Abandon Not Thy Fellow Man

There’s a man who lives in Chicago. We’ll call him Roger.

Roger is a good man. A hard-working man. Never got in trouble with the law. Never borrowed money he couldn’t repay.

Roger grew up in a bad neighborhood. It wasn’t easy for him to finish high school, but he did it. He even got himself into community college — at least, until his family ran out of money and he had to drop out to pay the bills.

Roger got a job at a fast food restaurant. It was only minimum wage, but the economy was weak and they were the only ones hiring.

By this point, Roger was married. His wife was pregnant. They lived in a 20-by-15-foot apartment. No kitchen. No furniture. They shared a bathroom with four other families.

Roger counted himself lucky. The other families crammed four, five, even six people in a room. At least he and his wife had the apartment to themselves. All 300 square feet of it.

Roger worked his butt off. He took every shift he could get. He sweated and served and smiled the whole time. He started making $7.25 an hour when the minimum wage went up. Then $8 an hour when he’d been there a couple years. Then $9. And finally, last year, $10.

But it wasn’t enough. They never gave him enough hours to claw his way out of poverty. Even with his wife working nights at temporary jobs — she couldn’t work days because they couldn’t afford daycare — they just barely reached the poverty line for a family of three.

It was at this point that Roger got transferred to another branch. The company said they needed experienced workers in a newer restaurant, and Roger had shown himself worthy of such a responsibility.

Roger’s new commute was twice as long, but he didn’t complain. He had too many friends who were unemployed. At least he could feed his family. Barely.

Two weeks into his new job, Roger got his paycheck. At first, he thought it was a typo. He went to his boss and pointed out the error. The manager told him the number was correct. That’s what the company told him to pay Roger: $7.25 an hour.

Roger insisted it was a mistake. So his boss contacted the accounting department at corporate headquarters and asked for an explanation.

The message came back: When an employee moves to a new branch, his pay goes back down to minimum wage. He can earn his old wage again the same way he did last time — after several years of service at that restaurant.

And so, Roger now makes $7.25 an hour. He has to get food stamps to feed his family. He still lives in that 20-by-15-foot room with his wife and son.

His son will start kindergarten next year. His brain is underdeveloped for his age, but that’s common for kids living in poverty. He’ll struggle like his father did. The local public schools have low test scores and high dropout rates. Roger prays everyday that his son will enjoy a better life than he’s had, but right now it’s almost impossible for him to imagine such a future.

There are millions of Roger’s in America today. They cook our food and clean our buildings. They package the toys that we buy our children for Christmas. They help us find that perfect gift for that special someone, and they ring it up at the cash register. They smile and laugh, joke and shake our hand, but they’re dying inside. They’re living in squalid, cramped apartments — if they live in an apartment at all. They’re missing payments on student loans. They’re worrying they won’t be able to afford groceries next week. They’re probably not getting the necessary medical care unless they’re bleeding profusely, and they’re definitely not saving for retirement.

One in four American employees work in low-wage jobs. That’s the highest percentage in the industrialized world by far.

That’s what’s at stake in the “fiscal cliff” debate. Roger needs help. We all need help. None of us can do it by ourselves.

We must not abandon them. We must not abandon each other. We must preserve the government programs that help us when we are at our most desperate. Above all, the most fortunate among us must not be unwilling to share a little more of their good fortune so that this nation might heal its lingering wounds.

May 2013 be better than 2012 for Roger’s family and for yours.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

A Lesson in Power, Courtesy of the Bangladesh Garment Industry

The bodies have been placed in coffins. The mourners have draped themselves in black.

It was one of the deadliest industrial accidents in history. Over 100 people died in that clothing factory.

It made headline news all across the world. Surely you’ve read about it by now.

When they tried to escape, the factory workers found the doors locked. It was standard practice at the sweatshop. The managers didn’t want the workers to take unauthorized breaks.

So they burned alive.

Louis Waldman happened to be nearby when the fire started. He followed the sound of pandemonium until he reached the blazing factory. He told the New York Times what he saw: “Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street.”

You probably think I’m talking about the garment factory in Bangladesh, where 112 people died last weekend. But I’m not.

I’m talking about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village, New York.

The date was March 25, 1911. One hundred forty-six people died that day.

New York City wouldn’t experience another disaster of that magnitude for another ninety years. That date would be September 11, 2001.

It’s hard to believe that such an atrocity happened right here in our own backyard. We’ve become so accustomed to workplace regulations and civil negotiations that we’ve forgotten what factory life was like before the Great Depression.

Back then, labor unions were even rarer than they are today. Most strikes ended at the barrel of a gun. The company would call the governor, and the state militia would send soldiers to force the strikers back to work. It wouldn’t be uncommon for them to kill and imprison dozens who stood in their way.

The history of our great nation is littered with epic labor battles. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Americans died defending their right to negotiate as one union rather than as helpless individuals.

It doesn’t take a PhD in economics to see that an individual worker doesn’t stand a chance of a fair negotiation with a $237 billion corporation like Wal-Mart, especially when unemployment is high. The corporation has so many applicants to choose from. It has all the power.

