CINDY SHEEHAN: NOT SO PROGRESSIVE

More surprising than Cindy Sheehan’s return from her ostensible break from activism is her willingness to embrace conservative cant against the income tax:

The Federal Reserve, permanent federal (and unconstitutional) income taxes, Japanese Concentration Camps and, not one, but two atom bombs dropped on the innocent citizens of Japan were brought to us via the Democrats.

The 16th amendment empowers the majority to legislate against subjugation and plutocracy. It institutes a critical tool to confront on the badges of slavery abjured in the 13th amendment and realize the equal protection promised in the 14th.

Cindy Sheehan’s inane legal argument and her outrageous ethical argument against the income tax are disappointing. What’s more discouraging is skimming through the comments and realizing that taking on Nancy Pelosi arouses more outrage from DailyKos commenters than taking on the income tax.

ABRA-MATHON

On today’s YDN opinion page, Eli Luberoff writes a letter responding to the statement in my Tuesday column that

While Abramoff made strategic donations to members of both parties, it was Republicans with whom he collaborated to break the law and the trust of the American people.

Eli agrees with the second part of the sentence, but he disputes the first part – that Abramoff made “strategic donations to members of both parties.” In retrospect, my wording was needlessly imprecise. Literally, Abramoff did make “strategic donations to member of both parties,” in that he made in-kind donations to Democrats as well as Republicans. More important, though, are the donations Abramoff directed through his clients to Democrats as well as Republicans, which were more substantial. Better wording here would have more clearly encompassed those contributions, which while heavily skewed towards Republicans, didn’t go exclusively to them. But as my column made clear, I agree with Eli that this is a Republican scandal through and through.

My Tuesday piece also comes up in Roger Low’s column today. Roger notes that Democrats do corrupt things sometimes too, which I think we can all acknowledge without losing sight of the underlying ideological edge of the Abramoff scandal: this is a story about concentrated economic power trumping popular majorities in setting policy and distributing resources. Roger rightfully calls the Democrats on their failure to champion a more aggressive reform agenda, and then veers off into an encomium to John McCain, who – besides being a staunch conservative except for his opposition to torture, global warming, and soft money (talk about defining deviancy down) – hasn’t championed any of those reforms either.

YES IT WILL

Ezra Klein claims that

making Wal-Mart do better will not change [T]arget, or whoever dominate[s] the next major industry.

Of course it will.

Right now, Wal-Mart is militating against living wage employment with human rights nationally by forcing higher-wage employers out of business and inspiring competitors to ape its strategies for temporarily squeezing as much labor power as possible out of each of their employees before dumping and replacing them. Puffed up with public subsidies, Wal-Mart is the pep squad as well as the front-runner and the finish line in the race to the bottom. Transforming Wal-Mart into a progressive ally, as Ezra rightly seeks to do, would cease the damage Wal-Mart is currently doing far beyond the ever-multiplying communities which it’s entered.

And transforming Wal-Mart will send a clear signal to its competitors. Wal-Mart does business the way it does – locking employees indoors, forcing them to work off the clock, vetting them for class consciousness – because it can get away with it. When Wal-Mart changes, it will be because a broad-based coalition has used effective mobilization and pressure to show that they can’t.

The longest strike in the history of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International (HERE, now merged to become UNITE HERE) was the strike at the Las Vegas Frontier Hotel and Casino, fought against a viciously anti-union family which preferred to run their hotel into the ground rather than settling with the union. These people reprogrammed their sprinkler system in an effort to target picketers. Once they caved in 1998 (the family essentially went bankrupt and had to sell the hotel to someone else willing to settle), after a six-and-a-half year strike during which none of the 550 strikers crossed the picket line, workers at each of the neighboring hotels were able to win recognition without having to go on strike for a day.

The same principle, writ large, is at work in the campaign to transform Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is the biggest and the baddest, and a movement which fought them and won would entirely reshape the playing field in the struggle over whether we a s a country will race to the bottom or pave the high road. Change them, and you change the country.

