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Out of the Frying Pan

For those of you who follow such things, the reports of my impending severance from and by the Weekly are not exaggerated. For readers who developed a chemical dependency on me during the past 17 years in which I’ve been writing this column for the Weekly, I do appear every Wednesday on the op-ed page of the Washington Post. My work can also be found in the pages of The American Prospect (www.prospect.org), the Washington-based liberal monthly where I’ve worked for the past five years and where I’m taking the helm next week as executive editor. And all my work is glumped gloriously together on my own Web site, www.haroldmeyerson.com. (Note to editors: Yeah, it’s not a word. What’s it to you?)

I’ll miss, of course, the camaraderie of my colleagues at the Weekly (abovementioned editors very much included), and the opportunity to write regularly in an L.A. publication, frequently about L.A., the city that remains the object, I confess, of the longest love affair of my life. With that in mind, I’ll devote this penultimate column to some thoughts about the future of national politics and the economy, and close out in two weeks with a column on the future of Los Angeles.

At the current happy moment, the Republicans seem devoted to resolving one of the Democrats’ long-running disputes for them. You’ll recall that the Democrats have spent much of this year in their biennial quest for an overarching theme and easy-to-market program, with one faction insisting that all they needed to do was call attention to the Republicans’ manifest misrule. The slogan this faction put forth was, simply, “Had Enough?” And bless those little Republicans: Over the past two weeks, they so monumentally augmented the stuff that people have had enough of that the Had-Enoughers have clearly carried the day. As they will, I now expect, on November 7, when the Democrats will win both houses of Congress.

Part of the reason the Dems will have themselves a fine congressional election is that they have found, in this cycle, candidates who fit the states and districts they’re running in. Go online and take a look at Jon Tester, the Montana populist who will surely oust incumbent Republican Senator Conrad Burns. Tester is not only a gun-totin’ cowboy who opposes the Patriot Act on libertarian grounds; he’s also the first Democratic candidate I can recall who looks like Homer Simpson. He’ll also vote to preserve Social Security, promote alternative energy and resist Wall Street’s vision of free trade.

Or consider Harold Ford, the young, black Democratic congressman from Memphis who is likely to be elected to the Tennessee Senate seat currently occupied by Bill Frist (who is leaving the Senate under the clinical delusion that he can run for president and win votes from actual people). I’ve seen Ford on the stump in the suburbs of Nashville, and he is easily the best campaigner in American politics since that Clinton feller — perhaps because you have to be a good campaigner to win statewide as a Democrat (much less a black Democrat) in the South. I’ve seen Ford talk to a diner full of white Republicans and win over a number of them by some mysterious combination of energy, delivery, substance (against the Dubai port deal), looks, old-fashioned good manners and persistence. Ford is running as a young, hip, alt-energy, religious-traditionalist, nationalist, Wall Street–friendly, anti-Bush neohawk, or something like that. About half his votes will piss off liberals like me, and he’s as good as it’s going to get in the South, and a vast improvement over what the Republicans have to offer.

The genuine liberal in a key race this November is Ohio Senate candidate Sherrod Brown, who holds a narrow lead over incumbent Republican Mike DeWine, and who’s as articulate a spokesman for both social and economic liberalism as the Democrats have had in some time. Add ’em all up, these Democratic challengers likely to win, and you have a Democratic Senate delegation that will be more populist economically and more centrist culturally than the one now in office. This is what happens when the Democrats start to win states outside the blue belt of the coasts and the upper Midwest.

The Republican collapse is a big step forward for civilization as such, but it enables the Democrats to put off the question of what, exactly, they stand for. They’re united, to be sure, on the easy stuff — raising the minimum wage, reining in drug costs, that sort of thing. They’re also more united than they seem on “redeploying” our forces out of Iraq. Problem is, all Congress can really control is how much funding the armed services get, which means, the Dems would have to cut off funding for the war — as Congress eventually did in Vietnam — to end it. That’s a bridge the Democrats haven’t crossed yet. The question hasn’t even shown up in the polls.

