Bob Schwartz

Category: Economics

International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union

ILGWU 1

It’s #LaborDay. My Grandpa Harry was a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). He made beautiful coats. I still keep one of his union dues cards among my treasures.

All this talk about “Made in America” is incomplete. If we want things made in America, instead of all the other countries most of us buy most of our stuff from, we will pay a price. Unless we are planning to pay American workers the substandard wages of many of our import nations, we have to be willing to pay more for our goods. Are we willing? Are you willing?

Meanwhile, here’s the once famous song of the ILGWU. Maybe it can be famous again.

Look for the Union Label

Look for the union label
when you are buying that coat, dress or blouse.

Remember somewhere our union’s sewing,
our wages going to feed the kids, and run the house.

We work hard, but who’s complaining?
Thanks to the I.L.G. we’re paying our way!

So always look for the union label,
it says we’re able to make it in the U.S.A.!

And view this ILGWU singing ad from 1978.

Happy Labor Day.

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Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis

Bernie Sanders at the Vatican

This kind-of-cute headline from Politico sort of says it all.

Bernie’s fanboy moment: A meeting with Pope Francis

As you may know, Bernie Sanders was invited to a conference at the Vatican on issues related to economic justice. He interrupted his New York campaign to attend, gave an excellent speech that frequently cited the Pope’s own writings, but was told that the Pope would not be able to meet with him and others at the conference.

Then, at the last minute, the Pope was able to meet for five minutes with Bernie and his wife Jane. It was thrilling to hear that. It is unimaginable to conceive what it must have been like for Bernie, who as the headline suggests, is a huge fan of the Pope and his thinking on economic issues.

In case you think this is all about electoral politics, think again.

A major American politician has met with the Pope, based on a shared vision of economic justice. That vision comes from a background of Jewish fairness and compassion in one case and from the deepest, most Jesus-based tenets of the Catholic Church in the other. This doesn’t happen every day, or month, or year.

It is a unique and sweet moment for those who care about the future of America and the world. If that sounds a little grandiose, maybe believing big is exactly what we need.

A Visual Vacation in Fun and Relevant History: WPA Posters

WPA - Shall the Artist Survive

In case you think that government has no positive role to play in our lives, society or culture, especially in times of national stress, please have a look at the WPA posters from 1936 to 1943.

The Library of Congress has the largest collection:

The Work Projects Administration (WPA) Poster Collection consists of 907 posters produced from 1936 to 1943 by various branches of the WPA. Of the 2,000 WPA posters known to exist, the Library of Congress’s collection of more than 900 is the largest. The posters were designed to publicize exhibits, community activities, theatrical productions, and health and educational programs in seventeen states and the District of Columbia, with the strongest representation from California, Illinois, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The results of one of the first U.S. Government programs to support the arts, the posters were added to the Library’s holdings in the 1940s.

Here is a description of the WPA:

Of all of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) is the most famous, because it affected so many people’s lives. Roosevelt’s vision of a work-relief program employed more than 8.5 million people. For an average salary of $41.57 a month, WPA employees built bridges, roads, public buildings, public parks and airports.

Under the direction of Harry Hopkins, an enthusiastic ex-social worker who had come from modest means, the WPA would spend more than $11 million in employment relief before it was canceled in 1943. The work relief program was more expensive than direct relief payments, but worth the added cost, Hopkins believed. “Give a man a dole,” he observed, “and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both body and spirit”….

When federal support of artists was questioned, Hopkins answered, “Hell! They’ve got to eat just like other people.” The WPA supported tens of thousands of artists, by funding creation of 2,566 murals and 17,744 pieces of sculpture that decorate public buildings nationwide. The federal art, theater, music, and writing programs, while not changing American culture as much as their adherents had hoped, did bring more art to more Americans than ever before or since.

It would be lovely to include dozens of the posters here. Instead, here are just a few more. Please visit and enjoy the entire collection.

WPA - Yellowstone

WPA - Mural Studies

WPA - Letter Writing

WPA - Music Project

WPA - Lack of Funds

“Wrong Direction” Is the Wrong Question: A Nation Lost

GPS

Seventy-five percent of Americans say the country is moving in the wrong direction. But that isn’t the problem they actually perceive. It isn’t that they think we should go East when we’re heading West. It’s that, like an unprogrammed GPS, we have no idea where we want to go.

Americans love their GPS. They love it not because it can tell heading North from South; any compass can do that. They love it because when you put in a particular location, it will, mostly, direct you there. But that presupposes that you have a particular destination in mind.