SIX POPULISMS

TPMCafe’s guest stint by Thomas Frank (One Market Under God, by the way, is a masterpiece) has stirred a spirited debate about the place of populism in a progressive future. Populism is a word which has rightly come up fairly frequently in more- and less-enlightened discussions of the left’s future, but too often it seems like folks are talking past each other. Here are six of the somewhat but not entirely related themes I think are in play in the way different people discuss populism:

Progressive Economics: In broad strokes, the economic policy proposals that get labeled as populist are the ones least popular with the Washington Post editorial board and the “Washington Consensus” crowd: fair trade or no trade; downward economic redistribution; unionization. Opposition to immigration often gets grouped in here as well as part of the same package, though for obvious reasons I’d rather apply the populist label to the push for equal labor rights for immigrants.

Direct Democracy: The other set of policy proposals which usually get the populist labels are the ones which bring political decisions under more direct control of the American public. This includes taking decisions away from judges and handing them over to legislatures and taking them away from legislatures and handing them over to public referenda.

Trust in crowds: Populism is also used to describe a posture – whether held by politicians or activists – of trust in the mass public and distrust in elites. Usually, trust in the public is justified by an appeal to the wisdom of common people in identifying their own problems and synthesizing their own solutions. And distrust in elites is justified on the grounds of their inability to understand those insights or, more often, their narrow interests.

Democratic Legitimacy: Populism also describes a particular kind of appeal made by elected or unelected political leaders. Candidates for office, especially, tend to get the populist label for seizing democratic legitimacy for themselves – that is, for framing themselves as the bearers and protectors of the people’s will. The corollary to the candidate as representative of the masses is the candidate as enemy of the elites, whose hostility is easily explained by their opposition to the popular policies and popular mandate.

Prejudice: Populism is also a frequently-invoked label to describe all manner of ugly prejudice, be it directed against Blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or immigrants. In this conception, populism is the cry of some self-defined majority against unwelcome interlopers. This meaning of populism – which gives elites a lot of credit – is never far when someone’s looking to discredit one of the others.

Economic Focus: Maybe the simplest sense in which the word populism is used is to refer to a focus on economic issues (rather than a particular stance on them), to the exclusion of others.

That makes two kinds of policy approaches, two rhetorical/ philosophical postures, a question of focus, and a very bad thing (generally thrown into the mix by pundits like Joe Klein to make everything associated with the word sound ugly). Each of them, though, has a way of showing up implicitly in discussions about what is or should be populist.

What does it mean, for example, to ask whether Bill Clinton was a populist President? He often gets described that way, in large part because he ran on the economy (“It’s the Economy, Stupid”), and because his challenge to Bush benefited significantly from a sense that Clinton represented the concerns of the American people with which the President had fallen out of touch (and supermarket ray-guns). Others associate Clinton with the decline of populism in the Democratic party, and of the party in the country, pointing to his conservative stance on issues like NAFTA and the technocratic underpinnings of the “Reinventing Government” concept. I’m not going to say they’re both right (I’d say Clinton campaigned as a populist, but he didn’t govern as much of one). I will say that on those terms, it’s no surprise that those conversations don’t get farther than they do.

Thoughts?

THE COSTCO ALTERNATIVE

In yesterday’s New York Times, Steven Greenhouse profiles Costco, its Chief Executive Jim Sinegal, and the model he’s providing as an alternative to the Wal-Mart economy:

Costco’s average pay, for example, is $17 an hour, 42 percent higher than its fiercest rival, Sam’s Club. And Costco’s health plan makes those at many other retailers look Scroogish. One analyst, Bill Dreher of Deutsche Bank, complained last year that at Costco “it’s better to be an employee or a customer than a shareholder.” Mr. Sinegal begs to differ. He rejects Wall Street’s assumption that to succeed in discount retailing, companies must pay poorly and skimp on benefits, or must ratchet up prices to meet Wall Street’s profit demands. Good wages and benefits are why Costco has extremely low rates of turnover and theft by employees, he said…If shareholders mind Mr. Sinegal’s philosophy, it is not obvious: Costco’s stock price has risen more than 10 percent in the last 12 months, while Wal-Mart’s has slipped 5 percent…

Despite Costco’s impressive record, Mr. Sinegal’s salary is just $350,000, although he also received a $200,000 bonus last year. That puts him at less than 10 percent of many other chief executives, though Costco ranks 29th in revenue among all American companies. “I’ve been very well rewarded,” said Mr. Sinegal, who is worth more than $150 million thanks to his Costco stock holdings. “I just think that if you’re going to try to run an organization that’s very cost-conscious, then you can’t have those disparities. Having an individual who is making 100 or 200 or 300 times more than the average person working on the floor is wrong.”…Costco also has not shut out unions, as some of its rivals have. The Teamsters union, for example, represents 14,000 of Costco’s 113,000 employees. “They gave us the best agreement of any retailer in the country,” said Rome Aloise, the union’s chief negotiator with Costco. The contract guarantees employees at least 25 hours of work a week, he said, and requires that at least half of a store’s workers be full time.

