I’ve recently been reading reviews and hearing interviews about Steven Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker. I know this is not a blog about economics per se, but bear with me for a moment.
Here’s the beginning of an excellent review by economist Jeff Madrick in the New York Review of Books:
Only recently has the situation outlined by Steven Greenhouse in his new book,The Big Squeeze, been getting serious attention from politicians. Average wages for American workers have been largely stagnating for a generation. Some six million more Americans have no health insurance today than did seven years ago. The distribution of income in the United States is as unequal as it was in the Roaring Twenties. With the country facing a possibly deep and painful recession, unemployment rising, and mortgage defaults at record levels, the poor state of the economy is finally high on the list of American concerns and is the leading presidential campaign issue.
No big news there, but the remainder of the review summarizes Greenhouse’s appalling account of worker mistreatment in the workplace, from Sam’s Club locking in nighttime employees and denying them medical care, to a consistent record of compelling overtime work and erasing hours worked from the log books, to (in the most recent instance) none-too-subtle threats in mandatory employee meetings that a vote for Obama is a vote against the company. (To his credit, Greenhouse also covers counter-examples, companies who engage in responsible behavior, notably including Costco and Patagonia).
Also see this review by Thomas Frank in the New York Times Book Review, which addresses the market forces compelling "the squeeze," and what alternatives exist (basically, he says the social compact that left the social safety net to corporations via company health plans and the like is no longer workable; it was an accident of a very particular moment in history, and is not sustainable now).
Just before reading this piece, I saw this article in our local paper documenting the activism of our friends at Focus on the Family on behalf of Amendment 8 in California, which would circumvent recent state Supreme Court decisions and invalidate gay marriages in the state. Here’s the relevant portion:
Focus on the Family is turning out to be a top donor to backers of a California ballot initiative that would outlaw same-sex marriage, according to California Secretary of State's Office records. In June, the California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Proposition 8, if passed, would essentially circumvent the court's decision by restoring the state definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.
Between Dec. 2007 and July, Focus donated $448,406 to support Proposition 8, with most of the money going to ProtectMarriage.com, a California-based coalition. Its largest donation, $250,000, came in June, one month after the court ruling.
Focus is the seventh biggest donor among Proposition 8 supporters, according to the California Secretary of State's Office.
Other major donors are Elsa Prince, a Focus board member ($450,000); the American Family Association ($500,000); Fieldstead & Co. ($600,000); the John Templeton Foundation ($900,000); and the National Organization for Marriage ($941,134.80).
The top donor is Knights of Columbus, which is based in New Haven, Conn., and acts as a political arm of the Catholic Church. The group has given $1.275 million in support of Proposition 8, the secretary of state's records show. . . .
Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, said Proposition 8 is "the Super Bowl of the same-sex marriage issue. " "For good or bad, what happens in California is transferred to the rest of the country," he said.
Aside from the local angle covering the activities of Focus, it was interesting that the Knights of Columbus leads the pack in giving on the issue. The conservative Catholic-Protestant alliance seems as strong as ever.
The money pouring into California on Amendment 8 is no more surprising than are the activities documented by Greenhouse’s expose (one confirmed by many other accounts). No more surprising, as well, is that the focus on the former not only precludes, but usually contradicts, a serious engagement with the latter, never mind that the market forces compelling "the squeeze" also squeeze families beyond the breaking point, as Greenhouse documents.
I know there are religious responses to the worker exploitation seen in Greenhouse’s book, and I could enumerate them here. But one hardly hears of them, and they seem to have no impact comparable to the Knights/Focus coalition. What would Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, and Monsignor John Ryan do?
Update: Posting this reminded me of a conversation I had recently with someone of a conservative religious persuasion, who had worked on (among other things) the history as well as the historiography of marriage. In our talk, it turned out we shared a sense about the social effects of the unregulated market -- me for the kinds of economic issues noted above, this person for the too-easy dissolution of marriage as a social bond, with its deleterious consequences especially for children of lower socioeconomic status. We chuckled over the fact that we were in agreement even though I'm a commie-pinko-leftist-radical-America-hating-professor (just ask David Horowitz) while this person (I would surmise) is a values voter.
We'll never agree on the gay marriage issue, for sure, and for the life of me I just don't understand the conservative obsession with it (I can name all the reasons, fears about the undermining of norms of gender and sexuality and all of that; but still, come on, get a grip, conservatives, the Republic will survive, just as it did when miscegenation laws finally fell in 1967). But thinking over that conversation again made me wonder how common ground on issues of significance could be found.
Maybe it can't; but it seems to me conservatives who worry about the unraveling of social bonds have to come to terms with the market's potential and actual role in that process, while progressives can and should recognize that liberalism contains within it assumptions that can erode the bonds that underlay it, and that a mere reliance on the liberal ideal of autonomy and freedom of choice, while good and necessary, has its limits, and cannot answer deep-seated communal concerns.
I keep hoping that a public figure will emerge who can articulate this sort of morality, one that draws from the legitimate insights of conservative values rhetoric and a liberal focus on inequality and exploitation; but it seems when they do, they are so vilified by political enemies that dialogue stops before it can ever start (ok, yes, I admit I'm thinking Obama here -- his line about the "ownership society" meaning, in effect, "you're on your own," hits at what I'm getting at here) . So, now I'm depressed again. Anyone got any alternative candidates they want to put up?