America was least lost in the years following World War 2. There had been two very specific objectives, both of which had been achieved. We wanted to restore a failed economy and introduce renewed prosperity. Done. We wanted to defeat the most evil threat the world had ever known. Done.

We proceeded on autopilot for decades, though there were bumps on the road. It was about prosperity and freedom. When there were obstacles to either, we eliminated or overcame them. There were recessions here and there, but they passed. There was global Communism, which we fought wherever we found it, and found it sometimes where it wasn’t.

Then some things happened. A new generation was born, which had no native knowledge of any of that. A new economic generation was born, with money machines on a scale that dwarfed anything in history. A new technological generation was born, transforming the nature of human experience. A new threat to freedom and security emerged, though it didn’t much look like the Communism we had come to know, hate, and fight. Whereas only two countries had world-destroying weapons after WW2, the list was now long and growing.

And then, on top of all that, the prosperity we had depended on for more than sixty years was put into question. It wasn’t that it was taking a break. Maybe it would never come back again, ever, at least not the way it had been.

Which brings us back to the ‘wrong direction” question. If we say that 20th century-style prosperity and that freedom and security are what America is living for, is our personal and national direction, there is nothing wrong with that. But what if that is something we can’t program into our national GPS because it is not a destination we can reach, at least not fully and unconditionally?

We can keep saying we are moving in the wrong direction. Politicians and leaders are more than happy to exploit this, telling us who to blame and how they can fix it. But maybe we are lost, and should admit it, and should spend our energy figuring out, very specifically, without vague ideas of “prosperity” and “freedom”, where exactly we want to go, and then how we might get there.

Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’

Laudato Si'

The Pope’s new encyclical, Laudato Si’, has been much in the news. Whatever you’ve heard about it, if you haven’t seen it, you really don’t know the whole story.

You’ve heard it is about the environment and climate change, which is in small part true. You’ve heard Catholic presidential hopefuls such as Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal admonish the Pope, their spiritual father, telling him to stick to religion and stay out of politics.

The encyclical is much bigger than climate change, the environment, and certainly bigger than Bush or Jindal or dozens of politicians. It is a big statement about the moral and religious shortcomings of this modern world and us modern people. You don’t have to be Catholic or Christian or faithful or religious to read and appreciate it. You just have to read it.

It is full of inconvenient and uncomfortable truths. Which is probably why the coverage has focused on the environmental exhortations, rather than on the broader cultural, media, technological and social ones. In essence, it is nothing less than a call for radical evolution, in the spirit of the radical evolutionary upon whom the church is built. There are plenty of established institutions and powerful interests and individuals, including the media, who could be forced to change if such radical evolution came to pass. And many of them don’t want to change, and don’t even want us to listen to the Pope talking about it.

The encyclical is a long and deep but very readable work. Download it, sample it. You don’t have to read it all, or all at once. It is naturally grounded in theology, and in some particular theology, but be assured that the observations and conclusions don’t require you to hold any sectarian beliefs. It only requires that we believe that things are far from perfect, and that after we take a close look at ourselves and others, we believe that we have the power and obligation to make things better.

It is filled with so much quotable inspired thought and inspiration. Here is just one brief excerpt:

114. All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.

Laudato Si’ PDF

Laudato Si’ epub and Kindle

The Abstract Perpetual War Is Real

Rome

Consider this: If you have a child or grandchild age 12 or younger, they have lived their lives with America at war.

And this: In six years that child will be old enough for military service, but will not necessarily have to serve because we have no mandatory universal service. So even if we are still at war, that child is probably not at risk.

And this: Why don’t we have mandatory universal service, especially if we are in perpetual war? Do we have perpetual war because we don’t have mandatory universal service?

Michael Auslin, a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has a fascinating piece in Politico about the prospect of a perpetual war footing, Don’t Do As the Romans Did… His politics may not be yours, but his analysis is compelling and worth reading in its entirety:

For Washington, which has already spent at least $2 trillion on relatively limited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prospect of decades more competition, deterrence and fighting at an unknown cost represents the greatest security challenge since the Cold War, and perhaps since World War II. It is just as much a domestic political issue, and will figure as prominently in the debates over the future direction of the country, as do the battles over Obamacare, the regulatory burden or the transformation of the economy. Yet so far, it does not seem that either the country’s political elites or ordinary citizens have fully appreciated both the scope and, more importantly, the nature of America’s new two-front conflict. They soon will, as the country’s economic health and domestic political stability will be directly affected by rising global risk. To quote Leon Trotsky, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Americans must accept the fact that, while their country may not be engaged in daily fighting, neither will it know peace for the foreseeable future. The world will become far more insecure and unstable over the next decades, and the amorphous yet crucial idea of global “order” will be strained, perhaps to the breaking point.

