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Stiglitz and the Disconnect in Discourses on Political Economy

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote a good column in Politico March 28 detailing why he refused to sign on to the Bowles-Simpson Deficit Commission recommendations, which he characterizes as a “near-suicide pact” for our economic future. It is well worth reading, and I won’t recount all the details here. Rather, I’d like to discuss several points that he brings up, and a couple he did not, that reveal both the depths of our current economic and political crisis (and this stagnation is indeed every bit as political as it is economic) and the growing chasm between sound, reasonable economic policy prescriptions on the one hand, including from a highly respected economist, and major segments of both political parties and their backers on the right on the other hand. In sum, what Stiglitz proposes is increasing taxes on the wealthiest citizens who, as he rightly says, are the one class “in the country that has prospered for the last decade,” in order to stimulate the economy and reduce the growing, yawning gap between rich and poor.

Why this proposal? Because the top 1% of Americans haul in over 25% of all income–to say nothing of the vast majority of assets they control. This concentration of wealth at the top stifles economic growth in our consumerist society and at the same time disincentivizes business investment in employment and infrastructure. On broader infrastructure, Stiglitz frames his argument in terms that would, in theory, attract pro-business people and interests by contending that significant opportunities exist for businesses, government, and people alike through a renewed focus on our long-ignored infrastructure:

Years of underinvestment in the public sector—in infrastructure, education and technology—mean that there are ample high-return opportunities. Tax revenues generated by the higher short- and long-term growth will more than pay the low interest costs, implying significant reductions in deficits. Any firm that could borrow at terms similar to those available to the U.S., and with such high return projects, would be foolish to pass up the opportunity.

While he immediately shifts his arguments to cover taxes, certainly vital to rectifying the flagging American (and global) economy, Stiglitz’s proposal has clear implications and benefits for workers that he should have accentuated. Such projects have enormous potential to employ people for years to come in both the private and public sectors, across scores of occupations. They can improve areas of our economy and society that segments across the political spectrum agree have been blatantly, dangerously overlooked, even if they differ on some of the reasons and what recommendations for remedies they have.

That public works, as just one aspect of a more expansive investment in broadly construed economic infrastructure such as schools, telecommunications especially public-access Internet, in addition to bridges, roads, levees, and more, does not receive far greater focus for economic and employment growth is in good part a testament to attacks from the right wing on the legacy of the New Deal. While the New Deal did not end the Great Depression (which had multiple phases including one in the late 1930s that economists such as Paul Krugman argue returned in force because of reduced government jobs investments), its aggregate programs did reduce unemployment, ameliorate the worst effects of the crisis for millions, spur vast economic investments in infrastructure, and importantly construct what became a fairly expansive social safety net encompassing labor rights, modest long-term economic and social security for the at-risk, and more. Some form of New Deal-like spending and programs are just what the US needs, but is exactly where politicians and political discourse will not go.

Nor have there been any serious discussions or efforts in mainstream political circles to implement another of Stiglitz’s proposals–reducing the deficit through reductions in the country’s vast military expenditures including two enduring wars and occupations. Says Stiglitz:

The Cold War ended more than two decades ago, but we continue to spend tens of billions on weapons that don’t work against enemies that don’t exist. Fruitless wars have not increased our security and our military’s credibility. Rather, they have undermined both.

One could certainly include in this analysis the vast sums Americans through their tax dollars spend on a more privatized system increasingly dominated by contractors. Yet asking crucial questions about the efficacy, need, and cost-effectiveness of steering hundreds of billions of dollars into this privatized, largely unaccountable, and under-regulated contractor system is off the political radar.

Stiglitz concludes with a critique of the vast web of corporate tax loopholes that deprive the treasury of hundreds of billions every year. It is hard to describe just how out of control the problem of corporate tax avoidance has become, but Allison Kilkenny did an admirable job in her piece in The Nation. How bad has corporate tax avoidance become? Kilkenny writes that two-thirds of US corporations, frequently dubbed “job creators” in right-wing circles despite profit levels of about $1.659 trillion in the third quarter of 2010, pay no federal taxes, with many profitable corporations actually receiving rebates. These include banks, such as Bank of America, which received back $1 billion despite having already taken $45 billion from American taxpayers as part of an enormous bailout of investment banks.

Yet what dominates right-wing circles and much of mainstream discourse is not just an utter avoidance of these long-standing problems, but is an attack on workers’ union and political rights, and threats to shut down the federal government should the right wing not receive sufficient cuts in social spending for what they derisively term “entitlement programs.” This is despite some steep cuts that President Obama’s budget has already proposed, including to cut heating assistance for elderly and low-income citizens, and community service block grants.

In sum, attacks on everyday people through austerity prescriptions, while the wealthy have never been wealthier or more financially distant from everyday people in America, hold political sway over sober, moderate assessments from award-winning economists like Stiglitz who have long studied such problems and their ramifications. Without effective, countervailing arguments and proposals among our political leaders, and popular pressure to support such, it appears unlikely that our nation will anytime soon bridge this gap between the needs and wants of most Americans living day-to-day on the economic and political margins on the one side, and the power of few, wealthiest Americans who dominate our bleak landscape on the other.

–Jason Kozlowski

(Note and Disclosure: The similarity between this post’s title and that of the AlterPolitics post to which I linked in the text is strictly coincidental. In fact, I was unaware of it until I searched for some good references to Republicans’ more frequently employing the term “job creators” recently to refer to the business community as a whole. In fact, the post to which I refer is much more economics-oriented than mine, is quite good and worth reading in its own right.)

