The Mean Season

Here’s a thought. The worst of times is when you’re told it’s the best of times, and you are told that you’d damned well better get a smile on your face and appreciate what’s going on around you right now, or else. Being told to be happy makes actually being happy nearly impossible. Everyone knows that’s a weapon to make you feel guilty and inadequate, and it’s seasonal too. Now, as Christmas approaches and Andy Williams is on the car radio singing about how it’s the most wonderful time of the year, you may just not be feeling it. He’s still dead, by the way, but you know the problem. It’s all that shopping for the right gift you really can’t afford and probably will be the wrong thing anyway – and somehow you know you’re being manipulated. If you know you’re supposed to feel the holiday spirit, and somehow don’t, you certainly will feel guilty and inadequate, and thus spend far more than you should. It works every time. Somehow it seems like a marketing racket.

There are also those throngs of happy shoppers at the mall, if you can find parking, but those folks don’t look happy at all. They look harried and depressed and there is a deep malaise in the air, actually a kind of despair. Their kids are whining or screaming, or both, and you dare not strike up a conversation while waiting in the endless line to pay for whatever it is you just bought, hoping it will do. After all, you might nod to the person next to you in line and make the mistake of wishing them a Happy Holidays. If they’re one of the many millions who watch Bill O’Reilly on Fox News you’re likely to get a diatribe about the War on Christmas he invented, and then be told in no uncertain terms that you should have said Merry Christmas. All of America has been ganging up on the poor abused and ignored Christians forever and that has to stop, right now. Bill O’Reilly has singlehandedly convinced much of America that Christmas is a time for seething anger and righteous outrage. Heck, you might get punched in the nose, for Jesus – but then if you wished the other person a Merry Christmas you could have the other problem. What can you say then? Funny, you don’t look Jewish? You don’t want a lecture on having their having to deal with a goy holiday that really has nothing to do with them. Obviously it’s best to see if you can stand next to a Buddhist in line – they will just smile benignly at whatever you say – or best keep your mouth shut. Christmas is a perilous time. There aren’t enough Buddhists around.

This really is the time of year when people get mean, maybe from being told that this is the best of times. No one yet knows why that fellow opened up with an automatic rifle and mowed down the Christmas shoppers at that Portland mall – the mall Santa had to drop to the floor to take cover – but something like that was just waiting to happen. On the other hand perhaps he was no more than one more massively unhinged person in a country where anyone can get a fully-automatic with a hundred-round magazine of Teflon-coated hollow-tips. Or, conversely, maybe if all the mall’s Christmas shoppers were packing, even the kids, he’d have been stopped right away, shot dead by a seven-year-old girl or something. Americans will never work out that sort of thing, but somehow no one should be surprised this happened at Christmas time. It’s that time of year when everyone feels a bit murderous off and on.

Consider it the mean season. Consider also the reaction to the Big Michigan Christmas Surprise:

Jimmy Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said Tuesday he expects Michigan unions and lawmakers to break out into “civil war” after the state legislature passed right-to-work bills that would weaken unions’ power. “This is just the first round of a battle that’s going to divide this state. We’re going to have a civil war,” Hoffa said on CNN’s “Newsroom.”

The bill passed with no problem at all:

Labor relations in the Midwest reached a new level of acrimony as Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder abruptly signed legislation placing limits on unions, setting up a bitter political battle that could resonate nationwide. It’s a stunning development for a blue state that’s been known as a place friendly to labor, where autoworkers and their families from Detroit to Saginaw have benefited from generous union contracts. An estimated 15,000 workers descended on the state Capitol in Lansing on Tuesday to protest against the bills, scuffling at times with police and conservatives who also set up shop at the Capitol.

Yep, Michigan passed two bills that would make it a “right to work” state. The state now prohibits union security agreements that make union membership or fees a condition of employment. The week before they passed bills that covered private sector and public sector employees and Rick Snyder simply signed them. Police unions are exempted. They have to bust heads if the Hoffa war gets nasty, and the context is this:

While employees making low wages at companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and McDonald’s Corp. are protesting to demand higher wages, businesses are increasing the number of lockouts they impose on workers. And in the last two years, union supporters have converged on state capitols in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio to oppose bills that restricted their power. Now, labor groups from around the country are watching what happens in Michigan, where labor groups have vowed to overturn the law and vote Snyder out of office by 2014. If Michigan, which voted for President Obama over native son Mitt Romney by 8 percentage points, becomes a right-to-work state permanently, others could follow suit.

The war is on, and one side won big:

Conservative groups hailed the passage of the bills as an economic boon for Michigan, which was plagued by some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation during the recession.

“In addition to greater freedom for Michigan’s workers, the right-to-work law will provide significant economic benefits for the state’s workers and small businesses,” Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee, said in a statement.

