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Author Page for Erik Loomis
Easily the worst panel I saw at Netroots Nation was titled, “Beyond Occupy: What Does a New Economic System Look Like?” Now, doesn’t that seem like a really interesting panel? I was hoping for some serious discussions integrating the Occupy critique into hard thinking about how we create a more equitable system. Put a neo-liberal type up there, a socialist, an intellectual who had been part of Occupy, a union person–this could be really good.
Instead, we got the most misleading title at the entire conference. This panel was nothing more than a cheerleading session for Clinton-era capitalism. Quite literally–Jennifer Ancona, the panel chair, quite literally cheered when someone else said capitalism was a great thing. There were smart people on the panel–Ancona as chair, the former chief economist at the IMF Simon Johnson, Erica Payne, Sarita Gupta from Jobs with Justice, and Colin Mutchler, a Silicon Valley CEO who frankly offered nothing useful. Five people who, in various ways, thought that capitalism, with just a few tiny tweaks to make it a bit more fair and less corrupt, was the perfect system. That’s certainly typical of a big section of the Netroots and that’s fine, but of course the panel’s labeling was a lie–no one on that panel had probably ever talked to anyone from Occupy, not to mention that it wasn’t about a new economic system.
But really it was worse than that. Ancona literally said “When I think of labor, I think of the past” while Payne (and I paraphrase here) exclaimed that the truly free market was the ideal economic system. Even Gupta offered no real challenge to this free-market love fest; her most notable contribution was to blame unions for looking out for their own members.
This all drove me crazy not because it’s not a legitimate perspective–certainly someone with these ideas could be very useful on such a panel. By sheer chance, I walked outside my office just after starting this post. On the table outside my office someone placed an old issue of The Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations that featured an interview with Johnson (was it you higher power of my choice?). And he’s a real smart guy. He’s genuinely angry that a system that he not only believed in but participated in has proven so utterly worthless. He’s always worth hearing speak.
Rather, the panel was infuriating because it showed a complete lack of understanding about how the economic system has declined and what we can do to make it better. Virtually no discussion or understanding about labor underpinned a panel whose participants clearly saw the halcyon days of 20 years ago as ideal–the go-go Clinton capitalism of the 90s. But the system was already corrupt and dying during those years and no one on the panel had an answer for this. Johnson himself kept focusing on replacing Jamie Dimon. Dimon might be evil. But Dimon is not the problem. Get rid of Dimon and his replacement is a clone. The problem is with the system that spawns such ideas and actions. And I guess this sums up my differences with this kind of thinking–Johnson believes in the system enough to think replacing Dimon could be really effective. I’m certainly fine with kicking Dimon to the curb, but I see the entire system of global capitalism as destructive to the world’s people and ecology. Dumping Dimon does nothing to solve that problem.
All of these people just wanted to convince the capitalists to be good. But there’s no reason for the capitalists to act nice. Why should they?
As I’ve stated before, capitalists and governments only reform when pressured from the left. Fix the problems of the Gilded Age so the anarchists quit shooting our presidents in the stomach and our industrialists in the face is a useful way to think about the Progressive Era. FDR enacted the New Deal to save capitalism from itself and undermine communism and fascism from spreading in the United States. The War on Poverty and other Great Society programs were in large part a response to the horrible inequality of the nation so powerfully articulated by the civil rights movements of the 1960s.
Today, there is no real pressure from the left. With the decline of the USSR, extremist capitalism was in full ascent and the political spectrum swung hard to the right. Any questioning of capitalism meant one was totally irrelevant. The economic left collapsed and the triumphal era of Clinton capitalism ascended.
Obviously, old school state socialism is never coming back; probably it shouldn’t. But until we articulate options to capitalism that scare the capitalists, nothing will stop them from destroying the rest of the social safety net and middle class. We need to be thinking about better systems than supposedly free-market capitalism, organizing around them, and threatening the capitalists’ dominance over the nation and the world. I realize this is long-term, maybe even pie-in-the-sky. And capitalism with a benevolent face might be a pretty good way for a lot of people to live. But we aren’t going to get that benevolent capitalism until people force the capitalists to grant it in order that they don’t reject the system entirely. That’s why we need to think about radical alternatives to capitalism.
In other words, we need to actually think about a post-Occupy economy and not use the OWS name as an excuse to get people into the room and then hold a big party for mildly-regulated capitalism.
Two great labor slogans here.
