Monday, February 28, 2011

A Thought for Nate on Unions

My post on Friday came late to a debate that, on the ground at least, appears to be winding down, or at least is shifting to a different terrain--it seems unlikely that a mobilization that brought up to 100,000 people out on the streets of Madison on Saturday (and tens of thousands more in demonstrations which occurred in state capitols all around the country in support of them) will be able to keep up such intensity. Unless, of course, the stuff floating around you hear about a general strike in Wisconsin comes to fruition; that would kick things up another level. But for now, one quick additional thought.

Nate Oman, a law professor at William and Mary, is one of the smartest people I know, and my proof of this is the many times he has hammered me over basic issues of economics in our many political and religious arguments over the years. Nate's basically a fan of markets, and thus basically unfriendly to unions. But he respects the ideas and history they represent, as laid out in this fine column which was published over the weekend. A highlight:

Labor law and anti-discrimination law regulate the workplace in fundamentally different ways. Anti-discrimination laws treat workers in isolation, protecting them against mistreatment on the basis of race, religion, gender, and--in some jurisdictions--sexual orientation. It holds up the ideal of an individual judged wholly independent of any accidents of birth or identity. Labor law, in contrast, creates associations of workers, often using mild coercion, and forces management to bargain with the associations. In contrast to the individualism of anti-discrimination laws, labor law envisions an ideal marketplace in which every worker is embedded in an association that both regulates his behavior and protects his interests.

Anti-discrimination law reflects a basically Protestant view of the moral universe, while labor law reflects a basically Catholic view of the moral universe. For Martin Luther every individual came alone before the throne of God, stripped of the mediating influences of tradition, community, or priesthoods, seeking mercy for his exposed and sinful soul....In contrast to Protestantism, Catholicism accepts the legitimacy of tradition in defining identity and insists that spiritual life requires participation in the "community of the saints"....Labor law reflects this communal vision of human identity and human flourishing.

This is a simplistic and even somewhat reductive explanation, as Nate would be the first to admit, but it's also insightful. As he succinctly the details the differences between the approaches taken by civil rights protesters in the 1960s, emerging most prominently from Protestant Baptist and African Methodist denominations, and those taken by labor forces, most of which found their greatest strength in the immigrant Catholic communities and leadership of the early 20th century, it makes sense to suggest that the different legal thinking at work in Wisconsin (many conservatives are happy to attack collective bargaining, but have no interest in going as far as Rand Paul and attacking the Civil Rights Act) reflects a difference, at least in part, in our civil religion: most of us, and most of our institutions and organizations, are more Protestant than Catholic, more individualistic than communitarian, and thus there is less public cost associated with attacking anything that speaks of people in terms of group or class or community interests, as opposed to something that speaks of individual rights.

I would ask Nate one question though, one which his own argument opens up about Wisconsin--namely, if this reasoning is correct, then shouldn't attacking corporations, vilifying and challenging and undermining the advantages which their collective associations of capital, built around plainly fictitious "persons," have enabled them to gain in the marketplace, be a lot easier? Of course, there is plenty out there on the level of rhetoric which romanticizes the entrepreneurial individual going up against the big corporate guns...but when you look at where weight lies in our economy (easy answer: look where the bulk of bailout dollars went), it really does seem that corporate entities enjoy plenty of advantages. Why doesn't our civil religion granted that same benefit of the doubt to unions? Corporations are, of course, in their basic organization, no more foreign to "using mild coercion" in the service of pulling together their constituent parts, than unions are. They are collective, in other words, or rather, "Catholic." Yet our presumably Protestant resistance to such doesn't seem to have the same effect. The answer, I suspect is obvious: deep religious explanations only go so far, especially when they are up against structural forces which shape and privilege the holders of capital in their presentation of themselves as friends of the individual economic actor. Or, as the joke making the rounds on Facebook today puts it: "A unionized employee, a Tea Party member & a corporate CEO are sitting at a table. In the middle is a plate with a dozen cookies on it. The CEO reaches out & takes 11 of the cookies, then says to the Tea Party member 'look out for that union guy, he wants a piece of your cookie.'" That's about the size of it, or so it seems to me.

