Backtalk

Send your letters to backtalk@motherjones.com.

Our March/April issue examined the future of jobs and the Clinton administration’s efforts to boost economic recovery: The president, after an auspicious start akin to FDR’s New Deal, seems to be forgetting his promises to ordinary Americans. Also, our stories on the religious right’s efforts to bring creationism to public schools drew heated response.

CLINTONOMICS, PRO & CON


The United States doesn’t need a mammoth, government-led “social-medical-environmental-industrial complex.”

It happens after every recession: Gloomy analysts, distressed by several years of suffering, declare that the last downturn was not just a temporary setback but a harbinger of worse to come.

John Judis’ latest version of that story (“What’s the deal?” March/April) is no more convincing than its predecessors. His timing is particularly bad: Judis rags on President Clinton just when the economy seems to be picking up.

For millions of unemployed Americans, the economy’s unusually slow recovery since hitting bottom in March 1991 has indeed been painful. But talk of “structural unemployment” and comparisons with the Great Depression are way off the mark. At its peak in June 1992, the unemployment rate reached 7.7 percent, a far cry from past recessions. As of this February, the jobless rate had fallen to 6.4 percent. This compares well against a rate of more than 10 percent in West Germany, a country often admired by industrial policy advocates.

The economy’s recovery suggests that drastic medicine to revive a dying patient is not needed. The United States certainly does not need (was Judis serious?) a mammoth, government-led “social-environmental-medical-industrial complex” to build better trains. It needs technological advances, which tax breaks for research and development will help foster. It needs high-quality education, a theme Clinton hits again and again.

Judis is right: Clinton is no radical. His budgets represent incremental changes from the past, not wholesale revisions. But Clinton, and the country, could have worse economic guides than Judis’ evil triad of “Wall Street Democrats,” Democratic Leadership Council pundits, and Brookings Institution economists.

Jonathan Marshall, economics editor
San Francisco Chronicle

Two thoughts kept recurring as I read the fine package on Clintonomics. First, economists agree that the basic problem for the U.S. economy is sustained, substandard productivity gains and economic growth. Second, no one knows for sure what policies could fix it.

The most helpful guidance came from your capsule interviews with workers. Without exception, they look to government not to guarantee them economic success but to assure them access to the means to create their own prosperity.

They would not agree with your correspondent that becoming more productive was a cause of structural unemployment, nor would any serious economist. By definition, when worker productivity rises, workers can produce more goods with the same labor or the same goods with less labor. The usual result is not higher net unemployment, but faster growth and greater wealth, which create new jobs to offset the downsizing associated with higher productivity.

That’s why, as Bill Clinton has argued, we need both greater public investment and lower deficits to drive greater private investment. The way to get both is not to raise taxes on middle-class people whose incomes have stagnated, but to cut existing programs, beginning with industry- specific spending and tax subsidies.

Robert Shapiro, vice president
Progressive Policy Institute

John B. Judis replies: It is no coincidence that Americans have undertaken serious economic reforms only during wars or depressions. That’s the only time, it seems, that we are willing to lay aside our frontier individualism and our distrust of government initiative. When recoveries and booms occur, we invariably return to our native faith in the selfcorrecting powers of the market. After the 1982-83 recession, for instance, Americans turned away from discussions of industrial policy to endorse Reaganite deregulation and deficits, from which we continue to suffer.

Since the 1930s, government spending and planning–through the military-industrial complex–has played a central role in sustaining a high-wage economy. With the Cold War over, it is being dismantled. Will private industry simply take up the slack? The lesson of the last 70 years is that it will not. Jonathan Marshall compares America’s current situation favorably with West (sic) Germany’s, implying that American standards of minimal government have served us well. I think the question to ask is what America’s unemployment and overall standard of living would be like if we had incorporated Mexico and Central America as states in 1989–a feat comparable to West Germany’s incorporation of East Germany. Would we be coping with 10 percent unemployment–or would David Duke be edging upward in presidential polls and the Marines be landing in the Yucatan?

We are certainly in a recovery, but it is taking place within a framework of domestic and international restructuring that could, if we don’t prepare ourselves, threaten our standard of living in the years to come. One challenge we face is from an accelerating pace of technological change. Productivity doesn’t threaten jobs? Where has Robert Shapiro been? From the Luddites of England to the steelworkers of Cleveland, workers have worried about being replaced by machines. The important question is, Where do they go afterwards? To equally well-paying manufacturing or white-collar jobs, or to low-paying service jobs and the unemployment line? The trend in the United States has been toward the latter, and it is something that American business, unions, and government have to address.