First, we have this campaign from UNITE-HERE and the LGBT community to get same-sex couples to not stay in non-union hotels.
We then have this from Palermo’s frozen pizza workers in Milwaukee. The Palermo workers have formed an independent union and have gone on strike over worker safety issues.
If we weigh the money behind each campaign equally (UNITE-HERE resources far outweigh an independent union of immigrants), I’d have to say that both are pretty equally fantastic.
Derek Thompson at The Atlantic allowed me to respond to his forum asking whether unions are necessary. And in the leadoff position no less. Here it is:
The question of whether unions are necessary is misguided. There is no other proven method to ensure that working-class people receive decent wages, safe working conditions, or a voice on the job. Unions continue to provide workers high-quality representation, helping them receive a fair share of the income their work generates while protecting them from capricious bosses, hazards on the job, and harassment from superiors. There are no other known systems that provide workers these benefits.
The better question is why unions have declined. There is a clear answer to this question: a half-century of intentional union-busting from corporations with assists from federal and state governments. Historians have shown that the supposed “Grand Bargain,” where companies agreed to unionized workplaces in return for an end to radical workplace action was never accepted by corporate America. Even before World War II, corporations looked to move their unionized factories to non-union states. When unions proved too popular across the United States and when federal labor and environmental protections began affecting profit margins, corporations lobbied the federal government to promote globalization, first through the Border Industrialization Project that allowed American companies to build on the Mexican side of the border and then through a full-scale race to bottom, as companies traveled the globe looking for easily exploited labor. None of this has made unions irrelevant; rather, recent labor defeats are simply the next round in this corporate assault upon the rights of working people.
Simply asking a question like whether unions are necessary gives credence to right-wing talking points about organized labor. We need to focus on how to fight back against the corporate malfeasance and greed that has undermined the American working class and plunged the economy into stagnation that has already reached a half-decade. Organized labor is central to any solution to our current economic problems. It is worth noting that the heyday of organized labor coincided with the longest period of growth in the history of the American economy. Only strong unions can provide a fair piece of the economic pie to the working and middle-classes, creating a robust economy that benefits all Americans.
Considering how completely exhausted I was when I wrote that, I’m surprised it came out relatively coherent, if a little passive voicey.
Since right-wingers stupidly decided to make the penguin their official animal of morality in the culture war, it’s of great enjoyment to learn more about the actual sexual behavior of penguins. Seriously, this recently found 1915 report is awesome:
At the time, Levick was so shocked by what he saw he recorded the events in Greek to disguise the information, at one point writing, “There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins.”
For instance, on Nov. 10, 1911, Levick wrote in Greek (translated here): “This afternoon I saw a most extraordinary site [sic]. A Penguin was actually engaged in sodomy upon the body of a dead white throated bird of its own species. The act occurred a full minute, the position taken up by the cock differing in no respect from that of ordinary copulation, and the whole act was gone through down to the final depression of the cloaca.”
In another entry, this one written in English on Dec. 6 of that year, he wrote: “I saw another act of astonishing depravity today. A hen which had been in some way badly injured in the hindquarters was crawling painfully along on her belly. I was just wondering whether I ought to kill her or not, when a cock noticed her in passing, and went up to her. After a short inspection he deliberately raped her, she being quite unable to resist him.”
Levick described penguins that waddled about the colony’s outskirts terrorizing any straying chicks as “little knots of hooligans” in his pamphlet. “The crimes which they commit are such as to find no place in this book, but it is interesting indeed to note that, when nature intends them to find employment, these birds, like men, degenerate in idleness.”
Now if we could only get Morgan Freeman to narrate a documentary about this, maybe we could reclaim the penguin for us morally depraved folk.
Such is the the name of Derek Thompson’s forum at The Atlantic today, effectively a space for random people to write about how much unions suck. Though to be fair, union people are arriving to this forum in good numbers as are people less committed to unions but concerned about unchecked management prerogatives.
I’m sure tomorrow the magazine will follow this up with the logical next question: Is Capitalism Necessary?
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s piece from a couple of days ago explaining his research connecting racially charged Google searches with voting patterns for Barack Obama has made the rounds. And while I’m not a political scientist and so won’t judge the quality of the research, it certainly passes the plausibility test in my mind. Since very few people will self-identify as racist, going to Google searches to find high concentrations of racially charged searches is as good a way as any to get a spatial sense of modern racism. Where do people make lots of racist Google searches?
