Monthly Archives: January 2010

Missed Opportunities: On Limbaugh, Bush, and Obama

In light of GOP tea bagger Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts Senate race—a victory that cost Democrats their filibuster-proof majority, doomed substantive health insurance reform (the White House long ago stopped calling it health care reform), and made it virtually impossible for President Obama to propose or pass anything that even slightly resembles a pro-worker, progressive agenda for the foreseeable future– my first blog of 2010 begins with a tip of the hat to two people with whom I usually disagree: Rush Limbaugh and George W. Bush.

Let’s start with Limbaugh. There are few people more willing to bend the truth to gain political advantage than he.

And that’s why it pains me so to agree with his take on Brown’s victory.  Bloviating from Florida, the great prevaricator said that 2010 is “1994 on steroids.”  Unfortunately for the scores of Democrat political activists who are whistling past the graveyard by willfully misidentifying the cause and minimizing the effect of the GOP win in Massachusetts, “Mr. All Drug Addicts Should Be Jailed Except Me” is exactly right.

That’s because he understands that what Democrats and their working class supporters just lost is much more valuable than what Bill Clinton kicked away in 1993—94.  Back then the party merely forfeited its Congressional majorities.

This year it lost the opportunity to change America and the world.  With 60 votes—the Dems only had 56 when Clinton gagged on health care in ’93—a principled, popular president can do just about anything he wants.  Reform health care.  Re-regulate the financial industry.  Reinvigorate the union movement.  Dedicate billions to job-creating infrastructure and green energy projects.  Change the rules that govern foreign trade.  Appoint liberal justices to the Supreme Court. Pass real campaign finance reform.  Protect the environment.  Implement a rational, compassionate solution to the immigration dilemma. .

As Limbaugh’s remarks about the consequences of Brown’s victory demonstrate, he understands this better than many of the Democrats who have shrugged off the loss of the seat Ted Kennedy held in the U.S. Senate for 49 years as an anomaly or minor setback attributable to “tactical errors” and/or a poorly run campaign.  Limbaugh knows that by losing the opportunity to enact meaningful health care reform the Democrats have squandered the chance to prove that big government fueled by progressive ideas can solve the problems that beset America in the 21st Century. Truth be told, Limbaugh and his cohorts weren’t afraid that health care reform would pass, they were afraid it would work.

And now they’re rejoicing over the fact that Americans will never know.

That brings me to Mr. Bush.  Despite his many failings, viewed in the context of the health care reform meltdown, he deserves grudging applause for demonstrating moral certitude and the willingness to act upon it.  As delusional as he may have been, apparently the 43rd President believed that going to war in Iraq and hanging Saddam Hussein by his neck until dead were essential and righteous acts.

That explains why his resolve never wavered even as his stated rationale for going to war changed repeatedly.  Whether based on Iraq’s complicity in the 9/11 attacks (not true), on the rogue nation’s development and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction (not true), or on the contention that Hussein was simply a bad guy (true, but certainly not reason enough for the U.S. to waste the billions of dollars and expend the thousands of lives required to depose him) Bush remained steadfast in his conviction that destroying Iraq in order to save it was both justified and necessary.  It also explains why he was initially able to convince the public, the media, and Congress that he was right.  Doubters withered in the face of his dogged belief.

President Obama could and should have learned a few things from Mr. Bush.  Had he approached the effort to reform health care with the same moral certitude that characterized his predecessor’s rush to war, a substantive bill would have passed six months ago because the American people would have accepted nothing less.

Yet, after declaring reform the top priority of his administration, Mr. Obama relinquished control of the issue to Congress and stepped off the stage.  Predictably, as House and Senate Democrats engaged in internecine warfare, support for reform waned, especially when the Administration was forced to buy the Democratic votes needed to pass a watered-down bill in the Senate member by reluctant member, interest group by interest group.  Clearly this unseemly public display of legislative sausage-making at its worst set the stage for Scott Brown’s victory and all the bad things that will flow from it.

If Mr. Obama had simply embraced the Bush model and relentlessly and spiritedly fought for what he supposedly believed in, no one would have forgotten that both the AARP and the AMA endorsed the Senate bill.  No one would have forgotten that groups as disparate as organized labor and the health insurance industry supported reform.  No one would have paid attention to Limbaugh’s rants.  No one would have voted for Scott Brown.

Instead, Democrats now find themselves looking down the barrel of a gun held by members of a disenchanted electorate who are currently demonstrating a clear proclivity to vote for the party of no ideas—the GOP–over the party of badly executed ones.

And they have no one to blame but themselves.

