fattening our sacred cows 32


One of the first ironies I have noticed about Barack Obama’s victory is the inability of many liberals to follow his lead on positioning his coming progressive changes.  I have yet to hear the words “democratic dominance” out Barack’s mouth.  All of his initial moves seem to signal a shift away from the left-right pendulum swing of the last 40 years.  He speaks to national unity at a time when many democrats shout for heads to roll.

“It’s our time now!”

As a rallying cry it certainly has the truth of electoral returns to back it up, but is that really the lesson we want to take away from the election?  Are we simply looking for different players in the lead roles shouting the same tired lines from the left side of the stage instead of the right?  Isn’t this a perfect time to change the script as well as the cast and take center stage?  I think Barack believes that to be the case and he even provided a rough draft of what it might look like in The Audacity of Hope.

I’ll pick on “big labor” for now as they seem to be the special interest group most clearly poised to aggressively pursue their agenda employing predictable rhetoric aimed at solving the problem from a singular viewpoint.  It goes something like this: “Unions have been invaluable to the plight of the workers.  More union membership is good.  Less union membership is bad.”

Is more union membership, which has never topped 35% of the workforce, the only answer to the problems they were created to solve?  Is that even the best use of their dwindling resources?  Unions are so close to achieving the actual solutions they have sought for so long, but almost automatically fall back into a siege mentality when approaching the issues.  If the vast majority of the country has no history with the unions, is making a sales pitch for new members the best way to achieve their very worthy goals of modernizing our labor laws for a more sustainable and equitable future for all workers, union and non-union alike?

Why not learn from our successes as well as our failures for a change.

How did we get from children in American factories to children in Chinese factories and the attendant ills that accompanied the transition?  What industries didn’t we lose?  How are those investments going?  What part did both big business and big labor play in the drama we now find ourselves in?  What can be learned from many industries that have no unions yet still enjoy great benefits and generous salaries?  Why weren’t those professionals exploited without unions?

Granted, seventy-hour weeks could be considered exploitation though most are willing to do the work if it means a six-figure income; however, many white-collar professionals earn a solid wage on the assumption of a 40-hour work week, some on even a 37-hour week.

America is very close to achieving everything the labor movement has struggled to achieve since the Philadelphia Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations formed in 1827, but it will take careful positioning to get a chunk of the 46% who still voted for McCain to get behind the solutions.  Even more difficult if the only framing used to convince them is one they already rejected.

The opportunity is there to change minds and win hearts if the progressive narrative can change to encompass both Roosevelt presidents in its historical roots.

Progressive solutions to our many problems can redefine how government is viewed by conservatives and liberals alike if presented in the right fashion.  America is stubborn, though.  Conservatives even more so.  We need a different approach than what is required on the left-side of the dial.  If the traditional left-leaning narrative drowns out Barack’s very pragmatic and centrist argument, getting legislation through the new Congress will not be easy.  Barack needs conservatives and liberals pushing their representatives to support the administration’s solutions.

Barack isn’t offering watered-down proposals in order to convince conservatives, either.  We need to nip that particular talking point.  He uses logic and common sense.  He will do the same as he seeks to implement his campaign platform, much of which is not classically liberal but still very progressive.  I know that can feel like a Slushy brain-freeze for some on the left.  A conservative progressive.  No wonder everyone is having a hard time defining the man.

Barack can speak of these changes in a way that gets everyone on board, left and right, with the bold new direction we heading and excited about crafting innovative solutions to accomplish those national goals.  He can listen to all voices and guide the country into a different place than it exists right now.  He can inspire a political party in disarray to look to its roots for direction and purpose.  He can lead another party as it crafts solutions for all Americans regardless of political affiliation.

Barack can change the very nature of the discussion if his democratic supporters take his cue and try to do the same.

