All posts by Sheila

The Rebirth Of Unions?

I grew up in Anderson, Indiana, when that town’s Guide Lamp and Delco Remy plants employed large numbers of workers, and unions were strong. My father was a small businessman–he owned and operated an auto parts store–and I can still remember conversations between my parents that focused on the excesses of those unions. Strikes, of course, hurt my father’s business, but it went beyond that; union members sometimes engaged in thuggish behaviors of which my parents strongly disapproved. 

Those snatches of conversations were really all I knew growing up about labor unions, or the issues that came under the heading of “labor-management disputes.” Then, earlier in our married life, my architect husband often railed against construction unions that brought projects to a halt until their complaints were addressed, pointing out how those stoppages–often over “jurisdictional disputes” that seemed petty–drove up costs.

Let’s just say I wasn’t a fan of unions. I missed the point.

What I now understand is that wildly uneven distribution of power is never a good thing. Both management and unions have been guilty of bad behaviors, and those behaviors ought to be punished when they occur, but when management holds all the cards, the economy suffers and inequities and social discord increase.

The success of the business community in crushing unions has been a substantial contributor to the current, enormous gap between the rich and the rest, and to the resentments that feed America’s culture wars. So–despite my earlier bias–I see the signs of union resurgence as unequivocally good news. 

The Guardian recently reported on the elevation of Liz Schuler to the presidency of the AFL-CIO. The article noted that

Public approval for organized labor in the US has climbed to its highest level in more than 50 years, as many young workers are flocking into unions and millions of overstressed, underpaid frontline workers are impatient to improve their lot.

There are obvious barriers to a rebirth of vigorous unionism. At this point in time, only 6% of private-sector workers are in unions, and as the article points out, “the Republican party is intent on weakening unions, and most US corporations – led by behemoths Amazon and Walmart – are fiercely opposed to unionization.” Add in the prevalence of gig workers, tech workers and immigrant labor, and the employment landscape is considerably different than the largely factory-based labor force of my youth.

That said, we need only turn on the evening news to hear reports of efforts to unionize behemoths like Amazon and Starbucks, and more recently, striking workers in a number of sectors. The reluctance of workers to return to low-wage and often dangerous jobs in the wake of the pandemic and the proliferation of “help wanted” signs points to workers’ new ability to bargain for change. How all of this will play out is anyone’s guess.

The new aggressiveness of workers is just one piece of the social upheavals Americans are currently experiencing. Those upheavals remind me of another facet of my earlier life: the period we now refer to as “The Sixties.” Many of us in my (advanced) age cohort vividly remember the Sixties as a time of extreme social discord, a time the nation seemed to be coming apart. But that turmoil generated enormous–and largely positive–social change: it gave impetus to the civil rights movement, expanded healthcare for the elderly and the poor, reinvigorated the women’s movement and the gay-rights movement…The Sixties shook America out of the complacency and conformity of the Fifties. 

Regular readers of this blog may be shocked by this evidence of actual positivity, but as troubling and fraught as the current landscape is, I am convinced that we are going through a time of reordering and reconsideration not unlike what Americans experienced in the Sixties–hopefully, without the degree of violence that erupted during that time.

 If we can protect our basic democratic system–which, in my view, absolutely requires passage of the Voting Rights Act–we can emerge with a new understanding of civic equality and economic justice, a new recognition of the proper balance between “I” and “we,” and a renewed appreciation of the significant degree to which “my” prospects require a healthy and robust “us.”

So I’m cheering on the unions, rooting for the Biden Administration, appreciating the millions of Americans who’ve protected their neighbors by getting their vaccines, applauding the educators and historians who are correcting propaganda in the face of racist blowback– and reminding myself (sometimes daily) that a degree of upheaval–disquieting as it is–really can lead to a better tomorrow. 

 

 

 

 

The Golden Mean

Colin Powell has died, and a large measure of grace and public virtue has died with him.

Powell’s passing–and the manner in which he lived his public life–  put me in a reflective mood. Specifically–and for no obvious reason– the news made me think about the ancient Greek emphasis on a “golden mean”–a midpoint between extremes– and the relevance of that concept to public service in our angry, contentious political environment.

Mostly, I’ve been considering what the phrase doesn’t–or shouldn’t–mean.

The golden mean isn’t a center-point between the far-right and the bat-shit crazy–between   Steve Bannon and Marjorie Taylor Green, for example. Just because we live in an era when so many people in positions of influence have embraced autocratic philosophies and succumbed to conspiracy theories doesn’t move the “mean” to a point between fascism and lunacy.