So that was the Christmas surprise. Rick Snyder had campaigned saying, explicitly, that he would never do something like this – it would be far too divisive and he was a good guy and a reasonable man – and then, as soon as he was elected, he did the deed. He announced that now new businesses would rush into Michigan – unions had been neutered and no workers would now be demanding good pay or safe working conditions or reasonable hours. What large corporation wouldn’t want to relocate to Michigan now? Boom times were coming. There’d be jobs for everyone – not safe jobs with good pay or reasonable hours – but lots of new jobs nevertheless.

At least that’s the theory. Another way of looking at it is that Rick Snyder envisions a Michigan with no middle class at all, with no one making the good money that assures that. There’d be the powerless workers, working for what they were offered – take it or leave it – and all the prosperous businesses. On Fox News the talk was about how workers who don’t like Michigan’s anti-union bill can just get a job elsewhere – take it or leave it, as the good guys won, not the greedy workers who always ruin everything.

In fact, try a thought experiment. If every American worker – save for senior management and corporate officers – would agree to work for two months each year for free, and work the other ten months for no more than minimum wage, for a period of say five years, American businesses would roar back to life. We really would be in boom times and be at full employment right away. Yes, there would be no Americans able to buy a damned thing, but we could sell a ton of stuff to the rest of the world. Our trade deficit would disappear like magic and we’d be the dynamic envy of the world. And if any worker felt somehow that they really needed a bit more money – for rent or food or a new pair of shoes – well then they could build a business of their own and earn their own success, like Real Americans, the risk-taking entrepreneurs.

Of course there’s the real world. Most economic activity in the country is Americans selling goods and services to other Americans – so you can’t subtract demand by assuring crap-wages and then not expect disaster. No one would ever have a merry Christmas. Paying almost all workers something above what they call a living wage keeps the whole system working. They then have money to spend here and there’s no way now to rely on foreign markets anyway – Europe is a mess and China is pretty good at blocking imports and making their own versions of everything we make, violating all intellectual property and trade-secrets rights. They don’t much care, and the Brazilians make their own stuff – they don’t need ours. There are some details to work out. Supply-side economics is tricky.

That is, however, where we are. The Big Michigan Christmas Surprise was, in its underlying assumption, an exercise in classic supply-side economics, to cite the economist Paul Krugman once again:

The American economy is still, by most measures, deeply depressed. But corporate profits are at a record high. How is that possible? It’s simple: profits have surged as a share of national income, while wages and other labor compensation are down. The pie isn’t growing the way it should – but capital is doing fine by grabbing an ever-larger slice, at labor’s expense…

More specifically, while it’s true that the finance guys are still making out like bandits – in part because, as we now know, some of them actually are bandits – the wage gap between workers with a college education and those without, which grew a lot in the 1980s and early 1990s, hasn’t changed much since then. Indeed, recent college graduates had stagnant incomes even before the financial crisis struck. Increasingly, profits have been rising at the expense of workers in general, including workers with the skills that were supposed to lead to success in today’s economy.

It’s a shift of income from labor to capital, where profits are skyrocketing at workers’ expense. Labor unions exist to fight that. Now they can’t in twenty-four states, adding Michigan to the list. Add too that the Michigan bills were written, word for word, by the American Legislative Exchange Council – the 501(c)(3) funded by the by the billionaire Koch brothers. Those guys get what they want, and they provide legislators with the exact words that should be put in legislation to get just that. It saves everyone a lot of time. The unions didn’t have a chance.

Now on to the fiscal cliff negotiations! If these supply-side guys can only get Obama to agree to refuse to let taxes on the rich revert to their previous levels, and also agree to massive cuts in Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid too, along with abandoning all the Obamacare nonsense – then America could really prosper. Businesses would thrive again. It’s just that Obama did win the election, and also has two-thirds of the public on his side in all these matters.

Drat – but it’s the season of meanness and they do have a plan:

They are losing the battle over higher taxes on the wealthy, so now Republicans are threatening a political war next year when it comes time to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

With cracks appearing in their anti-tax facade and polls showing most Americans favoring President Barack Obama’s stance in the fiscal cliff negotiations, GOP legislators are starting to advocate a tactical retreat to fight another day.

Conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, promised the newly re-elected Obama “one hell of a fight” next year if the president forces through his plan for high-income earners to pay more taxes without agreeing to substantive steps to reduce the nation’s chronic federal deficits and debt.

“But there will come a time in February and March where we have to raise the debt ceiling,” Graham said Tuesday on “Piers Morgan Tonight” on CNN.

