12 MOST FRUSTRATING MOMENTS OF “WAITING FOR SUPERMAN”

The 12 most frustrating things I saw – or didn’t see – watching Waiting for Superman:


– The way Davis Guggenheim used the kids’ stories. Each of the kids was sympathetic, and they dramatized the deep inequality of opportunity in America. But neither the kids nor their parents got much chance to talk about what they thought would make their school better or worse. Instead we got Guggenheim intoning that if this girl didn’t get into a charter school, her life would basically be hopeless. If Guggenheim believes that these kids are suffering because too many of their teachers should be fired but won’t be, why not let the kids say so? If he believes these kids are suffering because teachers or administrators have low expectations for them, why not let the kids say that? And if the kids instead talked about classes that were too big, or teachers that were overwhelmed or undertrained, or being hungry in class, that would have been interesting too.

– Something that sounded like Darth Vader’s Imperial March played over slow motion shots of Democrats appearing with members of teachers’ unions. This was especially agitating watching the movie as the Governor of Wisconsin is trying to permanently eliminate teachers’ bargaining rights in the name of closing a deficit he created with corporate tax cuts.

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A PRAYER FOR THE CITY

Just finished Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City, which he wrote after shadowing Ed Rendell (and staff) through his first term as Mayor. It’s a compelling read and gives an interesting sense of the politics of early ’90s Philadelphia and, more than that, of how folks in City Hall go about their jobs and why. The book suffers, though, from the blinders of ideology in a way that maybe only a book by a zealously pragmatic journalist about a zealously pragmatic technocrat can.

In the Philadelphia of Bissinger’s book, there is no public policy argument for raising taxes to maintain public services – only the weakness of previous politicians who indulge in tax hikes like heroin. Disability rights activists get a dismissive sentence about how they unreasonably expect the city to spend “money that isn’t there” on public services. In Bissinger’s Philadelphia, there’s little grounds for the skepticism Ed Rendell and his crew face from people in the “Black establishment” or “Hispanic interest groups” – you wouldn’t think from the way such folks are described that they really represented anybody, except when Rendell worries if they turn on him they could summon thousands to vote him out of office. The most prolonged, serious engagement with the reality of racism (as supposed to the evils of racial politics) is a discussion of the the devastating legacy of explicitly racist New Deal redlining on the city’s neighborhoods, and it segues back into why urban citizens don’t trust the federal government rather than why racial distrust might still persist. Bissinger’s narrative of the life of an African-American great-grandmother struggling to raise her great-grandkids, like the redlining discussion, is compelling, but essentially divorced from the discussion of racial politics and the book’s scorned “Black leaders.”

And while a good chunk of the book is built around Rendell’s successful campaign to force takeaways in negotiations with the public sector unions, we never get a sympathetic – or even much better than contemptuous – portrayal of anyone who works in one. Bissinger repeatedly mourns, in vividly anthropomorphic terms, the death of middle class manufacturing jobs in Philadelphia (and he talks about service jobs as though they’re inherently undignified and inevitably sub-middle class). But he never gives the reader any reason beyond greed that the city’s employees, some middle class and some aspiring towards it, might zealously defend the standard they’ve won. He gives no reason beyond ambition and self-protection that Union leaders would go to the ramparts in that fight. Bissinger is super sympathetic, on the other hand, in describing a fervently anti-government libertarian who comes to work for Rendell on subcontracting out city jobs and ultimately moves first from downtown to gentrified pricey Chestnut Hill and then out to suburbs because of crime and schools. In Philadelphia, Bissinger states flatly, she had “no choice” but to pay for private school education.

I DREAM OF NICHOLAS KRISTOF

I was surprised to see Ezra Klein endorse Nicholas Kristof’s column arguing that “the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.” Back in my college Macroeconomics class, this argument was expressed as “They’re not poor because they work in sweatshops. They work in sweatshops because they’re poor.”

