WHAT COULD A TELECOM MERGER MEAN FOR ECONOMIC DEMOCRACY?


I have a new post up on Dissent asking what an AT&T merger could mean for economic democracy:

If you’re on the left and you buy groceries, chances are at some point you’ve been faced with a choice between a neighborhood corner store and a unionized chain supermarket. That choice exposes a tension between two long-held progressive goals: anti-monopolism and workers’ industrial power.

The progressive puzzle I’m analyzing here reminds me of sociologist Albert Hirschman’s discussion of two ways people deal with inadequate institutions: exit and voice. It plays out in this case as a tension between improving customers’ chances of dumping an unjust company for another one and improving workers’ chances – together with consumers – of transforming their company.

Check it out.

Update (7/3): Alek Felstiner offers some interesting thoughts in response:
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IRANIAN LABOR LEADER PREDICTS ECONOMIC CRISIS

Last week Dissent published my interview with Homayoun Pourzad, the pseudonym for a leader in Iran’s labor movement. He had too many interesting things to say to fit into the article. So as a supplement to that piece, I wanted to share his dire predictions for Iran’s economy:

Eidelson: So what are we going to see happen with the economic situation in Iran over the next few months?

Pourzad: Even with rising oil prices, the government is not going to have enough money to continue cash subsidies.

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A LOT CAN HAPPEN IN FOUR YEARS

Four years ago, after watching John Kerry on TV conceding the election, I went into my room, put Barack Obama’s convention speech on repeat, and wept. I’d first watched that speech in Tampa, where friends and I spent a summer outside supermarkets and inside trailer parks registering people to vote. From summer through to fall, we knew we were going to win. We had an endless paper chain of hopeful justifications – another paper endorses the Democrat for the first time in this many elections; another Bush gaffe sure to drag him down; the Tin Man is beating the Scarecrow in a Zogby poll; undecideds always break for the challenger; I canvassed a man today who voted Bush-Dole-Bush be he says it’s time for a change. And that was before the exit polls started coming in. I spent a lot of election day in Philadelphia with college classmates co-ordinating GOTV in a basement, but at one point I stumbled upon a TV somewhere just in time to see Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee speculating on how John Kerry had carried his state. By the time we were driving back to my parents’ house, there was a steady stream of exit polling, sweet and plentiful like Halloween candy, and I made some snarky comment to a friend about the foolishness of cynical leftists that doubt the essentially good judgment of the American people. Within an hour, the real results were coming in, and our beloved Florida – which we’d sworn we wouldn’t let be lost again by a fraction of a percentage point – went for Bush by five points.

I turned on Obama’s speech when Kerry conceded because at that point Barack Obama symbolized for me the long-term vision towards which electing John Kerry (of the eponymous “butimvotingforhimanyway” website) was a small but pivotal step. I wore a John Kerry button in the final days of the election (four years earlier, I kept my Bill Bradley sticker on all through the recount), but it was Barack Obama’s T-shirts that I ordered (in bulk to save money, and two sizes too small to get people to go in on them with me) from Illinois. I wrote a column at the time in the school paper saying that after electing John Kerry we on the left should continue the work of building “a party radical enough to elect Barack Obama president.”

Things haven’t turned out that way. John Kerry lost his presidential race, and four years later, Barack Obama is about to win his.

Of course, this is a testament for one to the fact that Barack Obama is not as progressive as I and others hoped he might prove to be, or convinced ourselves he was, four years ago. The Obama of The Audacity of Hope has trimmed his sails quite a bit since Dreams From My Father. As much as we may have declared ourselves prepared to be disappointed, it was a let down to see how Obama landed in DC, whether it’s the times he seemed to be acting from political expediency or the times he seemed to be driven by an earnest commitment to disassociating himself from those he sees as ideologues of the left. I would have been shocked in 2004 to hear that Barack Obama would run a presidential campaign in 2008 – and more shocked to hear that he’d be running to the right of John Edwards.

That said, Barack Obama is the most progressive Democratic nominee in my lifetime (so far). He’s run a campaign defining himself first against George Bush conservatism and all it’s wrought, and second against the inertia of Washington and the smallness of our politics, but hardly ever against progressivism or its constituents. He’s vocally defended the need to negotiate with our enemies and the fairness of taxing the rich. He came out early on against California’s marriage ban when the Democratic consultant class would have said to duck and call it a state issue. Maybe most tellingly, when the explosion of Jeremiah Wright coverage posed a maybe mortal threat to his candidacy, he offered a reasoned and provocative speech on race that called on White Americans to understand the roots of Black anger at dreams deferred (then, when Wright basically dared Obama to denounce him, he did so).

