The Republican War on Workers

Yesterday some Senators attempted to eliminate a federal minimum wage entirely. Not just keep it at its current levels; they wanted to cut it loose and leave workers to the mercy of their states.

Talk about being on the wrong side of history; according to a recent Associated Press-AOL News Poll, 80 percent of Americans are in favor of increasing the minimum wage.

Just more proof the Republican Party ain’t workin’ for the people.

Bob Geiger is all over this story; you can read about it here, here, and here.

Along these lines — in his New York Times column today, Paul Krugman says the only way to rekindle true “bipartisanship” is to reverse economic polarization.

You see, the nastiness of modern American politics isn’t the result of a random outbreak of bad manners. It’s a symptom of deeper factors — mainly the growing polarization of our economy. And history says that we’ll see a return to bipartisanship only if and when that economic polarization is reversed.

After all, American politics has been nasty in the past. Before the New Deal, America was a nation with a vast gap between the rich and everyone else, and this gap was reflected in a sharp political divide. The Republican Party, in effect, represented the interests of the economic elite, and the Democratic Party, in an often confused way, represented the populist alternative.

In that divided political system, the Democrats probably came much closer to representing the interests of the typical American. But the G.O.P.’s advantage in money, and the superior organization that money bought, usually allowed it to dominate national politics. “I am not a member of any organized party,” Will Rogers said. “I am a Democrat.”

I wrote about the “Republican era” of the 1920s in A (Pretty) Short History of Wingnutism. The longer one looks at America in the 1920s, the more familiar it seems — corporate profits rising faster than worker earnings; a crackdown on immigration; culture wars led by an aggressive Christian fundamentalist movement; and tax cuts galore. If they’d had iPods back then, you’d hardly know the difference.

As historian Eric Siegel wrote,

According to what came to be known as “constitutional morality,” legislation supporting the right to unionize or limiting children’s working hours was an un-American form of group privilege. Laissez-faire conservatism reached its intellectual apogee in the 1920s. A critic complained that by 1924 you didn’t have to be a radical to be denounced as un-American: “according to the lights of Constitution worship you are no less a Red if you seek change through the very channels which the Constitution itself provides.”

In Europe conservatism was based on hereditary classes; in America it was based on hereditary religious, ethnic, and racial groups. The GOP, a largely Protestant party, looked upon itself as the manifestation of the divine creed of Americanism revealed through the Constitution. To be a conservative, then, was to share in a religiously ordained vision of a largely stateless society of self-regulating individuals. [The Reader’s Companion to American History, edited by Eric Foner and John Garraty (Houghton Mifflin, 1991), p.222]

But the accumulative effect of all this Republicanism was the Stock Market Crash of 1929 followed by the Great Depression, followed by the New Deal, as explained in the (Pretty) Short History. But then, Krugman says,

It was only after F.D.R. had created a more equal society, and the old class warriors of the G.O.P. were replaced by “modern Republicans” who accepted the New Deal, that bipartisanship began to prevail.

Eisenhower accepted the New Deal. Even Nixon accepted the New Deal. It was the Goldwater-Reagan wing of the GOP, which came to power in 1980, that opposed the New Deal.

Krugman continues,

The history of the last few decades has basically been the story of the New Deal in reverse. Income inequality has returned to levels not seen since the pre-New Deal era, and so have political divisions in Congress as the Republicans have moved right, once again becoming the party of the economic elite. The signature domestic policy initiatives of the Bush administration have been attempts to undo F.D.R.’s legacy, from slashing taxes on the rich to privatizing Social Security. And a bitter partisan gap has opened up between the G.O.P. and Democrats, who have tried to defend that legacy.

What about the smear campaigns, like Karl Rove’s 2005 declaration that after 9/11 liberals wanted to “offer therapy and understanding for our attackers”? Well, they’re reminiscent of the vicious anti-Catholic propaganda used to defeat Al Smith in 1928: smear tactics are what a well-organized, well-financed party with a fundamentally unpopular domestic agenda uses to change the subject.

Bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship means Dems lose.

Krugman recalls something FDR said in 1936 about his struggles “with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. … Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.” And he concludes,

But politicians who try to push forward the elements of a new New Deal, especially universal health care, are sure to face the hatred of a large bloc on the right — and they should welcome that hatred, not fear it.