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32 thoughts on “fattening our sacred cows

  • hrebendorf

    Great post, Jason. I was a music teacher for many years, and one lesson I learned is that you can sit and demonstrate and explain forever, but sometimes the best solution is to simply take the student’s fingers and place them on the frets or on the keys so that they can know what it feels like to do it right. Obama has given his speeches. He has written his books. He made his case, and he won our verdict. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we have yet to taste this new America our President Obama is cooking up. Reality is perception, and perception always rotates around a core. There is an axis upon which our reality turns. If we want to change our world, we can attempt to haul the leaden detritus of our perceptions around or we can seek for a more elegant solution and learn to move the center. And right now, Obama is in the process of moving the center.

    It’s my hope that four years from now, the conversation will be less about left and right/Republican and Democrat and more about competence and candor and inclusiveness.

    Consider this exchange between The Atlantic’s Joshua Green and Rachel Sklar, during a recent panel discussion on CNN:

    GREEN: At a certain point, if you look at Obama’s acceptance speech, the effort to reach out there was to Republicans, was to people who did not vote for him. He wasn’t throwing red meat to liberals the way George Bush did to Republicans after the 2004 election. He seems to be somebody who has a very clear idea of who it is he’s targeting, where he’s going to go. And it’s not to left wing of the party.

    SKLAR: What’s actually amazing about the opportunity Obama has is that, that sort of is red meat to liberals. The red meat is, you know, bipartisanship, and we can work together, and we can make this happen, and everything’s going to be better. I mean, the hope is sort of liberal red meat.

    Say it again, Rachel. Say it again.

    http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0811/08/se.01.html

    • Jason Everett Miller

      Great quote and thanks for the kind words.

      David Brooks last column was the exact opposite, which is the challenge the center right faces. The “reformers” in the GOP already assume the Rapture Right won. Completely missing the real point, big surprise, that this is the end of the GOP’s extreme rightward tilt that began 30 years ago. Now is when the Reformers take over the party, not quit the field, and look a little further into the past than Reagan for an example of progressive conservatism.

      This can be a renewal for the left and right, which is essential to complete our much greater American Renaissance.

      • hrebendorf

        For a clear view of just how much trouble the Republican Party is in, consider these comments, made yesterday at the Republican Governors’ Association conference by Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty:

        We cannot be a majority governing party when we essentially cannot compete in the Northeast, we are losing our ability to compete in Great Lakes states, we cannot compete on the West Coast, we are increasingly in danger of competing in the mid-Atlantic states, and the Democrats are now winning some of the Western states. That is not a formula for being a majority governing party in this nation. Similarly we cannot compete, and prevail, as a majority governing party if we have a significant deficit, as we do, with women, where we have a large deficit with Hispanics, where we have a large deficit with African American voters, where we have a large deficit with people of modest incomes and modest financial circumstances. Those are not factors that make up a formula for success going forward.

        Nothing about real people. Nothing about policy. Nothing that addresses the critical issues that face America in the world today. Just an expression of concern that key demographics are slipping away. As long as Republicans keep thinking in this way, they’ll continue to lose.

        • brantlamb

          This is because the Republicans have started with their theories which the hold to be true (on very specious logic) and then they start trying to do sophist reasoning to support their points; as it becomes more and more complicated, trying to avoid thinking about the contradictions, they never get back to thinking about actual people. This is the problem that occurs with a thought process that starts with thoughtless bitching that has no focus on what the real problems might be. Predictable, but still very, very sad.

        • Jason Everett Miller

          I think this is temporary insanity on the part of the GOP, though I think many will move in Barack’s direction on a lot of issues given the way he has framed them to the American people. It always takes the leadership longer than the people to get there, but I trust they will get there.

          • Jason Everett Miller

            Yes. This is the end result of decades of mismanagement and the very predictable insanity that results from such a crash. I suspect self-preservation instincts kick in soon and all of a sudden the GOP won’t be able to get enough sustainability. Perhaps from a more classically conservative standpoint.

  • JNagarya

    Good commentary, Jason. Keep it up.