The golden mean also isn’t some halfway point between acquiescence to Joe Manchin’s arrogance and greed and Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism.

If we define the golden mean as some sort of halfway point between the passions of our various culture warriors, it’s just another word meaning “compromise.” (I hasten to clarify that I am generally in favor of honorable compromise.) It is a more meaningful concept. I particularly like one definition I’ve seen, comparing the golden mean to the Buddha’s middle path between self-indulgence and self-renunciation. For Aristotle–who is credited for refining the earlier concept– the golden mean was the path to moral behavior, a point that lies  between excess and deficiency.

The New World Encyclopedia attributes the origin of the concept to Crete and the mythological story of Daedalus.

The earliest representation of this idea in culture is probably in the mythological Cretan tale of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus, a famous artist of his time, built feathered wings for himself and his son so that they might escape the clutches of King Minos. Daedalus warns his son to “fly the middle course,” between the sea spray and the sun’s heat. Icarus did not heed his father; he flew up and up until the sun melted the wax off his wings.

The Encyclopedia also cites the warning carved into the front of the temple at Delphi: “Nothing in Excess.”

Today, America is positively marinating in excess. Passion all-too-frequently overwhelms reason, and  participants in our political life generally exhibit far more self-righteousness than the humility that characterizes genuine righteousness.

Which brings me back to Colin Powell, who once described himself to a New York Times reporter as a “problem solver”–someone who has views, but is not an ideologue; someone who has passion, but is not a fanatic.

In other words, someone flying the middle course between the sea spray and the sun.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Powell’s life was, as one headline put it, “the importance of owning your mistakes.” He famously testified to the UN that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; we–and he– later learned that the assertion was false. It is likely that he wasn’t lying, but had been lied to; nevertheless, he was wrong, and accountable for it. He publicly admitted he’d been wrong, and expressed regret. He didn’t blame anyone else. He didn’t offer exculpatory sentiments. He said he’d been wrong and that it was one of the most troubling mistakes of his life.

As the GOP morphed into the White Supremacy Party, Powell–until then, a lifelong Republican–  publicly shared  his deep misgivings about the Party’s rightward march. Unlike other former Republican office-holders, he spoke up as the GOP embraced extremism, racism and  birtherism;  in the run-up to the 2016 election, he pointed out that Trump was a liar who represented a danger to the United States. Unlike so many others, he put country above party.

He was an admirable public figure, an example of someone who tried to act in accordance with the golden mean–and the golden rule. Very few public figures are currently emulating that effort.

RIP.

 

 

 

It Isn’t Just Gannett

The consolidation of the country’s newspapers has been a preoccupation of  Americans who recognize the extreme importance of “the press”-who appreciate the outsized role that journalism plays in community and self-government. Large-scale, rapacious companies like Gannett (see yesterday’s post) have been the target of withering criticism for years.

But there’s a difference between corporations like Gannett and hedge funds like Alden Global Capital.

Gannett and its ilk were convinced that they could operate newspapers more efficiently–that they could do more–or at least as much– with less, and thereby continue to enjoy the high profit margins that the industry used to provide. Quality journalism was secondary–it was just the widget/product that happened to generate the all-important profits. (The fact that the company greatly overpaid for many of the papers it purchased made that optimism unrealistic.) Their first loyalty was–and is– to the bottom line, but they at least give lip service to the importance of journalism.

Hedge funds like Alden never bothered; they’ve simply “strip mined” the newspapers they’ve purchased–intentionally destroying them. As the linked article puts it, these funds are composed of

investors who have figured out how to get rich by strip-mining local-news outfits. The model is simple: Gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring as much cash as possible out of the enterprise until eventually enough readers cancel their subscriptions that the paper folds, or is reduced to a desiccated husk of its former self

The men who devised this model are Randall Smith and Heath Freeman, the co-founders of Alden Global Capital. Since they bought their first newspapers a decade ago, no one has been more mercenary or less interested in pretending to care about their publications’ long-term health. Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that Alden-owned newspapers have cut their staff at twice the rate of their competitors; not coincidentally, circulation has fallen faster too, according to Ken Doctor, a news-industry analyst who reviewed data from some of the papers. That might sound like a losing formula, but these papers don’t have to become sustainable businesses for Smith and Freeman to make money.

Alden’s aggressive cost-cutting makes Gannett look generous. The hedge fund has found a financially-rewarding formula: it continues to operate the newspapers it acquires at a profit for a few years, but during those years, it turns out a steadily worsening product and alienates subscribers.

