Monthly Archives: July 2009

Religion, Workers, and the Economy: Caritas in Veritate

Since the publication of Rerum Novarum in 1891, Catholic social teachings have provided moral and ethical guideposts for economic behavior.  Of particular importance, have been the Papal Encyclicals on the economy that have sought to protect the working class and their institutions in the face of unfettered capitalism.   In Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, the Church goes a step further by providing a critical analysis of neoliberal economic thought and the problems of globalization while reiterating the need for basic protections for workers and unions.

Caritas in Veritate calls us to avoid the pursuit of narrow, short-term economic interests and practice genuine love founded on truth, beginning with justice and pursuing the common good in our economic choices.  The pontiff points to “badly managed and largely speculative financial dealing, large-scale migration of peoples . . . [and] the unregulated exploitation of the earth’s resources.” Benedict writes: “the economy needs ethics in order to function correctly — not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centered.”

Benedict laments that “The global market has stimulated .  .  .  a search for areas in which to outsource production at low cost with a view to reducing the prices of many goods . . . Consequently, the market has prompted new forms of competition between States . . . by means of a variety of instruments, including . . . deregulation of the labour market.”  This has, in effect, “led to a downsizing of social security systems . . . with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social State.”

The pope writes explicitly that justice abhors great disparities in wealth and that societies need “to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone.”   Employment, however, needs to be “decent work.”  Benedict writes that  such work  “expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman; work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labour; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one’s roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living.”

The encyclical notes that the current market/state logics have constrained union work: “budgetary policies, with cuts in social spending  . . . can leave citizens powerless in the face of old and new risks; such powerlessness is increased by the lack of effective protection on the part of . . .  trade union organizations (who) experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments . . . limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome.”

He affirms the moral importance of unions as an organized voice for the working class.  Benedict XVI challenges workers and unions, however, to change the way they “do business” and model ethical agency.  The message proclaims that the world desires a new way of thinking and working which goes beyond minor regulatory reform.  Solidarity, justice, and the common good must replace the worn out binary logics of markets and States.

Further, labor unions must be more than economic self-interested units caught in the logic of exchange. Benedict dares unions to be in solidarity with workers in developing countries.  This role includes advocating for appropriate foreign aid and re-thinking positions on immigration and migrant workers.  Benedict exhorts trade unions to re-evaluate their political activities as a quasi-interest group and focus more on “defending . . . exploited and unrepresented workers, whose woeful condition is often ignored by the distracted eye of society.”

This encyclical renews the Church’s commitment to labor unions and worker associations.  These working-class organizations, however, do not get off the hook from their responsibility for the current crisis in thinking and action.  Worker associations must be engaged in the work of “caritas,” which inherently includes a passion for justice that advances the common good.  Put differently, labor organizations must be more involved in social justice unionism rather than just economic self-interest.

Labor associations provide key assets for working people to be heard, respected, and engaged in this new world order of post-financial/industrial capitalism at a critical moment in its trajectory.  The current global crisis cries out for a radical new vision.  Working people, the very agents of creating wealth and community, like managers and financiers, are called to choose a lifestyle that is wholly ethical and life-giving.  This moral way of living is not just about individual choices.  Organizational structures and systems must be integrated moral agents.  For unions, I wonder if it is time to let the business-unionism model wither away and allow working-class people to re-invent their associations based on “caritas”?

What is the essence of this “caritas?”  “Solidarity is clearly a specific and profound form of economic democracy,” the pope writes. “Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone.”  Solidarity is both the end and the means.  We are gifts to each other.  Working-class persons and labor unions must be leaders in weaving “networks of charity.”  Labor movements have to be models of a “caritas” called justice.  The world can’t wait much longer.

Brian R. Corbin

Brian R. Corbin is Executive Director of Catholic Charities Services & Health Affairs, Diocese of Youngstown, and a community affiliate of the YSU Center for Working-Class Studies   His blog can be followed at brianrcorbin.com.

Remembering a Working-Class Hero

In a summer news cycle that has left us reeling with stories of police investigations into Michael Jackson’s death, the marital transgressions of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, squabbling over Farrah Fawcett’s legacy, the murder of an NFL star and Ed McMahon’s homelessness, one celebrity story stands out for its dignified and abiding achievement.

The life of Karl Malden seems almost like a fairy tale. After seven decades of steady acting jobs in film, TV and advertising, he died peacefully in his sleep last week at the age of 97, just one year after celebrating his 70th wedding anniversary with the woman he married in 1938.

On the face of it, Malden would seem to have little to do with the TMZ-fueled obituary mania of recent days. He was born to Serbian parents, with the given name of Mladen Sekulovich, in 1912. His family moved from Chicago to the nearby steel town of Gary, Ind., when he was 5; Gary was a company town, founded by US Steel in 1906, and named for its chairman at the time, Elbert H. Gary.

The son of a milkman, Malden’s path was not certain early on. He abandoned studies in teaching after three months for professional basketball. Then he became a steelworker. Three years later, he felt like he was “getting nowhere fast.”