Now is the time. We’re seeing signs that the distractions are losing their power to distract; the threats of married gay people and wantonly unthawed blastocysts just didn’t seem to rally the voters in 2005 the way Iraq and economic fairness issues did. As Bob Geiger wrote,

Senator Wayne Allard (R-CO), evidently convinced that he was beating a dead horse by continuing his quest to ban flag-burning and discriminate against gay people, announced this month that he would not seek reelection in 2008 and the thought of having so little time left to screw the working poor from a comfy U.S. Senate seat must have just been eating him alive.

Allard, who has voted against a minimum wage increase more often than Fox News smears Barack Obama, went for broke this week and introduced a bill that would have eliminated the Federal Minimum Wage entirely and left the wage rate for the lowest-paid workers to each state.

In Kansas, this would mean that workers would revert to the state-mandated minimum wage of $2.65 per hour, which is currently superseded by the federal minimum of $5.15.

This is the last, desperate growl of a dying animal. Now’s the time for the Dems to kick Joe Lieberman aside and mount an openly partisan attack on wingnutism. It’s the only way Washington will ever see bipartisanship again.

See also: Philosophers’ Playground.

21 thoughts on “The Republican War on Workers

  1. As Andrew Mellon said in the 1920’s, “The prosperity of the lower and middle classes depends on the good fortune and light taxes of the rich.” Naturally Mellon would say that, as would any other zillionaire.

    Fast forward to the 1980’s and we hear “trickle down” and “a high tide raises all boats.” (Even Bush I called that theory voodoo economics.) There have been a helluvalot of ships sunk throughout the millenia and as far as I know none of them has risen from the muddy sea bottom that they’re mired in. (Nor do people mired in poverty rise to the top as the rich get richer.)

  2. “This is the last, desperate growl of a dying animal.” Well, probably not yet (at least economically). The elites are sitting on enormous piles of dough and are perfectly capable of believing that the world of finance can stand on it’s own, without support of industry or agriculture. Per Kevin Phillips (Wealth and Democracy), this phase can last 50 years or so (mainly because, through globalization policies, they can invest overseas and continue to get richer, while their country rots around them). Assuming this all started with Reagan, that gives them awhile yet.

    Politically, the Gluttony wing of the Greedy Old Party has pretty much had it (and future George Bushes at elite prep schools will doze through their history lessons telling them that George Bush blew it by being too brazen). The question is whether we get a truly progressive new direction, or simply a DLC-ish kinder and gentler greed.

    [BTW, I’m always startled when I see you say “Goldwater-Reagan”. To me, Goldwater was honest, principled and completely deluded. Reagan was utterly dishonest, unprincipled and knew exactly what he was doing.]

  3. A minimum wage does nothing more than price out unskilled labor.

    Money doesn’t grow on trees kids. Increasing the minimum wage just increases the cost of everything or that employers can’t keep as many people on staff.

    Trying to pretend that there’s a Republican “war” on workers just because you’re unable or unwilling to understand the economic argument is disingenuous.

    [Note from Maha: It’s Barry who doesn’t understand the “economic argument.” See my comment here and this PDF document, “Hundreds of Economists Say: Raise the Minimum Wage.”]

  4. Flailing insanity is the words I use to describe the condition of the right wing and it’s middle states. I watched a very funny satire of the presidents State of the Union Address the other day.

    A short link here for those who care

    The thing that strikes me more so than it used to is that the president has managed to after 6 years of being surrounded by some very smart people, be amost entirely intelectually unchanged. When you sit near the smartest kids in class you usually get a little smarter: the President is not any smarter at all. The satire I mentioned earlier, is so close to the truth, that I have begun to wonder how the hell anyone who has listened to even soundbites of George can sit on their hands and not publicly call him to task for being insanely, unbearably, and incontrovertably idiotic.
    Reporters, advisors, and everyone else aught to be saying, “how come my auto mechanic, denny’s hostess, and cleaning woman know more about economics and foreign policy than our president does?”

    The answer I submit for your perusal… Flailing Insanity.

  5. BTW, I’m always startled when I see you say “Goldwater-Reagan”. To me, Goldwater was honest, principled and completely deluded. Reagan was utterly dishonest, unprincipled and knew exactly what he was doing.

    Like it or not, the 1960s-era Goldwater paved the way for Reaganism. Goldwater was the chief means by which pseudo-conservatives entered mainstream politics (see, especially, Richard Hofstadter’s “Goldwater and the Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” written in the 1960s but unfortunately not online). Goldwater did mellow out considerably as he got older, even as the Reaganites got crazier and more extreme, which left Goldwater looking reasonable in comparison.

  6. Barry, You are correct, but anyone who is undecent enough to pay minimum wage in this economy at this time is a savage, and they don’t deserve a workforce.

