War, the Working Class, and the Media

The holidays are traditionally a time for reflection — looking back at the year nearly passed and forward to the one about to begin.  I’ve been doing a lot reflecting as 2009 draws, mercifully, to a close and 2010 looms menacingly near. I’m sharing my pain because, as that sage philosopher Ellen Griswold says in the heartwarming seasonal epic Christmas Vacation, “It’s the holidays and we’re all in misery.”

For starters, I’d like each of you to watch the “In Excelsis Deo” episode from the first season of the West Wing.  In it Toby Ziegler arranges a full military funeral for a homeless veteran who dies of exposure while wearing a coat that he had donated to the Salvation Army. You have to watch the entire episode, not just the two minute clip on You Tube. When you do you will be uplifted.  You will be touched.  Tears will well in your eyes and pour down your cheeks.  You will sob audibly.

When you are done crying—and you will whether you are watching for the first or the 100th time–you will be outraged by the sheer believability of the episode. Writer Aaron Sorkin didn’t have to make it up.  We all know there are homeless veterans living under bridges and in shelters in Washington D.C., New York, Chicago, L.A., and a hundred other cities large and small.

There’s no real reason why these men and women –many of whom come from working class families and served in the military either because they were unable to dodge the draft like Dick Cheney or because it was the best job they could find in post-industrial America — should have to live this way in the richest nation in the world.  But they do and they will and that’s wrong.  We should all be ashamed.

When your vision clears, take a moment and read two columns by Bob Herbert of the NY Times.  The first, “A Tragic Mistake,” begins thus:  “I hate war,” said Dwight Eisenhower, “as only a soldier who has lived it can, as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”  He also said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”

I guess we will never learn.

Mr. Herbert asserts that committing an additional 30,000 troops to the Afghan war was the “easier option” for President Obama and says, “It would have taken real courage for the commander in chief to stop feeding our young troops into the relentless meat grinder of Afghanistan, to face up to the terrible toll the war is taking — on the troops themselves and in very insidious ways on the nation as a whole.”

He’s right, it would have taken real courage to stand up and say “no” to the military establishment and the likes of Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, Cheney, and the other conservative compulsive liars who have hijacked patriotism and distorted its meaning.  In fact, it would have taken the same type of courage to refuse to commit more troops to a losing cause that it would take to refuse a Nobel Peace Prize that hadn’t been earned.  But as anyone who has been watching over the past year has seen, courage and conviction seem to be in short supply at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In the second column on my suggested reading list, “A Fearful Price,” Mr. Herbert bluntly and accurately identifies why Mr. Obama did not have to fear public revulsion over his misguided decision to waste more human and financial capital on a conflict that history teaches cannot be won:

The reason it is so easy for the U.S. to declare wars, and to continue fighting year after year after year, is because so few Americans feel the actual pain of those wars. We’ve been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan longer than we fought in World Wars I and II combined. If voters had to choose right now between instituting a draft or exiting Afghanistan and Iraq, the troops would be out of those two countries in a heartbeat.

In that passage, he’s clearly placed his finger on something those of us who study and write about the working class have known for decades: as long as the people marching off to war are coming from working-class enclaves like Youngstown, East Chicago, Detroit,  Gary, and Compton rather than East Hampton, Beacon Hill, Georgetown, or Beverly Hills, the nation’s powerbrokers simply won’t give a damn.  They’ll just continue to invest in the stocks of defense-related industries because war is damn good for business.

Now that I’ve suggested a TV show to watch and two columns to read, I’ like to recommend a movie: Charlie Wilson’s War. This Academy Award-nominated film depicts how a bunch of nomadic goat herders and opium growers chased the Russian Army out of their mountainous, pre-historic country with the help of the CIA.  It also points out that these brave and brazen heroin producing shepherds have beat back everyone who has ever attempted to conquer their land—you can’t really call it a nation–from Alexander the Great, to Genghis Kahn, to the British Empire.

The country?  Well, it’s Afghanistan, of course.

Obviously, Generals McChrystal and Patreus, President Obama, and Secretaries Gates and Clinton missed this great flick when it was in town.  I’ve got an idea.  Let’s give it to them for Christmas.  It would make a great stocking stuffer.  Hell, we’ll even throw in some microwave popcorn.  They can dim the lights in the White House theatre and chuckle at the zany antics of the turban wearing Taliban who emerged from caves to blow the living daylights out of the Ruskies until those dirty commies turned tail and ran back to Moscow.

By the way, as the lights in the theatre come up they should consider this: the crazy guys from the Taliban are using the same Stinger missiles the U.S. gave them to blow up working-class kids from Minsk in the 80’s to blow up working-class kids from Cleveland today.

That’ll dampen the ho, ho, hos.