It’s that kind of power that allowed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to lock the doors and trap its workers.

That sort of thing doesn’t happen in America anymore, but it’s not because corporations had a change of heart. It’s because the Great Depression motivated Congress to stand behind workers who wish to form labor unions. It’s because the federal government stopped sending soldiers and started sending election supervisors. It’s because they investigated factory conditions and created laws to prevent the loss of innocent life.

This is what our government does. It’s what sets us apart from the destitute places of the world, where good, hard-working people have no protection from the warlords and factory bosses.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Americans watched the Congressional investigation of Wall Street with horror, as the wretched abuses of unregulated banks came to light. The great columnist Walter Lippmann summed up the national mood when he wrote, “No set of men, however honorable they may be, and however good their traditions, can be trusted with so much private power.”

Something to remember when the One Percent refuses to pay the taxes they paid in the booming 1990s, or when they blame the demise of the Twinkie on unions who took pay cuts while executive compensation was soaring.

The 99 Percent isn’t asking for a lot. An hourly wage that doesn’t leave their family in poverty would be nice. A guarantee that Social Security and Medicare will still be there when it’s their turn to retire. Maybe a few public schools that aren’t crumbling to the ground.

You know, the things that separate us from the Bangladesh’s of the world.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

A Most Cruel, Cynical Duo

In reaction to today’s news that Mitt Romney has chosen Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, I’m reproducing my op-ed from April on Ryan’s claim to fame — his budget proposal:

Do you think the government should spend less money on Medicare? On Medicaid? On education? On aid to the poor? On veterans’ benefits?

If you’re like most Americans, your answer to all of these questions is, “No.”

According to a recent poll, less than a quarter of Americans want the government to cut spending on these programs. Even the majority of Republican primary voters are opposed to such reductions.

Yet House Republicans recently passed a budget that significantly reduces spending for all these programs. And those same Republican primary voters are most supportive of the one candidate who has publicly endorsed this budget: Mitt Romney.

Clearly, most Americans have no idea what Romney and the author of the budget, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, stand for.

Ryan’s budget slashes spending from almost everything except Social Security and defense. Of the $5.3 trillion he wants to eliminate over the next decade, $3.3 trillion comes from programs that benefit low-income Americans: Medicaid, Pell Grants, food stamps, job training, school lunch, etc.

Seriously, school lunch. Evidently, Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney believe that the richest country in the history of the world can’t afford to provide its children with one decent meal a day.

Yet we can afford to pay the average millionaire an extra $265,000 per year. That’s how much more they’d earn if Ryan’s tax cuts became law.

Millionaires would get a raise of 12.5 percent on their after-tax income. The middle class would get a raise of less than 2 percent.

Is there an epidemic of suffering millionaires that I’m unaware of? Are they unable to pay their health insurance? Their student loans? Their mortgages?

No. Those are middle-class problems.

And they’ll become bigger problems if Ryan’s budget becomes law. Fewer Pell Grants will result in a lot more student debt, and less funding for the Affordable Care Act will rescind affordable health insurance for upwards of 30 million Americans.

Economists expect unemployment to remain high for several more years. Ryan’s solution is to fire thousands of federal employees.

Our veterans are suffering from record levels of post-traumatic stress disorder after multiple tours of duty in a war that most Americans no longer support. Ryan’s solution is to dishonor their sacrifice by skimping on their health care.

Income inequality has triggered protests in the streets and unsustainable household debt. Ryan’s solution is to pay the rich more and the poor less.

“If they can’t afford food or health care, let them die.” That should be Paul Ryan’s motto. Put that on your Mitt Romney bumper sticker.

And don’t think this is hyperbole, because they are dying. According to Harvard Medical School researchers, 45,000 Americans die every year because they lack health insurance and therefore cannot get the necessary care. According to researchers at Columbia University and the Federal Reserve, being unemployed for a year increases your odds of dying by 50 percent. Another year, and it’s 100 percent.

This is a cruel, cynical world we live in where hard-working men and women are tossed aside like road-kill for political gain.

“I’ve always resented the smug statements of politicians, media commentators, corporate executives who talked about how, in America, if you worked hard, you would become rich,” said the great historian Howard Zinn. “The meaning of that was: if you were poor, it was because you hadn’t worked hard enough. I knew this was a lie about my father and millions of others, men and women who worked harder than anyone.”

Indeed they did. This country was built on their broken backs. But Mitt Romney thinks they’re expendable — and when you go to the voting booth in November, he’s counting on you not to notice.

The Charming Republicans: Issa, Ryan, and Cantor

by Norman Horowitz

In 1960, at Screen Gems International, I met a “tall, dark, and handsome” man named Larry Hilford.

Larry was very smart and very charming when he wanted to be. He was a Yale graduate, as well as a Harvard MBA, all of which I could tolerate. But I will never forgive him for his “movie star” good looks.