Leo Jennings III

Welcome to the Working Class

As the financial industry celebrates its recovery from the Great Recession with huge bonuses, attention has turned increasingly to jobs.  But that’s not a new concern: over the past three decades first the working class and then the middle class faced unemployment caused by economic restructuring and globalization.  Back in the 70s and 80s, when working-class people were losing thousands of blue collar manufacturing jobs that paid middle-class wages, many economists brushed the problem aside, insisting that new forms of work would soon replace disappearing blue-collar jobs.  Industrial workers and their unions knew better 30 years ago.  They’ve long warned that economic restructuring, globalization, and unfair trade laws would result in the loss of the middle class.  Today we’re learning that they were right.

With the jobless recovery of the early 2000s and the ongoing unemployment crisis of today’s recession, the middle class is discovering that sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb were accurate when they suggested that what it means to be middle class is to be just one job away from poverty.  In Fear of Falling, Barbara Ehrenreich explored the impact of this decline on individual consciousness.  But it is only within the last decade that people who thought they were safely middle class have come to understand the episodic, anxiety-ridden, contingent, low-wage-and-benefit life of many in the working class.

And that experience seems likely to become permanent reality for many.  Unlike in past business cycles, the middle class has not been able to recover so far, despite increases in productivity and stock prices. In “America Without a Middle Class,” Elizabeth Warren documents how the de facto unemployment rate, credit debt, “underwater” mortgages, increased use of food stamps, personal bankruptcies, and the loss of pensions and health care have all dramatically increased.  Middle-class households have depleted their savings and are increasingly accruing debt to pay for college, health care, and other expenses.

The situation continues to worsen.  The latest monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Report shows an additional 85,000 jobs lost. As the U.S. population grows, the need for jobs increases.  The economy would need 100,000 new jobs just to keep up. In other words, the net effect puts us 185,000 jobs behind where we need to be to stay even with current misery.  To make matters worse, 600,000 gave up looking for work and so were not even counted in the official unemployment rate.  Over the last decade, the data shows no net creation of new jobs.

Some experts believe that the decline in jobs will only continue. For example, Alexandra Levit predicts significant losses in a number of key industries between 2008 and 2018:  semiconductor manufacturing(33.7%), motor vehicle parts manufacturing (18.6%), printing and related jobs (16%), apparel manufacturing (57%), newspaper publishers (24,8%), mining support jobs (76,000 or 23,2%), and the postal service (13%). Corporations are moving many of these jobs offshore or replacing them with technology rather than paying middle class wages and benefits. The economists are right that new jobs are being created in place of these.  But as Jack Metzgar discussed last week, most of the new jobs offer even lower wages and benefits and require less education.

Since private sector jobs cannot or will not be replaced in significant numbers, working people will have to rely on government spending to fill the gap.  The first Obama stimulus, while important (see The Stimulus at Work), has clearly proven insufficient. The limits of this approach can be seen in California, Illinois, and New York.  No wonder business leaders like Warren Buffet, economists like Paul Krugman, and others are calling for second stimulus directed more at creating new jobs.

While many approaches have been offered, the Economic Policy Institute has outlined a simple plan to create jobs and stem the unemployment crisis. It contains five major themes: strengthening the social safety net (including unemployment compensation, COBRA health coverage, and nutrition assistance); providing additional fiscal relief to state and local governments; making renewed investments in infrastructure including transportation and schools; supporting direct creation of public service jobs; and establishing a new tax credit to employers who create new jobs.

No doubt, we need stronger government leadership in creating the jobs that will expand the so-called recovery from the financial sector to the jobs sector.  But making real, lasting change requires something more:  a reexamination of the neoliberal ideology that has been responsible for current economic crisis that is moving so many from the middle class to the working class.  As a recent Special Report in The American Prospect suggests, nothing short of an complete overhaul involving industrial, trade, and foreign policy will do, especially involving the revival of American manufacturing.

Why manufacturing? As Richard McCormack has found, the loss of a single manufacturing job in a single large manufacturing plant, such as the GM Moraine Assembly in Dayton, can result in the loss of 15 additional jobs in the local community and through supply chains – job losses that affect both working- and middle-class workers.  But it’s not just that lost manufacturing jobs have wide-ranging effects.  It’s also that manufacturing jobs, unlike the low-wage service jobs Metzgar wrote about last week, are more likely to pay a liveable wage and provide decent benefits.  Manufacturing jobs can be good working-class jobs, working-class jobs that can in turn help rebuild the middle class.

With a new stimulus package and a revitalized manufacturing sector, the Great Recession may – like the Great Depression before – provide the ideological stimulus to create a more humane economy that is supportive of the working class.  We need such a shift now, especially as the working class increasingly includes thousands who once thought they were solidly middle class.