We will have to raise the debt ceiling, as usual, and here we go again. Just like last time the Republicans will refuse to do that, meaning the United States, will, for the first time, default on its debt obligations – we just won’t pay our bills for what we’ve already spent, destroying the bond market and crashing the world’s economy as there will be no more safe haven anywhere for capital – unless Obama does exactly what the Republicans want. He’ll have to make those massive cuts in Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, and if they want, abolish all taxes on the rich too, and abandon Obamacare, and maybe wear sackcloth. They’ve lost now but they’ll win soon enough, and win big.

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein finds this odd:

The political problem is that many Hill Republicans have convinced themselves that they’ll have the upper hand if they let the country topple fully or mostly over the cliff and then restart negotiations with a debt default looming in the background. They figure that although Obama really is willing to let the country go over the cliff, he’s not willing to let the country default and spark a global financial crisis. They ARE willing to do that, or they believe they can more credibly say they are, and that gives them leverage.

This increasingly influential theory is weakening John Boehner’s hand, as it’s giving House Republicans who don’t want to cut a deal a way to argue that they just need to stand firm now and they’ll get a better deal later.

It’s a question of whether you want to win now or win later. Poor John Boehner – he’s being whipsawed, and, unfortunately, he’s also facing a different Obama this time:

Whatever House Republicans might think, the White House is all steel when it comes to the debt ceiling. Their position is simple, and it’s typically delivered in the tone of voice that Bruce Willis reserves for talking to terrorists: They’re happy to raise the debt ceiling on their own, as would be the case under their proposal to take authority for the debt ceiling away from Congress. But if Congress rejects that offer, then the debt ceiling is Congress’s problem, and the White House will not help.

The Obama administration is utterly steadfast on this point: They will not suffer a repeat of 2011, when they conducted negotiations over whether the United States should default. If Republicans go over the cliff and try to open up talks for raising the debt ceiling, the White House will not hold a meeting, they will not return a phone call, they will not look at the e-mails. They will move to an entirely public strategy, rallying voters and the business community against the GOP’s repeated brinksmanship.

Being mean and nasty only works if the other side rolls over. If the other side is willing to be as mean as you are, well, you’re stuck. We’re in a mean season. Everyone gets to join in.

It’s a problem Ed Kilgore puts this way:

Even the “reasonable” Republicans who are willing to consider tax rate increases prior to January 1 do not seem willing to give up a second, bigger fight over the debt limit. And the need to make that an apocalyptic fight that could do more damage to the economy than going over the “fiscal cliff” will only get more urgent as Republicans opposed to any real compromise exercise their prerogative to throw conniption fits about the gutless Republicans-in-Name-Only in charge of negotiations.

He cites Noam Scheiber with this:

The only way the party leadership will be able to appease these holdouts is by promising all-out war on the rest of the president’s priorities, beginning with demands for massive spending cuts when the debt-ceiling has to be raised next year. The Republicans “will give way … but seething,” Josh Marshall has written. “The right of the party will not accept anything less than another debt-ceiling hostage drama.” If Obama somehow manages to survive that fight, then they will simply seize on the next opportunity to defeat him (like the March 2013 budget vote that will be necessary to keep the government running), or the next one after that.

Scheiber also sees where the Republicans will have to end up:

The real key here is the political upshot of going over the cliff: Republicans will see in defeat that it’s not Obama who has somehow pulled one over on their leadership or simply played his hand better. Instead, they will see that they have been completely repudiated by the public in a way that even the election didn’t impress on them. It will, in other words, be as close as you get in politics to a total victory for one side. It will highlight the perils of following one’s base too slavishly, a lesson that will come in handy not just on future fiscal policy fights (there will in all likelihood still be a debt ceiling to raise next year), but, one can imagine, also on an issue like immigration.

Ah, they will no longer play mean, but Kilgore isn’t buying it:

I’m skeptical of any strategy that depends on convincing conservatives they need to be more reasonable.

So is Kevin Drum:

True enough. And it’s also true that any deal that doesn’t include a debt ceiling increase is a waste of time. Why bother cutting a deal if Republicans are just going to pick another lever to wreck the economy with?

But wait. There’s more. Senseless meanness can be counterproductive:

I continue to wait and wonder about the business community. Their self-interest is pretty clear: they should be in favor of a fiscal cliff agreement and they should be in favor of a debt ceiling agreement. Throwing the economy into the crapper is bad for business, after all. And yet, right now there’s only a glimmering of evidence that business leaders are pressuring their tea-party friends to settle down, admit the need for compromise, and do a deal. So far, apparently, class loyalties are trumping fiduciary responsibilities.

Well, maybe class loyalties really are trumping fiduciary responsibilities here – there’s no logical reason that the business community should be siding with the Republicans on these two matters. There are other ways to destroy that pesky middle class and make big money, but there too, if you destroy the middle class, starting with the unions that made it possible by fighting for a better life, you do eliminate all your customers. It’s a puzzle the supply-side folks haven’t worked out yet.

