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…

COMBUSTIBLE MATERIALS

Twelve miners died after the Sago Mine explosion in West Virginia, and a thirteenth is in critical condition. That much has been all over the news this week. What hasn’t been, as Jordan Barab reminds us, is the mine’s 200 citations by the Mine Safety and Health Administration in the year leading up to this horrific but preventable accident. That includes 21 citations for “accumulation of combustible materials,” the likely fuel source for this kind of tragedy. The Sago mine had three times the industry average for accidents. The highest of the penalties for these citations? A $878 fine. But as Jordan notes, most of the penalties were closer to $60.

The human tragedy in West Virginia might give pause to some of the ardent libertarians committed to arguing that miners willfully and knowingly take risks upon themselves by entering into free contract arrangements, and that the industry which employs them will correct itself for the sake of free-market competition for employees. But not Glenn Reynolds. Why consider the perverse incentives that led to twelve men’s deaths when you can instead blame the media for passing along rumors that they hadn’t died?

The miners’ families aren’t in anguish because of false reports that these men were alive. They’re in anguish because these men are dead.

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.

TWO THOUGHTS

Zichronam livrachah.

Disasters like this one provide a dramatic reminder of why we need a social contract through which people commit to mutual sacrifice for mutual prosperity and security. They make pronounced the limits of a worldview in which people are atomized entities threatened by the oppressive restrictions of a government which would have the gall to spend their money. The outrage of ordinary citizens at our leaders’ failure to take reasonable measures to ensure their safety is not the sign of weakness the radical right would have us believe any call for government action to be – it’s the rightful grievance of people who know they deserve a better deal which makes the investments necessary to protect them and their families. Hurricanes are a reminder that our interests are interconnected, and that justice demands finding common cause in common challenge, not appealing to the charitable private impulses of individuals as the single means to confront public crises. We may a thousand points of light, but we share the same space.

But even as these horrific events remind us of our common vulnerability, they demonstrate yet again how deeply the impact of such threats is determined along lines of race and class. By and large, those who have been unable to make it out of the devastated city have certain things in common – and contra Bill O’Reilly, they don’t include a desire to lay in wait so they can rape and plunder. A week ago, a friend was defending the old idea that property requirements for voting make sense because they restrict voting to those who have something to lose and therefore have a stake in what government does. I suggested that if we were really to assign votes based on one’s stake in what government does, the poorest would get the lion’s share because they’re the ones who have only voice, not exit, at their disposal when the government fails them. This week shows all too graphically how high the costs can be when elite decisions and oppressive poverty make a terrible situation that much worse.

FROM MISERY, PAST POVERTY

Spurred by this Washington Post profile in which National Labor Committee Head Charles Kernaghan describes the sweatshop workers for whose rights he advocates as seeking to move “from misery to poverty”, Matt Yglesias makes the classic anti-anti-sweatshop/ anti-anti-child-labor arguments:

people who don’t have sweatshop jobs are miserable. So miserable, in fact, that the terrible conditions in sweatshops are better than their best other alternative. Closing down the sweatship option would seem to just force everyone to stick with misery…as long as the alternative to sweatshops is what anti-sweatship activists concede to be misery, then people will want the sweatshop jobs and it’ll be mighty hard for rich country liberals to stop corporations from making them available.

The assumptions Matt seems to be making here are the same ones for which Richard Rothstein took Nicholas Kristof and Paul Krugman to task last spring in Dissent. First is the idea that somehow Charles Kernaghan, the National Labor Committee and company are pushing Nike and company to pack up and leave the countries in which their agents are operating sweatshops. Put simply, they’re not. Neither is United Students Against Sweatshops, for that matter. The call is for basic working standards and fundamental human freedoms. The call is for codes of conduct which would be applied around the world, with wage standards based on local costs of living. As Keraghan tells the Post right after describing the aspiration of many in the third world to move from misery to poverty,

he 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.) Another Bangladeshi worker told him of being smacked in the face by her boss when she worked too slowly. “It just destroys me,” he says.

What’s going to push that worker’s wages up from 21 cents towards 37 cents? Conservatives and neoliberals would have us put our faith in the free market’s grace in rewarding increased productivity with higher wages for low-wage workers as employers compete for the best sweatshop workers. But as Rothstein reminds us, that’s not how the story went in our own country. How did sweatshop workers in this country improve their working conditions and bring themselves real economic freedom? In part through judicious use of government to enshrine common labor standards in laws of the kind the anti-anti-sweatshop crowd tell us would condemn workers of the third world to eternal poverty. And in part through collective action of the kind for which workers around the world are fired or murdered. The anti-anti-sweatshop critics who insist that the eager workers of the third world are being victimized by misguided do-gooders from the first world might better expend their energies advancing the rights of those workers to stand up for themselves and for each other without fear of retaliation. That, incidentally, is exactly what Charles Kernaghan is doing.

OSHA OR INS?

As if the zeal of Big Business and its congressional representatives to shred the protections which save workers’ lives and to exploit the vulnerability of undocumented immigrants weren’t outrageous enough, earlier this month the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency found a particularly cynical way to meld the two: dressing up as safety instructors to lure 48 undocumented immigrants to what was ostensibly a mandatory OSHA meeting and then arresting them. This shameful approach strikes twice at workers’ rights by increasing undocumented workers’ insecurity and suspectibility to management coercion and decreasing trust in the agency charged with protecting those workers’ lives from management cost-cutting and carelessness. As UFCW President Joe Hansen said today:

The word being brought back to worksites, after a scam like this, is that OSHA can’t be trusted. That kind of perception diminishes OSHA’s ability to do the critical work of protecting America’s labor force…This unscrupulous action has shattered the trust between OSHA and the workers who depend on the agency the most. More and more often, it is immigrants who work in the most dangerous industries such as construction or meatpacking. How can OSHA reach these at-risk workers with safety information now?

As the UFCW points out, over two-thirds of the victims of injury and death on the job are Latino.

GOP: OSHA IS BIG BROTHER

That’s a direct quote repeated several times by Mike Pence (R-IN) and other GOP congressmen in today’s House debate: “OSHA is Big Brother.” Of course they were generally circumspect about including within a paragraph of these denunciations emotional insistences that their intent was only to strengthen OSHA, and expressions of dismay and offense that Democrats would suggest otherwise.

The GOP message, then, is this: OSHA is Big Brother. We must strengthen OSHA. Any guess which part reflects how they really feel about it?

No attempt to argue that the reforms they were pushing would somehow make OSHA less like Big Brother either (after all, this is just a “narrow,” “small, inocuous” set of bills, right?). Just insistences that they were committed to preserving OSHA, and that to understand it we should think of it as a totalitarian overlord which supresses individual freedom (at least it’s not the “Gestapo,” like the EPA).

I’m not going to go so far as to say that the GOP’s messaging here is Orwellian. Thought it’s a better candidate for the label more than, say, government action to prevent manslaughter on the job.