Sense from Seattle

Common sense thoughts on life and current affairs by a Seattle area sexagenarian, drawing on personal experience, years of learning as a counselor to thousands of families and an innate passion for informed knowledge, to uniquely express sensible, thoughtful, honest and independent views.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Political Pendulum

The announcement this week of more decisions of the US Supreme Court by its 5-4 conservative majority confirmed that the Chief Justice Roberts has not been able to bring the Justices to a wider consensus. The Court seems to be even more divided than ever in its opinions, with four conservatives and four liberals and one swing man who leans toward conservative. Bush appointee Alito surprised no one with the extent of his conservatism, willingly striking more to the political right than even the late Justice Rehnquist. But Roberts is a true disappointment. Not only has he failed as a consensus builder and voted consistently with the political right wing point of view, but he also has shown a shocking willingness to discard legal precedent, incrementally rather than wholesale, but nevertheless in large increments.

Hope for more sensible majority opinions from the Court now rests on Justice Kennedy, who has taken over the middle role formerly played by Sandra Day O’Connor. But while the Court conservatives are voting to change precedent in large steps, Kennedy only seems willing to reduce the length of their strides rather than change the direction they are taking. Since the conservatives on the Court are also the youngest Justices, liberals who believe in an intervening God may need to pray for intervention. A prayer for change of conservative legal hearts would be nice, but a plea for conservative heart stoppage during the coming Democratic Presidency would be more direct.

Bush has kicked the political pendulum far to the right. The momentum has slowed greatly and now started to turn, most noticeably last fall with the Democrats gaining a slim majority in Congress. Democrat led Congressional oversight hearings have given cover to previously timid journalists, with resulting deeper disclosures of the secrecy, corruption and incompetency of the Bush administration. The American majority has gagged on the Bush effort to undermine Social Security, soured on the Iraq fiasco and been repulsed by the Bush embrace of torture and domestic spying. With a few exceptions, Republicans in Congress, fearing unsuccessful re-election races, are not openly resisting the change of direction, though they still are dragging their feet.

The next measurement of political pendulum movement takes place in November 2008, when Americans are expected to choose a Democrat for President. The movement toward Democrats could include holding onto Congress. It would be great if it went so far as to produce the needed 60 Democrats in the Senate to block Republican filibusters, though that is about as far as the Congressional pendulum ever swings.

But what about the underlying long range American pendulum swing? Unfortunately, in many ways since the 1970s, the movement has been toward the right wing, propelled by corporate funding and religious and racial exploitation. In limited areas, public sentiment has leaned left, but overall right wing momentum has prevailed. Consider this list of subjects.

Abortion - Though public opinion has been more accepting of reproductive rights, political action has not reflected that acceptance.

Capital Punishment - Like abortion, political reality is more to the right of public opinion.

Corporations - In spite of all they bad things they do, their money buys political power and public relations, and much of the voting public has at least token stock ownership through 401k plans, so corporations, quintessentially right wing, continue to enjoy unwarranted favoritism and influence.

Democracy - Money has undermined our democratic foundations. The Bush Administration came to power by trampling on voters rights and has continued the process under the guise of preventing voter fraud. Targeting black voters lower on the socio-economic scale has added insult to the injury, but not particularly in the eyes of white America.

Economics - The economic gap has widened with such debacles as the Bush tax giveaways to the rich and the huge increases in the national debt and trade deficits. Americans have fallen for the overextended credit mirage of wealth, and now the false image is starting to disappear. As more middle Americans fall into the financial hole and get abused by the Bush bankruptcy “reform” thumb screws, the opportunity to move economics back toward justice will improve.

Education - A truly educated electorate is a threat to right wing momentum, which is why the right continues to undercut public education. A credible movement for educational excellence in America has yet to emerge.

Environment - Great hope lies in the strange bedfellows of brilliantly practical environmentalists and sensibly realistic business leaders. Such partnerships, based on mutual acceptance of scientific reality, common appreciation of the wonders of nature and recognition of the economic benefits of wise environmental policies, can be the basis for significant improvement, especially once Bush is gone.

Health - We need better health insurance, and also better health. Partnerships of legitimate stakeholders like unions, employers and health care providers can bring significant improvements. The villainsous insurers, advertisers and drug companies, need to be regulated out of illegitimate influence. Hillary Clinton may have the knowledge and connections to generate movement in the correct direction.

Homosexuality - This hot button issue swings similar to abortion.

Immigration - Our nation of immigrants remains deeply conflicted about how much to close the door in the face of new arrivals, and especially about what to do with the millions that were encouraged to sneak in by employers seeking to cut wages of American workers.

Journalism - Right wing money continues to pervert and pressure the media, but the excesses of the Bush years provide an opportunity for the re-emergence of some respectable journalism.