Well actually, they’re poor because they don’t make enough money to support themselves. If the people who hire them paid them enough, they would not be poor. Providing jobs to people who would rather work them than stay unemployed doesn’t release whoever provides the job from responsibility for how they treat them, just as saving someone from drowning would not give me any more right to mug that person than I have to mug anyone else.

The Post reported in 2005 that National Labor Committee Head Charles Kernaghan

gets angry when he recalls what a worker told him in Bangladesh: “If we could earn 37 cents an hour, we could live with a little dignity.” (As opposed to the 21-cent hourly wage that barely staved off starvation.)

As CAPAF’s Sabina Dawan observes, it’s not as though the International Labor Organization and allied groups working to close such gaps and to see basic human rights protected in plants that make Western companies so rich are out to drive the people of Cambodia out of their jobs – or as though that’s the inevitable result of letting workers go to the bathroom, or leave work to give birth. Does Kristof believe that the Bangladeshi worker Kernaghan references makes 21 cents an hour because at 22 cents his plant would stop making a profit?

As Richard Rothstein wrote in his rejoinder to Kristof:

Kristof’s logic would require that worker productivity in Indonesia be precisely 25 percent of that in Mexico, or that the cost of other factors be lower in Mexico than in Indonesia, offsetting higher labor costs. Otherwise, he could not claim that if Indonesian wages rose even a tiny bit closer to Mexican levels, seamstresses would be expelled to the garbage dump. But he has no basis for making such assumptions. While labor standards vary from country to country, technology for assembling apparel does not-that is dictated from New York, for all countries. Apparel manufacturers consider many issues in deciding where to site facilities; labor costs are one, but relatively small differences in labor costs are not.
…Even if a modest increase in Indonesia’s minimum wage tempted manufacturers to move their facilities to, say, Mexico, the temptation would be frustrated if Mexico simultaneously enforced a comparable increase in its minimum. The fear that labor standards would cause manufacturers to flee only makes sense if some countries were exempt from global regulation. Kristof never explores why he thinks this is likely.

What’s so often missing from arguments like Kristof’s, backed by neoclassical economics, heartbreaking anecdotes, and the appeal of counterintuitive conclusions, is an engagement with questions of power. As Rothstein argues, the anti-anti-sweatshop crowd often point to the history of sweatshops in the American garment industry, but they choose to overlook that American garment workers rose out of poverty not just through hard work but through collective action and collective bargaining to achieve the “labor standards” Kristof consigns to scare quotes. But when sweatshop workers in third world countries join international labor and human rights organizations in demanding a better life, they don’t get laudatory Kristof columns.

Instead, they get threats to their lives. As Human Rights Watch observed last month, “there has been an ongoing pattern of violence against trade union activists in Cambodia.”

Economic coercion isn’t the only kind making maintaining the sweatshop status quo. Larry Summers, in classic neoclassical style, may defend sweatshop labor in the name of “respecting the choices” of the people who work there, but doing so without a peep for those workers’ right to organize without threat of murder is a cruel joke.

When Barack Obama mentioned the spate of assassinations targeting union leaders in Colombia, John McCain rolled his eyes. If Nicholas Kristof takes such violent intimidation more seriously, maybe he should devote a column to it. He could use a new bit – that Rothstein article critiquing Kristof’s sweatshop apologia was published in 2005.

WIFE SWAP CONSERVATISM

While on vacation out East, I got the chance to pick up and read Walter Benn Michaels’ 2006 book The Trouble With Diversity. Might as well spoil the suspense and start by saying Benn Michaels didn’t convince me when he argues (like Michaels Lind and Tomasky) that left-wing “identity politics” around race and gender stand in the way of a serious left-wing class politics. The book reminded me at various points of Catherine MacKinnon’s argument (in Towards a Feminist Theory of the State) that feminists and Marxists view each other with suspicion because each party could undo one kind of oppression while leaving the other oppression intact. It’s often not clear to whom Benn Michaels, an English professor, is addressing his argument. He offers criticisms (often clever, always articulate) of some academic arguments about identity, but he doesn’t engage with many pivotal ones – like the literature on intersectional (rather than additive) approaches to identity, considering how identities mediate each other – how being identified as a poor Black woman has different social and economics meanings than just being poor plus being Black plus being a woman. He calls Omi and Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States “certainly the most influential academic text on the social construction of race,” but cites only two sentences from it.