 

But the biggest conundrum for the Democrats, and the nation, is how to reinvent mass prosperity at a time when capitalism is allergic to the very idea. Wages now constitute the lowest share of GDP, and profits the highest, since the government began measuring these things a half-century ago. Part of the problem is that globalization has weakened the bargaining power of most people who work for a living. As Laura Tyson, who headed Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, noted in an American Prospect article last year, with a clarity that belies her standing as a professional economist, if you add a billion people (that’s China and India) to the world’s labor pool and don’t have a commensurate increase in capital investment (and we haven’t), average wages will fall. Another Clinton appointee, Princeton economist Alan Blinder, whom Clinton installed at the Federal Reserve, has recently written that the number of American jobs that someone else can do more cheaply in some other part of the globe is between 42 million and 56 million. That still leaves a lot of Americans — nurses, carpenters, truck drivers, janitors, waiters, supermarket shelf stockers — whose jobs can’t be offshored. Few of these jobs are unionized, however, and the Bush appointees on the National Labor Relations Board didn’t help matters last week when they ruled that nurses who instruct their more junior colleagues on new developments or finer points of the trade can’t join unions, since they’re really supervisors.

On one level, the Democrats know what to do about some of these problems. They will likely pass (and Bush will surely veto) the Employee Free Choice Act, which would enable workers to join unions again without fear of being fired. And as corporations continue to make ever deeper cuts in health coverage and retirement benefits, the Democrats will, in response to public clamor, eventually come around to supporting state provision of these necessities.

The real conundrum is globalization itself, and the rise of the global corporation. Everywhere throughout the advanced industrialized world, it has weakened labor’s bargaining power and made the task of regulating corporate and financial institutions vastly more difficult. It has enlarged the labor pool, to the point where the percentage of working-age males not even in the job market has doubled since the 1960s in the U.S., Japan and the European Union. Throughout the West, it threatens to negate (and in the U.S., it has already negated) the great achievement of the parties of the center left in the decades after World War II: the creation, for the first time in human history, of widely shared mass prosperity.

Within the Democratic Party, two separate schools of thought are emerging as to how best to mitigate these problems. The Clintonian centrists, led by former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, see education and retraining as a partial answer to the challenge of globalized work — as if the structural changes of capitalism were the individual’s fault, and as if such highly skilled jobs as software writer and radiologist and architect weren’t among those being exported. Among liberals close to the labor movement, there’s a general sense that education is a fine thing as such, but that government-sponsored employment programs such as the Apollo Project, a proposal to employ 3 million Americans to retrofit their nation and make it more energy efficient, are also required. The split between these two groups is likely to replicate the split in the party on trade.

Ultimately, the rise of global laissez faire — a form of capitalism that benefits the few at the expense of the many — will have to be countered globally, just as the rise of national laissez faire had to be countered nationally. The latter was a task that took a good 70 years in this country — from the 1860s, when the railroads became the first national corporations, to the passage of Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. It took that long to create (and create support for) a national government with the power to make capitalism more humane. It may take at least that long to create (and create support for) global institutions with the same kind of power, though I’m pleased to report that the world’s first genuinely global unions — of security guards and hotel employees (both occupations that can’t be offshored, and both in industries increasingly dominated by a handful of global conglomerates) — are both on the drawing boards.

The rise of the kind of global mixed economy that the parties of the center left once built at the national level here and in Western Europe, though, will take a painfully long time. In the long meantime, that poses a huge challenge for those parties, whose common raison d’être was the creation of mass prosperity. The politics of prolonged stagnation is sure to be exploited by nationalist, religious and racist demagogues. For their sake, and their nation’s, the Democrats had better develop the will and attain the power to make this long transition as palatable as possible, promoting public jobs when private ones dry up, and building the international institutions needed to restore a balanced economy. Otherwise, the future is going to be goddamn nasty.

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