He applied for a scholarship to Goodman Theatre of Chicago’s Art Institute, imagining he would build scenery, since his father had also worked as a carpenter. Instead he discovered his true gift was on the stage, not behind it, and in 1937 Malden moved to New York. He got a bit part in Harold Clurman’s Group Theater play “Golden Boy.” During the production, he formed a lifelong bond with Elia Kazan.

Malden won an Oscar in 1951 for playing Mitch, Blanche’s suitor in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” He was a familiar face throughout the next two decades, playing a handful of military characters in films like “Winged Victory,” “Kiss of Death,” and “Bombers B-52.”

His most controversial role was against type as the lascivious cotton-gin owner in “Baby Doll” (1956), which was protested by Catholic groups for its sexual content. Today, Malden is best remembered for his role as Father Barry in “On the Waterfront” and as Detective Mike Stone in TV’s “The Streets of San Francisco.”

It is hard to imagine an actor with Malden’s schnoz succeeding today. Though Malden did not have to change his nose, he did have to change his name. Kazan was the one who suggested the change — he knew what he was talking about, since he had been born Elia Kazanjoglous. As a tribute, though, Kazan often added characters to his movies that bore the name Sekulovich. Malden once bragged “there’s always a Sekulovich in a Kazan picture. In ‘On the Waterfront,’ he’s a longshoreman.”

Many of Kazan’s Group Theater compadres snubbed Kazan after his decision to “name names” during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in Los Angeles in 1952. But Malden was always loyal to his old friend. So much so that in the 1990s, when Malden was president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he proposed Kazan be presented with a lifetime achievement award. Kazan’s award in 1999 opened old wounds among the Hollywood left.

Malden did not have much truck with Karl Marx. He often trumpeted that art and politics had no business commingling. At the same time, he had a career that was determined, in part, by cultural politics. He was rarely cast outside his caste: He almost always played the stoic sergeant, the kindly priest, or the crusty detective. And there is some irony that it was his 20-year job as a pitchman for American Express (the “Don’t Leave Home Without It” ads) that made his golden years truly golden.

What can Malden tell us about our current moment? First, he reminds us that Gary, Ind., the birthplace of Michael Jackson, was a steel town, and that the King of Pop had working-class roots. Secondly, Malden reminds us that we used to embrace “ethnic” noses — at least when the owners of those noses played by the rules.

Finally, Malden reminds us that there is another way to be a Hollywood star. Malden spent most of his life in the limelight, and died wealthy, without exposing his private life to public scrutiny.

In the end, Malden’s life should be celebrated for what he accomplished, and also for the ordinary people who saw themselves in his crooked nose and moral rectitude. He became a working-class hero at the very moment that the working class was supposed to have disappeared. But in his passing we are reminded that “working families” are very much alive and struggling in our current economy, and that many of us are still wishing, perhaps foolishly, upon a star.

– Kathy M. Newman

Kathy M. Newman is professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University.  She was involved in the effort to unionize Teaching Assistants at Yale University in the 1990s and she is currently finishing a book, Blacklisted and Bluecollared: How Americans Saw Class in the 1950s.

Budget Cuts Threaten the Working Class

Last fall, I drove to Columbus for a one-day unconference with library technologists. We each took turns writing topics on the board about which we wanted to learn or to share. The attendees separated into small groups according to interests: open-source content management systems, blogging and social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.).

It turns out that librarians are passionate about technology, and for good reason. Since card catalogs gave way to searchable online directories, everything about information has become digitized. Government has likewise been turning everything over to the Internet: any and all forms that can be filled out and submitted digitally must be submitted online. From unemployment to workers’ compensation, the process begins with and is fed by virtual forms.

The connection of all this to working-class issues may not be immediately apparent, but think for a moment about the effect of these changes on access to information and to basic services. In order to apply for unemployment benefits, one completes online forms. Not only does this require some level of computer savvy, it also requires Internet access. How many unemployed working-class families can afford Internet access?

The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that of the 25% of adults who do not use the Internet at home: 13% can’t get access, 7% can’t afford it and 4% don’t have a computer. Pew Internet further cites 43% of Americans in households earning less than $30,000 per year and 23% of Americans in households earning less than $50,000 per year as non-Internet users at home. The most obvious points of access for these and other users are public libraries.

I spoke with Diane Vicarel, Digital Services Manager at the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County. I asked about the popularity of public Internet access and whether she could provide any statistics on how much their computers were used throughout the day. She wasn’t sure such statistics existed, but that’s only because the computers are always in use from when the doors are opened in the morning until the last user leaves. She said the sight of lines of people outside waiting to use the computers is common.

The library also provides a number of databases to support adult education, resources for job searches, audio-visual assets and links to additional information across the Web. Of course, libraries still serve the fundamental purpose for which they began: massive catalogs of books on every topic, for recreation or reference.

Ohio has made news in the last month by proposing to slash hundreds of millions of dollars in library funding from its annual budget. Funding for Ohio’s libraries is determined by a formula that ties a percentage of the state’s general revenues. Revenues have plunged in the current economy, leaving libraries wondering what lies ahead. Compared with 2008 funding levels, 20% of state revenue has been lost since January of 2009. Another 30% cut has been proposed on top of that for this year, with further expected cuts of 47% in 2010 and 45% in 2011. As state revenues fall nationwide, Ohio is certainly not the only state whose libraries are facing crippling cuts at a critical time.