LOOKING FOR WORK

I could not agree more with Judis’ conclusion that strong government measures are required. While President Clinton’s proposal to revamp the nation’s unemployment system is not the solution, it is a step in the right direction, because it acknowledges government’s critical role in helping workers who are forced out of their jobs. That’s a far cry from the view of the two previous administrations.

What’s needed is the further recognition that the program’s goals cannot be accomplished on the cheap, and that more funding is needed to help the huge number of displaced American workers find new jobs at higher skill levels and better wages. Moreover, we must all recognize that such a program is no substitute for trade and industrial policies that will create the high-wage, high-skill jobs that will make America a prosperous country in the 21st century.

Lane Kirkland, president, AFL-CIO


Wall Street is lavished with attention from the media and the administration; labor is ignored.

Employers are obsessed with reducing costs by cutting worker wages and benefits, by throwing workers overboard (“downsizing,” in corporatespeak), and by shifting work to low-wage countries–for reasons that are anything but clear. More often than not, gains in productivity, sales, and profitability do not occur.

What’s more, such corporate “anorexia” ignores the basic fact that workers are consumers, too. Simply put, falling wages and high unemployment are sand in the gas tank of a consumer-driven economy.

Owen Bieber, president, UAW

We need an entirely new approach to employment policy in the United States. Service-sector employers should be rewarded for organizing job ladders that will move entry-level workers up through the ranks–if not in their own firms, then in related businesses. Why not organize local consortia of fast-food restaurants, caterers, tourist industries, and the like to offer management training for those who successfully complete a year of work at entry level? How about tax breaks for low-wage employers who subsidize higher education for their high school-age employees? And what about coupling private-sector initiatives with public works jobs that will put more teachers’ aides in the nation’s classrooms, more nurses’ assistants in homes for the elderly, more technicians in our hospitals?

We should stop congratulating ourselves for our “moderate growth” and the two million new jobs it has created: You wouldn’t want your daughter to take most of them.

Katherine Newman
Professor of Anthropology
Columbia University

Does the country benefit when a dishwasher or cook in a luxury hotel (subsidized by millions of tax dollars, of course) survives only by working back-to-back eight-hour shifts and sharing a single dilapidated apartment with one or two other families? How does it benefit our communities when poor women are rounded up on street corners and paid $5 per hour to clean 15 to 16 rooms per day–rooms for which the hotel charges $200 a night?

Why don’t our experts recognize that the quality of the jobs we create is just as important as the number? So long as it is acceptable, and even lauded, for businesses to pay hardworking people $4.25 per hour without any benefits, millions of working poor will never have any hope of tasting a real “recovery.”

Maria Elena Durazo, President
Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, AFL-CIO, Local 11

It is not only the underpaid service worker who will suffer from current economic policy. Farmers and rural people in the United States also find themselves in an extremely vulnerable position. In 1992, the average farm household received 80 percent of its income from wages, salary, and businesses outside its farming operations–not by choice but by trying to survive the farm and rural crisis in America. Government brings to our communities industries that exploit the people and natural resources of our regions: corporate-controlled animal factories, toxic waste incinerators, garbage landfills, and gambling casinos.

The policies are still in place that allow multinational trading and food companies to rob farmers of their raw materials at below-cost-of-production prices and destroy their ability to adopt more natural, less chemical-intensive methods of sustainable agriculture. We need to raise farm income and create an economic climate in which sustainable agricultural methods are feasible for farmers.

Roger Allison, executive director
Missouri Rural Crisis Center

The best tonic for the global economy would be policies that insisted on raising the wages and living standard of workers who are too poor to purchase what they produce. Our government and others must recognize that their new international responsibilities do not begin and end with regulating the exchange of goods and services: They also extend to the conditions under which those goods and services are produced.

Jay Mazur, president
International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union

As currently constructed, Clinton’s economic renewal plan will bypass African-American workers, other people of color, and their communities. Investment in infrastructure, environmental technology, and defense conversion will not create many jobs accessible to people of color and marginalized workers, and privatization will strike another major blow to African-American (white-, pink-, and blue-collar) employment. Is it any wonder that people of color and poor folks increasingly describe government policies as genocidal? We are being written out of the equation.

Leah Wise, executive director
U.S. Urban-Rural Mission

Why didn’t your article mention executive remuneration? I see the lack of jobs as a direct result of major greed at the top. Think of all the capital that would be freed up to invest in more businesses and pay more workers better wages if the people at the top didn’t hog it all.

How about a maximum wage to counteract the minimum wage?

Sarah Longstaff, San Diego, Calif.

Business pages present glowing evidence of strong macroeconomic growth in one corner, and in the other tell of major layoffs. What’s going on out there?

There are two related problems. First, the negative wage trends of the 1980s continue in the 1990s. Second, the recovery is under way, but most are not cashing in.