I always assumed America’s first Black president would be many years in the distance, and that he would look more like Harold Ford – or Bill Cosby for that matter – than Barack Obama. I thought he’d be someone who made a show of talking down to Black people all the time, issued hair-trigger condemnations of Sister Souljahs, and compensated for the perception of otherness with an outspoken conservatism on crime, welfare, and immigration. Instead, we’re about to put a community organizer in the White House who doesn’t apologize for wanting to spread the wealth around.

There’s a lot to be said about how this happened. One piece, as can’t be said often enough, is that conservatives were given the car and the keys for eight years to drive the thing off a cliff. Another is that Americans are more progressive on the issues than most pundits think, and this year more than ever there’s an opening for a progressive who tells a compelling story about America and offers confidence and optimism rather than apologies. But another piece of the story is that Barack Obama has realized the promise (speaking of disappointing election days) of Howard Dean’s campaign: a presidential campaign grounded in organizing (but he realized that in Real Life, unlike the internet, you can’t substitute supporters in California for supporters in Iowa). Obama and company started not with identifying supporters, but with identifying volunteers who would find supporters. They inspired, built, and trained a network of leaders ready to push themselves, people in all corners of their lives, and strangers drawn together by a common sense of promise.

Let’s see what it can do.

WHAT ARE THESE GUYS ON?

At times, this felt like a debate between a stoner and an alcoholic. Like in the first debate, it was frustrating to see Obama let McCain largely drive the debate and keep Obama on the defensive. But more so than in the first debate, I think if Obama seemed somewhat too subdued or even sedate, McCain came off as cranky, irritable, and nasty to the point of seeming unpresidential. McCain did himself no favors by cutting Obama off to bring up Bill Ayers an extra time, or with the endless sarcastic asides. And I think you look small when you whine on and on about how a civil rights hero was too mean in criticizing the nastiness of your campaign.

As a super-decided voter, it was aggravating to see McCain attack on the first Gulf War without Obama firing back about the current one, and more so to see Obama sounding defensive, reassuring tones about his tax plan without hammering McCain on why now of all times he would want to outdo George Bush in sending more money to the richest among us. That said, it’s not that Barack Obama doesn’t know how to go on the attack. It’s just that he’s winning, and his strategy in this debate – like the prior two but even more so – was to show himself a steady hand steering the ship of state. It’s hard to find someone not currently receiving checks from the McCain campaign to argue the Obama strategy isn’t working.

GOOD NEWS FOR JOHN McCAIN

After watching tonight’s debate, I have all kinds of good news for my friend John McCain (no, not “that one” – the other one): First, the Treasury Secretary just got the authority you want to give him to renegotiate mortgages – it was included in a bill signed last week you may have heard about – though that was after you un-suspended your campaign.

Second, if you’re all about your collaboration with Ted Kennedy and Joe Lieberman, the bills we used to call McCain-Kennedy and McCain-Lieberman are still out there waiting to be passed, and I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt those bills if you went back to supporting them again (though judging by the bailout bill, who knows).

Third, if you’re really against cutting taxes for rich people, there’s a man running for president right now who wants to cut taxes for the middle class instead – and it looks like he’s going to win!

Can’t say anything tonight changed that. Neither of these guys is a particularly good debater, and despite the hype, neither man took very good advantage of the town hall format tonight. But Obama was crisper and sharper tonight than either of them had been in the last debate, and he came off more comfortable and compelling and denied McCain another opportunity to change the race.

BIDEN AND PALIN DEBATE

Matt Yglesias observed earlier this week that Sarah Palin tends to do fine in situations where she can pivot from the question to her own talking points and a cobweb of faux-folksy generalities. She does poorly when the questioner tries to get her to answer the original question. Katie Couric did this. Gwen Ifil didn’t. So Sarah Palin got to respond to a question on Bush’s Israel policy by chiding Joe Biden for talking about George Bush. She got to answer the gay rights question by talking about her gay friends – though she couldn’t bring herself to say the words. She got to handle the economic questions by rhapsodizing about her pretend middle class lifestyle (she must agree with John McCain’s definition of low-seven-figures income as middle class).