America’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The spirit of can-do, roll up your sleeves, and in the words of Larry the Cable Guy, “get ‘er done” is a model for the world. But a related failure to think things through, apply broad and deep vision, and act deliberately and more slowly, can neutralize or outweigh the benefits of that spirit.

Living in the moment, in the now, is a great way for people to not be mired in the mistakes of the past and not be intimidated by the hypothetical misfortunes of the future. That is, unfortunately, not a luxury that nations, particularly super powerful ones, have. When you can spend trillions of dollars of your citizens’ money, send thousands of citizens to their deaths, and have the potential to blow up cities and the whole world, we expect you to think twice or more before you roll up those sleeves and get ‘er done.

Mississippi’s Existential Election

Mississippi Tourism Guide

The Republican primary runoff today between long-time U.S. Senator Thad Cochran and insurgent Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel is a story of pragmatism clashing with political philosophy.

My love and appreciation of Mississippi is unbounded. My frustration at how it is misunderstood, mischaracterized, and disrespected is constant. But my sense of realism means saying this: Mississippi would not have survived and thrived as it has without generations of powerful U.S. Senators making sure that federal defense projects and other spending were directed its way. Mississippi is one of those states that receives much more in federal spending than it gives in taxes.

And that’s just fine. I have affection for the many states I’ve lived in, and recognize the distinctive value of each. Like a parent, I may not want to say that any of them is more or less deserving. Yet given a hard choice, I would choose to help Mississippi more than the others.

No doubt the anti-government, anti-earmarking tide is rising, and the Tea Party and Chris McDaniel are rising with it. But Thad Cochran, whose problems include his age and his supposed “liberalism”, has had to be pretty plain in pointing out that if re-elected, his seniority means that he will still be in a position to bring home the bacon for Mississippi. Maybe not as much as in years past, but still more than someone who is philosophically opposed to such spending, and who in any case would end up being one of the most junior Senators in the country.

And therein is the irony. If McDaniel wins the nomination, and if he wins the Senate seat, he can’t possibly serve the interests of his state by forcing it to go “cold turkey” without federal funds, as the Tea Party wants. Mississippi is wonderful and irreplaceable, and if there was any justice in the game of economic geography, it would be high on all the important rankings, rather than languishing at lower levels. It has been, and for the moment remains, a state in need.

There is no shame in that. If shame there is, it is in politicians who want to claim that Mississippi should just sink or swim because that’s what some abstract philosophy dictates. It may also be a shame that when push comes to shove, those same politicians may end up being hypocrites and opportunists. If and when they take office, they will face the existential question. Survival trumps philosophy, and in the case of Mississippi, it should.

The Other Poverty: The Poverty of Ideas

mining_lg
The other poverty is the poverty of ideas.

Let us ask each of our leaders and politicians for just one relatively new and interesting idea to solve a pressing problem. Just one. It doesn’t have to be an idea that has won substantial support or that has achieved broad consensus. In fact it can’t be that. Instead it should be something that is just a little bit out there, the kind that might elicit a “you must be kidding” or “that will never pass” or “that will never work.”

What we mostly have is problem solving that borders on archival monomania, the single idea with ancient lineage that fits a particular purpose or ideology—but has not really demonstrated an ability to solve particular problems.

This morning Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada explained why he is one of the few Republicans supporting an extension of unemployment benefits. In the course of the interview, he said that the biggest problem was jobs. He then ticked off the number one conservative solution—tax reform—but when he got to the second idea, it came out sounding like “something else” without a single detail. That’s because leaders and politicians on both sides of the aisle are stumped, which they admittedly should be by the unique and unprecedented economic moment we are living through.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich was roundly derided for his suggestion that we mine the Moon and colonize Mars. There are plenty of reasons that Newt wasn’t and isn’t a good choice for President, but that isn’t one of them. Sure it’s a bit science fictionish, but then so is practically all of the current tech that is one of the only bright spots in the global economy. Can you imagine a U.S. Senator in the 1950s coming to the floor of the Senate brandishing a copy of that weekend’s Sunday funnies, pointing to Dick Tracy and saying “That wrist radio, gentlemen, is where we should be heading.”? China and India are racing to the Moon, and it is not for the view.