As Judis notes, our analysis of wage trends shows that the vast majority of workers saw the real value of their hourly wage fall over the 1980s. We will soon be halfway through the 1990s and the labor market is still failing to generate rising wages for most workers.

So what kind of recovery are we into? Apparently, it is one that favors capital markets over labor markets. Wall Street appears to be lavishing under the attention that it receives from the media and the administration; labor is ignored.

We suppose this is because the administration sees job creation as one of its strongest mandates, and the logic goes something like this: Keep inflation and interest rates low and Wall Street calm. Then investors will invest, job growth will follow. But this is a top-down strategy, when what’s needed is repair from the bottom-up. Such a strategy may generate jobs, but not of the quality needed. As Judis points out, structural economic failures got us to this point. Only by shoring up our ailing economic institutions–labor law, minimum wage, trade policy, unions–can we generate a recovery in which all workers can share.

Jared Bernstein, Economist
Lawrence Mishel, Research Director
Economic Policy Institute

I’ve never known so many people out of work or close to being out of work.

I was a legal secretary at a major New York City law firm. The firm made a respectable profit in 1993, but the partners couldn’t get along. More than 600 people are out of work and, because the firm is dissolving, there will be no COBRA coverage. For the first time in more than 20 years, I’m without a job or health insurance.

My friend Sylvia is a psychiatric nurse in West Palm Beach, Fla. Although she has a five-day schedule, she works on a per-diem basis and receives no benefits, no sick time, and no overtime pay.

Carol is an economist with a background in Latin American currency. When Chemical Bank merged with Manufacturers Hanover Trust a few years ago, Carol, a vice president, was laid off. She’s working as a math teacher in a private school; she hates her job, and the salary is less than half her salary at the bank.

Ray works in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., designing navigation systems for airplanes on a contract basis. Finally, he got a permanent job–or so he thought. He rented an apartment and even bought furniture. He was laid off last Tuesday.

Phyllis Hirshorn, New York, N.Y.

THE RIGHT FIGHT?


One must ask: Who commissioned Pat Robertson to represent 150 million Christian Americans?

It was disheartening to see that the writers of “God’s Country” and “The Right Fight” (March/April) were guilty of promoting the same subversive combat tactics that they so exclusively ascribed to the group they were bashing–the religious right. In both articles, exaggeration, misrepresentation, inducement to battle (through fear), and a call to arms appeared to be the only selling points.

When either the religious right or the extreme left expose only one side of an issue, ensuing decisions will always be the “wrong” ones–regardless of the label affixed to that ignorance. Though we are diametrically opposed on many issues, let us work to repair, not burn, what few bridges remain.

Ron Gometz, Atlanta, Ga.

Living just outside Stanwood, Wash., with two preschool-age children, I found Mark Zingarelli’s article both disturbing and enlightening.

It is relatively easy (although time-consuming) to watchdog a school district for signs of “evangelism.” It is difficult to go beyond that and get people involved to produce positive change. But that is what this article is really about, and what is needed in (dare I say it?) every school district in the nation. Not just involvement in fighting a few issues, but involvement in our children’s entire education process.

I am happy to say that the Stanwood School District just began strategic planning that will shape its direction for years to come. For the most part the process has been a very positive experience. However, the key to its success will be the district’s ability to get more of the community involved.

Leo Kypuros, Camano Island, Wash.

Mark Zingarelli’s article portrays very well what happens in communities whose school boards have been targeted for political takeover by extremists. They can be divided–but, perhaps more important, they can come together as well. The National Education Association’s work shows that in many cases, after one term–sometimes not even a full term–of domination by these right-wing extremists, the community unites to elect more representative, mainstream boards. Responding to the challenges presented by the extremists also enhances participation in board elections, which bring out only 10 percent of a community’s eligible voters nationwide.

Judy Behnke, director
Center for the Preservation of Public Education
National Education Association

In the November 1992 election, members of the religious right gained a majority on our school board. After a year of struggle and frustration at being labeled immoral, anti-God liberals for opposing the board majority, a group from several of the community’s moderate churches formed the Interfaith Community Alliance. We realized the best way to ensure diversity and individual freedom was to concentrate our efforts on safeguarding the separation between church and state.

This theme struck a chord in the community. As the school board election approaches, ICA’s main goal has become clear: enlighten (Continued on page 60) (Continued from page 10) the community about its lack of representation on the board. It is critical that the board fully reflect the community’s vision for education.

Nan Creighton, Hemet, Calif.

Why is “creation” such a dirty word? I am an educated person, and I do not believe in evolution. In high school I was forced to learn about evolution, something that went against my deeply felt beliefs, in order to graduate.