Watching tonight’s debate should make it clear for anyone who wondered why the McCain campaign wanted so badly to limit the time each candidate got to talk and the time they got to interact with each other. Palin had shown in the past that she could do a fine job with rules like this; it’s unfortunate that the competent job she did tonight will draw attention away from the ways she’s embarrassed herself over the past couple weeks. Overall, she came off as more polished tonight, but Biden clearly knew better what he was talking about. Biden let himself get somewhat frustrated and flustered, but I think he managed to stay within the lines imposed on him not to sound mean to Palin, and the moments where he vented some of that frustration (“John is no maverick on the issues that people sit around the kitchen table worrying about”) were his best.

For two people who were hold up much of the week practicing, both Palin and Biden had a surprisingly hard time speaking in sentences that someone could read on a page and actually make sense of. Palin kept saying things backwards – global warming causes human beings – while Biden would get partway through one thought and then switch over to a different one.

It’s really maddening that this format allows Palin (and McCain last week) to lie about her opponent, never respond to the refutation of the lie, and then continue repeating it later on.

Biden seemed a bit too concerned with touting his own record rather than Barack Obama’s – he defended his bankruptcy bill that Obama voted against, and towards the end when asked about their accomplishments as a ticket used up his time talking about what Joe Biden had done. He was compelling talking about his experience as a single dad but stepped on his own moment a bit by suggesting Sarah Palin was being sexist.

If Palin really wanted to respond to a question about bipartisanship by just naming the line-up of GOP Convention speakers, shouldn’t she have included George Bush and Cindy McCain?

Call me an East-Coaster if you like, but I think when Sarah Palin leapt on Joe Biden’s explanation of his war vote and attacked him for nuance she sounded nasty, and when she spoke for “America” telling “Government” by name to stop taxing us she did sound like Tina Fey telling Russia to “go shoo.”

Note to the media: Sarah Palin appealed tonight for vigorous fact-checking of what each candidate said. Don’t disappoint her!

OBAMA AND MCCAIN DEBATE, ROUND ONE

Who won? I’d say scoring the debates on points, McCain came out somewhat ahead. But neither guy really distinguished himself, which is a victory for Obama: going into the debate more people wanted to vote for Obama, foreign policy is supposed to be John McCain’s best chance to get people to vote for him instead, and many of those people just needed Obama to hold his own and show himself a credible commander-in-chief, which he certainly did.

Neither man seemed really comfortable in his own skin, and each smothered some attack lines and one-liners by delivering them in a half-apologetic sounding way. But McCain, as we knew before, is a somewhat better debater. He sounded crisper, and he drove his lines of attack more directly and consistently. Obama went too far out of his way to emphasize where he agrees with McCain, and he didn’t draw on some of the more powerful lines of attack he’s leveraged against McCain in other fora (now that Iraq’s Prime Minister and George Bush have both come out for timetables, John McCain is standing all alone on this issue).

Mostly, Obama seemed eager to correct the record on particular points but once the debate moved from the economy to foreign policy, he offered a lot of good arguments against John McCain but not a unified theory of why he’d be a scary president.

Like George Bush in 2000 responding to Gore’s attack on his actual opposition to the actually-existing Patients’ Bill of Rights Legislation by spewing bipartisan happy-talk, John McCain did a good job of parrying criticism of his actual record with empty words about how he loves the veterans so much and they already know he’ll take care of them (even if he votes against improving the GI Bill) and “no one from Arizona is against solar power” (even though he keeps voting against solar power – maybe because he’s not from Arizona, he just moved there to run for Congress). If the media keeps letting them get away with that stuff, why wouldn’t they keep doing it?

As for the format, the much-hyped interactive format, to Jim Lehrer’s great consternation, mostly just made it clear that neither senator wanted to interact too much with the other. They didn’t respond to too many of each other’s attacks either.

Haven’t waded into the talking heads’ spin yet, but this seemed to me like a debate unlikely to distract attention for too long from the $700 billion bail-out that seems to be coming down the pike or the Bush-McCain record that got us into the mess. Not to worry: John McCain will cut down on our $18 billion in earmarks! (Does that include aid to Israel?)

BUSINESS CASUAL

I agree with Asheesh that the quality of university teaching by tenured professors would improve if the tenure process took teaching into greater consideration relative to research output. And based on my own college experience (reaching back to a good four months ago), I think the unstated faith that the folks who produce the best research will also produce the best teaching is a faith which dare not speak its name for good reason.