On the other hand it’s the season for being mean, so people are. Consider the array of meanness here, and avoid the malls. The worst of times is when you’re told it’s the best of times.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to The Mean Season

  1. Rick says:

    I see you reused the Krugman quote from yesterday. But maybe the real story of that column is hinted at in its title, “Robots And Robber Barons”, which is that maybe the systematic inequality being fostered in our economy, in which the value of labor is being marginalized, is happening because of the “robots” and “computers” that, rather than making the American worker more productive, as it might seem on the surface, they are making the American worker more and more superfluous — and almost wholly to the benefit of the robber barons who own the machines.

    So what’s happening in Michigan, which only seems to be huge, is really just a sidebar to the real story — that all those worriers back in the 1940s through the 1970s who warned that someday we’d all be replaced by robots, were spot on, and that all the naysayers who said we should stop being such worry-warts, were a bit like the global-warming deniers of today.

    Maybe this whole modern anti-labor movement is just the Koch brothers and their fellow robber barons playing with their food — that is, toying with the workers before essentially fazing them out of the picture.

    But as you point out, who will buy the things these machines build? Not workers in Michigan and Wisconsin, of course, since there won’t be any. Maybe workers in China? Hey, haven’t the Kochs heard? American manufacturing is being repatriated back to America! Which means, at some point there won’t be any workers in China either!

    And this is what I meant when I’ve been saying this systemic imbalance in the economy, in which all the wealth is being redistributed to those who already have too much of it, is bad for everybody — not just the 98%, but the top 2% as well. With all the weight at the top of the economy, it will just topple over and break. We may not know it, but it’s just possible we are killing the goose that lays the golden egg — that goose being ourselves.

    Henry Ford was way ahead of his time when he realized that paying his workers enough to buy his cars was eventually good for everyone. Why does America keep forgetting lessons it’s already learned, such as the lesson that, when we find ourselves in a depression, we need to fall back on deficit spending?

    Those of us born in the mid-1940s constantly heard in our schools the question about the Great Depression, “Could it happen again?”, followed by the inevitable reply, “No, because we learned our lessons from that, and since then, we’ve put mechanisms in place to prevent it, and nowadays we know what to do to keep it from happening, such as having our government spend enough money to keep the economy humming until it can get back on its feet.” But I guess today’s leaders either (1) are too young to have learned that, (2) didn’t hear that in school, or else (3) just weren’t paying attention.

    Which brings us to this, from Kevin Drum: “… any deal that doesn’t include a debt ceiling increase is a waste of time.”

    Close — but still, no. The debt ceiling should not be included in the deal, because there shouldn’t even be a deal if the debt ceiling hasn’t already been increased.

    In fact, there probably shouldn’t even be these discussions going on right now. Obama should stop the talks, and make that very public announcement to the Republicans that he should also have made months before the debt ceiling hostage negotiations began in 2011, but didn’t:

    “Raise the ceiling now, as there will be no budget talks until you do. Once we get this behind us, we can resume talking about budgets and other such things.”

    Why? Because all this budget stuff involves cutting spending, which is something the Republicans keep insisting we need to do, but is also something that would hurt the economy anyway. Since the deficit is a future problem to begin with, we can afford to put off any talk of spending cuts, even of the Pentagon, and also tax increases, even on the rich.

    Of course, part of this involves the White House using the bully-pulpit, something it has thus far refused to do, to get the public on its side on this stuff — reminding everyone that the Republicans pulled this trick once before and it resulted in our losing our triple-A rating; that America has a responsibility to pay its bills, and if the Republicans are threatening to default on America’s debts, the Republicans will be hurting the country. Obama needs to use shame, and to use it shamelessly.

    Or something like that.


  2. Madman says:

    Great stuff from Rick, as usual. The selfish bastards at the top appear determined to re-create America as the world’s largest banana republic — complete with the typical export-led economy, a minuscule middle class, a grossly disproportioned spread of wealth — where the few families (or corporations) at the top own 93% of EVERYTHING, and workers are essentially sharecroppers who owe their souls to the Company Store. We saw the British Empire operate this way with their conquered territories, treating the natives as literal or virtual slaves — and now the American Right wants this bleak future for America, and the sooner the better. Why not return to the Good Old Days of Biblical Times, where entrances to cities were lined with diseased and starving beggars, highwaymen made travel extremely dangerous, and nobles enjoyed their stupefying wealth with shows of narcissistic pride and vanity? Our Founding Fathers must have been nascent Communists, who inspired Marx and Engels! The inherent Truth of “Radix Malorum est Cupiditas” has never been more clear!

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