This investment strategy does not come without social consequences. When a local newspaper vanishes, research shows, it tends to correspond with lower voter turnout, increased polarization, and a general erosion of civic engagement. Misinformation proliferates. City budgets balloon, along with corruption and dysfunction. The consequences can influence national politics as well; an analysis by Politico found that Donald Trump performed best during the 2016 election in places with limited access to local news.

With its acquisition of Tribune Publishing earlier this year, Alden now controls more than 200 newspapers, including some of the country’s most famous and influential: the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, the New York Daily News. It is the nation’s second-largest newspaper owner by circulation. Some in the industry say they wouldn’t be surprised if Smith and Freeman end up becoming the biggest newspaper moguls in U.S. history.

The linked article describes what happens after an acquisition by Alden, telling the stories of specific newspapers, the people who worked at them, and the cities and towns they no longer serve. It also profiles the men who run Alden–men who proudly identify themselves as “vulture capitalists” and who are identified by others as the “grim reapers” of journalism.( At least one of them–unsurprisingly–is a  major supporter of Donald Trump, whose constant attacks on the news alarmed people who understood the importance of journalism to democratic governance.)

I cannot do justice to the Atlantic’s thorough and meticulous reporting in a brief blog post. Everyone reading this should click through and read the well-researched and eye-opening article in its entirety.

The crisis in local journalism has been the subject of concern and debate for well over a decade. We are now at a point where–in the absence of viable replacements for what has been lost–repairing the damage to governance and community will be difficult to impossible to achieve.

I never imagined quoting Donald Rumsfeld, of all people, but without a robust and vigorous press, we won’t know what we don’t know.

If American democracy collapses, Mitch McConnell and the sniveling invertebrates in the  GOP will share responsibility with vulture capitalists like Alden Global Capital.

What We Lose When We Lose Local News

We live in a time of multiple crises, and–like all such times–there are a number of contributing causes. Arguably, one major contributor to Americans’ current inability to work together or even communicate is the media environment we inhabit.

Much has been written about disinformation and our improved ability to live in informational “bubbles.” Other consequences have received less attention.

That’s especially true when the loss is local–and it is at the local level where we have lost the most. Between newspaper closures (since 2004, the United States has lost a quarter— 2,100 – of its local newspapers, including 70 dailies and over 2,000 weeklies) and so-called  “ghost” papers–newspapers that are theoretically still functioning, but no longer have the ability to adequately cover local news–the situation at the local level is grim.

A recent article in the Atlantic focused on what we lose when we lose local news. “What We Lost When Gannett Came to Town,” was a “deep dive” into the loss of The Hawk Eye, a newspaper in Burlington, Iowa.

As the author noted, in her youth, the local newspaper was where teenagers looked for summer jobs, families found weekend tag sales and folks learned about openings of new stores and restaurants. “The paper was where we first learned that my close friend’s father had died in a Mississippi water-skiing accident. It was where my high-school Girl Scout troop got a half-page spread our senior year.”

Larger metropolitan papers ran fewer of those more homey items, but gave residents “news you can use” about local government agencies, schools and the goings-on at the State legislature. In Indianapolis, as elsewhere, a significant percentage of residents once read the morning paper, and thus–as I have previously noted–occupied a common information environment.

The Indianapolis Star was never a particularly distinguished example of journalism, but after it was acquired by Gannett, it descended into irrelevance. The Hawk Eye may have served a small Iowa town, but the author’s description of what happened in the wake of its purchase by Gannett could have been written here.

The Hawk Eye isn’t dead yet, which sets it apart from many other local newspapers in America. Its staff, now down to three overstretched news reporters, still produces a print edition six days a week. But the paper is dying. Its pages are smaller than they used to be, and there are fewer of them. Even so, wide margins and large fonts are used to fill space. The paper is laid out by a remote design team and printed 100 miles away in Peoria, Illinois; if a reader doesn’t get her paper in the morning, she is instructed to dial a number that will connect her to a call center in the Philippines. Obituaries used to be free; now, when your uncle dies, you have to pay to publish a write-up.

These days, most of The Hawk Eye’s articles are ripped from other Gannett-owned Iowa publications, such as The Des Moines Register and the Ames Tribune, written for a readership three hours away. The Opinion section, once an arena for local columnists and letter writers to spar over the merits and morals of riverboat gambling and railroad jobs moving to Topeka, is dominated by syndicated national columnists.

Why does this matter?