The state with the highest racially charged search rate in the country was West Virginia. Other areas with high percentages included western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, upstate New York and southern Mississippi.
Little of this surprises, except maybe that eastern Kentucky isn’t listed. Appalachia was always the biggest spot of resistance to Obama, where you had insanely high vote totals for Hillary Clinton in the 08 primaries because a whole lot of people in Appalachia just weren’t going to vote for a black man. And just a few weeks ago, a convicted felon won 41% of the vote in the Democratic primary for president in West Virginia–I know it wasn’t a serious race, but there’s a good number of Democratic West Virginians who are flat out racist.
On the other hand, Obama also faces pressure from the Latino population for his continued record rate of deportations. I expressed optimism when Obama announced he would deprioritize the deportations of non-criminals, but that’s had almost no effect. Unfortunately, Obama used undocumented immigrants as pawns in his game to gain credibility from Republicans that he should have seen was never going to come. Given the massive resistance Obama faces from the people who hate him, some of which is racial and some of which is just political extremism on the right, the right way to govern would be back way off all deportations and work hard to bring Latinos deep into the Democratic coalition. Most Latinos aren’t going to vote for Romney anyway but with their rapidly growing numbers, making the Democrats the party of immigrants and their families is smart long-term strategy.
Big labor—Ooh, scary, right? Not just labor, not just unions, not just millions of working people joined together, fighting together rather than one by one, having hired some lawyers and organizers to represent their interests, but big labor. It must be a fair fight between corporate money and Koch brothers money and U.S. Chamber of Commerce money and big labor money, right? No, of course it’s not. But those are the assumptions embedded in the term, which is exactly why it’s important to push back on it.
I just don’t understand some types of liberals. This is particularly true of the self-hating liberal who consistently believes that if we only ignored those naughty conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and find the many reasonable voices of the Right, we could bring the nation out of decline. That means we need to quit listening to nihilist voices like Jon Stewart and instead explore common ground with unnamed Republicans who do not actually exist.
Unfortunately, this species of liberalism is heaven sent for those who serve the Beltway and thus the Times published Steve Almond’s column with the actual title, “Liberals Are Ruining America. I Know Because I Am One.”
White has been one of the leading historians of the United States over the past 30 years. His first book, Land Use, Environment, and Social Change might seem like a small, local study today but it was an important foundational book in the field of environmental history. He went on to write two books of Native American history, including the incredible The Middle Ground, redefining our understanding of the late colonial-early national Ohio Valley. He wrote one of the most important overviews of U.S. West history and then the fantastic The Organic Machine, about technology, work, bureaucracy, and environmental change on the Columbia River.
Clearly angry about the financial crisis and corruption dominating American life today, White has turned his attention to the transcontinental railroads of the Gilded Age. What he finds is a complete disaster of incompetence, malfeasance, corruption, and social disaster. He sees a group of capitalists plunging ahead into the American West with absolutely no idea what they were doing, fleecing their own companies, trusting no one, buying off the government in order to get subsidies, killing workers, creating enormous social and environmental damage, plunging the nation into repeated economic collapses, and decimating Native American lives.
And for what? Although past generations of historians have celebrated the railroads and lauded their leaders even if scolding them for their excesses, White makes it very clear that this entire industry was a disaster. These roads were built without any good economic justification. A couple of transcontinentals could have sufficed if built for particular reasons instead of dozens of competing lines built into places like western Kansas that could not bring enough traffic to justify their cost. While the railroads eventually spurred some demand for their services by convincing thousands of people to homestead, this meant that people were trying to dry land farm in western North Dakota and eastern New Mexico, a social and environmental disaster of its own.
Although White claims to enjoy studying these men, he has little patience with them. His writing drips bitterness and outrage. He seems most appreciative that Leland Stanford was so stupid that everyone had to lay all aspects of the railroads very clearly to him, making it easier for the modern historian to understand what’s going on. He also relies heavily on Charles Francis Adams’ writings, not because the descendant of presidents was any better, but because he was a blowhard who wrote tomes deriding everyone involved in Gilded Age railroads and American government. Henry Villard is a “superhero of bad management,” Kansas Senator J.J. Ingalls “was the kind of senator who thought Roscoe Conkling an honest man,” and “If Henry Clay was the Great Compromiser, John Sherman was the Not So Great Compromiser.”