But considering which professors get tenure tells you a decreasing amount about the quality of undergraduate teaching, because less and less of it is done by tenured professors. The trend over the past years has been a shift of teaching hours away from tenured faculty and ladder faculty (those with a shot at tenure) and instead onto various forms of transient teachers: non-ladder faculty, adjuncts, post-docs, and graduate student teachers. The academy is being Wal-Mart-ized – labor is being shifted towards workers with less job security, more precarity, and less institutional support.

This trend poses three kinds of challenges to undergraduates concerned with the quality of their classroom education: First, to protect the presence of enough long-term secure faculty to provide effective mentorship and continuity. Second, to ensure sufficient economic and institutional support for transient teachers to allow them to provide the best teaching they can under the circumstances. And third, to foster progress, rather than backsliding, in the diversification of the academy even in the face of casualization and the coercive economic pressures it intensifies.

That’s part of why undergraduates have so much at stake in struggles like this one.

"SOUNDS LIKE A BAD THING"

On Good Morning America, they just hosted a consultant advising employees worrying about downsizing to work lots of overtime, make sure not to take any sick days, and subordinate family concerns to whatever their boss wants them to do. Then in response to a question from the host about the stock market, she responded that high unemployment “sounds like a bad thing,” but isn’t so bad: it’s good for the stock market because it means the Fed won’t raise interest rates.

What she didn’t say is that high unemployment makes the stock market go up because the prospect of economic insecurity coerces workers into doing all the things that she’s on air advising them to do.

Intel head Andy Grove alluded to this strategy of management through fear in his book Only the Paranoid Survives, writing “Fear plays a major role in creating and maintaining such passion.” He encourages managers to foster “fear of being wrong and fear of losing” in employees as “powerful motivators.”

Indeed, fear of losing freedom from want will powerfully motivate people to work through illness and past their hours on the clock.

LONG ARM OF THE WAL

Apparently, Wal-Mart has discontinued its policy of aggressively pursuing prosecution of those who steal even the cheapest of goods from the store. Now, you have to steal things worth at least $25 before the long arm of the Wal sets about trying to shut you down for good the way they would, say, a unionized store.

Some of Wal-Mart’s critics are pointing to this new leniency on Wal-Mart’s part – a policy which matches what most of the industry was doing anyway – as another example of what’s wrong with the store. Seems to me there’s a better example of what’s wrong with Wal-Mart: the fact that until a few months ago, it was aggressively pursuing the prosecution of people who shoplifted socks.

The old policy, as the article notes, put a disproprotionate and needless strain on government resources, just as Wal-Mart’s refusal to adequately ensure its workers does – even as Wal-Mart provides critical support to the conservative project of drowning government in a bathtub.

It evinced the same punitive callousness that Wal-Mart’s comfort with locking its employees inside the building does.

And the company’s comparatively vigilant defense of its property against shoplifting customers still contrasts tellingly with its lesser attempts to protect its customers against violent crime.

So it’s good news, if only marginally so, to see Wal-Mart tempering its response to one-time offenders who try to abscond illegally with candy bars. Bad news is, that just leaves that much more energy to rain down illegal punishments on workers trying to exercise their legal rights. That union-busting is a high-stakes crime, and one who costs – not just to Wal-Mart workers, but to all of us living under a Wal-Mart economy – make stealing a pair of socks seem trivial.

Not that that’s hard to do.

LIVING ON THE WEDGE

Here’s CNN’s headline on the latest GOP response to not being so popular right now:

GOP hones its core agenda: Flag burning, gay marriage, abortion top Republicans’ Senate plan

This will certainly provide fodder for those left of the center who like to argue that the problem with Republicans is that they focus on intangible “wedge issues” rather than material issues that actually affect people. It’s an argument that has some popularity not only with centrist Dems but with a fair number farther to the left too. I don’t think it’s a good one. Thing is, these so-called wedge issues affect real people in ways that are all too real – and often are economic as well. The problem with Republicans isn’t that they focus too much on so-called “social issues.” The problem with Republicans is that they are wrong. The problem with Republicans is that they want to reverse social progress. Democrats need to expand the public understanding of what is an issue of values. But they also have to make the case better on the issues that are already commonly identified that way (Thomas Frank is right to argue that taking stronger populist stands on the economic issues could help to sap right-wing “culture war” politics of their ostensibly anti-elitist appeal).

All that said, one can hold out hope that the image of Bill Frist scheduling hearings on how to amend the first ammendment to ban flag burning will do some damage to his party’s credibility as responsible stewards of the Congress.