    [Note from Maha: Barry is, in fact, not correct. Barry is very, very wrong. See my comment here and this PDF document, “Hundreds of Economists Say: Raise the Minimum Wage.”]

  7. Increasing the minimum wage just increases the cost of everything or that employers can’t keep as many people on staff.

    Bullshit. I have lived long enough that the minimum wage has been raised several times in my lifetime. Every time a minimum wage increase is proposed the Right trots out scare stories about all the minimum-wage workers who will lose their jobs. And every time the minimum wage is increased — it doesn’t happen.

    In the real world, raising the minimum wage helps the economy by putting more money into circulation. Unlike the very wealthy, when poor people get a little more money they tend to spend it in local retail establishments, purchasing consumer goods like toasters and clothes.

    In the real world, using real-world examples, we find that raising the minimum wage creates more jobs. See, for example:

    Righties, of course, do not like real-world examples, preferring scare-stories and theory.

  8. Barry,

    If, as you say, money doesn’t grow on trees, how do you justify the obscene salaries, stock options and packages paid out to some incredibly incompetent CEOs? The now-former head of Home Depot comes to mind. Imagine how just a fraction of the half-billion raked in by Mr. Home Depot could help to improve the lives of the legions of Americans who can’t even scrape by on their mc-wages.

    Conservatives do indeed want to conserve–all the money for a small elite. That’s how the Republican economy works.

  9. In many of the states represented the US Senator either is or is owned by the most powerful person in the state. It be in their interest to keep wages rock bottom low, often for ranch or farm labor. In these states there’s no democracy. It’s never about what is good for the people of the state. It is always about what’s good for a very very few of the state’s most wealthy and powerful. These are the only constituency that count to these right wing senators.

  10. This is such a consistently good blog….first thought I had when reading this post: …hope this woman writes a book someday.

    We all know that the income gap is obscene and getting worse.

    For decades, I have had some radical opinions about wage structure. Mostly, I believe that the more disgusting [cleaning toilets], more physically damaging or risky[coal mining, meat-packing, hard labor] or more boring [assembly line, typing pool] the work is, the higher should be the pay. It is those who enjoy life during their work hours who should be held to receiving merely adequate wages. They have 40 hours of each week in which they are happy, challenged and emotionally rewarded. Into this latter category, I can list entertainers, business and government leaders attending conferences, and all the ‘people helpers’ rewarded by the ever-changing interesting challenges that reward and fulfill their abilities, giving a rich depth to their lives not available to those toiling within the first category.

    Pie in the sky idea….I agree it ain’t gonna happen. But I wager that if we had such a system, our valuing of the present-day lower classes and the work they do would shift dramatically.

  11. In canada, if you work, you are paid significantly more money than you would otherwise make on their welfare system, so there is the incentive to work. Perhaps this idea is akin to your wage reversal concept donna.

  12. Donna — I know what you’re saying about wages.

    In most corporations I have experience with, the people who get the highest wages are the people most directly involved in the money part of the business — i.e., finance, acquisitions, sales and marketing. Then comes research and development,. Personnel, administration, and facility management/security fall in here somewhere. Production and manufacturing are usually at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy. I believe most corporations contract with other companies to clean the offices, maintain the grounds, and staff the company cafeteria. Of course, companies with low bids get the contracts.

    People in the higher strata tend to think they are the heart and substance of the company, and they see people in the strata below only as cost. When the suits decide they need to be “leaner and meaner” and lay people off to boost the bottom line, most of the layoffs will be taken out of production/manufacturing and research/development. Usually the suits (who came up through the ranks from marketing or sales or finance) have no idea how their products actually are created and stocked on retail shelves. All they know is that there are a lot of employees in those departments, and those employees are “cost”; therefore, they’re the first to go.

    As for the contract workers who clean the toilets and wipe the cafeteria tables — they are invisible.

    I remember once watching a contract worker who had just delivered a baby two weeks before — she didn’t have health insurance or even paid vacations and couldn’t afford time off — take coffee and snacks into a conference room filled by the overfed and overpaid sales team — a pack of losers who couldn’t sell water in a desert — and she was actually wobbly from exhaustion. And I could see through the glass that the sales guys didn’t even look at her or acknowledge her presence except to bark that they wanted milk in their coffee. I wanted to break heads. I still get steamed up thinking about it.

  13. Grendly,

    The Toronto Star is currently running a series of articles on raising the minimum wage in Ontario and the horrible situation of people currently trying to get by on this starvation wage. It makes for interesting reading.