There is nothing more oppressive than forcing views on a child, whether from the right or the left. Education is about making choices; what kind of choice is it to learn that you are stupid or backward for believing in something?

Heather Bakke, St. Peter, Minn.

Your article arrived in the midst of a school-board battle in a community five minutes from my home. Within the last two years, there have been major changes in the Chesterton, Ind., school curriculum on sex education. The newly formed Guidance Review Committee recently recommended that two movies be pulled because they were “too explicit.” The AIDS Committee is pushing through materials used in the Sex Respect program, which, among other things, tells kids condoms have a high failure rate. [These represent] the highest–or lowest–level of ignorance and irresponsibility imaginable. Hopefully, we can alert enough people to have positive results come election time.

Jacquetta L. Finnegan, Portage, Ind.

America is a pluralistic society, and public schools serve as a microcosm of this plurality. Unfortunately, the Rutherford Institute has observed a growing hostility toward the rights of religious persons in public schools.

For example, a public school teacher in Hartford, Wis., prevented one of her third-grade pupils from displaying her valentines because they contained references to Jesus Christ. On another occasion, a 10-year-old boy in Missouri was put in detention three times for praying over his meal at lunchtime.

These examples reveal the discrimination religious persons–particularly evangelical Christians–face.

John W. Whitehead
President and Founder
The Rutherford Institute

The radical religious right is a minority, even within evangelical circles. Most Christians in America are pro-choice, support equal rights for gays, and do not favor state-sponsored prayers or the teaching of so-called creation science in public schools. As a defensive ploy, the radical religious right characterizes any criticism as anti-Christian bigotry. Who commissioned Pat Robertson to represent 150 million Christian Americans?

Although the religious right is not, and probably never will be, any sort of majority, the movement should not be dismissed. The radical religious right is probably better organized than any other special-interest group in the United States. It would be a big mistake not to take them seriously.

Skipp Porteous, president
Institute for First Amendment Studies

I’m all for exposing creationism as a false science. In the name of intellectual honesty, I’d also like to see science exposed as a false religion.

What the creationists resent–and I agree with their point, if not their politics–is that “scientism” as a belief system extends far beyond the proper bounds of real science, into the realms of morality and religious practice.

D. Patrick Miller, Berkeley, Calif.

Alongside their efforts to “Christianize” public education, religious right groups are increasingly pursuing a second strategy that could dramatically affect education in America: pushing plans to funnel tax dollars to parochial and other private sectarian schools.

Plans to set up voucher systems are currently being debated in at least 12 state legislatures. In addition, activists in other states are working to put voucher initiatives on state ballots.

A voucher plan would not only do great damage to public education, it would wreak havoc on the religious freedom of every American. It would force all taxpayers to pick up the tab for sectarian schools, even though the goal of those schools is to indoctrinate and proselytize. A voucher system is a form of “religion tax,” the equivalent of taking money from your pocket and putting it into a church collection plate.

Robert Boston
Assistant Director of Communications
Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Liz Galst’s article (“The right fight”) says that “since [fundamentalist] views are shared by only a small minority, they often work in secret.” When it comes to using homosexuality as a wedge issue, however, these stealth candidates feel free to come right out in the open. Sadly, so do most Americans–especially when it comes to the subject of homosexuality and youth.

The tragedy is that many youths with same-sex attractions never make it to 18. They are three times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers and are at heightened risk for substance abuse, STDs, and violence and homelessness.

There are encouraging signs, however. High school students throughout America are forming gay/straight alliances, and youth activists in Massachusetts successfully lobbied for a state gay students’ rights bill last fall. These small acts of courage are contributing to an atmosphere where the right wing’s lies will no longer be able to stick, and where gay youth can come of age free of isolation and self-hate.

Frances Kunreuther, executive director
The Hetrick-Martin Institute

SPEAKING FOR OURSELVES

What a pity that Eric Alterman (“Who speaks for me?” Jan./Feb.) and too many progressives aren’t in touch with the very people they hope to lead to a new millenium. Millions of Americans are becoming involved in devising democratic solutions, inspired not by a leftist vision but by their own experiences and values.

Rural Kentuckians have taken on the coal industries and won; welfare clients in New York now run their own home health-care business; teachers and parents in Chicago democratized their public schools to gain a meaningful voice for themselves. What they need is not our vision for them but national attention drawn to their successes, to spread their powerful lessons, as well as many other forms of practical support.

Can progressives actually learn to believe in the democracy we’ve all been preaching for so long? If we did, we’d stop struggling to develop a correct vision and support the bottom-up revolution that is already under way.

Paul Martin Du Bois & Frances Moore Lappe
co-authors, “The Quickening of America”
co-directors, Center for Living Democracy