Labor - Unions continue moribund, except for government employees. Some rumblings of fresh approaches within the labor movement are encouraging. The exit of Bush probably marks the farthest limit of the movement against labor.

Race - The Roberts Court has given new energy to the right wing racially reactive movement. On the personal level, Bush caused Colin Powell to embarrass himself, blinded Condoleezza Rice to reality and proved Alberto Gonzales to be just an empty suit. New Orleans shows just how unimportant the situation of poor black Americans is in the eyes of the rest of the country.
White American concern over the browning of America is a major factor in the immigration debate.

Religion - Republican embrace of evangelicals has at least slowed and maybe even stopped the right wing endorsed merger of church and state, but the Roberts Court will probably prevent any change in direction back to more separation.

Sex - Hypocrisy continues as corporate money exploits sex for profits, while supporting right wing Republicans who use sex as a political wedge issue. Our unhealthy sex obsessions are like the forest which we cannot see because of focusing on one Super Bowl breast.

UN - As the pendulum of the Iraq fiasco in Iraq has flown back to hit Bush in the face, Americans have reason for new respect for the UN.

War - Once again, we have been schooled that war is rarely a valid solution. As Pete Seeger memorably sang, “When will we ever learn?” For a while now, we will be less likely to Sabre rattle.

Women - Hillary’s run confirms the capability of powerful women, but women on the lower end of the economic scale remain largely underpowered.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must take exception to your paragraph on immigration. It is true that American employers encouraged and continue to encourage immigrants to "sneak in" by providing jobs. Probably the first employers to do this were agricultural employers on the West coast. They were not hiring Mexicans to drive down the wages of poor Americans. They were keeping their businesses profitable because there was nobody else to pick the crops. The annual migration of farm workers from Mexico in the early spring to follow the harvests north and return to their homes in the fall was a pattern that was early on integrated into the agricultural economic system in this country. Then the migrant workers entered other industries. Again, industries where there were labor shortages. In Arizona there are not groups of angry Americans who have lost their landscaping, block laying, tile setting, roofing, swimming pool resurfacing, etc. jobs. But if Janet Napolitano signs the bill today passed by the Arizona legislature that promises to remove the business licences of any business that hires an illegal alien for the second time, you will see groups of angry Americans. Those Americans are the business owners, the accountants, the receptionists, the salespeople, the project managers, etc. that will lose their jobs because the business cannot find the skilled and unskilled employees to do the basic work of the business.

By transposing the immigration battle into just another 1950's style American labor-management issue, you have lost what are the really important issues: 1. Congress's failure for many years to address the issue of providing needed low cost workers; the problems businesses have in getting low cost workers to remain competitive; the rights of people who have lived here productively because they were given jobs by those businesses to remain here; what the human cost of deportation would be; what the economic blow to many industries would be if deportation were done; what the welfare costs would be if deportation were done and many deportees left their children who are US citizens.

John from Phoenix

9:29 AM  
Blogger Tom Blake said...

Hi John and welcome back to sense [meaning the Sense site welcomes you back, not that you were previously nonsensical].

Throughout our history, when American enterprise has had a need for cheap labor that could not be met from the workforce then available on our shores, we have recruited workers of color from abroad. We started using kidnaped blacks from Africa, forcing them to work as slaves. After slavery was abolished, it was continued de facto by sharecropping. When we needed workers to build the transcontinental railroad through the mountains, we brought in poorly paid Chinese, and when their work was finished we passed laws excluding them. Most recently it has been brown skinned people from south of the border, recruited to work illegally with no protection from ill treatment.

The heart of your argument is these two sentences. “They were not hiring Mexicans to drive down the wages of poor Americans. They were keeping their businesses profitable because there was nobody else to pick the crops. “ You assume the first sentence is true based on the second. But they are both false. Employers want to hire competent people for the lowest wage possible, in order to keep costs down, be more competitive and make a better profit. One of my sons just had a job interview for a supervisory position with T-Mobile, and the interviewer began by saying he wanted to save everyone time, so he asked, “What is the lowest salary you would be willing to accept?” Collectively, employers seek to keep all wages low through political action, led by their troika - the Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and Republican Party. These are the people who fight any increase in the minimum wage as if it will bring about the end of the world.

Saying there is “nobody else to pick the crops” omits the needed qualification “for the pay and conditions the employer wants to pay”. Keeping the pay unreasonably low and the working conditions miserable guarantees that only desperate people from third world economies can afford to take the job. This is the same issue from the 1950s, with just a shift in who is playing the lowest paid roles. Remember the Edward R. Murrow TV documentary from 1960 that caused such a stir and raised public awareness? “The Harvest of Shame” showed the plight of the migrant workers, many of whom at that time were black American citizens. Employers back then started moving union jobs from the north to the non-union south, just as they are now moving them overseas to avoid fair labor laws.