DEMOCRACY IN LATIN AMERICA

The cover story in the January/ February edition of Foreign Policy is an article by Amherst Professor Javier Corrales arguing that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is perfecting the art of dictatorship for the 21st century. He offers a list of Chavez’s crimes against democracy which (like an ADL report on antisemitism which conflates incidents like the Iranian President’s diatribes against Jews and some professor’s criticism of the separation wall) combines clear offenses, deft but legal manipulation of the law, and economic policy Professor Corrales doesn’t like.

Some of the abuses Corrales describes are indeed direct assaults on the democratic freedoms of Venezuelan citizens, like keeping public databases on citizens’ votes and outlawing demonstrations of “disrespect” towards government officials. Observers on the left should indeed condemn such human rights abuses, when they are clearly demonstrated, as quickly when perpetrated by leaders on the left as when perpetrated by leaders on the right. Hugo Chavez’s claims to a democratic mandate are indeed weakened by his failure to uphold some principles of democracy, and Corrales is right to call attention to these. Some ostensible abuses Corrales describes amount to effective manipulation of the parliamentary system to reduce the power of minority parties and increase what can be accomplished legislatively by a bare majority (you may know this as “the nuclear option”). I’d agree that such maneuvers are often effectively undemocratic, as long as democracy is understood as a spectrum (as a theorist like Dahl would advise) rather than a dichotomy (as a theorist like Schumpeter would). Certainly, many political structures and policies – the electoral college and the Senate come to mind – reduce the control of individual citizens over the political process. Corrales’ argument that using a majority in parliament to increase his majority on the Supreme Court itself makes Chavez a dictator makes one wonder how he views some other national leaders. Given that Corrales’ qualifications for dictatorship include intentionally polarizing the electorate so that more moderates will break to your side, it’s hard to imagine who doesn’t qualify.

Some of those leaders are distinguished from Chavez when it comes to economic policy, the area into which a third set of Corrales’ critiques of democracy in Venezuela fall. Corrales makes some of the same seemingly contradictory charges levelled against Chavez’s economic policy by a series of neoliberals and conservatives: the problem with Hugo Chavez is that he bribes the poor to like him with economic resources and that he doesn’t really provide them with economic resources and that he doesn’t really make the poor like him. Corrales’ claims of bribery of the poor in Venezuela are echoed by Ann Coulter’s complaints that Americans who benefit from government programs are allowed to vote for the perpetuation of those programs. Corrales’ grievance that Chavez distributes economic benefits as a means of reward and punishment is an important one. His attacks on Chavez for spending large sums of money to help the poor at all are less persuasive though. And his description of Chavez’s investments in alleviating poverty as a demonstration that he is a dictator will be compelling only if one believes that democratization and the right-wing economics of privatization, government-shrinking, and deregulation perversely called “economic liberalization” are one and the same. This postulate – that the “structural adjustment programs” of the IMF and the democratic reforms pursued by human rights groups are two sides of the same coin – are accepted uncritically by too many ostensibly liberal theorists in international relations and economics (not to mention the Wall Street Journal). It’s on full display in Corrales’ article, which faults Chavez as a dictator because “Rather than promoting stable property rights to boost investment and employment, he expands state employment.”

I don’t fault Corrales for seeing economics and democracy as interrelated. I’d say progressive economics that provide more people with economic resources and opportunities also empower them to exercise real voice over the choices which determine the conditions of their lives. Unfortunately, the economic regime Corrales and company favor too often has the opposite effect, plunging more people into conditions of abject poverty in which ever-greater portions of their lives slip from their control. When structural adjustment programs drive down wages, dirty water, and turn a blind eye to violent economic coercion, they erode democracy. And, as David Held argues, the means by which these programs are enacted are corrosive to a robust conception of democracy as well: they remove critical decisions about countries’ economic futures from the province of democratic oversight by citizens to the authority of distant technocrats. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the past decade has seen one Latin American country after another throw neoliberal and conservative leaders out and replace them with populists who run on opposition to the undemocratic “Washington Consensus (including Bolivia this weekend; Mexico looks likely to be next).” It’s unfortunate that some of those populists have democratic deficiencies of their own.

So I’d say Corrales gets the correlation between democracy and neoliberalism backwards, and that his opposition to Chavez’s economics drives him to put some shaky examples along with the solid ones on his list of grievances about democracy in Venezuela. Unfortunately, too many on both the left and the right go beyond arguing that economic policies increase or decrease democracy to instead reducing democracy to the favorability of a country’s economic policy. Too many let bona fide dictators like Pinochet or Castro off easy because of the economic policies they implement. People who live under such leaders deserve better.