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“Those Dreaded Unions”: Republicans Who Meddle With Profit-Making Business

It’s no secret that many Republican lawmakers dislike labor unions, which are big supporters of Democrats. But it’s unusual to see a politician willing to castigate an employer in his state just for talking to union officials about setting up a union at its factory.

Consider the case of Bob Corker, the Republican senator from Tennessee, and Volkswagen, the German automaker that employs 2,000 workers at a plant in Chattanooga. As my colleague Steven Greenhouse reported last week, the company is working with the United Auto Workers on a plan to unionize its factory so it can establish what is known as a “works council” in Germany. These councils are essentially committees of workers that meet with management to discuss how to improve conditions and productivity. Some studies have found that plants with such committees have higher productivity and wages than factories without them, which is why both workers and management might want them.

But Mr. Corker appears to have never seen a union he liked. In an interview with the Associated Press, he called Volkswagen’s decision to engage in these talks “incomprehensible” and said the company would become a “laughingstock in the business world” if it went ahead with the plan. His criticism is particularly strange because he is reported to have played a big role in bringing Volkswagen to Chattanooga, where he was once mayor. To be fair, Mr. Corker is not alone; the governor of his state, the Republican Bill Haslam, is also opposed to the Volkswagen-U.A.W. plan.

The lawmakers say they are worried that a unionized Volkswagen plant would somehow ruin the investment climate in the state and compel other companies not to invest there. A more realistic explanation for why the lawmakers oppose the U.A.W.’s foray into their state is that they fear it will support the state’s Democratic party.

The strangest thing about Mr. Corker’s and Mr. Haslam’s criticism of Volkswagen is that Republicans are usually on the ones telling everybody else in government not to meddle in the affairs of profit-making businesses. After all, it’s their mantra that businesses, not lawmakers, create jobs. But I guess none of that matters in this case because even a company as successful and profitable as Volkswagen, which is competing with Toyota and General Motors to be the world’s largest automaker, must be deluded if it’s entertaining the possibility of working with a dreaded union.


By: Vikas Bajaj, Editors Blog, The New York Times, September 12, 2013

September 13, 2013 Posted by | Businesses, Unions | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Great Divide”: The Stagnation Of American Education

For most of American history, parents could expect that their children would, on average, be much better educated than they were. But that is no longer true. This development has serious consequences for the economy.

The epochal achievements of American economic growth have gone hand in hand with rising educational attainment, as the economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz have shown. From 1891 to 2007, real economic output per person grew at an average rate of 2 percent per year — enough to double every 35 years. The average American was twice as well off in 2007 as in 1972, four times as well off as in 1937, and eight times as well off as in 1902. It’s no coincidence that for eight decades, from 1890 to 1970, educational attainment grew swiftly. But since 1990, that improvement has slowed to a crawl.

Companies pay better-educated people higher wages because they are more productive. The premium that employers pay to a college graduate compared with that to a high school graduate has soared since 1970, because of higher demand for technical and communication skills at the top of the scale and a collapse in demand for unskilled and semiskilled workers at the bottom.

As the current recovery continues at a snail’s pace, concerns about America’s future growth potential are warranted. Growth in annual average economic output per capita has slowed from the century-long average of 2 percent, to 1.3 percent over the past 25 years, to a mere 0.7 percent over the past decade. As of this summer, per-person output was still lower than it was in late 2007. The gains in income since the 2007-9 Great Recession have flowed overwhelmingly to those at the top, as has been widely noted. Real median family income was lower last year than in 1998.

There are numerous causes of the less-than-satisfying economic growth in America: the retirement of the baby boomers, the withdrawal of working-age men from the labor force, the relentless rise in the inequality of the income distribution and, as I have written about elsewhere, a slowdown in technological innovation.

Education deserves particular focus because its effects are so long-lasting. Every high school dropout becomes a worker who likely won’t earn much more than minimum wage, at best, for the rest of his or her life. And the problems in our educational system pervade all levels.