Larry and I both worked for Lloyd Burns, a South African/Canadian who was the personification of “two faced.” Lloyd had a farbissina punim, which, loosely translated from Yiddish, means that he was sourpuss. He saved his farbissina punim for people like me and other junior staff people. He was at his charming best when with our major customers and senior management.

Yes, he was smart, but to me smart is not enough for an executive (or politician) to function as effectively as possible.

Larry and Lloyd were a study in contrasts. Larry would cringe when anyone called him a salesman, but that’s what he was: a well educated man of vision who could sell what he believed.

I have noticed in my career that people like Larry, an actual operating executive and salesman, were not then, nor are they today, respected as they should be. America has bought into the notion that MBAs and lawyers are somehow qualified to run operating divisions or companies. Nowadays, it seems that senior management executives are mostly operationally inexperienced and sport their farbissina punims as a badge of honor.

The combination of intellect and charm and operating experience matters, and to me the political poster child for this would be Bill Clinton.

Antithetical to this would be Congressmen Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, and Darrell Issa.

While I never agreed with the policies of the Bush boys or Ronald Reagan, none of them could be referred to as having a farbissina punim. The same cannot be said of these three infantile Republican Congressmen who, not too long ago, were setting sail for a witch hunt against Eric Holder, while a good deal of the world is falling apart.

Much to the chagrin of many of my Republican friends, our President Barack Obama is bright, charming, and ingratiating, and I would ask those who might be open to it to compare the countenance of Barack Obama to our three resident farbissina punim champions, Darrell Issa, Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor.

I’m reminded of my days at MGM, where I was accused of being a bad manager because I was “too nice.”

Welcome to America.

Outsourcing Isn’t an Excuse to Abandon the Working Class

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agree on one thing: Outsourcing is a problem.

Of course, they disagree on who’s to blame. To Obama, it’s private equity firms like Romney’s Bain Capital. To Romney, it’s deficit spending like Obama’s 2009 fiscal stimulus.

(As I pointed out two weeks ago, there’s plenty of evidence that the 2009 stimulus created millions of jobs right here in America. But never mind.)

“Countries around the world are…giving their workers and companies every advantage possible,” says Obama, but “we can win that competition.”

On Romney’s website, you can find the same language. He says our tax code “needs to be more competitive and business friendly.” We need to create a “level playing field for American products in foreign markets.”

This rhetoric is more dangerous than it seems.

It’s true that many of our exports are at a disadvantage. In countries that we trade with, the average manufacturing wage is 65 percent of the American average. In Mexico, manufacturing workers earn 11 percent of what their U.S. counterparts make. In China, they earn 3 percent.

So, the question is: Just how “level” does Mitt Romney want the “playing field” to be?

When it comes to outsourcing, Romney has a solution, but he won’t say it…because you won’t like it: The easiest way to create a “level playing field” is to lower American wages.

The dirty secret about Republican economics is that it’s all about cheap labor.

While most of the industrialized world (and much of the developing world) has experienced rising real wages in the past thirty years, American wages have stagnated.

Union membership has plummeted. The minimum wage has failed to keep up with inflation. Taxes and regulations that previously restricted the rich from siphoning the wealth of the middle class have been eviscerated.

In short, Mitt Romney’s game plan has already been put to the test.

We were told that it was a new era. We were told that we needed to sacrifice our job security, our wage increases, our retirement benefits — all in the name of globalization. We were told that America couldn’t compete with those costs around its neck. We were told that the manufacturing sector was deadweight. We were told that the working class was pulling us down. We were promised a better world filled with high-tech jobs and rapid innovation, low taxes and rising asset prices, cheap imports and even cheaper investments.

We did everything we were told. We gave up our protections and our power. And, in return, we got lower economic growth, higher inequality, productivity growth that went almost entirely to the top 1 percent, and — irony of all ironies — even bigger trade deficits.

All that cheap labor didn’t make us “competitive” after all.

All it did was line corporate coffers with more profits than ever before.

But not everyone made that mistake. According to the conservative Heritage Foundation, U.S. tax revenue is currently 27 percent of GDP. In Denmark, it’s a whopping 49 percent. They have the world’s highest minimum wage and arguably the lowest level of income inequality. Yet their unemployment rate (7.7 percent) is currently lower than ours (8.1 percent), and their economy grew at the same rate as ours from 1979 to 2007.

For another comparison, look at Sweden, where tax revenue is 48 percent of GDP. They consistently battle Denmark for the world’s lowest level of income inequality, yet they’re also ranked as the second most competitive country in the world (after Switzerland). Their unemployment rate (7.8 percent) is also lower than ours, and their economy grew faster than ours from 1979 to 2007.

Needless to say, unions are more prevalent and powerful in both of these countries than in the U.S. But arguably the most heavily unionized country is Germany, where employee representatives sit on corporate boards and have a say in industry-wide decisions. Germany’s unemployment rate (5.6 percent) is way lower than ours, and they boast a large trade surplus.

Clearly, we can raise wages and compete in the global economy at the same time. We don’t need a “level playing field” to beat outsourcing. We just need a proactive government.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.