Friday, February 25, 2011

A (Compromised) Localist Looks at Wisconsin

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Wow--I've let almost all of February go by without any substantial blogging. A hiatus indeed, I guess. But still, I shouldn't let the month end without saying at least something about what is happening in Wisconsin--especially considering that in the early hours of this morning, the Wisconsin Assembly passed the "Budget Repair Bill" which tens of thousands of protesters have spent the better part of two weeks demonstrating against. It's a bill that, should the Wisconsin Senate approve it (which it can't under present rules so long as enough Democratic senators stay in hiding, robbing the Senate of the quorum needed to vote), and should Governor Scott Walker sign it (which he, of course, would in an instant; it's his bill, after all) would, among other things, significantly cripple the power of most public employee unions in the state.

Given that the unions being targeted by this bill have long since signaled that they'd be willing to accept the cuts and budget reforms that the governor and Wisconsin Republican legislators are looking for, it has become fairly clear that this struggle is fundamentally about political power, not fiscal realities, however important they may be. It is a question about whose power over our economic landscape is to be respected, and to what degree. It places on one side the bondholders and bankers and CEOs who ultimately (and, perhaps, legitimately) demand a certain level of unregulated austerity if making investments and expenditures is to continue to appear appealing to them, or the workers and homeowners and citizens on whose behalf those programs and regulations--despite their admittedly often less-than-stellar track record--were designed:

The deal Wisconsin made with its state employees was simple: Accept lower wages than you could get in the private sector now in return for better pensions and health-care benefits when you retire. Now Walker wants to renege on that deal. Rather than stiff the banks, in other words, he wants to stiff the teachers--but the crucial twist he's added, the one that's sent tens of thousands of workers into the streets, is that he wants to make sure they can't fight back once he does it.

The reason you can't stiff bondholders is that they can make a state or country regret reneging on the deals they've made. They can increase borrowing costs far into the future, slowing economic growth and, through the resulting economic pain, throwing politicians out of office. That gives them power. An ordinary teacher does not have access to such artillery. Unless, of course, she's part of a union.

There are, to be sure, plenty of reasons to be concerned about the power of public employee unions--they can, like all other large organizations, become self-interested and corrupt, and thus stifle the productive actions of individuals and communities concerned with achieving common goods. The same can be said, of course, about all unions, in the same way the same can be said about all business and corporations, all school boards and church committees, all bureaucracies and agencies. But some say that public employee unions are an especially troubling case; that because their ultimate employer is technically themselves, and all the rest of us--everyone who pays taxes, in other words--public employee unions face a unique moral hazard, a very specific incentive to capture votes rather than negotiate, and thus act like an institutionalized political party within the bureaucracy of the state, rather than a "countervailing power" within the open market. Trade unions are a classic example of just such a power, and at least potentially a highly democratic example as well: organizing individual workers into a force which corporations, who enjoy the benefits of capital (and thus also the political power which an electoral system open to massive donations, never more so than now), would have to reckon with.

Does that logic fall apart with public employee unions? Many prominent opponents of the power of large corporations, including the father of the New Deal himself, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, thought so; the Wagner Act was about empowering the workers at private firms to demand respect from business owners, not enabling government employees to do the same. But perhaps all the changes in the American economy over the past three generations--some for good, many for worse--have changed this calculation as well. Manufacturing jobs have disappeared, as the country has grown wealthier and the technology making it possible for businesses to move their work to poorer (and thus, for them, more profitable) parts of the world has proliferated. Much of our country's economic lifeblood is now tied up in service and information-related jobs, in health and education and sanitation and livability and public spaces and environmental resources. Many of those jobs have been, from the beginning, rightly considered a public--that is, a government--responsibility, rather than a private one; many others have been moved, over the decades, from corporate hands to public ones (and some, to be sure, have also been moved back again). And that presents the question of whether people who hold those jobs, whether at the local or state or federal level, ought to be able to organize, to bargain collectively, to strike if necessary--to act as their own "countervailing power" against the government (which arguably has long been dominated by corporate and Wall Street interests, whether the Democrats or the Republicans were in control, anyway) that employees them. (See more on this issue here.)