The surge in high school graduation rates — from less than 10 percent of youth in 1900 to 80 percent by 1970 — was a central driver of 20th-century economic growth. But the percentage of 18-year-olds receiving bona fide high school diplomas fell to 74 percent in 2000, according to the University of Chicago economist James J. Heckman. He found that the holders of G.E.D.’s performed no better economically than high school dropouts and that the rising share of young people who are in prison rather than in school plays a small but important role in the drop in graduation rates.

Then there is the poor quality of our schools. The Program for International Student Assessment tests have consistently rated American high schoolers as middling at best in reading, math and science skills, compared with their peers in other advanced economies.

At the college level, longstanding problems of quality are joined with the issues of affordability. For most of the postwar period, the G.I. Bill, public and land-grant universities and junior colleges made a low-cost education more accessible in the United States than anywhere in the world. But after leading the world in college completion, America has dropped to 16th. The percentage of 25- to 29-year-olds who hold a four-year bachelor’s degree has inched up in the past 15 years, to 33.5 percent, but that is still lower than in many other nations.

The cost of a university education has risen faster than the rate of inflation for decades. Between 2008 and 2012 state financing for higher education declined by 28 percent. Presidents of Ivy League and other elite schools point to the lavish subsidies they give low- and middle-income students, but this leaves behind the vast majority of American college students who are not lucky or smart enough to attend them.

While a four-year college degree still pays off, about one-quarter of recent college graduates are currently unemployed or underemployed. Meanwhile, total student debt now exceeds $1 trillion.

Heavily indebted students face two kinds of risks. One is that they fall short of their income potential, through some combination of unemployment and inability to find a job in their chosen fields. Research has shown that on average a college student taking on $100,000 in student debt will still come out ahead by age 34. But that break-even age goes up if future income falls short of the average.

There is also completion risk. A student who takes out half as much debt but drops out after two years never breaks even because wages of college dropouts are little better than those of high school graduates. These risks are acute for high-achieving students from low-income families: Caroline M. Hoxby, a Stanford economist, found that they often don’t apply to elite colleges and wind up at subpar ones, deeply in debt.

Two-year community colleges enroll 42 percent of American undergraduates. The Center on International Education Benchmarking reports that only 13 percent of students in two-year colleges graduate in two years; that figure rises to a still-dismal 28 percent after four years. These students are often working while taking classes and are often poorly prepared for college and required to take remedial courses.

Federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have gone too far in using test scores to evaluate teachers. Many children are culturally disadvantaged, even if one or both parents have jobs, have no books at home, do not read to them, and park them in front of a TV set or a video game in lieu of active in-home learning. Compared with other nations where students learn several languages and have math homework in elementary school, the American system expects too little. Parental expectations also matter: homework should be emphasized more, and sports less.

Poor academic achievement has long been a problem for African-Americans and Hispanics, but now the achievement divide has extended further. Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution, has argued that “family breakdown is now biracial.” Among lower-income whites, the proportion of children living with both parents has plummeted over the past half-century, as Charles Murray has noted.

Are there solutions? The appeal of American education as a destination for the world’s best and brightest suggests the most obvious policy solution. Shortly before his death, Steve Jobs told President Obama that a green card conferring permanent residency status should be automatically granted to any foreign student with a degree in engineering, a field in which skills are in short supply..

Richard J. Murnane, an educational economist at Harvard, has found evidence that high school and college completion rates have begun to rise again, although part of this may be a result of weak labor markets that induce students to stay in school rather than face unemployment. Other research has shown that high-discipline, “no-excuses” charter schools, like those run by the Knowledge Is Power Program and the Harlem Children’s Zone, have erased racial achievement gaps. This model suggests that a complete departure from the traditional public school model, rather than pouring in more money per se, is needed.

Early childhood education is needed to counteract the negative consequences of growing up in disadvantaged households, especially for children who grow up with only one parent. Only one in four American 4-year-olds participate in preschool education programs, but that’s already too late. In a remarkable program, Reach Out and Read, 12,000 doctors, nurses and other providers have volunteered to include instruction on the importance of in-home reading to low-income mothers during pediatric checkups.

Even in today’s lackluster labor market, employers still complain that they cannot find workers with the needed skills to operate complex modern computer-driven machinery. Lacking in the American system is a well-organized funnel between community colleges and potential blue-collar employers, as in the renowned apprenticeship system in Germany.

