities can stop providing any schools at all (as a couple of states and several localities did in the ten years following the Brown v. Board of Education decision.) And there is no constitutional ban on governmental discrimination against the poor as such, so that public school systems which (like banks) provide adequate resources only for those who don’t need them, are under no constitutional mandate to do otherwise.

Even more startling from the point of view of classical political theory, the Supreme Court has stated in DeShaney vs. Winnebago County (1982) that state and federal governments have no constitutional duty to protect the citizen against private violence. (But, presumably, any protection it does provide must be equally distributed among racial, religious, and ethnic groups.)

Beyond these specific shortcomings, there is a basic flaw in the Fourteenth Amendment and the legislation implementing it, which forbid violations of individual rights only where they involve inequality and discrimination against specifically defined groups. Thus, the rationale for banning sexual exploitation on the job is that the boss who requires sexual favors from one gender but not the other as a condition of advancement is discriminating against people of the former gender. This rationale would leave the exploited employee with no recourse against sexual extortion from a bisexual boss.

Similarly, state-run colleges and universities that are not permitted to discriminate by reason of race, religion, sex, or handicap, can quite freely discriminate on the basis of income and socioeconomic class. There is no right to be free from sexual extortion on the job; there is no right to education as such. There is only the right not to be extorted or barred from school by reason of race, religion, etc.

In short, we need to re-examine, from the ground up, the whole notion of “fundamental rights.” The “equal protection” model, at best, sets up a lowest common denominator which, on occasion, can quite legally be set at zero. And, by defining a limited number of unacceptable bases for distinguishing between applicants for a particular benefit, it sets up an inevitable conflict between the groups specifically protected from discrimination and other, often equally disadvantaged, groups with no such protection. The result is the unedifying spectacle of a whining contest, to determine who has suffered the most discrimination most recently and is therefore most entitled to redress.

For instance, the federal courts have held that an otherwise perfectly qualified person can be denied admission to professional school or a professional license because of being fat, having a “sloppy personal appearance,” or having an “abrasive personality.” The only bases for legal attacks on such policies have all had to do with sex discrimination, and were available at all only because so far, the only victims have been female. The courts have, not unreasonably, responded that they were offered no evidence that a fat, sloppy, or abrasive male would have been treated any differently. Absent proof of ethnic or sex discrimination, they were powerless to act. More recently, efforts have been made to give obesity the legal status of a disability, thereby placing fat people in a group with at least some official protections. Such jerry-built rationales should not be necessary. Once the bona fide occupational qualifications for a particular license or position are established, anyone who is denied access for any other reason (other than “we’re not hiring right now” or “we already hired somebody else”) should have a legally cognizable claim. That is, people should have a fundamental right not to be denied employment except for bona fide occupational or economic reasons.

A clearly defined system of fundamental rights to which all citizens and residents of the U.S. are equally entitled, would obviate many of these problems. Likewise, a clear delineation of the ways in which government may and may not forbid violations of individual rights by other individuals and private organizations is crucial to the continued viability of our polity.

All of these omissions could be remedied by a good job of redrafting. An even better result might be achieved by taking seriously the Preamble to the current constitution, which mandates the government, not merely to “provide for the common defense” and “insure domestic tranquility” but also to “promote the general welfare.”

These suggestions are not intended to be exhaustive. On the contrary, they should be a beginning of discussion. What matters from our point of view is that there should be some progressive agenda for a constitutional convention, to which serious study and thought has been devoted. There may be spinoffs and fringe benefits to the proces of debate and research setting up such an agenda. Much of it, for instance, could also be a basis for a legislative agenda, or for rewriting or amending state constitutions. We have nothing to lose and much to gain by doing it, even if no constitutional convention is ever called. And if, against all expectations, such a convention is convoked, we will not be caught with our progressive pants down, and may even achieve some of our own goals.

Red Emma

A Small Variety of Super-Power

August 14, 2010

My radio is playing an NPR piece on super-heroes and super-powers, and it sends my mind in odd directions. Physically, I am a lot less super than I used to be. I can’t run, or do even the half-lotus I used to be able to manage, never mind a full lotus. Valiantly putting off the inevitable hip replacement is perhaps an acceptable substitute for those abilities. But I have just, in the last month, become accustomed to doing something I had once thought I could never do, which maybe makes up for all my forfeits to time. I can change an adult diaper.

Long story, elided here for the sake of various people’s privacy….I had hoped that, by the time the patient came home, continence would be restored. The last night in the convalescent facility, it became obvious that there would be no such restoration. [I hate these abstract constructions; as an English teacher. I would give them a D at best, but they are mandated by the requirements of privacy.] So I asked the night nurse who came in to do the last change of the evening, to teach me how to do it. I had a moment of panic, not quite an attack, just “what happens if I really can’t do this? I can’t do this! Now what?” Then the nurse, bless her heart [I never learned her name—I was too rattled to ask at the time, but she is in my prayers regularly, whoever she is] walked me through the whole business, telling me as she went along that the first time she had ever had to do this was for her mother. At first, she told me, she didn’t think she could ever do it. Maybe that is how everybody reacts at first. But it was her mother, and it was an act of love, and she learned, not only to do it competently, but to do it ungrudgingly and lovingly. In the course of explaining this, she taught me to do the same.

The panic subsided quickly. The competence engaged immediately, like the gearshift on a good car. My other worry had been that, even if I could do it, the patient might not be able to accept my doing it. I turned out to be wrong about that, too. We have developed a routine, involving good humor and occasional references to Ann Landers, and as much self-help as the patient can provide.

Other changes have amused and startled me. I no longer wince at getting my groceries in multiple plastic bags. I welcome it, the more the better, because they are an essential tool for the process. I do have occasional ecological (and even economic) qualms at my profuse use of paper and plastic. No doubt I could use cloth if I really had to, but I no longer sneer at new mothers who just won’t. We all do the best we can.

Invisibility? Useful for the dishonest. Flight? A great saving for the frequent traveler. Perfect pitch? I know, no super-hero has it, but if I had my druthers, it’s the one I’d ask for—naah. I have the super-power I need right now.

Jane Grey