    Just don’t overdo the “unity” stuff: I am definitely nowhere near, at this point, to becoming a fellow traveller with Republicans, regardless how “prgressive” — or “reformer” — they claim to be. (Palin’s “reform” has been replaced with “progress” and “progressive”. Yeah: her effort is to clothe the far-right religonut lunatic fringe in the term “progressive” — still “stealthing,” still LYING against the mainstream.)

    • Jason Everett Miller

      Thanks for the kind words.

      I think it is less about unity as commonly understood and more about redefining the conversation completely. I say we look at what we need to accomplish together, independent of party affiliation, as we craft sustainable solutions for the country.

      We need to encourage the vast majority in the middle, left and right, to mitigate the damage that the fringes have caused for far too long.

      • hrebendorf

        I’ve trained quite a few dogs over the years, including some pretty mean, even dangerous ones. And, as a dog owner, I’m sure you’re aware that one thing you must do if you want a dog to obey you is to establish yourself as Alpha. And it’s something every dog appreciates. I don’t think I’ve ever met a dog (big or small) that wanted to be Alpha, but all dogs know that, as a matter of survival, someone has to take the job. A pack without a leader is doomed. If, as the dog’s owner or trainer, you take the job, the first thing you notice is that the dog becomes calmer and happier. It’s like a weight is lifted off their shoulders. Somebody is in charge, and that’s fine with them. And the amazing thing about establishing that relationship is that the only tool you need is eye contact. When you’re battling with a dog over which one of you is Alpha, that dog will refuse to look you in the eye. They will avert their gaze no matter what you do. You can grab their head and force them to point it in your direction, but they will turn their eyes to the side, close them, whatever it takes. But once you’ve established eye contact, they give in, the relationship is defined, and they’re happy little learners from that point onward. And what it’s really about is simply changing their focus.

        And that’s what this is about as well. Simply changing America’s focus. Away from partisanship, away from past offenses, away from artificially created divisions, and toward something better and more valuable and more reliable. The truth is Alpha. America is Alpha. The Constitution is Alpha. And we’re all Beta. Now it’s Obama’s job to change America’s focus and force us all to look.

  • brantlamb

    Jason, in normal vocabulary, I’m not sure that the modifiers work the same way as the ‘south; in ‘south-by-southwest’, where the first word is a less potent modifier, more subject to the second word’s greater impact. I don’t think that Obama is a conservative progressive, instead I think that he’s a pragmatic progressive. I also think that he may believe that a campaign stance is subject to iterational change. (Next time, he may run even a little more progressive than he has so far.)

    • Jason Everett Miller

      I agree that Obama is much more progressive than he ran but don’t think the term is a conservative versus liberal paradigm. Obama’s support of modifying the Faith-Based Initiative program is classically conservative but no less progressive read of how to fix some of society’s problems.

  • GregorZap

    Jason, You wrote: “What can be learned from many industries that have no unions yet still enjoy great benefits and generous salaries? Why weren’t those professionals exploited without unions?” Industries competing for the same labor have to pay comptetitive wages. Therefore, if an industry has a union segment, everyone benefits from higher wages whether they have a union in their company or not.

    Take FedEx. They do their best to stay close to UPS with their wage scale. But they do not pay as much. DHL? Well, what just happened there? Thousands out of work. Also referenced above were white collar jobs. Let’s look at GM. The white collar segment just got trashed.

    If there had been a union, there would have been some negotiation. Instead, a pink slip arrives from out of nowhere. And there is no organization to cushion the blow received through n fault of the worker. Organized labor did not lead to the present plight of the autoworker as much as rising healthcare costs and poor product development. The popularity of Japanese cars has always been related to fuel efficiency and reliability. The US auto industry has never been competitive within those criteria.

    • Jason Everett Miller

      OK. I didn’t notice unions keeping jobs for auto industry despite their best efforts. Many manufacturing jobs and steel and other heavily unionized trades lost millions of jobs too. I don’t agree that having a unionized segment is the way to increase stability for everyone.