How we pay for education shows, in the end, how much we value it. In Canada, each province manages and finances education at the elementary, secondary and college levels, thus avoiding the inequality inherent in America’s system of local property-tax financing for public schools. Tuition at the University of Toronto was a mere $5,695 for Canadian arts and science undergraduates last year, compared with $37,576 at Harvard. It should not be surprising that the Canadian college completion rate is about 15 percentage points above the American rate. As daunting as the problems are, we can overcome them. Our economic growth is at stake.


By: Robert J. Gordon, The New York Times, September 7, 2013

September 13, 2013 Posted by | Economy, Education | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Getting Past The Outrage On Race”: Unless We Work For Fundamental Justice, Our Society Will Have A Permanent Underclass

George Yancy’s recent passionate response in The Stone to Trayvon Martin’s killing — and the equally passionate comments on his response — vividly present the seemingly intractable conflict such cases always evoke. There seems to be a sense in which each side is right, but no way to find common ground on which to move discussion forward. This is because, quite apart from the facts of the case, Trayvon Martin immediately became a symbol for two apparently opposing moral judgments. I will suggest, however, that both these judgments derive from the same underlying injustice — one at the heart of the historic March on Washington 50 years ago and highlighted in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on that occasion.

Trayvon Martin was, for the black community, a symbol of every young black male, each with vivid memories of averted faces, abrupt street crossings, clicking car locks and insulting police searches. As we move up the socioeconomic scale, the memories extend to attractive job openings that suddenly disappear when a black man applies, to blacks interviewed just to prove that a company tried, and even to a president some still hate for his color. It’s understandable that Trayvon Martin serves as a concrete emblem of the utterly unacceptable abuse, even today, of young black men.

But for others this young black man became a symbol of other disturbing realities; that, for example, those most likely to drop out of school, belong to gangs and commit violent crimes are those who “look like” Trayvon Martin. For them — however mistakenly — his case evokes the disturbing amount of antisocial behavior among young black males.

Trayvon Martin’s killing focused our national discussion because Americans made him a concrete model of opposing moral judgments about the plight of young black men. Is it because of their own lack of values and self-discipline, or to the vicious prejudice against them? Given either of these judgments, many conclude that we need more laws — against discrimination if you are in one camp, and against violent crime if you are in the other — and stronger penalties to solve our racial problems.

There may be some sense to more legislation, but after many years of both “getting tough on crime” and passing civil rights acts, we may be scraping the bottom of the legal barrel. In any case, underlying the partial truths of the two moral pictures, there is a deeper issue. We need to recognize that our continuing problems about race are essentially rooted in a fundamental injustice of our economic system.

This is a point that Martin Luther King Jr. made in his “I Have a Dream” speech, one rightly emphasized by a number of commentators on the anniversary of that speech, including President Obama and Joseph Stiglitz. Dr. King made the point in a striking image at the beginning of his speech. “The Negro is not free,” he said, because he “lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast sea of material prosperity.” In 2011, for 28 percent of African-Americans, the island was still there, the source of both images of Trayvon Martin.

The poverty is not an accident. Our free-enterprise system generates enough wealth to eliminate Dr. King’s island. But we primarily direct the system toward individuals’ freedom to amass personal wealth. Big winners beget big losers, and a result is a socioeconomic underclass deprived of the basic goods necessary for a fulfilling human life: adequate food, housing, health care and education, as well as meaningful and secure employment. (Another Opinionator series, The Great Divide, examines such inequalities in detail each week.)

People should be allowed to pursue their happiness in the competitive market. But it makes no sense to require people to compete in the market for basic goods. Those who lack such goods have little chance of winning them in competition with those who already have them. This is what leads to an underclass exhibiting the antisocial behavior condemned by one picture of young black men and the object of the prejudice condemned by the other picture.

We need to move from outrage over the existence of an underclass to serious policy discussions about economic justice, with the first issue being whether our current capitalist system is inevitably unjust. If it is, is there a feasible way of reforming or even replacing it? If it is not, what methods does it offer for eliminating the injustice?