(Additional Note: Kilkenny has a strong article at truthout that makes strong connections between the country’s infrastructure, political economy, and the recent tragedies in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in Japan. Read it here. This makes tax policy and infrastructure issues all the more prescient.)

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Nationwide Signs of Solidarity: LA Edition

One of the things that has grown during this recent thrust of anti-union legislation in numerous states is union solidarity. Especially prevalent between the increasingly besieged public-sector workers but also, and crucially, between public and private-sector workers (intended to be divided by the same anti-union bills and the accompanying rhetoric), protests supporting Wisconsin unions and workers have occurred nationwide. This one, on March 26 in Los Angeles, drew over 10,000 on what organizers dubbed “Solidarity Saturday.” It also drew support from public-sector workers from the ranks of police officers and fire fighters excluded from Wisconsin’s anti-union bill.

The political power that the radical, Tea Party infused right holds at the state level where these bills have spread portends problems in the immediate future for workers. However, the growing, and I would contend somewhat unexpected, solidarity and outrage over these same bills may well mean a worker-infused political backlash in the coming election cycles. How this plays out on a political landscape drastically changed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision empowering corporations with free speech rights to flood elections with cash and propaganda is a fundamental countervailing question to this scenario.

–Jason Kozlowski

 

Recent Labor Hour Shows Available

Thanks for reading, everyone. Various things that have kept me quite busy have also, unfortunately, kept me away from actively blogging in the last couple weeks. That will change, however, with a spate of posts on myriad labor, economic, and political items to come today.

This one includes links for a couple recent shows. The March 19 show features an interview with Leighton Christiansen, a GEO activist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has twice visited Madison during the height of the protests, and whose excellent, stirring observations of life in the capitol rotunda I posted here on March 1. The March 26 show featured a discussion of and materials related to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which occurred 100 years ago on March 25, 1911. I read a stirring, first-hand account by William Shepard. Thanks to WEFT factotum, blues mavne, and all-around good guy Bob Paleczny, Illinois World Labor Hour shows are archived at http://www.radio4all.net.

Be sure to tune in to the Illinois World Labor Hour every Saturday at 11 a.m. CT to WEFT 90.1 FM Champaign, IL, also available online at www.weft.org.

–Jason Kozlowski

 

Wisconsin Protest Coverage

Here are some links to stories and footage from last Saturday’s massive rally in Madison against the draconian anti-union legislation.

John Nichols of The Nation, who has spent considerable time in his home state of Wisconsin, penned this very good piece after the rally. He’s been on this from the beginning, and has rightly received a lot of air time to discuss the mounting protests. He pegs the number of protesters at over 100,000.

There is some very good video worth watching from the World Socialist Web Site of workers on the general strike, Wisconsin protests and the growing chasm of social inequality in our country.

This is an excellent article from The Cap Times on Saturday’s protests, including some great quotes from people in the massive crowd, and a strong speech from actor Tony Shaloub (“Monk” et al.) supporting Wisconsin protesters. Good stuff.

Meanwhile, Madison has rightly received the lion’s share of headlines and attention for the outpouring of organic activism, but Milwaukee and especially the students, teachers, and workers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, had a large protest yesterday. FightBack!news is an excellent site with regular updates from around the country on labor, workers, and resistance.

While Eric Kleefeld at TPMDC is right to be wary of who comprises the signatures thus far, there is no question that the recall effort in Wisconsin against the eight eligible Republican state senators is proceeding quickly. Democrats claim to have already amassed 45% of the signatures necessary for a recall.

Please be sure to say some prayers and send what assistance you can for the poor people devastated by the massive earthquake and tsunami, and now facing the very real, terrifying threat of radiation exposure from several failing, destroyed reactors. It is beyond harrowing.

–Jason Kozlowski

 

March 12 Labor Hour Available

Thanks to Illinois World Labor Hour co-host, WEFT factotum, technical guru, blues maven, and all-around good guy Bob Paleczny, the latest edition of the Illinois World Labor Hour is now up and available at radio4all.net. It was a good show with Gloria Hays, who has been heavily active in the Wisconsin protests, calling in with a live report from the massive rally Saturday. Also, Tom Thomas read his latest poem, Bill Gorrell expressed his typically good thoughts on the possibilities of a general strike, and yours truly offered some commentary as well as a bit of labor history on the 99th anniversary of the successful conclusion of the IWW’s Lawrence, MA “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912, and the labor activist and feminist Leonora O’Reilly.

Be sure to tune in every Saturday morning at 11 a.m. CT to the Illinois World Labor Hour on WEFT 90.1 FM, Champaign, IL, also streamed online at www.weft.org, for the latest news and analysis on the labor movement, in the US and around the world.

–Jason Kozlowski

 

SEIU 73 Rally and March March 16

SEIU Local 73, representing building and service workers on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fighting for a fair contract, will hold a rally and march on Wednesday, March 16 from noon until 1 p.m. It will begin at the Alma Mater at the corner of Wright and Green streets, then will proceed to the Henry Administration building for some noise. Come out and support this union and their members, which has been strung out in bargaining for months with the University. Many make less than $30,000 per year despite providing vital services to the University community, many are laid off during the summer, and many lack adequate job security provisions. Theirs is not just a good cause; it is our cause. They need and deserve as much support as they can get.

–Jason Kozlowski

 

Photos of Riot Police Evicting Wisconsin Protesters

Because they’ve been such a menace…