If the argument is directed at political practitioners, we’re left wondering how he actually pictures the left gaining power and effectiveness by throwing race and gender overboard. In a telling line criticizing the focus on sexism at Wal-Mart as a distraction from exploitation there, Benn Michaels asserts that “Laws against discrimination by gender are what you go for when you’ve given up on – or turned against – the idea of a strong labor movement.” Tell that to all the folks in the labor movement and labor-allied groups who’ve worked to support the Dukes lawsuit and the fight against Wal-Mart’s sexism as part of a broad-based critique of a company that helpfully illustrates the connections between conservatism’s threat to gender equality, economic justice, environmental sustainability, and other values progressives and most Americans hold dear. Benn Michaels’ approach, which denies that rich people can be victims of oppression or that poor people can be oppressed by more than only poverty, would render the left unable to fully understand, let alone seriously engage, with what Betty Dukes and millions of women like her are facing (see also Whitewashing Race). As badly as Benn Michaels may wish for a revived labor movement, in advocating a disregard for identity politics he’s echoing the disconnection from progressive social movements which contributed the labor movement’s decline in the first place. Those blinders regarding oppressions besides class mirror the blindness to class of too many in, for example, the pro-choice movement – blindness of which Benn Michaels would be rightly critical.

That said, we needn’t accept Benn Michael’s arguments about the irrelevance of race- and sex-based politics to appreciate the book’s critical insight: that the plutocrats triumph when poverty is understood as an identity to be respected rather than as a problem to be eliminated. Conservatives, as he argues, have masterfully reframed our class problem as being about the elitists who look down on poor people rather than about the robber barons, de-regulators, and union-busters who make them poor. Examples abound in conservative literature (Tom Wolfe comes in for some enjoyable criticism in The Trouble With Diversity), but Benn Michaels is right that seemingly liberal takes on class often suffer from the same problem. And he’s right that conservatives draw on the language we use to talk about race to pull this off.

I was reminded of People Like Us, a very engaging PBS documentary about class in America that explores a series of interesting situations – working-class folks fight with ex-hippies about what kind of supermarket to bring into their neighborhood; tensions within African-American communities about whether Jack and Jill clubs aimed at well-off Black kids are elitist; a daughter’s embarrassment about her “trailer park” mom – but all from the perspective of how different classes can get along, not how we can reduce or eliminate class differences. The least sympathetic characters in the movie are a bunch of snotty high school kids at a mixed-income public school talking in awful terms about why they wouldn’t talk to the poor kids they go to school with (“What would we talk to them about?”). It’s a good movie. But you could walk away with the sense that our class problems would be solved if the rich kids would befriend the poor kids. Which, as Benn Michaels would argue, would be much less expensive or destabilizing for the powers that be than making those kids’ families less poor. As Benn Michaels writes (in one of many paragraphs that makes you wish more political books were written by English professors) about an episode of Wife Swap:

At no time, apparently, did it occur to the makers of the show, the people in it or the people reviewing it, that what the show really demonstrates is how much better it is to be rich than to be poor. Or perhaps one should say not that the show ignores this point but that it is devoted to denying it, and that it succeeds so completely (this is its brilliance) that we find ourselves believing that run-down shacks in the woods are just as nice as Park Avenue apartments, especially if your husband remembers to thank you for chopping the wood when you get home from driving the bus. The idea the show likes is the one Tom Wolfe and company like: that the problem with being poor is not having less money than rich people but having rich people “look down” on you. And the rich husband is bad because he does indeed look down on the poor people, whereas the rich wife (the one who has never done a day’s work in her life and who begins the show by celebrating her “me time,” shopping, working out, etc.) turns out to be good because she comes to appreciate the poor and even to realize that she can learn from them. The fault here is not in being rich but in thinking that you have better taste – more generally, in thinking that…you are are a better person.