This double whammy is the sad story facing American workers today. Economic decline means lost jobs and fewer state dollars to support libraries where the unemployed can both get temporary assistance through unemployment benefits and access to tools to hopefully get another job.

The success of the stimulus package, as has been discussed several times on this blog, will be determined in part by the foresight to continue providing a safety net of tools and services for those who have fallen. The strain our society will face if those with temporary financial setbacks lack the resources necessary to get back on a road to recovery will be far greater than if we identify and continue to financially support those resources, such as libraries, that are needed as a critical link between workers and the government.

-Tyler Clark

Tyler Clark is a technology and Web marketing consultant who writes about Youngstown .

Taxing the Rich

We’ve done a lot of hang-wringing on this site about the difficulties of defining the working class.  But as has been pointed out, there’s no clear, agreed-upon definition of “middle class” either, and though there is a clear official definition of “the poor,” it is pretty much a joke (e.g., a family of three earning $17,000 a year does not qualify as “poor”).

Fortunately, however, we now have a semi-official working definition of “the rich.”  During last year’s election campaign, President Obama said he would not increase taxes on the middle class, but only on the rich, which he defined as $200,000 in annual income for individuals and $250,000 for households, or the top 5%.

Though candidate Obama said he’d roll back the Bush tax cuts for the rich, he didn’t specify what other taxes on them he might favor.  But he laid out an ambitious (and  therefore expensive) policy agenda and vowed to pay for it without raising taxes on “the middle class.”   He didn’t demonize “the rich,” or bash them for being greedy and selfish, but he did make clear who he thought should pay for universal health care, a green jobs energy program, tax credits for the working poor, and massive long-term investments in education and physical infrastructure.

The rich, so-defined and so clearly warned, voted 52% to 46% for Obama.  That the rich would vote to tax themselves is not a surprise to the authors of Class War? What Americans Really Think About Economic Inequality.   Their recent survey found that “a majority of the affluent . . . believe that the government should ‘redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich.’” (p. 91) In fact, majorities of Americans in all income groups “agree that economic inequality has widened, that this is worrisome, and that the government should respond.” (p. 14)

Given these facts, it’s a bit of a mystery why suggestions to tax the rich are so widely greeted with outcries against “class warfare.”  It’s also a mystery why Congress and the punditry are currently wringing their hands about how to pay for Obama’s plan for achieving universal health insurance, estimated to cost somewhere between $1 trillion and $1.6 trillion over ten years.  That’s about $100 billion to $160 billion a year.

The redoubtable Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) last month released a new menu of possible tax increases, titled Progressive Revenue Options to Fund Health Care Reform.  It has 14 options, and CTJ advocates for six of them.  My favorites are to tax capital gains and dividends the same as “earned income” (aka wages and salaries) and to have these forms of “unearned income” (that’s what they call it!) pay the same Medicare tax that is automatically deducted from the paychecks of all employees.  These two options would produce $113 billion a year in new revenue.

Having income that is “unearned” taxed the same as income that is “earned” seems like basic fairness to me.  But it would increase taxes (slightly) on some non-rich folks and, therefore, CTJ comes up with a more complicated set of tax increases that would fall only on President Obama’s rich and would produce $107 billion in new revenue.

This would produce enough new revenue to fund the Obama version of universal health care if (and only if) legislation includes “the public option” and other money-savers in the Obama plan. But it is not enough to do all the other things Obama and the Congressional Democrats have promised to do.  Fortunately, the Institute for Policy Studies’ (IPS) recent report Reversing the Great Tax Shift: Seven Steps to Finance Our Economic Recovery Fairly offers additional revenue-raisers not included in CTJ’s 14 options:

  • A financial transactions tax of 0.25% on all stock trades = $100 billion
  • Eliminate overseas tax havens = $100 billion
  • A 50% income tax rate for persons earning over $2 million a year = $60 billion
  • A progressive estate tax = $40 billion
  • Eliminate subsidies for executive compensation = $18 billion

IPS is less scrupulous than CTJ in trying to keep all tax increases from falling on anybody below $200,000, but the overwhelming majority of IPS’s seven-step program would fall only on the rich.

To enact all of these possible tax increases would amount to more than $400 billion taken from the rich for clearly stated public purposes.  Some think this would be unfair to the rich, others think it would stifle the economy, and we would be sure to hear lots of denunciations of class warfare.  But in context, it really isn’t that much for the rich – they’d all still be rich.

An enormous amount of income and wealth has been concentrated in the top 5%, and especially in the top 1%, in the past quarter century.  Total personal income in the U.S. is about $12 trillion, and the top 5% now get about $4.3 trillion of that.  If an additional $400 billion were taken from them in taxes to pay for health care, education, energy self-sufficiency, and other vital public necessities, this relatively small group of people would still have about one-third of all income and even more of all wealth.  And they’d have a helluva lot better society to live in.

Jack Metzgar