The big minus

Lonesome Hobo Economics:

... Kind ladies and kind gentlemen ...
Once I was very prosperous
There was nothing I did lack
I had fourteen carat gold, in my mouth,
and silver on my back

But I did not trust my brother
I carried him to blame
Which led me to my fatal doom
To wander off in shame.

Bob Dylan, "Lonesome Hobo," 1967

I like Sam Webb's "lead with your mistakes" style of starting a conversation about the New Year ahead. So, here is my effort to build on an approach that would, I am sure, revolutionize many coalition efforts if self-criticism were in everyone's culture of courtesy. I scored big in my debates with some about "a big one" coming in the spring and summer of 2007 - although I based it mostly on the observations of a relative with long experience in the transportation industry ... Ooops! But to tell the truth, the path since that time seems strewn with errors.

At various points, I have become distracted, by the Afghanistan question, by the banking reform and exec pay debates, by mountaintop removal issues in my state (West Virginia), and, as a consequence, I have not kept focus on the most important component of the reform agenda: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.

The desperate need of our fellow workers and countrymen to relieve the crushing economic burdens of the recession must be placed before all other matters. There really is not a choice. Failing a rapid draw-down in unemployment numbers, Obama will be unlikely to resurrect the coalition he needs to address other important questions, never mind achieve victory in two very expensive, unsustainable, and in many respects untenable wars.

However, I also have found myself distracted by excessively sectarian questions. From a working class point of view, it pays to evaluate the most important questions from as multi-sided a perspective as possible, to learn as much as possible about the truth of the matter. But the most important aspect is, reliably, money. Who loses, and who gains. Increasingly, it appears that direct government employment is the only means of bringing down the jobless numbers (and cushioning loss of income) fast enough to keep the coalition that elected Obama, and that he needs activated to enact his agenda, intact. This should have been clearer from the beginning.

Even the health care debate, vital and longstanding as the issue is, should perhaps have been put behind jobs in priorities.

The latest Al Qaeda episode is like an avatar, or iconic signature, of the cauldron of inequality, economic wreckage, and enlarged number of nearly failed states left by unregulated globalization gone amok since the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. We will not likely escape the blowback from all the bad karma accumulated from Korea through Vietnam, the Latin American, African and Asian dictatorships to protect corporate resources, or the neo-con adventurism that led to the Bush wars on "terror" - an enemy with no fixed address.

Security concerns can trump even economics for brief periods. But sobriety demands that even expenditures that may appear necessary for security must be placed second behind dropping unemployment, or they will be wasted if unemployment does not drop. Ten-percent-plus-plus unemployment is a prescription for tons of additional "security" problems beyond those presented by the young Nigerian captured in Detroit.

Regardless which version of health care reform comes out of the House/Senate process, it seems to me that the labor movement has a unique opportunity to offer important services to millions of workers trying to find the best, most affordable health care solution. Every state and town is going to have unique and complex choices to make, and would greatly benefit by an ally and representative, and by coordinated action to improve coverage AND reduce deductibles and co-pays to affordable levels. Perhaps a new class of union member - representation only with health care "exchanges" - and a cheaper, very competitive, dues rate could be charged too.

Paul Krugman called the last decade the Big Zero. I think "Big Minus" is more accurate. Our wages and incomes have not been keeping pace with productivity since the 1970s. In fact real median income only last year, before the "Great Recession," reached a level it last saw in 1975. The recession has wiped even that out. Median is a more accurate measure than average in capturing where workers are at economically. But even that does not capture the still advancing bifurcation of high- and low-skilled jobs, and the loss of mid-range, mostly manufacturing, jobs has an impact on quality of life for working people. Poverty, hunger, homelessness are all accelerating.

We need to focus on the money for 2010 - no matter whatever tsunami threatens us.