For folks like myself, folks attracted to the ideas of local power and economic democracy, the fact these demonstrations have erupted in Wisconsin is significant. Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette led Wisconsin as a U.S. representative and senator, as its governor, and as a presidential candidate for years. He was very much a Progressive, and for perhaps most who identify themselves as localists or decentralists today, the Progressives were the worst kind of bureaucratic busybodies. But the fact remains that the causes which he fought for and against--against imperialism and powerful corporate trusts and child labor, for civil liberties and union protection and municipal independence--are very much part of the foundation upon which most of whatever real respect for "place" which has survived in the mostly urbanized, mostly interconnected America of today was originally built. (The union protesters and their sympathizers in Wisconsin absolutely recognize this fact; Governor Walker is, perhaps, trying to pass that historical reality over.) Intact neighborhoods, family-supporting wages, local authority: there were, of course, many components to all these--stronger churches and civic organizations being one, a less acquisitive and individualistic social and economic mentality in the first part of the last century being another--but one would have to engage in a great deal of historical revisionism to claim that the laws which protected and empowered unions, the laws which guaranteed the rights or workers or organize and make demands and negotiate with those in power, didn't play a huge role as well.

One might hope that, in a different socio-economic world, local democracy and economic independence wouldn't depend upon defending, as I believe at the present moment they must be, something as potentially troubling as public employee unions. Christopher Lasch noted years ago the inevitable difficulties for and the dangerous backlash against any truly authentic community populism which comes when the efforts to empower workers through trade unions result in the emergence of "Big Labor." Libertarian-minded individuals, who presumably ought to favor the freedom of association which unions at least potentially represent, tend to see the current argument (especially the argument involving public employee unions), as ambiguous at best: clearly unions are an important weapon in the arsenal of individuals and communities seeking to protect themselves as the powers of capital and corporations, but the strategies and structures of today's unions leave much to be desired--among other things, they set aside any more radical (populist or distributist or socialist) critique of the contemporary capitalism, in favor of a never-ending (and, in a world where globalized neoliberalism is dominant, mostly losing) battle over wages and living conditions. Some smart observers suggest that unions have outlived whatever usefulness they may have once had in terms of making a more equal and more empowered America, and that other strategies are now called for.

For myself, I see a continuation of the same tension that has been, to my mind, front and center throughout this ongoing crisis in global finance capitalism, and all the ways in which most of us--as workers and homeowners and voters and farmers and teachers and citizens--are implicated in it: what kind of compromises with the system should we make? How far should those compromises go? What kind of economic or political tools should we employ in those compromises? Or the present system--a system of large and perhaps systematically polarized and paralyzed governments, of corporate powers which are perhaps constitutionally incapable of considering questions of democracy and community when tabulating their bottom lines, of resource depletion, of credit-and-debt-dependent economies, of globalization and dislocation and consumption on a massive scale--so worthless or so near collapse as to make any attempt to reform or work through or within it pointless? I'm not able to resolve that tension; perhaps none of us can, until the crisis of peak oil, or some other crisis, renders the issue moot. But until then, I know what I believe in: I believe that the capitalist market, for all the good it produces (and it produces a lot), makes inevitable a distribution of power between employers and employed which is unequal--and that inequality, invariably, will work against the long-term flourishing of families and neighborhoods and communities within which the employed, those without independent access to politically-empowering and protecting wealth, dwell. Unions are certainly not a perfect tool for addressing this imbalance of power; they are often a defective tool, in fact. But they remain a tool, and one worth defending. For all the caveats and concerns we may have about the proper way to consider relations between business and government and labor at the present time, I would hope no localist worth his or her salt would blithely agree with those who would wave "larger fiscal realities" to distract us while they take that tool away.

Friday Morning Videos: "Walk of Life"

Two years ago, a huge hit, and a hugely influential video, by Dire Straits. This year, same band, but a much more modest hit and video. But hey, at least it isn't the silly American version with all the sports bloopers.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday Morning Videos: "Smooth Criminal"

Two years ago around this date, I bowed to pressure and put up Michael Jackson's biggest video of all time. And since then, I've acknowledged his influence a few more times. But I still haven't put up my favorite MJ video. So, here it is.

Cripes, it's hammy, not to mention ridiculously, cartoonishly violent. But visually, stylistically, I simply adore it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Hiatus By Any Other Name...