    The amazing thing is that the current government (Liberal) is about the raise the minimum wage for the 4th time since taking power in Oct. 2003 and it’s still a starvation wage. If I’m not mistaken, the previous Conservative government froze the minimum wage for six years. The Conservatives also significantly reduced welfare benefits during their reign of terror. I think the cuts were about 25% and things have barely budged since the Liberals took power. Being on welfare in Ontario and particularly in Toronto, where a 1 bedroom apartment can easily cost $1200 month or more, is a terrible thing. I don’t think many people choose welfare. They’d rather work. However, it’s really hard to find a job when your welfare payments are so low that you can’t even afford bus fare to go on a job search. It’s a real vicious circle for many.

    All this being said (and I apologize for being such a Canadian chauvinist), I’d rather live in Canada than the States. I believe our wingnut to normal human being ratio is lower than that of the States, we have universal healthcare (no, it’s not perfect, but the alternative to the south, unless you’re independently wealthy, is truly frightening), and our idea of middle-of-the-road liberal would pass for flaming Communist in your country. I admit though, that a week in Florida in February can be awfully tempting, as long as you take out iron-clad traveller’s health insurance!

  14. The assumption behind Barry’s argument is that there is only a fixed amount of wealth in the world. Amazing that the Right still believes in mercantilism. They haven’t even gotten to Adam Smith (and while they decry Darwin in the sciences, they love him economically – “survival of the fittest” means “if you’re poor, you must deserve it”).

  15. How is it strategic politically to eliminate the minimum wage? I guess if you have a gajillion-dollar salary, the people making $5.50/hr. don’t cross your mind too often.

    I’m not an economist but to me it makes good sense to increase the minimum wage: you might pull a few people out of poverty, and the extra pocket change gets recycled back into the market: everybody wins!

    The argument is that if you pay employees more, you have to make cuts elsewhere. Au contraire, I say. For example, I live near a Target that is seriously understaffed. Hiring more people costs money, right? Whenever I’m there, the lines at the checkout are obscene, and usually bad enough that people with carts full of stuff just give up and abandon them. Now, it seems to me that if you added a few more cashiers, you’d make the buying experience more pleasant for everyone — and you’d then get more repeat customers — plus all those cart abandoners would buy their stuff instead of leaving it in the store for an overworked employee to sort and put away. I mean, the merchandise in an abandoned cart is usually worth more money than a Target employee makes in a shift. And yet Target doesn’t want to pay more cashiers. It’s mind-boggling.

    It seems to me that if you gave people decent wages and vacation time, they’d be well-rested, happier employees, which is good for your bottom line because it makes doing business with your company a better experience, which makes it more likely people will do business with you. After it took me an hour to buy shampoo and drain cleaner last weekend, I’ll think twice before I go into that Target again. But decision makers are spending too much time diving through their pool of gold coins to consider such controversial business strategies as “paying your employees enough money to eat and pay rent.”

  16. As an employer, if you have workers who you have to fire because you can’t afford to pay them, you don’t need them. If you are employing people whom you don’t need, you get an “F” in Business 101. If you can’t stay in business if you raise your prices, because you’ve raised the cost of your labor, you get an “F” in Business 101.

    If you subscribe to laissez-faire capitalism, you’d better be prepared to adjust to whatever comes your way because nobody’s going to hold your hand and nobody’s going to give you a leg up.

  17. But to your one of your main points maha, Now really is the time. We have to seize the moment.

  18. Not just “some Senators”–it was a majority of Republican Senators (28 of them voted for it). 57% of the Republican Senators voted to eliminate the Federal minimum wage. That, I think, more than any other single vote, illustrates just how far off the rails the other party has gone.

  19. I saw stats which I wish I could find, on states that have raised the minimum wage, and have universally improved economies afterwards.

    However, I do not believe that the Democratic Party is on the side of the angels in teaming up with the president to offer amnesty to millions of illegal aliens in this country. Here the party is looking out for the party at the expense of the American people. The party wants to register millions of former illegals; Bush wants to serve his corporate masters who want an endless supply of cheap labor.

    Those industries who have recruited and embraced the illegal work force have been able to hold or decrease wages for Americans who want to work in those industries. Illegals often buy identities of Americans who are the victims of identity theft; the consequences for the victims have been catastrophic in some cases. ‘Comprehensive’ reform, if passed by Congress, will be the issue which Republicans seize to regain the Senate in ’08.

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