John Russo

America’s Low-Wage Future

British historian E.H. Carr once said something to the effect that while no serious scholar makes up the facts, they all choose which facts “to put on stage.”  The problem of cultural bias is that there are way too many facts to give them all their proper due, and in choosing what we think is most significant among them, we are guided by our own focus and general sense of significance – that is, by our values, our hopes and fears, and our everyday sense of how the world works.

Every two years the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) makes detailed projections of how many jobs there will be in which occupations ten years from now.  The latest one came out late last year, and among a dizzying array of facts and figures, here’s what they headlined in italics at the top of their report:

Professional and related occupations and service occupations are expected to create more new jobs than all other occupational groups from 2008 to 2018; in addition, growth will be faster among occupations for which postsecondary education is the most significant form of education or training. . . . .

This was duly reported by The New York Times under the headline “Where the Jobs Will Be,” with the same emphasis on “professional and related occupations” and “postsecondary education.”   The message is that our society is going to need many more college graduates than it has now, which is true.  The impression most often left, however, is that we are rapidly becoming a society of “professionals” and “knowledge workers,” and that the key to our future is making sure that almost everybody gets a college education.  This impression is not only false, but spectacularly so.

Disguised in the text, but present in the BLS tables is another set of facts: Only 21% of jobs now require a bachelor’s degree, and despite faster growth among these credentialed occupations, that isn’t going to change much.  By 2018, according to the BLS, only 22% of jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or more.  Of the 51 million “job openings due to [both] growth and replacement needs” in the next ten years, fewer than 12 million will require a bachelor’s degree.

At the heart of what the BLS and The New York Times choose to put on stage is a confusion between the fastest growing jobs and the jobs with the largest job growth.  Though the BLS tables report both the fast and the large in detail, the headline and the text emphasizes speed over size.  For example, the fastest growing occupation in the next ten years will be biomedical engineers; these jobs will increase by a whopping 72% from 16,000 to nearly 28,000, a net increase of 12,000 jobs.  Meanwhile, retail salespersons will see job growth of a meager 8.4%, but since there are now more than 4 million of them, that’s an increase of 375,000 jobs.

A second confusion involves the word “service,” which in other contexts is used to indicate all work that does not involve making or building things, as in “service economy.”  This usage conjures images of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and management consultants – all of them growing occupations and highly paid.  But that’s not what the BLS means by “service occupations.”  The BLS service jobs with the largest projected growth are home health and personal aides; food service workers (including fast food); nursing aides; landscaping and groundskeeping workers; medical assistants; security guards, and child care workers – all of them already very large and all of them paying “low” or “very low” wages.

Of the 30 fastest growing occupations, 14 require at least a bachelor’s degree and another five will require an associate’s degree; all 19 of these fast-growing jobs pay “very high” or “high” wages by BLS standards.  That is good news.  But among the 30 with the largest growth, only seven require a bachelor’s and one more requires an associate’s.  And, unlike the fast, of the top 30 for size, the majority of new jobs are either “low wage” or “very low wage.”   Here’s my tabulation of the largest 30 by how well they pay:

Top 30 occupations with largest projected job growth, 2008-2018

2008 median annual earnings

by quartiles (# of occupations)

# of new jobs projected % of top

30 jobs

Very High:

$51,540 & above  (7)

1,771,100

24%

High:

$32,390 to $51,530  (8)

1,523,100

21%

Low:

$21,590 to $32,380  (9)

2,131,400

29%

Very Low:

Less than $21,590 (6)

1,899,400

26%

These top 30 occupations account for about one half of the net new jobs the BLS projects, and other data show that the wage composition of these 30 is not unrepresentative of the job structure as a whole, now and in 2018.  If these were the facts the BLS chose to put on stage, the headline might be: Majority of American workers projected to remain poorly paid and in need of a living wage.

We might then realize that we cannot close the widening gap between the earnings of high school graduates and college graduates simply by producing more college graduates.  There simply are not and will not be enough jobs requiring a college education. With a different set of facts on stage, we would understand that we need to do something to increase the majority’s wages and incomes directly.

What’s more, as a nation we know how to do this because we’ve done it before, in the three decades after World War II.  Though each has its limits, we need some combination of greater unionization, steadily improving minimum wage laws, and enhancements in the social wage, now called “work supports.”  Democrats, for all their other faults, have committed to advancing on all three of these fronts, and in the last three years have advanced a little on each of them.  College professors (called “postsecondary teachers” and #10 on the BLS largest list) could lend a hand simply by putting some of these “other” facts on our stages.  The BLS largest list is a richly complex document that reveals contradictory tendencies in what some 150 million of us do and will do to earn a living.   My arrangement of that list by educational requirements and pay simplifies it some by separating out those countertendencies.  No facts are made up, but by reorganizing the stage, the same facts make a decidedly different impression.