Instead of letting the WTO carry out the agenda of the troika, America should be using our economic muscle to bring about fair labor standards in the nations with whom we trade. But first we need to re-commit to fair labor standards and economic justice for our own workers. I totally disagree with you about the role of Congress. Rather than helping the troika depress wages, Congress should be working to keep them up and to raise up those of workers overseas.

I do agree with you that we must be concerned for those who have been working here productively, though without proper documentation. This issue is so hot politically I do not expect anything to be done on it until after the 2008 election, and I just cannot believe there will ever be an actual program deporting millions of people.

Long range, there are two approaches that could be followed to resolve this issue. The first is the troika approach America has always taken, bring in cheap immigrant labor, now modernized by making them work illegally so they cannot complain or by outsourcing the jobs to countries without fair labor laws. The second approach, the one I advocate, is to put fair treatment of all workers, both in America and overseas, at the top of the list.

8:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom,I'm afraid The Sense site isn't on this topic.
1. First of all, no immigrant is "working ilegally" in this country. There are no laws that I am aware of that outlaw people from other countries to work here. The Arizona law that Napolitano signed yesterday comes close, but it makes hiring undocumented immigrants illegal. So the employers are the criminals, not the workers. Some immigrants are guilty of entering the country illegally. They may one day be arrested for that crime, but holding a job does not add further crimes to their record,
2. You confuse managements' treatment of workers with the hiring of immigrants. I believe I am closer to this issue than you because of my current and past employments. I have heard of employers stiffing the undocumented workers. Also I have heard that they work 10 hour days for low wages. But I have also seen immigrants treated with respect by their employers. The company I contract to do the landscape maintenance at the retirement community I manage is a case in point. Another case in point: Back in the 80's I was a pioneer in my branch of Honeywell in hiring immigrants, mostly Asians but one Canadian and one Indian (Oh I guess they are Asian too). I was unable to hire the people I needed otherwise. The immigrants were on the same pay scale as everybody else. Many of them worked 10 hours, but so did I and many others. That is the nature of engineering - to work many hours. Bottom line: employee maltreatment and illegal immigration are separate issues. To equate the two is to confuse the readers.
3. Yes, throughout our history we have looked abroad for workers, most of whom, but not all, were low paid. To wit, my Honewell experience above. The difference from before and now, is that Congress acted responsibly and passed quotas allowing enough workers in to fill the jobs. When I was hiring immigrants we kept hearing about Congress possibly reducing the quota of Asian skilled workers, but it didn't happen probably because Congress listened to employer lobbyists. Now we have a problem because Congress for decades ignored the Hispanic workers who simply walked across the border. Now many of them are treated like criminals because they were enticed to violate a border regulation that in my mnind is a mere technicality. It's a technicality because there is no moral truth behind the regulation, only a number (immigration quota) that Congress can set. Now because of all the hoopla, people look at brown skinned people and assume they are criminals. Even you wrote they are working illegally.
3. Your view of the wage economy is rosy and unrealistic. You seem to be saying raise wages and they (the workers) will come. Even if there were this huge pool of native born Americans who were just sitting around living off of their parents or the state or selling drugs that suddenly were attracted to these higher paying jobs, the companies would lose out to their competitors. In other words we would increase the export of jobs from this country. The other side of the illegal immigrants issue is the exporting of jobs, in my mind a much more important issue and one that is perfectly legal. But what would actually happen if you raised wages, is that more people would sneak into this country to take those jobs.
4. I agree that we need fair treatment of workers, especially of the 12 million undocumented workers in this country. What they want is the right to stay here and raise their families and keep doing the work they are doing. Last week Congress turned its back on them and yesterday the Arizona governor did too.

John from Phoenix

10:45 AM  
Blogger Tom Blake said...

John, on your points:

1. When I said “recruited to work illegally”, I meant encouraged to enter the country illegally in order to obtain a job here. The hours and conditions of the work might also be in violation of wage and hour laws. As far as I know, if someone enters this country illegally and works here, then they are working here illegally. There is Federal documentation required in order for a non-citizen to legally work here. I have not checked the penalty for such a worker and as a practical matter it may be virtually irrelevant if the worker is being deported and has no money to pay a fine.

2. I think there is a connection, in that an employer who would knowingly hire an undocumented worker would also be more likely to treat the worker unfairly. I don’t doubt that some employers treat workers with respect, perhaps even if they suspect they may be undocumented.

3. I agree the failure of Congress to increase quotas, knowing the workers were going to come anyway and not doing much to stop them, should amount to a de facto quota increase. Technically, they are working here illegally, though they may have an equitable defense based on the de facto quota argument. In any event, they are not working here immorally, just in technical violation by not being properly documented.