Research confirms that the loss of a properly functioning local paper leads to diminished participation in municipal elections, which become less competitive. Corruption goes unchecked, driving costs up for local government. Disinformation proliferates because people start to get their “facts” from social media.

But as the author notes, the decline of The Hawk Eye also revealed a quieter, less quantifiable change.

When people lament the decline of small newspapers, they tend to emphasize the most important stories that will go uncovered: political corruption, school-board scandals, zoning-board hearings, police misconduct. They are right to worry about that. But often overlooked are the more quotidian stories, the ones that disappear first when a paper loses resources: stories about the annual Teddy Bear Picnic at Crapo Park, the town-hall meeting about the new swimming-pool design, and the tractor games during the Denmark Heritage Days.

These stories are the connective tissue of a community; they introduce people to their neighbors, and they encourage readers to listen to and empathize with one another. When that tissue disintegrates, something vital rots away. We don’t often stop to ponder the way that a newspaper’s collapse makes people feel: less connected, more alone. As local news crumbles, so does our tether to one another.

The stories that connect the residents of larger cities and towns may differ from those she describes, but they are equally important. And thanks to rapacious companies like Gannett, they’ve been equally lost.

And then there’s Alden Global Capital, which I’ll discuss tomorrow….

 

A Prize For Evidence

There are all kinds of ways to divide/categorize the American public: there’s the urban/rural divide, the differences between Republicans and Democrats, people who are college educated versus those who are not…One distinction that is rarely highlighted but incredibly important doesn’t even have a descriptive term–it’s the difference between people who recognize and respect evidence and those who don’t.

Think of it as the difference between people who accept the Enlightenment emphasis on empirical reality and those who are “faith-based.” Being faith-based, at least as I am using the term, doesn’t necessarily mean “religious.” It means preferring an ideological commitment–something taken on faith– to demonstrable reality, and a number of people–many of them highly educated–fall into that category.

The judges who award the Nobel Prize just delivered a message to those faith-based folks, and that message was that real-world evidence matters more than ideological or theological preferences, no matter how sincerely or deeply held.

The Nobel Prize in Economics went to three American scholars. One of those was David Card of the University of California at Berkeley, who will receive half the prize.

NPR has the story.

Card was recognized in part for his groundbreaking work in the early 1990s with the late Princeton economist Alan Krueger, which challenged conventional wisdom about minimum wages.

Economists had long assumed that there was a tradeoff between higher wages and jobs. If the minimum wage went up, it was thought, some workers would get higher pay but others would be laid off.

But when Card and Krueger looked at the actual effect of higher wages on fast food workers, they found no significant drop in employment.

In other words, Card and Krueger explored  what actually happened when adjacent jurisdictions imposed different minimum wage laws. They compared fast food restaurants in New Jersey, which raised its minimum wage, to restaurants in neighboring Pennsylvania, which did not.

As CNN reported,

Three economists were awarded the Nobel Prize on Monday for showing that precise — and surprising — answers to some of society’s most pressing questions can be gleaned from experiments rooted in real life.

David Card was recognized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for groundbreaking work on minimum wages, immigration and education. He showed, using a natural experiment — where researchers study situations as they unfold in the real world — that increasing the minimum wage does not necessarily lead to fewer jobs.

The announcement of the award made special mention of the importance of “experiments rooted in real life.” Until very recently, much research–including economic research–has been heavily theoretical and mathematical: this equation or formula predicts that taking such-and-such action will bring about thus-and-so result.

Card said his work was mostly about “trying to get more scientific tie-in and evidence-based analysis in economics.”

“Most old fashioned economists are very theoretical, but these days, a large fraction of economics is really very nuts-and-bolts, looking at subjects like education or health, or at the effects of immigration or the effects of wage policies,” he said.

The Nobel committee noted the importance of that emphasis on real-world evidence.

“Card’s studies of core questions for society and Angrist and Imbens’ methodological contributions have shown that natural experiments are a rich source of knowledge. Their research has substantially improved our ability to answer key causal questions, which has been of great benefit to society,” Peter Fredriksson, chair of the Economic Sciences Prize Committee, said in a statement.

I’ve previously admitted that–much like those “conventional” economists– I had accepted the belief that a higher minimum wage would lead to job losses. It seemed so logical. I later realized that the “logic” required a seldom-noted caveat: all other things being equal. And in the real world, all other things are rarely equal.

What led to that realization was real-world evidence that became available after studies done by Card and others persuaded some jurisdictions to raise their minimum wages and report the results.

There’s nothing wrong with theory, but it’s a framework for empirical exploration, not a substitute. In the end, real world evidence is what matters.