Politics and political leadership are inherently conservative, in the sense that maintaining the institution and its support seems to demand modest, slow, incremental change—if any change at all. That’s where party lines and sticking to scripts come from. An intolerance for innovation and fringe philosophy go with that. We shouldn’t be asking parties or politicians to give up core principles and precepts. But if we actually want to solve problems, and not just hear tired old nostrums that won’t do any good, then we have to make a safe place for innovation, one where thinkers who happen to be in office are not committing political suicide by offering something interesting and maybe even eccentric. Because until we ask our politicians to enrich us with new ideas and not empty platitudes and happy talk, more of us will be unhappy with increasingly empty pockets.

Online Gambling and Real Life Guns: It’s About The Children

sheldon-adelson-615cs013012
A team of highly-paid ex-politico lobbyists are out there arguing against proposed bills in Congress to allow Internet gambling. Under one of these bills, a 12% tax would be shared between the federal and state governments, 4% and 8% respectively. That would be a lot of revenue in these hard times.

Gambling is an American and ancient tradition. Lotteries helped fund the American Revolution, which makes them practically sacred. In this case, the main opponents of digital gaming for money are the wealthy owners of real-world casinos and establishments, most visibly billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who helped bankroll Mitt Romney’s quest for the Presidency. No surprise there. The practice of online gaming, which already goes on with offshore sites, would expand dramatically, leaving bricks, mortar and showgirl spots with a severely reduced market.

Some of the arguments against the bills are, on their own terms, not entirely unpersuasive. Gambling does support hospitality and tourism, and if the already declining dollars drop further, there are going to be folks who lose their jobs in this challenged economy. It’s not clear that the entrepreneurs getting rich off this have the will and creativity to come up with substitute businesses that would replace those jobs. Gambling is also already a social problem, damaging lives and families, and what is bad gets worse with increased volume. The final big argument is, naturally, about “the children.” No matter what we try to do, the online environment is notoriously freewheeling, and there is no question that underage players would find a way to play, just as they get cigarettes and alcohol.

On the tourism question, cultural and social trends have always left some forms of entertainment and diversion behind while other new or more appealing ones prospered. Either you believe overall in the free market or not. People who say that government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers shouldn’t be telling the government to pick winners and losers.

Out of control gambling can be pernicious, no doubt about it. But the argument, one actually made, that the poorest in society would be unfairly burdened by the attraction of online gambling is under current realities absurd. First, because it is not clear that all the opponents of online gambling care so very much for the lower tiers of American society. Second, because government already endorses, promotes and profits from easy-access gambling that does weigh on the most vulnerable—the lotteries. With all the strains on government budgets, it is unimaginable what state some states would be in without those gaming dollars.

Then there is the ultimate trump card: the children. That score is easy to answer. On the scale of things kids shouldn’t be allowed to do, alcohol is number 2, tobacco is a close number 3, and then comes gambling. Number 1 is easy. Children should not have guns, should not live in an environment where guns are widely available and acceptable, and where guns are regularly used to shoot, injure and kill innocent people—including children.

So if you happen to see or hear any of those lobbyists shilling for Sheldon Adelson and his ilk, talking about how it is about “the children” and how we must protect them from the evils of playing online poker or placing a digital bet on an NFL game, ask them if guns aren’t a tad more dangerous, and ask them what they’ve done to seriously reduce the ubiquity of those guns and to eliminate the personal and social costs that those guns have inflicted on all of us.

There likely won’t be a good answer, at least not one that isn’t laced with equivocation, hypocrisy and protests of irrelevancy. It is relevant. Ask them to put the two side by side, the harm to children from online gambling and from guns, and tell them that the billionaires are free to make billions more on their casinos—just as soon as the guns get put away.

Un-Americans in Congress

Capitol Flag
The first appearance of un-Americanism came during the American Revolution. Conservative colonists who remained loyal to the British crown were reviled by those who pledged their fortunes to a new and forward-looking vision. To the Patriots, the Loyalists were backward-looking un-Americans—even though “America” was not quite yet a reality.

The next appearance came during the Civil War. This time, a powerful portion of American citizens and leaders made philosophical and economic arguments that being a “real American” meant having the freedom to own people as property and, if that was taken away, the freedom to split the nation. Many other Americans disagreed, and in a war that took 620,000 lives, having a united nation and government was established as the bedrock of Americanism. Disagree and fight vigorously to change policy and direction, but when your initiatives threaten the integrity of that union, your Americanism is in question or even forfeited.

Right now, Republican members of Congress are on track to bring parts of the American government to a standstill, and probably damage a still-unstable American economy. This is un-American. Pointing fingers and trying to avoid accountability is childish; at least take credit or blame if the principles are so important. We need adult Americans. What we seem to be getting in some quarters are childish un-Americans. Nothing could be more sad or dangerous.