Wow, I really haven't been doing much blogging here--between family vacations, snow days, teaching extra classes (got to make the money somehow), and student excursions (I'm writing this from St. Louis at the moment, where I'm with our Model United Nations student delegation), time and energy and interest have been far lower than usual. Not that I haven't made this same excuse many times before at different points, of course. But seriously, I really do have plenty of posts in the works...I'm just not finished with any of them yet. Oh well, thank goodness Friday Morning Videos keeps me from forgetting about the blog entirely. Perhaps I'll get back on track next week. In the meantime, it looks like I'm in Ross Douthat's and Laura McKenna's boat, whether I meant to be or not.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Friday Morning Videos: "Ebony and Ivory" and "Say Say Say"

He doesn't have a tenth of the critical cred that Harrison had, but if I'm going to put up a couple of post-Beatles videos from George, I suppose I ought to do a couple from Paul McCartney too. I kind of liked Wings, after all. Anyway, pick your preference everyone: the atrociously cheesy one, or the depressingly banal one?

Not quite up to the level of "Goodnight Tonight" are they? Oh well; the 80s were hard on a lot of people. At least you can't say Sir Paul wasn't keeping himself busy.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Friday Morning Videos: "End of the Line"

Last year at this time, FMV gave you the high point of the post-Beatles glory that was George Harrison and The Traveling Wilburys. This year, another one. This song wasn't nearly the hit that "Handle With Care" was, but it's much too charming and touching a video to leave out. Roy Orbinson, RIP.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Getting High in Hawai'i (Part 2)

Obviously, traveling to the big island of Hawai'i is, for someone who lives in Kansas, a tremendous luxury. So I don't want to make too much of the fact that, for us, our vacation there was at least as much about being able to get away and follow our own pace as it was to go on some kind of once-in-a-life adventure. For the great majority of people in this world, to visit paradise even once (much less as often as we have!) really would be a once-in-a-lifetime-type of event. We're lucky, that's for sure. And I never felt that as strongly as I did last Friday.

On that day, our oldest daughter, Megan, and I got to do something that really was, as far as I felt it anyway, truly outrageous and adventuresome: we traveled by tour from Kailua-Kona, on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, to the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant (but technically not extinct) volcano that rises to a height of over 13,700 feet above sea level. Not being a mountain climber, that was easily more than twice as high as I have ever been in elevation before (while on the ground, that is: I'm not counting flying, obviously). Our tour took us up the valley between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, with much informative discussion of the geological formation of the island on the way. We drove to a information center at about 9000 feet, near the tiny community where the astronomers and engineers who work at the observatories on Mauna Kea live, and ate there, getting acclimatised to the thin air at that elevation. Then, it was a bumpy, long climb up the final mile to the summit. The views were stunning. The temperatures were "merely" sub-freezing, but with the thin air, my fingers felt frozen (Megan handled it better than I). After sunset, we traveled back down to our previous stop for some star-gazing. All around, an amazing day (and it was a full day: the trip up and back took nearly three hours each). Herewith, some photos:

At our first stop up the mountain, overlooking the clouded valley between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa to the east, shrouding the city of Hilo below...

...then, looking west, you can just see the top of Hualalai, the non-active (but not entirely dormant) volcano that forms the western ridge of Hawai'i island.

At the summit of Mauna Kea, at sunset, we were surrounded by the shadows of the 13 observatories that have been built there, the Keck Observatory (the twin white globes) most prominently....

In the second one, you can see pretty clearly the snow all around us. At the time of our visit, it had been two weeks since the last heavy snowfall on the summit of Mauna Kea, and much of the snow had slowly evaporated in the sunlight. Still, snow in Hawaii: that was one of Megan's big goals for the trip, and I was happy to see it fulfilled

To the north, we could easily look over Kohala, the northenmost and oldest (but still not yet officially extinct) volcano on the island, and make out the southern end of the island of Maui, 30 miles away...

Most dramatically, to our east we could look out, over the clouds and the Pacific, and see the shadow of Mauna Kea itself--a pretty bizarre (and awesome) sight...

After our time at the summit, we did some star-gazing, which was simply fantastic; I'd never before seen the night sky so filled with stars that it was actually hard to focus on any one of them. Unfortunately, our camera couldn't take night sky pictures--but of all the celestial items (Jupiter, the Andromeda galaxy, and more) that we viewed, none were as impressive as the Orion Nebula, a spot in the sky that I seen lots of pictures of, but never had never seen with my own eyes (as aided by a powerful telescope!) before...