      However, technology jobs are booming. Plenty of biomedical and legal jobs making bank. Financial industry still kicking along. None of them unionized yet mostly secure with good benefits and wages. Much of it done sans unions. That is not to say they didn’t stand on labor’s shoulders to get there, but those industries changed the paradigm.

      I think the conversation needs to change from union versus non-union toward a more inclusive effort to fix the underlying problems that make unions necessary in the first place.

      • GregorZap

        “That is not to say they didn’t stand on labor’s shoulders to get there, but those industries changed the paradigm.” Or maybe unions changed the paradigm? After decades of progress sorely won following numerous, very real battles, ownership/management decided to pre-empt these confrontations.

        It’s all well and good to find businesses in the US that have more reasonable compensation for their employees, but barring Japan, what third world country has an example of conscientious stewardship? Maybe there are some, but I cannot think of any.

        • Jason Everett Miller

          What third world country has no labor gains? I don’t understand.

          There is a reason why union’s only constitute 10% of the workforce – they did their job too well. We need to solve the remaining problems, which labor unions can’t solve, at a more basic level starting with the voter and their representative. Most other “gains” by labor have now been made without them in just as many industries as those with them.

          You think technology workers didn’t form a union because the employers were afraid of unions so they gave them high wages to start with? That is pretty thin argument with no real data to back it up. It is also one of those hypothesis that can’t be proved.

          I could just as easily stipulate that we would make more money and have greater job security if unions hadn’t grown too big for their britches and pissed the business owners off. It’s no reasonable and just as difficult to prove.

          At the end of the day, you are advocating for continuing a losing strategy of using unions to force progressive changes in health care and more equitable compensation in business. I think unions have gone as far as they are likely to go and are actually standing in the way of progress now. The teacher’s union is a perfect example as are the auto unions. Instead of pushing for better bay and benefits, why not push them to build better cars that anticipate markets? See, that would never happen because it is good for those of us not in the union.

          Another significant drawback in using a private organization of individuals to initiate public change. Where is their motivation to really fix things? I submit there is zero motivation as then they are out of a job. Your rebuttals seem to prove that basic tactical anemia enjoyed by people who hold fundamentalist beliefs – less logic than emotion.

    • hrebendorf

      I’m currently a member of the American Federation of Musicians and, as a Class B machine tool operator who worked at a parts manufacturer, I used to be a member of the UAW as well. And my experience has been that both unions are essentially worthless and even destructive to the economy and to the workers who are literally forced to become members. As a musician, I avoided joining the musician’s union for years. But if you’re ever signed to a major label, or if you ever want to play any big venues, you join. Period. And you don’t work in an auto parts factory without joining the UAW. Straight out of high school, I went to work for a company called NAPCO. We made parts for Chrysler and for the military, and I made more money than any high school kid could possibly imagine. And one day, one of the older workers said to me, “Are you ready to go on strike?” And I said, “Strike? What strike?” And he said, “Well, the new contract is coming up for negotiation.” And I said, “But why are we striking?” And he said, “More money!” And I said, “I’m already making too much money. I don’t WANT any more money.” And he looked at me like I was from Mars and walked away and never said a word to me again. But I WAS making too much money. And that’s the problem with unions. You absolutely need them when you need them, but most of the time you don’t need them. I’ve never needed the musician’s union. All I do is pay my dues. And somewhere, someone’s making an obscene living, sitting in an office collecting dues from a bunch of musicians who have no idea why they’re paying those dues.

      Unions are a valuable thing when workers are being taken advantage of. But once the union achieves its primary purpose, there’s little reason for it to exist.

      • GregorZap

        Too much money?!? That is ridiculous!