FUN WITH COLLECTIVE BARGAINING

Kay Steiger, guest-blogging (with Alyssa) at Matt Yglesias’ site, considers sexism in “trade professions” and after pointing out that jobs like hair dressing aren’t counted as such precisely because women do them, suggests that

What would help is first what these truck mechanics Harding points to are already doing, mentoring young women in non-traditional fields. Secondly, unions that represent those industries need to not only be free of sexism themselves, but aggressively pursue lawsuits that would discourage sexual harassment. This is happening with some larger trade unions already, but it’s not as wide as it should be.

I think this really sells short the potential for trade unions to take on discrimination. Any kind of organization with the resources can file a lawsuit – or individuals or groups can do it with no organization at all. In some cases, like the Dukes suit against Wal-Mart (largest class action suit ever in this country), that can contribute greatly to leveraging pressure on a company. But workers with a union can change the behavior of their employer in a slew of other ways. That includes negotiating with them.

Union workers can and do win binding contracts obligating companies to take on unequal opportunity by creating training programs, by collaborating with community leaders and/ or non-profits, by submitting to oversight by workers, clergy, politicians, or whoever else to judge progress, to change work rules or job descriptions that create needless barriers for people who could otherwise do the job – and in any number of other ways. And these workers can enforce these commitments, as well as the company’s legal obligation not to discriminate, through collective action and through a grievance process that moves faster, cheaper, and more accessibly than a lawsuit. The limits are defined by power on the shop floor and nationally or internationally in the industry.

As Thomas Geoghegan wrote last year in his book See You in Court,

a big change has been the way we have moved from contract to tort. For most working Americans, the kind of people I represent, this accounts for the biggest change in the way the law now impacts their lives. In the 1950s and 1960s, up to 35 percent of workers, especially men, were covered by collective bargaining agreements…In the last thirty years, there has been a loss of contract rights – to a job, a pension, or even health care – unlike that in any other developed country. It is really a new legal regime that many Americans experience as infuriating, without being able to express that fury in an appropriate way.

Now the missed opportunities within substantial chunks of the labor movement to link arms as part of movements for sexual and racial inequality in the twentieth century is not unrelated to the steep decline in union power and union membership. But those workers Kay is talking about, who have unions, have an arsenal at their disposal to attack discrimination in the workplace – not only through contract language of course, but also through the kinds of action, client pressure, media strategies, and such that play part in winning recognition and winning contracts – without depending on the prospects of a lawsuit.

SYMPATHY FOR THE SATYR?

Our right-wing friends have made outrageous attempts to claim the mantle of MLK an MLK Day tradition. But this attempt by Ron Paul’s supporters should still make your blood boil.

Makes you wonder whether Ron Paul’s 10,000+ MLK Day donors are ignorant that MLK was gunned down marching with sanitation workers striking to demanding a union to win safety on the job when libertarians would tell them to suck it up or go work somewhere else. Makes you wonder whether they’re indifferent that MLK faced death threats because he demanded government intervention against bigotry while good libertarians decried civil rights laws as tyranny.

It also makes you wonder whether they missed that issue of Ron Paul’s newsletter describing Martin Luther King as

the man who replaced the evil of forced segregation with the evil of forced integration…not only a world-class adulterer, he also seduced underage girls and boys…lying socialist satyr…

POSITIVE PEACE

In a discussion thread at the New Haven Independent, one of the anti-union posters is invoking Martin Luther King and calling for “a peaceful solution.”

Fortunately, there’s a peaceful solution the Yale – New Haven Hospital could agree to tomorrow: card-check neutrality. Let’s keep in mind it was MLK who warned us against seeking “a negative peace which is the absence of tension” rather than “a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” He also said: “You see, no labor is really menial unless you’re not getting adequate wages…if you’re getting a good wage, as I know that through some unions they’ve brought it up…that isn’t menial labor. What makes it menial is the income, the wages.”

He wrote the first quote in jail in Birmingham. He said the second one at a rally for SEIU 1199 – his “favorite union” – in 1968.