It is easy — and true — to say that a society as wealthy as ours should be able to keep people from being unhappy because they do not have enough to eat, have no safe place to live, have no access to good education and medical care, or cannot find a job.  But this doesn’t tell us how — if at all — to do what needs to be done. My point here is just that saying it can’t be done expresses not realism but despair. Unless we work for this fundamental justice, then we must reconcile ourselves to a society with a permanent underclass, a class that, given our history, will almost surely be racially defined. Then the bitter conflict between the two pictures of this class will never end, because the injustice that creates it will last forever. Dr. King’s island will never disappear, and there will always be another Trayvon Martin.


By: Gary Gutting, The New York Time, September 11, 2013

September 13, 2013 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Poverty | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Nothing Short Of Everything”: The Republican Leaders Vs The GOP’s Neanderthals

House Republicans, perhaps tired after working for four days after a six-week absence, will wrap their work week today around noon, leaving just five more days in September in which the chamber will be in session. And as House members depart this afternoon, they’ll leave increasing odds of a government shutdown in their wake.

Part of the problem is simply a matter of logistics: the government will run out of money on Sept. 30, and House leaders haven’t left themselves much time to get their work done.

But just as important is the fact that Republican leaders have absolutely no idea how they intend to govern. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the GOP leadership team thought they’d worked out a viable solution, which House Republicans rejected less than a day after it was introduced. Party officials are looking for someone to blame.

It’s not hard to find frustration with Heritage Action and the Club for Growth among senior Republicans, who believe the groups’ demand that they include Obamacare defunding language on any spending bill keeping the government open will ultimately empower Democrats in a series of fall battles over spending. They believe it’s part of a pattern of pushing untenable demands that have no chance of becoming law.

“Heritage Action and Club for Growth are slowly becoming irrelevant Neanderthals,” one senior GOP aide said.

Neanderthals, of course, is a subjective term — draw your own conclusions — but characterizing the right-wing activist groups as “irrelevant” is plainly incorrect. The House Republican leadership spent weeks carefully crafting a plan to avoid a government shutdown; Boehner & Co. unveiled their scheme on Tuesday; and by Wednesday morning, Heritage Action and Club for Growth had convinced Boehner’s caucus to reject Boehner’s plan out of hand.

I can appreciate why the Speaker’s office is frustrated, but which side of this equation sounds “irrelevant”?

Regardless, Republican leaders are left with an unsettling set of circumstances, which makes the odds of a government shutdown far more likely than they were 24 hours ago. Indeed, GOP lawmakers oppose their leaders’ plan, and the leaders don’t have a backup plan.

Consider just how brutal this is.

A clearly frustrated Boehner seemed to realize that he leads a conference where no plan is quite good enough. There are frequently about 30 Republicans who oppose leadership’s carefully crafted plans — just enough to mess things up. A reporter asked him whether he has a new idea to resolve the government funding fight. He laughed and said, “No.”

“Do you have an idea?” he asked the reporters. “They’ll just shoot it down anyway.”

That sounds terribly sad, though it also happens to be true. The party is out of control, and its most powerful leader has no power.

A significant, outcome-changing contingent within the House GOP caucus is driven by such irrational hatred of the Affordable Care Act that it won’t accept anything short of everything. Party leaders realize this approach would trigger a shutdown that the public would blame on Republicans. But if Boehner crafted a far-right spending measure to make extremists happy, this would quickly be rejected by the Senate and White House, again leading to a shutdown that the public would blame on Republicans.

The best way out is for the Speaker to give up on the radical wing of his party and strike a deal with House Democrats by scrapping the destructive sequestration policy. The shutdown would be averted; the economy would get a boost (remember when Congress occasionally thought about the economy?); and the Speaker would win plaudits for bipartisan cooperation and governing.

This, of course, won’t happen.

What’s likely to be the way out is Boehner will promise the extremists that if they support his idea of a temporary spending measure, he’ll hold the debt ceiling hostage over “defunding Obamacare.” The right-wing will probably see this as good enough and the nation will spend the next five or six weeks dealing with yet another Republican-imposed crisis.