Leo Jennings

Jobs, Ideology, and Policy: Putting Workers First

During the 1980s recession, as steel mills closed and auto plants began downsizing around the country, neoconservative economists insisted that the jobs lost to deindustrialization would soon be replaced by new jobs.  In Youngstown then, we knew better.  And as we wrote seven years ago in Steeltown U.S.A., Youngstown’s story in the late 70s and early 80s has not only persisted here, where unemployment is among the highest in the state and the poverty rate hovers around 30%, but has become America’s story today.

Youngstown learned then how real economic shifts could be exacerbated by ideology: the idea that businesses and investments matter more than ordinary human beings and the notion that we should just get used to economic patterns that create long-term hardship for those with the least power and resources.  Youngstown learned more than 30 years ago how damaging such ideas can be.  Once again, the rest of America is learning that lesson today.

The gap between the Wall Street recovery and the continuing jobs recession was highlighted by Friday’s jobs summit.  Communities around the country understand that we are in another jobless recovery that leaves hundreds of thousands of American families vulnerable.  While markets have stabilized for the moment and investors are feeling more confident, the economy isn’t improving for most Americans.

So is the current situation just like the earlier recession? No. It is worse. As Peter Edelman and Barbara Ehrenreich note in Sunday’s Washington Post, the current economic crisis reveals the glaring problems left behind by the welfare reform of the 1990s, a policy change that reflected the long-standing assumption that poverty is a “voluntary condition” and that every able-bodied adult should simply find a job – “even when there are obviously no jobs available.”  When we removed the safety net because of conservative and neoliberal worries about “fostering dependency,” we created the economic conditions that left 17.1 million Americans living in extreme poverty in 2008 – and no doubt even more today. As we learned last year, we’re willing to bail out corporations but not working people.

The current recession is also worse because it isn’t just a matter of jobs.  It’s a matter of ideology.  Blaming the victim and normalizing long-term economic struggle were part of the discourse at the jobs summit, during which Jan Hatzius, chief domestic economist at Goldman Sachs, acknowledged that unemployment will likely remain high for a long time.  She suggested that we may just have to get used to it.  Why?  Because those who have been unemployed for a long time are losing their skills and their work habits.  No doubt, long-term unemployment affects people, but the idea that unemployment will last a long time because workers won’t be prepared to return to work represents the most absurd, cruel version of blaming the victim.

On the other hand, Hatzius is not wrong that we’re in for long-term unemployment and underemployment– problems which are far worse than the official unemployment rate suggests. No doubt, business takes the cautious path during economic downturns, often by adding hours to workers’ schedules rather than by hiring additional workers. But as we learned in Youngstown, the reality is that those jobs may never come back as businesses, especially manufacturers, continue to disinvest in the United States.

At the same time, as we have argued before, we’re also witnessing long-term shifts in the nature of the jobs available.  Promises about a new “creative worker” economy or green jobs that will someday provide some former steelworkers and autoworkers with new versions of manufacturing jobs fall short when we remember the latest predictions of the Bureau of Labor Statistics:  that the job categories predicted to grow most over the next few decades involve primarily low-wage, low-education service positions.  Many of these jobs pay less than $21,000 a year.  That means that poverty is going to be a long-term problem for American workers.

What we need, in other words, is not a single jobs summit. We need long-range policy planning aimed at creating a better system of supports for the working poor and unemployed.  We need to recognize that as much as education matters, it won’t necessarily overcome long-term employment trends and growing income inequality.  We need economic policies that focus on the poor and working class and that treat them with respect, rather than blame.

Too often, economic theory has provided a distraction from the real struggles of real people.  Jan Hatzuis and her colleagues might do well to stop worrying about the work habits of the unemployed and start learning about what it’s like to lose a job after you spent years doing everything right, about the indignities associated with applying for government aid as you struggle to survive job loss, about how limitations of K-12 education, urban transportation, limited access to fair banking, overcrowded housing, persistent hunger, and lack of health care make finding a steady job that pays enough to support a family incredibly difficult.   A little moral education might help as well.

We need to stop thinking about the current crisis as a temporary recession, and we certainly have to stop talking about the economic crisis as part of an inevitable shift we can’t do anything about.  We have to recognize and act on the situation as what it is: a moral crisis.

The Obama administration must take the problem as a moral imperative, acknowledge that the private sector simply won’t solve the problem on its own, and like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, create a jobs-centered stimulus that is environmentally sound, improves the national infrastructure, and provides an economic foundation for working Americans and rebuilding the American economy.

The economy isn’t a game, with winners and losers who deserve what they get, because the players don’t occupy a fair playing field and the rules are biased.  Inequality has long been and is becoming more deeply engrained in the American system.  We cannot continue to view long-term high unemployment rates, minimal public supports for the poor, and a permanent and increasing gap between rich and poor as normal much less acceptable.  We can do better.  “Yes, we can.”  And we must.

John Russo and Sherry Linkon

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