        If you find yourself with “too much money” find a place to donate it, support your family, or invest in your retirement. Don’t go around suggesting you are making too much money and cause people with more serious needs to lose their good wages. What about people with children and families? Should their wages be reduced because you chose not to have children? Frankly, I have no kids, but I do not believe it would be fair for my wages to be related to how much someone else thinks I need. And what about those executives making millions? Are they making too much money? In the end, if “everyone” is making too much money, maybe they are charging too much for their product/services.

        • hrebendorf

          The first job I worked on at the factory was burnishing ring gears. In a union factory, you have an hourly quota you’re expected to make. And the quota for my job was, like, 25 pieces an hour or something like that. So I started doing them the way they told me to do them, and checking them with my go/no go gauge, and everything seemed to be going fine. I was easily making the quota. So I though to myself, “I wonder what would happen if I modified the process a little bit. Maybe made one less pass with the tool.” So I tried it. And then I checked the piece and it came out just fine. So I called the setup man over and said, “Hey, check this piece for me–am I doing it right?” And he checked it and said, “Yeah, it looks fine.” So I worked for an hour and racked up a couple hundred pieces. Then I pulled the tool and walked over to the tool crib and had the guy inspect it. I said, “How does this tool look? Is it damaged or anything?” And he looked it over and said, “Nope, looks fine to me.” So I went back and cranked it up, and by lunchtime I’d done 1000 pieces on a job that had a quota of 100. And my supervisor came over and said, “How the hell did you do that?” So I showed him. Anyway, during lunch I was definitely getting some looks, and finally this lazy old asshole with a family to support came over to me and said, “Look, I know you’re new here, but you’d better slow down or you’re not gonna make any friends around here.” And I said, “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to work.” And I went back to work.

          See, my experience was that not only were the people who worked there overpaid, but they were also lazy as hell, and they were covering for each other. It sorta made me sick, to tell you the truth. And I gotta figure that goes on in factories all over the country. Personally, I’m not into it. And personally, I was making too much money.

          • hrebendorf

            Another, nicer story. I lived in Ketchum, Idaho for awhile, and while I was there I made ski boots for Scott USA. Another factory job, but non-union and smaller. And we had a quota too. But the deal was, if you made your quota before the week was over, you got the rest of the week off–with pay. But it was a quota for the whole factory, not just for individual workers, so everyone had to hustle or everyone had to suffer. So we worked our ASSES off. Sometimes, if we really cranked it, we’d make our quota by lunchtime Thursday. Then it was off to the slopes–with pay–until Monday morning. If it had been a union job, we would have worked until 5:00 Friday, we would have turned out half as many boots and we would have made twice as much money. Guess what? I liked it better the way we were doing it.

          • Jason Everett Miller

            Thanks for the great stories. I sometime feel as if we are living in a fantasy world where the unions are all beneficent and the business owners are all evil. Kind of like the conservative versus liberal argument. That paradigm is the last remaining hurdle to real progress in this country.

          • hrebendorf

            Hey, Jason, thanks for enjoying my furry old war stories. 🙂 And I agree with you that we need to drop the cheap characterizations on both sides. Sometimes management is on the same side as the workers and sometimes conservatives and liberals really do agree.

      • Tom Wright

        Difficult to know. Preventing unions is certainly Bad. Protecting them may have a Too Much of a Good Thing aspect, if overdone. I’ve always been unhappy with the emphasis on income over work relief, although those rules are important in negotiations.

        Our orchestra makes above union scale, and we are mainly a work-dues gravy train to the Chicago Federation. But in eras when there were no unions, labor-intensive music, mainly shows, was exploitative. Union regs make little sense to the leader, the solo artist, who is irked by rules about sidemen. Tends to be a non-issue in small venues, at least in Chicago, and only nationally-known acts even get noticed by the union. Then again, those folks are pulling in bucks, while the experimental groups and new ventures get a pass.

        Rules that enforced transparency in union operations would be Good, to devalue old-boy networking and venal finances, and make a given union more responsive to the full workforce, not just the committee guys. Should go without saying that said rules should not be applied only to the union, but also to company management.