4. [Your second 3]. I am saying we need to work to raise wages in other countries to take away the incentive for those workers to come here, and also to take away the incentive for our employers to send the work overseas. This is a long range solution. The first step toward reaching it is to recognize its necessity.

5. [your 4]. I do not expect these workers will be deported. I think they will eventually be documented retroactively and assessed some form of monetary civil penalty to make up for unpaid taxes. Rather than bogging down in determining each penalty on a case by case basis, some standard penalties would be more practical, perhaps based on age of the worker.

I have not spent much time on this issue on my Sense postings, because I have figured nothing meaningful is going to be done on it for the next couple years.

3:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A fine for unpaid taxes is atough one. Some of the undocumented workers are probably overpaying taxes. The employer withholds the taxes from his pay, but the employee doesn't file at the end of the year for fear of being found out. The fine should probably be just for the crime of entering the country illegally.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Blake said...

You are likely right that some are overpaying taxes. Payment will be needed though to satisfy conservative taxpayers who think these workers are costing them money. I don't think calling it a fine for illegal entry will go far enough to satisfy them, so labeling it as a tax recoupment also will be more appealing. Perhaps in the process of discussing the appropriate tax recoupment, the conversation can be turned to point out, as you did, that some may have actually overpaid, and then some reasonably payable amounts can be agreed upon and labeled however needed to become law.

8:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see your point on the label for the fine. One more thing. You state you did not spend much time on this topic because nothing will be done for a couple of years. Meaningful things are happening right now in Arizona. The Governor signed the toughest anti-immigrant legislation in the country. At the same time she called for a special session of the legislature to fix some of the problems with the bill that she found. One big example she used is that nursing homes would be shut down if they broke this law. Do we really want that? Anyway it is the law of Arizona, and I will be personally, though indirectly, affected by it. I hope you keep in touch with all the follow-on to this bill. It should be interesting.
John from Phoenix

11:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the books I was reading in preparation for my trip to Europe is Postwar, A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt. It is a big book and I got barely halfway through before our trip. I resumed reading it today and the section I read was about the huge immigration of peoples into the countries of northwest Europe from other European countries. According to Judt it began right after the war ended, but really increased in the late 1950's when the economies of Germany, France, Britain, and Benelux countries were rapidly expanding. For example he says a million and a half Portuguese workers moved north from 1961 to 1974 leaving behind only 3.5 million workers in Portugal.

He says in West Germany in 1973 there were 500,000 Italians, 535,000 Yugoslavs, and 605,000 Turks.By contrast, in 1958 there were 25,000 Italians, 4,000 Yugoslavs, and too few Turks to be recorded. Then he says the economies of the European countries cooled off in 1974 and these immigrants were the first to be laid off.

He says the Germans were not happy with the surge of immigrants, but tolerated them because they were expected to go back home when the need for guest workers ended. But they didn't. He says many of the immigrants were successfully assimilated but the exception were the Muslims.

While reading this I thought of the concerns you raised, and of the 12 million undocumented "guest workers" we have in the US mostly from Mexico and other Central American countries. After 40 years the issue has not played out in Europe. Many of us will not see this issue play out in the US.

I might be wrong about this, but I think the issue is larger in Germany than in the US. The US has a long Hispanic history going way back to Ferdinand and Isabella. The Hispanics are mostly Catholic and mostly have a strong family orientation. All this fits well in the US culture, except many of the right wing religious political forces in the US don't like to admit that Catholics are Christians. By contrast, the Muslims from Turkey and elsewhere have not integrated well into German society.

John from Phoenix

11:17 AM  
Blogger Tom Blake said...

A couple years back I read a book my brother recommended about a Southern Italian woman not unlike my grandmother, who went to Germany for a job around the time you mentioned. She hated it, felt unwelcome and definitely wanted to go back to Italy. When he visited Italy, my brother found some of our grandmother’s family in the south. He learned that part of the family had been recruited in the 1960s to work in Canadian steel mills. Some of our family went and still live in Sault Ste. Marie, just above northern Michigan. There is a huge Italian community there.

Muslims are strangers in countries with strong Christian traditions, and not particularly welcomed. There is a large Muslim presence in Dearborn, Michigan, and I wonder how they relate to their neighbors and other residents of the State.

Hispanics should find it relatively easy to thrive in the US, since their values have much in common with our national culture. In Florida and the southwest, their ancestors predate the Gringos. All children of immigrants lose the mother tongue and many of those of color marry lighter skinned people further facilitating integration. But integrating Muslims into a country with Christian traditions is more of a problem. Religion again is at the root of the trouble.

8:28 AM  

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