Buckle your seat belt.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 12, 2013

September 13, 2013 Posted by | GOP, Government Shut Down | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”: In The End However, History Will Remember Where We End Up

In a political environment that stays thirsty for clear winners and losers and operates on a stopwatch, the Syrian debate hasn’t satisfied, and is unlikely to.

This debate is too serious to be subjected to the rules of Washington’s game, even as it must be conducted by its gamesmen.

It has broken down the normal tribalism of left-right, liberal-conservative constructs, and mixed folks into maddeningly contradictory coalitions.

On one side are some of President Obama’s staunchest supporters, who are always convinced that he’s the smartest man in the room, that he’s always playing chess when others are playing checkers.

As someone tweeted to me on Tuesday night, “I support my President and ANY decisions he makes.” She continued, “we elected him to do a job so we must pray for his discernment and allow him to do it.”

For many like this woman, their faith in Obama is resolute and unshakable. But, they have found kinship with conservative, hard-line war hawks who see an opportunity to alter the Syrian civil war and place another imperial imprint on the region. Their thirst for intervention will never be sated. Their trigger finger is always itchy. Their appetite for expansion knows no bounds.

This is the might-makes-right crowd.

On this side are also those who are simply convinced of the administration’s argument: that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people and that he should be punished, not only for moral reasons but to ensure our own national security.

And then there are people who generally support the president’s policies but feel, as a matter of principle — and perhaps provincial interest — that they simply cannot support his call to arms.

For them, this is not about an opposition to Obama the man, but to a military instinct.

And many of them seem to have reconciled their support for the president with their resistance to this action. That may help to explain why opposition to military action in Syria is overwhelming but, according to a Gallup report released Tuesday, Obama’s personal approval rating, as well as approval of his foreign affairs policies, remain relatively unchanged.

The truly anti-war-inclined, many of them true liberals, are so exhausted by our current and recent forays that they can’t even fathom another.

And they have real concerns. Would a United States military action be legal without a United Nations resolution? How do we ensure that dropping bombs won’t be tantamount to whacking the hornets’ nest, setting in motion painful repercussions that we cannot foresee? What to make of this Goldilocks bombing strategy of not-too-little, not-too-much but just enough? How is such a thing calibrated? And why bomb at all if we plan to leave Bashar Assad in power?

This genuine anti-war-in-Syria crowd finds itself in the odd company of the pro-war-on-Obama crowd. The latter will never be satisfied with anything this president does or how he does it. The president’s very presence irritates like a rock in a shoe.

For many of these folks, everything is a bargaining chip and all roads lead to Benghazi.

On Sunday, Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, said:

“One of the problems with all of this focus on Syria is it’s missing the ball from what we should be focused on, which is the grave threat from radical Islamic terrorism. I mean, just this week is the one-year anniversary of the attack on Benghazi.”

With Benghazi, Republicans are like a dog with a bone.

So into this crazy, mixed-up world of odd alliances steps the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, with a proposal — whether serious or not only time will tell — to defuse the situation by creating an even odder alliance: the Russians persuade the Syrians to declare and surrender their chemical weapons to international monitors in order to prevent American military action.

Under this new deal, we’d all be partners of a sort, working toward a common goal. And ironically, such a deal will most likely require boots on the ground in order to guard weapons inspectors and secure weapons, something that President Obama promised wouldn’t happen if Congress gave him authorization to bomb.

Now, personally, I don’t trust Russia’s Putin or Syria’s Assad any further than I could throw them, and the logistics of the Russian plan seem nearly impossible. Though at least America can now say that it has tried to pursue a diplomatic option before having to pursue a military one.

In the end, history will remember where we end up much more than how we got there. But, history takes time.

The fact that immense power should require immense patience seems to satisfy very few. We are an all-or-nothing culture, watching a get-it-over-quick clock. We dislike complexity, or ambiguity, or sophistication.

So, when the president offered no one-line take-away in his address to the nation on Tuesday, many of those already on the fence were left there with a one-word reflection: ambivalence.


By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, September 11, 2013

September 13, 2013 Posted by | Syria | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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