About Grenville Dodge, engineer for the Central Pacific, White notes:
“He hated abolitionists and he hated black people, he hated immigrants and Catholics with impartiality. He was an eclectic hater who hated people who often hated one another. He hated loudly and demonstratively. In a Boston restaurant, irritated by a black man who kept his eyes “on the brass buttons” of Dodge’s coat, Dodge shoved a dish of stewed oysters in the man’s face and then ordered another. He thought himself “highly eulogized by the crowd for giving the Niggar so just a punishment for his audacity.”
But one thing the capitalists and their workers had in common was contempt for non-whites. White is clearly sympathetic with labor but spares them not for the racism that helped prevent the creation of an effective American working class. The white working class in fact defined “American” as “white,” making it real easy for railroads to crush solidarity by importing Chinese labor. The nascent unions saw both the Chinese and the corporations as destroying their manhood and it was a lot easier to attack the Chinese, leading to tragedies across the West including the infamous Rock Springs Massacre of 1886.
But the real impact of the book is for what it says about modern capitalism. Like the railroads in the first Gilded Age, the financial industry of the second Gilded Age buys the government, plunges forward in its business without any clue as to what it is doing, destroys labor and makes regulations laughable, spirals the economy downhill, and rewards incompetence. Jamie Dimon is Leland Stanford, Central Pacific is Goldman Sachs. Perhaps the greatest difference between 1885 and 2012 is today’s lack of working-class reform politics. Although badly hurt by their own exclusiveness, the white men of the late 19th century were genuinely outraged by the changes transforming their society. The antimonopolists searched for all sorts of answers–Single Tax, Bellamyism, trade unions, the 8-hour day, Chinese Exclusion, government regulation. Although foiled at every turn, they laid the groundwork for the reforms that would help tame capitalist excesses in the 20th century. Today, although we see resistance from labor, students, and Occupy, it remains small as the majority of working-class Americans more or less buy that the current iteration of capitalism looks out for their interests. Until that changes, we won’t see the collective power develop necessary to tame this corrupt, unruly beast.
White didn’t see any Octopus in the Gilded Age railroads and it’s probably a mistake to give the financial corporations credit that they know what they’re doing enough to call them the new Octopus. But like the railroad, they are some kind of animal, one that puts private profit before public good and corrupts everything in its way, regardless of political party. Railroads might have preferred Republicans, but Richard Olney was a completely acceptable Attorney General under Cleveland, crushing the Pullman Strike; modern capitalists may also prefer Republicans, but Tim Geithner does their bidding.
In the end, for its clear descriptions of the incredibly complex corruption of Gilded Age capitalism, its penetrating and angry writing, and its important insights into corporations past and present, I am comfortable saying that Railroaded is one of the 5 to 10 best books on American history written this century.
I’ll have several posts about Netroots Nation up over the next 2-3 days. But one thing I found myself doing was defending unions against the charge that they only look out for their own members. My general theory (and this is the way quite a few unions operate) goes like this: Yes, unions look out for their own members’ interests. That’s what they are supposed to do. But then they also look out for the collective working-class interest though their contributions to the AFL-CIO and the federation’s political campaigns to pass important legislation. But generally, though not always, they understand their role in the larger collective struggle and try to do the right thing.
Backed with millions of dollars in contributions from business, the Committee to Save New York has been Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s most important ally in his battles with public-sector unions over government spending, pensions and teacher accountability.
But the committee turns out to have another source of money: a group of building trade unions who contributed $500,000 last year. Their decision to back Mr. Cuomo — and help finance an offensive against their public-sector brethren — illuminates a deepening fissure in the labor movement.
Labor officials said the union contributions to the business group in 2011, which were revealed in records filed with the federal Labor Department and interviews with people familiar with the donations, reflected workers’ deep unease about a slowdown in the construction industry in New York and their hope that Mr. Cuomo and the business committee could persuade voters and lawmakers to support publicly financed building projects and encourage growth.
It should be said that the building trade unions have traditionally been the least progressive unions within the AFL-CIO. These old, old, ancient AFL locals can be very craft-based with little sense of solidarity with other unions or progressive movements. After all, it was workers from the Building Trades and Construction Council of New York that participated in the infamous “hardhats vs. hippies” incident in 1970 that gave labor such a bad name with the anti-war movement (I know it was more than this but this was the worst moment). These unions are still awful. That anyone with any sense of labor solidarity would side with Andrew Cuomo over public sector unions is pretty sickening. Glad to know the New York building trade unions are as reactionary as they were 40 years ago.