STOP STEPPING ON MY BREAKTHROUGH

Doing his best to sweet-talk electorally-ascendent liberals into hitching their wagon to the libertarian rickshaw, Brink Lindsey offers a list of shared victories in which liberals and libertarians can revel together:

an honest survey of the past half-century shows a much better match between libertarian means and progressive ends. Most obviously, many of the great libertarian breakthroughs of the era–the fall of Jim Crow, the end of censorship, the legalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce laws, the increased protection of the rights of the accused, the reopening of immigration–were championed by the political left.

If these are victories for libertarians, then this is a better argument for why libertarians should support liberals and leftists – the people who actually won each of these victories – than for why the left should turn libertarian. But it’s worth asking whether these markers of social progress even qualify as “libertarian breakthroughs” or “libertarian ends.”

The Jim Crow regime was undone in part by the elimination of the poll tax, a nasty law which restricts access to a government function to those able to pay for it and rewards those with more money to spend on their politics with more voice in them. What about undoing those laws qualifies as libertarian? The Jim Crow regime was undone in part by anti-discrimination laws that empower government to use regulation to limit the freedom of employers to employ a workforce that looks like themselves. Inflicting government intervention on market transactions is not exactly the libertarian m.o. Neither is government-mandated busing to integrate a public school system that if libertarians had their way wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Many libertarians no doubt break with Barry Goldwater and support the Civil Rights legislation of 1964 and 1965. But their support for good progressive law doesn’t demonstrate a fundamental affinity between liberalism and libertarianism. It simply demonstrates that even its devotees sometimes reject the maxim that “the government is best which governs least” when faced with the liberty-denying consequences of the “free market” whose “relentless dynamism” Lindsey urges liberals to recognize.

Libertarians may support freedom of the press from censorship, but they’re more likely to fret over how to sell off our publically-owned airwaves than how to ensure airtime for grassroots candidates. They may support a woman’s right to choose, but I wouldn’t count on their assistance in ensuring that women have the economic means to choose abortion or childbirth, or the educational resources to make informed choices. They may support the rights of the accused to a trial, but they’re not the first to line up to be taxed to pay for decent lawyers to represent them (then there are the ones who would like to replace the criminal justice system with a system of private torts). They may support allowing more immigrants into this country, but if you expect them to face down employers who exploit the fear of deportation to suppress the right to organize, you’ve got another think coming.

And though the Cato Institute won’t be joining Rick Santorum’s crusade against no-fault divorce any time soon, there’s no need for an earnest Ayn Rand devotee to support a right to divorce at all. After all, isn’t marriage a binding contract that the parties should know better than to get into lightly? Aside from the reality that it presides over marriage in the first place, why should government have any more right to stop consenting adults from entering contracts for lifelong marriage than it does to bar contracts for human organ sales or pennies-an-hour employment?

I USED TO THINK

Anyone who reads the New York Times on-line without a pop-up blocker has been subjected to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison exulting that “I used to think. Now, I just read The Economist.”

Of course he’s kidding. But it’s not so funny.

Leaf through the past few issues of The Economist, and you’ll find unsigned articles calling on Lula to cut back pensions, on David Cameron to promise shrinking social spending, and on the Democratic Leadership Council not to go wobbly against organized labor. Then read over this parade of praise for the magazine – as a news source that saves you the time of having to read any of the other ones. Ted Turner draws a favorable contrast with Time Magazine (yes, that Time Magazine), which apparently is “too populist.” No need to worry about populism from The Economist.

Now if the same roster of CEOs stepped up singing the praises of, say, the Wall Street Journal, heads would turn over why a “conservative” paper’s reporting was being taken as holy writ by so many powerful people (never mind that the news section of the paper isn’t so different in bent from what you would get in the Times). But when so many in the global overclass quote chapter and verse from a “neoliberal” paper laying down structural adjustment through shrinking spending and shredded security as the best medicine for every situation, that’s another story. Or rather, it’s not a story.