CostCo continues to prove, as I wrote here last year, that the choice Americans face isn’t between policies that are “friendly” or “hostile” to business, or between “big government” and “economic freedom.” Government policies can force a race to the bottom of ever-worsening standards and quality of life for the working Americans who make prosperity possible. Or they can pave the high road by rewarding companies that invest in the economic security of workers and consumers. It’s the latter choice which fosters and expands the real economic freedom which comes from workers’ voice on the job and control over their lives, and whose expansion increases the humanity of our economy.

A KICK IN THE TEETH

Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ): “There are hundreds of thousands of Americans who have their arms, who have their eyesight, who have their lives, because OSHA has teeth.”

Right now in the House, the Republicans are pushing four bills to further weaken OSHA by making it easier for employers to put off responding to complaints, making it easier for the President to stack the commission, and limiting OSHA’s ability to aggressively interpret its laws. All this, of course, in the name of protecting small business. “Mom and Pop” companies, we’re asked to believe are wrongly aggrieved by the requirement that they notify OSHA within fifteen days should they wish to contest responsibility for conditions which cause serious injury or death for their employees. And we’re asked to believe, further, that the current law is unfair to all those small business owners who are injured simultaneously with their workers. Employers, of course, already have the opportunity to seek extensions in extraordinary circumstances; what Republicans want is to shift the responsibility to OSHA to prove why the deadline, which saves lives by facilitating rapid redress of unsafe conditions, should ever apply.

Rep. Major Owens (D-NY): “There is a class problem developing in America…What we’ve found in this war in Iraq, is that people on the top aren’t providing the kind of protection needed for people on the frontlines from working families.”

Truth is, there’s been a class problem developing in America, sadly, for a long time. It’s one we should be hearing about more often on the floor of the Congress and outside of it. And we’d be well served by more media attention to dangerous legislation like the bills under debate right now. But for all their claims to be looking out for regular Americans, you’ll notice that the Republicans aren’t hoping to see their handiwork on this issue in the news:

Rep. John Boehner (R-OH): “Let me remind my colleagues what this small, inocuous bill does…”

If a line like that doesn’t set off alarms, you haven’t been paying attention.

SEEKING SOLAR SOLIDARITY

Nathan offers a good example of what a missed chance to build a broad-based pro-environmental constituency looks like:

California is debating a Schwarzenegger-backed bill to subsidize solar panels on homes and businesses across the state– on a level that could supply energy equivalent to 10 average-sized coal-fired power plants. Sounds good, but in a classic move to pit labor and environmental interests, the GOP cosponsors, as this article details, oppose a requirement that public money only go to installers paying prevailing union wages in the state. Labor in California has fought a long struggle to require that, if government pays for it, the labor has to meet union wage levels. Now, the GOP wants to open a multi-billion dollar loophole in the rule: somehow the hipness of solar panels makes using public money for sweatshop labor acceptable. This is a perfect chance for environmentalists to stand up for the principle that green policy can also be a pro-labor policy, but few environmental leaders have stepped up to champion prevailing wages for the workers who would actually install all these solar panels across the state.

It’s this kind of failure build not just a momentary majority but a stable, inter-generational, cross-cause constituency that caused some environmental leaders last year to declare “The Death of Envionmentalism.” Of course, where Nathan says,

And the enviros wonder why some labor unions joined the GOP in supporting drilling in ANWR when they promised that all those jobs would pay union wages

one could with equal justification fire back “And the union people wonder why some environmentalists are willing to screw them to get solar energy in the wake of ANWR.” The stakes for both movements – fostering an alternative to a laissez-faire race to the bottom and building an economy which values and invests in human beings and the earth – are too high not to work together. Everyone has on the left has some work to do to get their own house(s) in order. If you want to see what the payoff from broader-based, cross-issue organizing looks like, just check out the modern Right in this country.