        The union’s presence might be a coal-mine canary, and if unions are suppressed other forms of worker protection are usually gone, too. As long as companies can aggregate power, unions are appropriate as a counterbalance.

        • hrebendorf

          I agree that for an orchestral player the musician’s union provides an important function. Session players too. I’ve only ever done a little session work and I’ve never played in an orchestra, so I don’t tend to think in those terms, but you make an excellent point.

        • hrebendorf

          By the way, for a little contrast, my first union experience as a musician was the night my band was forced to “join” the union for a single night because we were playing at a union club in New York. It was a huge club, and the bartenders were unionized, the stagehands were unionized–the whole deal. We got there and this guy in the office said, “I gotta see your union cards.” I told him we didn’t belong to the union, and he said we could buy temporary cards for the night. I never knew who our “dues” went to. I always figured either the club kept it or it went to the Mafia (which in NYC is also the musician’s union).

          It was a very weird gig for us. From the time we pulled up to the club, we weren’t allowed to touch our gear. The stagehands loaded everything in for us, set up the stage for us, plugged everything in. I tried to change the volume on my amp at some point and some guy with a flashlight waved me off and said, “Don’t do that. That’s my job. Where do you want it?” Very weird. We were a four-piece band and we had seven or eight stagehands waiting on us all night long. It was sort of absurd.

          • Tom Wright

            Absurdities abound in unionland. I’ve heard similar stuff about convention centers.

            Symphony Center is a union hall, but our stagehands don’t presume to tell Bill Frisell how to run his amp, or try to adjust James Taylor’s preamp that feeds the house floor monitors. I think many of the goofier union experiences are not really common anymore. Frank Zappa wrote a song on the subject,
            “Rudy Want to Buy Yez a Drink” on Chunga’s Revenge.

          • hrebendorf

            Great album, although I can’t bring the song to mind. Guess I’ll have to dig it out. Thanks for providing me with an entire afternoon’s worth of work. 🙂

          • Tom Wright

            Correction, Rudy Wants To Buy Yez a Drink.

            Hi, and howdy doody,
            I’m the union man, you can call me Rudy,
            Any of you boys not paid up on your cards?

            You know I’m pleased to meetcha,
            Been tryin all day to reach ya.
            The union’s here to help every one of you rock and roll stars.

        • Jason Everett Miller

          I guess it just seems like an odd way to solve the underlying problems to me. It also seems as if unions have been fighting the same battles for more than a century with very little show for it over the last fifty yeas or so. In fact, they have shown diminishing returns as their industries died. I don’t see how they can be completely blameless for creating those situations.

          I think unions have a useful and necessary place today in some industries. Mostly because those industries have been handicapped by a history of union representation. Unions would kill other industries because they operate independent of that paradigm and workers in that industry have become self sufficient with regards to negotiation and selling their value to employers.

          I wonder if unions have gotten in the way of the essential calculus in some industries?

          For me it is one of those issues on the left, like the pro-life crap on the right, that seems to never change. We are fighting the same battles with TV spots and lobbying that we used to fight with picket-lines and bottles. Progress to be sure, but those issues are still just as unresolved after a whole lot of time and resources.

          Thanks for the contribution, Tom.

      • tiggers thotful spot

        I wonder if ever in the history of corporate management a CEO has said this.

        The health insurance CEOs whose monthly bills are growing 10% year over year?

        The cable tv CEOs whose monthly bills are growing way faster than inflation?

        The hedge fund CEOs whose salaries are in the billions while they help destroy companies by naked shorting?

        Nope. They never ask for less.

        It’s pretty naive for a high school kid to think other workers who must support families are making “too much money.” Actually calling it “naive” is just me being polite.

      • hrebendorf

        Well here’s an interesting thought: Americans want to buy cheap televisions and CD players and sofas and clothing but they want to be paid high wages. And then they complain when companies outsource to countries where people will work for cheap.

        See, the thing is, you either get your cake or you get to eat cake. You don’t get both.