Once in a lifetime? Considering that I'm extremely unlikely to take up a second career as an astronomer, this qualifies. A great, memorable day, one of the best I've ever had on a vacation. A luxury indeed.

What Can I say About Hawai'i? (Part 1)

A couple of days ago we returned from a superb vacation: eight days on the big island of Hawai'i. It's an enormous blessing to visit that island paradise--and we've done it four times. My parents own a time-share condominium on the west side of the island, in Kailua-Kona, which they travel to every wintertime, and when budgets, schedules, and frequent-flier miles have allowed, we've visited them out there for a week or so in January (our previous trips have been in 1998, 2001, and 2005). By this time, we've gotten to know the island pretty well--though there are still parts of it we've never visited, and parts we'd love to get back to, if ever the opportunity for such a trip may fall into our hands again. The last time we went I summed up some of my thoughts and recommendations this way:

[The island of Hawai'i] is a gorgeous and still relatively simple place. People drive slow (the roads are two-lane, and often not good), the shopping options are limited, and you either conform to the environment or head back to Honolulu (or the mainland). Sure, I'm painting with a broad brush here: there are plenty of pricey resorts all over the island, and they deliver food and entertainment and services with all the speed and efficiency that one might expect from a complex tourist economy....And yet the socio-economic stakes are still pretty small. Head up from the coastline, into the forests that cover the hillsides, and you've got farmers and ranchers and fishermen living day to day, ex-hippies and local Hawaiians rubbing shoulders with long-time Japanese immigrants and various European refugees, any one of which you're likely to bump into on the beach or at the one big Costco up the road where most everyone shops at least once a month or so. It's a remarkable place, possibly the most multicultural non-urban environment I've ever encountered, and one in every way inviting to people who are looking for a vacation that will allow them to step off the road and find their own pace for a while, rather than rush even faster to get it all in.

In other words, though lacking the urban amenities of bigger and pricier vacation locales, it's the perfect location for wanna-be slacker-localists like ourselves. As proof, some photographic evidence:

1) It's the simple things, natural world edition:
You can travel from the northernmost part of the island (the black sand beach at Polulu Valley)... the southernmost part (the raw lava stone cliffs at Ka Lae, or South Point)...

...and visit zoos and museums and beaches and parks all throughout, and what will be most memorable? Probably that awesome banyan tree jungle right beside Rainbow Falls:

2) It's the simple things, food edition:
We cooked for ourselves, ate at cafeterias and restaurants, and checked out the wonderful Hilo Farmers Market. Four of us ate at a fun local luau, and two of us took a meal at over 9000 ft. in elevation (more on that here). We had some fine local fish: 'ahi (tuna), ono (wahoo), mahi-mahi (dolphinfish), and my favorite, kajiki (blue marlin). But what was my favorite food-related discovery? Nothing less than a simple dish of saimin...

...and a delicious loaf of sweetbread...

...available at the Punalu'u Bake Shop in the tiny town of Na'alehu in the Ka'u District (whose oranges are pretty awesome as well).

We drove right by this place on our away to South Point; good thing Melissa insisted we stop there and grab some lunch on our way back.

3) It's the simple things, family edition:

As I wrote in that old post of mine, nearly fifteen years ago Melissa and I had a chance to take a Caribbean cruise--and despite the sun and the sand and the swimming, the truth is that with only a couple of exceptions, we really didn't enjoy it too much. We didn't like being rushed; we didn't liked being overwhelmed by the tourist economy (however much we were obviously a part of it); and mostly we didn't like being without our daughter. Well, we have four daughters now, and the opportunity to get away without the kids is an increasingly rare and precious commodity. But still, the fact remains: we like doing this together. From our stop our first Sunday there at the LDS temple in Kona-Kailua... our visit to the Place of Refuge National Park just south of the city on our final Sunday before flying home...

...this is why we take vacations: to see things we haven't seen before, and too see them together with people we love. Wasting away our final Saturday afternoon awaiting the sunset at Hapuna Beach State Park on the west side of island?

Works for us anyway.