Jack Metzgar

Working-Class Journalism: A Model for Teaching

Among seemingly endless reports, studies and speculations that have almost unanimously heralded the death of the newspaper, the Columbia Journalism Review’s recent study stands out as both incisive and constructive for its detailed summation of the conditions that have caused our current media “crisis,” and also for its outlining of possible solutions.

In the report, aptly titled “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” Leonard Downie, Jr. and Michael Schudson, endorse a claim that we have made in previous blogs, that while some of the implications for the future of American journalism in the current financial and technological storm are downright scary, emerging energies and fresh ideas about news and news practice offer significant hope. As Downie and Schudson find,

Reporting is becoming more participatory and collaborative. The ranks of news gatherers now include not only newsroom staffers, but freelancers, university faculty members, students, and citizens. Financial support for reporting now comes not only from advertisers and subscribers, but also from foundations, individual philanthropists, academic and government budgets, special interests, and voluntary contributions from readers and viewers. There is increased competition among the different kinds of news gatherers, but there also is more cooperation, a willingness to share resources and reporting with former competitors. That increases the value and impact of the news they produce, and creates new identities for reporting while keeping old, familiar ones alive.

Around the same time that we began contributing to this blog, we were beginning a project here at Youngstown State centered on a collaborative news gathering model, a news service that partnered a public “working-class” university and its journalism students with a commercial newspaper and a public radio station.

Our goals for the project are ambitious:

* To provide students guided practical experience with reporting and producing news stories

* To provide students who might not be able to afford non-paid internships a chance to earn internship-level experience

* To help media organizations acquire content that they would not ordinarily be compelled to obtain and to act as an intermediary resource for collaboration amongst competing media

* To produce research to study media collaboration and content decisions.

We started with the idea that journalism students need both theory and guided practice.  Unlike traditional internships where students often leave their communities, our students gain hands-on experience in the local area.  Because they becme immersed in the urban community that surrounds the university—a relationship that is rarely cultivated by our largely suburban commuter student population—student reporters learned that the plight of the city so often reviled by suburbanites and slighted by the profit-driven media is an inextricable part of the region they call home.

Media professionals from our two partner organizations, The Vindicator and WYSU-FM, joined us in the classrooms frequently during the semester and worked one-on-one with students. In class sessions in The Vindicator newsroom, news service students presented their work, talking with us and newspaper editors about possible story directions and generally immersing themselves in the newsroom and city culture. A WYSU-FM manager spent several hours each week working with students in the radio production lab, helping them to produce their stories and gain a deeper understanding of what makes good public radio.  With one semester completed, it is still too soon to judge the overall success of the endeavor, but based on what we’ve seen so far, we think the news service model has merit.

Most of the stories that our students are reporting deal with issues of importance to those who live in or precariously close to urban poverty — the scarcity of fresh, healthy food in most neighborhood stores,  or the challenges of public transportation in a city where many of the most basic goods and services have migrated beyond the walkable core neighborhoods into the sprawling suburbs.

Many of these issues have been slighted by the local mainstream media as they increasingly cater content toward their suburban clientele, and we believe that this news project, while small in scope, may yield results that will be of interest to media managers who make content decisions. Our operating premise is that traditional media may actually benefit by running such stories, which may attract new readers, and that with collaboration comes a unique opportunity to inform, enlighten, and ultimately encourage social responsibility.

In addition, our students are learning how to draw upon one another’s strengths. For example, by working with a grandmother with deep roots in the city community, a young male student who commutes from the suburbs gained access to people and resources that might otherwise have remained untapped and under-represented; two other students got  clearer perspectives on the complexities of school funding and performance by visiting and comparing a drastically under-achieving city school with a high performing suburban one located only a few miles away, while still another pair of students chronicled a neighborhood’s efforts to reverse the crime and economic despair that has been plaguing it for decades.  These stories address important issues and trends in the community that entrenched local media, suffering from the same economic challenges plaguing all traditional media, might not have covered.

Even when the story “hook” is not specifically about a problem or an issue, we are encouraging students to be curious about and attuned to the lives and stories of the members of our predominantly working-class community. For example, a recent radio report builds on our earlier Worker Portraits project with a profile of a man who has spent most of his working life as a gravedigger.

We are excited about the long-range possibilities of the news service, because it strengthens our students’ reporting abilities, helps bolster local media, and most of all, gives all of us a chance to experiment with media collaboration and different types of content. These values are essential to the mission of a strong university journalism program, and they encourage the local media be more responsive to the information needs of those who are not well-served by traditional media, including the working class.

Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff