Tag Archives: unions

Unions still matter

This year the Republican war on unions has returned with a vengeance. In former labor stronghold Illinois, GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner is pursuing right-to-work legislation — which allows workers to gain the benefits of union representation without paying dues — and looks likely to succeed. Wisconsin became a right-to-work state last month, and its Republican Gov. Scott Walker looks set to ground a presidential bid in union busting, recently saying his political fight with unions prepared him to take on the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The Supreme Court appears ready to overrule its Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision, which allows unions to collect dues from nonmember public sector workers who nonetheless benefit from collective bargaining.

With the enemies at the gate, the liberal elite seems to have finally learned to love unions. Nicholas Kristof writesthat, contrary to his earlier opinion, “we should strengthen unions, not try to eviscerate them.” Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, a key architect of Bill Clinton’s finance-friendly economic policy, recently argued, “Measures that facilitate collective bargaining can result in a broader participation in the benefits of productivity and growth.” And in “The Report of the Commission on Inclusive Prosperity,” which is likely to become the centerpiece of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, the commission, co-chaired by Ed Balls and Lawrence Summers, concludes that “we need to support the growth of unions.”

But it may be too little, too late. Democrats did little to defend unions when it counted. Under President Jimmy Carter, Alfred Kahn began deregulating the airlines. Carter then signed into law legislation deregulating railroads and trucking (both hobbling powerful unions). President Bill Clinton pushed for the North American Free Trade Agreement against union opposition and deregulated finance, greatly empowering capital. To be fair, some of these pressures came from global trends, but public policy played a key role in tilting the field against labor. Now Republicans are fighting to drive a final spike in the heart of the most effective anti-inequality movement in history. If liberals do nothing to shore up unions, their decline will only continue. That will have important implications for inequality.

What unions do

Unions not only give their members a voice at work but also can have much broader political effects. By mobilizing voters and contributing to campaigns, organized labor is in effect the only lobbying group operating in the interest of ordinary Americans.

In a 1998 study, political scientists Benjamin Radcliff and Martin Saiz found that “the relative strength of the labor movement across the American states is one of the principal determinants of policy liberalism.” They found that the rate of unionization has a dramatic effects on spending for Aid to Families With Dependent Children and education as well as on tax progressivity and that these effects are stronger than Democratic governors and Democratic legislatures. As Radcliff told me, “strong labor unions are able to influence public policy, so as to create programs … that benefit everyone in society, not merely organized workers.”

Unions are the most important institution in the fight against inequality.

One way unions reduced inequality was by boosting voter turnout, which gave them political leverage. It’s rarely noted, but the campaign for Seattle’s $15 minimum hourly wage could not have succeeded without a massive, union-led voter registration drive. Many studies have confirmed that unions boost voter turnout and that their Election Day mobilizations push candidates and parties to the left.

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In a country where few politicians come from a blue collar background, unions have often been a conduit for workers to enter politics. Political scientist Nicholas Carnes found that “a 10-point increase in the percentage of the state that belonged to labor unions was associated with a 1-point increase in the percentage of state lawmakers from the working class.” Given that politicians’ occupational background and wealth influences their voting behavior, this is another important way unions can promote policies beneficial to the working and middle classes.

The right-to-work revolution

But unions have always faced deep opposition, especially in the South, where many of the first right-to-work laws were passed. Historian Elizabeth Shermer writes, “The central message in the Southern right-to-work campaigns was preserving the Old South’s racial order.” Southern elites feared that an organized working class would be a threat to the racist social and economic practices that had long defined the region. They successfully kept collective bargaining at bay with laws that forbade unions from requiring beneficiaries of its negotiations to become members and pay dues. These right-to-work laws appealed to non-elites by channeling widely held anti-government individualism. But labor law expert Raymond Hogler notes that the question has often been posed in deceptive terms:

Many polls show a strong majority of Americans are against making workers pay union dues to keep a job. That’s the wrong question. When workers in a union are asked whether anybody benefitting from a collective bargaining agreement should pay dues to support the agreement, they say yes.

As right-to-work laws spread from the South to the rest of the country, the results have been devastating. A paper by Holger, Steven Schulman and Stephan Weiler shows that right-to-work states have seen an 8.8 percent decrease in union density and that these laws account for slightly more than three-quarters of the difference in union density across states.

Another study found that from 1989 to 2002, whether a state had a right-to-work law was more important than partisan control of the state government in determining the progressiveness or regressiveness of the state’s taxes. This conclusion holds up at the global level, according to a recent International Monetary Fund study showing that lower unionization rates were associated with an increase in the share of income going to the top 10 percent of the population.

Political actors

The importance of these studies is clear: Unions are the most important institution in the fight against inequality. But for too long, many liberals seemed happy to watch unions disappear. Part of the problem is that they misunderstood unions as primarily economic institutions, interested in parochially negotiating wages and benefits for their members. In reality, unions are far more important as political actors promoting policies that benefit the working class and middle class as a whole. As legendary United Auto Workers leader Walter Reuther put it in 1970:

“There’s a direct relationship between the ballot box and the breadbox, and what the union fights for and wins at the bargaining table can be taken away in the legislative halls.”

It’s nice that the Kristofs and Summerses of the world have finally caught up with Reuther. We can only hope it is not too late.

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This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

How To Create a More Progressive America

Barring a dramatic scandal or an unforeseen event, Hillary Clinton will be the 2016 Democratic party nominee for president. While many on the left have complained about her close ties to banks and her past unwillingness to tackle inequality, such complaints are unlikely to be solved by any challenger. Progressives should instead begin creating the infrastructure to shift American politics in a more progressive direction — and do so while supporting Clinton in 2016.

To understand why progressives should push Hillary, rather than run against her, it’s important to understand some important lessons from political science. First, long periods of liberal control tend to make voters more conservative (and vice-versa). As Larry Bartels recently noted, James Stimson’s Policy Mood indicator shows that Americans are “more conservative than at any point since 1952.” (Shown in the graph below.)

 This graph demonstrates how policy mood tends to move in the opposite direction as the sitting President, becoming more liberal under Bush/Reagan and more conservative under Obama. It’s not inevitable that Americans will choose a Republican; arguments that Americans simply won’t put another Democrat in the office after two years of unified party rule are based on only a few data points.

(And it bears repeating, of course, that Al Gore won the popular vote after two Clinton terms in 2000.)

In the case of Obama, an unabashedly progressive President, Americans may well seek a slightly more moderate candidate. With Obama’s presidency domestically defined by healthcare, it’s likely voters won’t want more spending in that area; however, there could be interest in higher spending on childcare or education, two areas that Clinton has built her political career around.

In a recent Economist/YouGov Poll, about 40 percent of independents said Hillary Clinton was too liberal, and only 13 percent said “not liberal enough.”

However, Hillary benefits from having the highest net favorability among Democratic respondents, and all respondents, in fact. (Net favorability is the total favorable minus total unfavorable, the smaller bars for Webb, O’Malley and Sanders, shown below, come from their relative obscurity.)

The graphs above show two things: One, progressivism faces roadblocks in the immediate future, as the country angles for moderation after what is perceived as an emphatically liberal Obama administration; and, two, Hillary Clinton, like it or not, is in the best position of any Democratic candidate to mobilize the progressive base. This is where it becomes important to recognize that the best chance for a progressive agenda lies not in challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, but in making sure she gets the White House, and then holding her accountable once there.

In modern politics, parties have far more power than politicians. As the parties have become increasingly polarized, and their constituencies increasingly divided by class, it’s harder for middle-class or working-class voters to justify a Republican vote. The vast chasms between the two parties are so deep now that the difference between the leftmost Republican who could win the presidency and the rightmost Democrat is still large. I’ve illustrated before the massive differences in results between Republicans and Democrats in terms of promoting economic growthreducing inequality and reducing racial disparities. It’s more important to get a Democrat in office than nitpick over ideology.

Most importantly, a large portion of what Presidents do goes entirely under the radar. I’venoted before the extensive political science literature showing how Presidents affect policy by staffing bureaucratic positions, enforcing regulations and appointing judges. Many important policy choices elide journalists and many small changes, such as executive orders go unnoticed but have dramatic impacts. Further, Presidents have someinfluence over whether monetary policy focuses on boosting employment or reining in inflation. Together, these policies have dramatic impacts on growth and inequality.

All of this means that progressives should focus on ensuring a candidate that will listen to their interests wins the Presidency, rather than the perfect candidate. There’s a good case for Hillary being that candidate. Clinton has a higher favorability rating than any serious Republican contender (only Bush, Rubio and Walker have a chance of winning the nomination) and she has a dramatically high recognition rate. She’s won support across the party elites, from both the liberal and conservative wings. Given the current playing field, the only credible challenge to Hillary would likely come from someone to her right, and likely one that couldn’t win an election.

This calculus means progressives need to make sure Hillary addresses our concerns. Already, Hillary has indicated a possible move to the left, criticizing overpaid CEOs and hedge fund managers in a recent Iowa visit. But it will take sustained pressure to ensure Clinton pursues a progressive agenda once in office. For that progressives need to learn from their enemy: the Koch brothers.

In 1980, David Koch ran for President on the libertarian ticket and won a mere 1.1 percent of the vote. Chastened by his loss, he and his brother realized that the way to shift policy would be to create a libertarian infrastructure aimed at pushing Republicans to the right. Certainly, there are other factors maintaining right-wing ideology: Grover Norquist and his anti-tax pledge, Newt Gingrich and his Republican revolution, and the brutal political savvy of Mitch McConnell. However, the massive network of think-tanks, foundations, universities, fellowships that the Koch’s finance, in addition to a sophisticated polling and market research apparatus, all keep Republican politicians in line.

Progressives can’t replicate the strategy, but they can create structures that will ensure that politicians are incentivized to pursue progressive policies. That will involve focusing on three areas that will bring about a more progressive America:

1) Voter turnout

The importance of voter turnout for a progressive American cannot be understated. The chart below, created with data from Vincent Mahler shows the relationship between voter turnout and redistribution. The relationship is powerful, and as I’ve extensively documented, cross-national studies and studies within the states find that higher turnout lead to more progressive policies.

To boost turnout, progressives should invest in get-out-the-vote operations and same-day registration. In addition, stricter enforcement of motor-voter requirements could increase the number of registered voters by 18 million.

2) Labor mobilization 

For a long time, the mainstream left has taken unions for granted. Unions were seen as parochial, narrowly interested in advancing their own interests. In reality, unions provided an important check on the Democratic party, making sure it didn’t move too far to the right. Unions partially filled this role by boosting turnout. In a study with Patricia Davis, Director of the Office of Global Programs at the Department of State, Radcliff shows that their election day mobilizations push candidates and parties by increasing turnout and organizing workers, unions hold parties that benefit the working class and middle class to the left.

However, unions are currently besieged by right-to-work laws being instituted across the country, which dramatically reduce union density, and as a result, union influence. All the while, national Democrats have largely remained silent.

One of the criticisms of the idea that unions increase turnout is that the causation is actually reversed: That it isn’t a matter of union membership making people more likely to vote, but rather that people who vote are more likely to join unions in the first place. However, political economists Daniel Stegmueller and Michael Becher find that even after controlling for this effect, joining a union will increase an individual’s chance of voting by 10 percentage points. Ryan Lamare, an Assistant Professor of Labor and Employment Relations, studied the effects of unions in Los Angeles County and foundthat unions boosted turnout, particularly among Latinos.

3) State and local activist infrastructure

Finally the progressive movement needs to invest in an intellectual and advocacy infrastructure. Here, the Kochs aren’t the only people who have used this strategy; evangelicals have successfully ensured that Republicans stay steadfast on the culture war because of their extensive and well-maintained an advocacy structure. The NRA has done similar. Now, the left needs to massively mobilize at the local and state level. Here, progressives face a disadvantage: Conservatives were able to make use of Evangelical churches, gun clubs and politically active chapters like the Tea Party. Progressives have only a few similarly mobilized coalitions; but they can still be potent, as the environmental movement has recently shown.

Historian Erik Loomis recently wrote the obvious: “If progressives push [Hillary Clinton] to the left through consistent organization, she’ll swing left. If she feels more pressure from Republicans, she’ll swing right. This shouldn’t be all that hard to figure out, yet it constantly surprises us how politics actually work in this nation.” He’s correct. The problem is that movement-building is difficult. Waiting for Godot is easy.

This article originally appeared in Salon.

Five reasons why democracy hasn’t fixed inequality

One of the most longstanding hopes (on the left) and fears (on the right) about democratic politics is that voters of modest means will use their electoral weight to level the economic playing field. In a market economy, the median voter’s income will invariably be below the national average creating an apparently compelling opportunity for a politics of redistribution. This makes the sustained increase in income inequality in the United States and other developed countries a bit of a puzzle. One common suggestion, offered recently by Eduardo Porter in The New York Times, is ignorance. Voters “don’t grasp how deep inequality is.”

But while Americans understanding of economic trends is certainly imperfect, the data suggest that the broad trends are known to the population. Nathan Kelly and Peter Enns, for instance, find that when asked to compare the ratio of the highest paid occupation and the lowest, Americans at the bottom of the income distribution do believe inequality is high and rising. In 1987, Americans as reported that the highest-paid occupation took home 20 times what the lowest paid occupation did – by 2000, they thought the gap had grown to 74 times.

A recent Pew survey finds that 65% of adults agree that the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased in the past 10 years, only 8% say it has decreased. A Gallup poll from earlier this year suggests that 67% of Americans report that they are either “somewhat” or “very” dissatisfied with the income and wealth distribution in the U.S.

If ignorance doesn’t explain inaction, what does? These five factors are the most important culprits:

1) Upward mobility

(Sean McElwee, data from Engelhardt & Wagner)

(Sean McElwee, data from Engelhardt & Wagner)

According to research from Carina Engelhardt and Andreas Wagner, around the world people overestimate the level of upward mobility in their society.

They find that redistribution is lower then when actual social mobility is but also lower where perceived mobility is higher. Even if voters perceive the level of inequality correctly, their tendency to overstate the level of mobility can undermine support for redistribution. In another study Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara find that, Americans who believe that American society offers equal opportunity (a mythology) are more likely to oppose redistribution. Using data from 33 democracies, Elvire Guillaud finds that those who believe they have experienced downward mobility in the past decade are  32% more likely to support redistribution. A relatively strong literature now supports this thesis.

2) Inequality undermines solidarity

Enns and Kelly find, rather counterintuitively, that when “inequality in America rises, the public responds with increased conservative sentiment.” That is, higher inequality leads to less demand for redistribution. This is perhaps because as society becomes less equal, its members have less in common and find it less congenial to act in solidarity. Bo Rothstein and Eric Uslaner argue that, “the best policy response to growing inequality is to enact universalistic social welfare programs. However, the social strains stemming from increased inequality make it almost impossible to enact such policies.”

As inequality increases, the winner-take-all economy leads voters try to look out for their own children. The period during which overall inequality has risen has seen a massive increase in more affluent families’ spending on enrichment for their own children.

(Sean McElwee, data from Lars Osberg)

(Sean McElwee, data from Lars Osberg)

Chris Dillow points to research by Klaus Abbink, David Masclet and Daniel Mirza who find in social science experiments that disadvantaged groups are more likely to sacrifice their wealth to reduce the wealth of the advantaged group when inequality was lower than when it was higher. Kris-Stella Trump finds that rising inequality perpetuates itself, noting that, “Public ideas of what constitutes fair income inequality are influenced by actual inequality: when inequality changes, opinions regarding what is acceptable change in the same direction.”

3) Political misrepresentation

Ideological factors can’t tell the whole story. Many Americans support redistributive programs like the minimum wage and support for the idea that hard work leads to success has plummeted in the last decade. A further important reason for the lack of political response to inequality relates to the structure of American political institutions, which fail to translate the desires of less-advantaged Americans for more redistribution into actual policy change. Support for this thesis comes from many corners of the political science field, including Martin GilensDorian WarrenJacob HackerPaul Pierson, andKay Lehman Schlozman. Research by five political scientists finds that status quo bias of America’s often-gridlocked congress serves to entrench inequality.

More simply, lower-income Americans tend to vote at a lower rate. William Franko, Nathan Kelly and Christopher Witko find that states with lower turnout inequality also have lower income inequality. Elsewhere, Franko finds that states with wider turnout gaps between the rich and poor are less likely to pass minimum-wage increases, have weaker anti-predatory-lending policies and have less generous health insurance programs for children in low-income families. Kim Hill, Jan Leighley and Angela Hilton-Andersson find, “an enduring relationship between the degree of mobilization of lower-class voters and the generosity of welfare benefits.” Worryingly, Frederick Solt finds that, “citizens of states with greater income inequality are less likely to vote and that income inequality increases income bias in the electorate.” That is, as inequality increases, the poor are less likely to turn out, further exacerbating inequality.

4) Interest-group politics

The decline of labor unions has decreased the political importance of poor voters, because unions were an important “get-out-the-vote” machine. A recent study by Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler finds that the decline in union strength has reduced low-income and middle-income turnout. But labor’s influence (or lack thereof) is also important when the voting is done. Research finds that policy outcomes in the United States are heavily mediated by lobbying between interest groups, so organization matters.

Martin Gilens writes, “Given the fact that most Americans have little independent influence on policy outcomes, interest groups like unions may be the only way to forward their economic interests and preference.” His research indicates that unions regularly lobby in favor of policies broadly supported by Americans across the income spectrum, in contrast to business groups, which lobby in favor of policies only supported by the wealthy.

(Sean McElwee, data from Martin Gilens)

(Sean McElwee, data from Martin Gilens)

It’s no surprise then that numerous studies have linked the decline in union membership and influence with rising inequality.

5) Racial conflict

A recent study by Maureen A. Craig and Jennifer A. Richeson finds that when white Americans are reminded that the nation is becoming more diverse, they become more conservative. Dog-whistle phrases like “welfare queens” have long driven whites to oppose social safety net programs they disproportionately benefit from. Research from Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam indicates that racial bias among white voters is strongly correlated with hostility toward means-tested social assistance programs. Another study by Steven Beckman and Buhong Zhen finds that blacks are more likely to support redistribution even if their incomes are far above average and that poor whites are more likely to oppose redistribution.

In other words, a massive public education campaign about the extent of income inequality is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve the kind of redistributive policies liberals favor. The real obstacles to policy action on inequality are more deeply ingrained in the structure of American politics, demographics, and interest group coalitions. Insofar as there is a role for better information to play, it likely relates not to inequality but tosocial mobility which remains widely misperceived and is a potent driver of feelings about the justice of economic policy. As John Steinbeck noted, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Stronger unions, more lower income voter turnout and policies to reduce the corrupting influence of money on the political process would all work to reduce inequality. It will take political mobilization, not simply voter education to achieve change. The wonks have interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.

This piece originally appeared on Vox.

The Threat of Just-in-Time Scheduling

One of the most unnoticed labor trends in the past few decades has been the rise of “just-in-time scheduling,” the practice of scheduling workers’ shifts with little advance notice that are subject to cancelation hours before they are due to begin. Such scheduling practices mean that already low-wage workers often have fluctuating pay checks, leading them to rely on shady lenders orcredit cards to make ends meet. Such consequences especially affect women and workers of color, who disproportionately fill these jobs.

just in time
Source: Susan J. Lambert, Peter J. Fugiel, and Julia R. Henly, “Schedule Unpredictability among Young Adult Workers in the US Labor Market: A National Snapshot,” July 2014 (Click symbol to enlarge)

New research from three University of Chicago professors, Susan J. Lambert, Peter J. Fugiel, and Julia R. Henly, examines scheduling practices for young adults (26 to 32 years old). Many outlets have reported their finding that part-time workers face greater scheduling uncertainty than full-time workers: 39 percent of full-time workers report receiving hours one week or less before work, compared to 47 percent of part-time workers. But less attention has been paid to the race gap: 49 percent of blacks and 47 percent of Hispanics receive their hours with a week or less of notice, compared with 39 percent of white workers.

Non-white workers also report far less control over their hours. Lambert and her co-authors find that 47 percent of white workers have their hours set by their employer. By contrast, 55 percent of blacks and 58 percent of Latinos say their employer sets their hours. Only 10 percent of Latinos and 12 percent of blacks report being able to set their hours “freely” or “within limits,” while 18 percent of white workers do.

just in time scheduling
Source: Susan J. Lambert, Peter J. Fugiel, and Julia R. Henly, “Schedule Unpredictability among Young Adult Workers in the US Labor Market: A National Snapshot”, July 2014 (Click symbol to enlarge)

Hours vary widely from week to week for many of the young adults Lambert and her colleagues studied. They find that “among the 74 percent of hourly workers who report at least some fluctuation in weekly work hours … their weekly work hours varied from their usual hours by, on average, almost 50 percent during the course of the prior month.” Such large fluctuations in hours also indicate large fluctuations in wages, which make life difficult for an increasingly debt-burdened overall population.

In a previous study Lambert and Julia Henly also found that unpredictable schedules increase stress and often disrupt a worker’s family life. Using data from 21 stores across the U.S. they found that workers with unpredictable schedules reported more stress and conflict between work and family life. “Precarious scheduling practices are not isolated within a few organizations but rather reflect growing national and international trends,” they concluded. As the world becomes increasingly globalized and labor commodified, employees will be treated more like “factors of production” and less like people. Rather than a few egregious corporations, such practices are increasingly the norm in low-wage and middle-wage industries.

Rising toll

Just-in-time scheduling is an increasingly prevalent practice in two of the fastest-growing and deeply unequal sectors of the economy: retail and service. Both sectors disproportionally employ women and people of color. It’s not a stretch to connect just-in-time scheduling to a broader war on women and workers which has been waged by the modern conservative movement.

Because most worker protections were passed before the influx of women into the workforce and were designed to exclude people of color, these groups are perfect targets for the anti-worker agenda. Because women and people of color are highly concentrated in low-wage service sector jobs (home health care, retailfast food) that only recently started unionizing, they are even more vulnerable. Congressional Republicans have opposed pay parity for women, early childhood education and paid parental leave. Recent decisions by the conservative Supreme Court havedecimated unions in the highly minority- and female-led home health care sector as well as prevented women from getting necessary health care through their employers.

Low wages and erratic work schedules take an obvious toll on working families and workers of color. But they also affect the general economy. Research suggests that lagging demand may be holding back the economy because low-wage workers can barely afford necessities. Few can follow President George W. Bush’s famous advice “go shopping more” or “go to Disney world” and thereby stimulate the economy.

Scheduling abuse compounds this problem by making work and wages subject to erratic swings. Sociologist Nancy Cauthen writes that, “Many low-wage workers are expected to work the day shift one day and the night shift the next and/or to be available seven days a week.” Although the right likes to portray trickle-down economics as good for long-term growth, the literature suggests the opposite. By depriving workers of stable incomes, conservative policies actually stifle economic growth.

What’s more, if the goal of such employers is to increase profits, there’s good reason to curb these scheduling practices: Studies show that giving workers more control over their hours and their time actually increases productivity, while JIT scheduling increases turnover and decreases work satisfaction and loyalty. Managers, who are forced to juggle more workers, also work more hours.

The union movement — once a bulwark against the encroachment of employers — is still nascent in service and retail whereas it has deep roots in male-dominated sectors of the economy, such as manufacturing. The recent Supreme Court decision in Harris v. Quinn, which struck down the requirement for home healthcare workers to pay “agency fees,” will only hold back unionization even further.

Federal protections for workers haven’t been expanded since President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and therefore haven’t adjusted to the rise of women in the workforce. These protections also effectively excluded people of color; for instance, farm labor (made up of Hispanics) is still exempt from many labor protections. Thus, the U.S. is one of the only countries that fails to mandate paid maternity leave. The result is that all but 5 percent of pregnant women in retail are denied paid maternity leave — which forces on them a devastating choice between their job and their own health and that of their child. Women who do have paid leave get it through employers, so such policies are concentrated at the top of the income distribution.

The result is that many employees must adjust their family time to meet the demands of customers and employees. While many conservatives, such as Ross Douthat and Ramesh Ponnuru, talk about the importance of family and the working class, few support commonsense worker protections and none supports unionization.

Flexible or stable

The U.S. needs legislation to ensure guaranteed minimum weekly hours that will help regularize workers’ pay. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) have introduced the Schedules That Work Act which would give workers the right to request a “flexible, predictable or stable” work schedule without retaliation. The bill stipulates that employers must detail upon employment the number of hours an employee can expect to work each week, and be given two-week notice before any scheduling change. The bill also requires that those who arrive at work only to find out there are no shifts available would be paid for four hours of work. Low-wage workers often travel long distances or pay for fuel only to arrive at work and be told they aren’t needed that day. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) have sponsored a Senate version.

Although Republican intransigence will make federal action difficult, there are other options. Some states havetaken the initiative and passed “reporting time pay laws,” which require payment for workers that report to work, even if they aren’t needed. A stronger union movement, especially in the retail and service sectors, can also provide a counterbalance to the power of corporations and stem rising inequality. Service-sector workers receive a $2.00 an hour wage bump when they unionize, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and are more likely to have health insurance and a pension plan.

Corporations should take note of the lower turnover and higher productivity that structured scheduling provides, just as social conservatives should look to the benefits for working families. Workers are taking to the streets, fed up with low pay and bad hours. The economy is hobbled by lack of demand. The push to laissez-faire, orchestrated by ideologues in D.C. is finally under siege by an inchoate mass of workers. As Karl Polanyi notes, the “laissez-faire economy was the product of deliberate state action,” but “subsequent restrictions on laissez-faire started in a spontaneous way. Laissez-faire was planned; planning was not.” Without these reforms, employers will continue to exploit low-wage workers, to the detriment of all.

Amy Traub, a Senior Policy Analyst at Demos, contributed to this article.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Let’s pass the DISCLOSE Act

Yesterday, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse, Charles E. Schumer, Michael Bennet, Richard Blumenthal and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts re-introduced the DISCLOSE Act, a comprehensive disclosure legislation that came within one vote of overcoming a party line filibuster and adopting comprehensive disclosure legislation. This time, Congress should pass the DISCLOSE Act and require disclosure of contributions to organizations engaged in political spending.

When the Supreme Court struck down corporate and union spending limits in Citizen’s United, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court that, “disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.” Later, when court struck down aggregate limits in McCutcheon v. FEC, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that, “With modern technology, disclosure now offers a particularly effective means of arming the voting public with information.” On at least two occasions then, the Court has chosen to remove limits on political spending on the implicit premise that this spending would be disclosed.

Sadly, Citizen’s United did not lead to more disclosure but instead to a wave of dark money. A recent study by the Center for Responsive Politics finds that “the percentage of spending coming from groups that do not disclose their donors has risen from 1 percent to 47 percent since the 2006 midterm elections.” The rise of dark money has been lopsided because unions are held to a far different standard than corporations are when it comes to political spending.

First, unions must publicly disclose all of their spending and also itemize payments over $5,000 with the date, name and address of the recipient, and purpose of the payment. Union members, the general public and journalists have easy access to union political spending with an online, searchable database. Union members can therefore decide whether the union leadership is spending money in line with their preferences and vote out the leadership if they are not. Further, some union members who dislike the way the union is disbursing funds can receive a refund of a portion of their dues. In some instances, public sector unions must seek the consent of members before they can make political contributions.

In addition, unions are far smaller than corporations and rarely use 501(c)4s to influence political campaigns. As Robert Maguire of the Center for Responsive Politics tells us, “even if unions funneled every dime  liberal 501(c)4s spent over the four years from Citizen’s United to present, that spending would still be nearly four times less than what their conservative counterparts spent in 2012 alone.” He notes that, American Encore, a Koch-backed conservative foundation, spent more money on the 2012 election than all of the union spending and liberal 501(c)4 spending from 2010 to 2014 combined.

When unions give to 501(c)4s, they must disclose their donation, when a corporation does, no such disclosure is required. Therefore, corporations now funnel hundreds of millions through “social welfare groups,” which have exploded in the past few years.

Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets.org

Shareholders or employees who disagree with the way a corporation is spending money have no right to redress. While a growing number of corporations (about 100) have chosen to voluntarily disclose their donations, they frequently do so after elections cycles and often choose not to disclose more potentially controversial donations. Even Aetna, which has received praise for its disclosure policies, gave $7 million to two 501(c)(4) groups in 2012 but didn’t disclose their contributions even though they had an agreement with their shareholders. This isn’t the case everywhere: in Britain corporations must receive shareholder consent for their political budgets.

Corporate spending and union spending aren’t just different in terms of how they are regulated, they also represent the interests of different groups. Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens has used extensive polling data to compare the preferences of Americans across the income spectrum with organizations that influence the political process. He notes in his book Affluence and Influence, “based on unions’ strong tendency to share the preferences of the less well-off and the large number of policy areas they are engaged in . . ., unions would appear to be among the most promising interest group bases for strengthening the policy influence of America’s poor and middle class.” Corporate donors and business lobby groups, on the other hand, tend to pursue policies that are not in line with the preferences of most Americans. This bolsters the case for making disclosure for all groups mandatory.

Author’s Calculations based on Affluence and Influence, Table 5.7

In fact, polls show that 9 in 10 Americans believe there is too much corporate money in politics and majorities across the political spectrum support more disclosure. A bipartisan group of law professors have petitioned the SEC to “develop rules to require public companies to disclose to shareholders the use of corporate resources for political activities.” A petition urging the SEC to require corporate disclosure has more than 500,000 citizen signatures as well as the support of more than 70 members of congress and Vanguard Founder and CEO John Bogle.

However, the SEC has removed developing such rules from its agenda. Disclosure is a simple proposal that has been endorsed by the Supreme Court, the American people, law professors and politicians from both sides of the aisle. Recent evidence suggests that disclosure would increase policymaker’s responsiveness to their consituents. In the absence of SEC action, the DISCLOSE Act is the best way forward. While it’s only the first step in taking back our democracy, it should be an easy one.

Originally appeared on Policyshop.

Comparing the Policy Preferences of Unions and Corporations

The recent Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page paper finding that ordinary citizens have, “little or no independent influence on policy at all.” While the paper was covered extensively in the popular press, few bothered to even read the paper which notes, “ the preferences of average citizens are positively and fairly highly correlated, across issues, with the preferences of economic elites.” Gilens’s data look at only those in the top 10% making about $146,000 a year. It’s likely that the superwealthy in the donor class have far different interests, which is suggested by other research by Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright. It is in the top 1% and above where there is a motive for rent-seeking andevidence of it.

The more important finding from the Gilens/Page paper is the influence of interest groups. The authors note that: “Interest group alignments are almost totally unrelated to the preferences of average citizens.” The chart below shows the correlation of different groups with those of the middle class and the group’s influence over policy. We can see that economic elites have more influence on policymaking, but also a stronger correlation with the middle class. Far more disturbing are business interests, which have large amounts of influence, but whose policy preferences differ markedly from the middle class (although there are still caveats).

It’s important to note that the “mass based interest groups” include groups like the National Rifle Association and American Israel Public Affairs Committee which do not share the interests of average citizens. At the same time, one corporate lobbying organization, the American Hospital Association, is actually slightly correlated with the interests of average Americans. To parse out which groups are aligned with the preferences of Americans and which are positively malign, I used data from Gilens’s book Affluence and Influence. I stuck to groups which had at least one statistically significant correlation (either positive or negative) with one group of voters (10th percentile, 50th percentile and 90th percentile). This comparison yields some interesting results. First, we can see that most unions actually take positions that strongly correlate with the preferences of all Americans, although the correlation is stronger for the lower and middle class.

Second, we can see that corporate lobbying groups do not, with one exception.

Corporations also push policies that do not share the support most Americans.

Other lobbying groups differ. The wealthy tend to be more socially liberal than the poor and middle class, which explains the divergence of religious organizations. The NRA enjoys little overlap with the public, while AARP is generally a force working in favor of the preferences of most Americans.

To illustrate these differences, I’ve put the organizations on a scatter plot, divided into four quadrants. The y-axis shows where an organization aligns with the the top 90th percentile. The x-axis shows an organization’s correlation with the bottom 10th percentile. An organization in the upper right quadrant shares the preferences of the wealthy and the poor. An organization in the lower left does is working against the interests of Americans. Here we see that unions are all in the top right quadrant. No corporations are in the right half of the chart, indicating that none share the preferences of the poor.

Finally, I show how well the various groups correlate with the middle class on another chart below. We see the same result.

 

This makes a preliminary case for focusing on corporate lobbying in order to make policymaking match the preferences of Americans. There are some caveats. It’s difficult to tell how well preferences match interests. Gilens notes in an essay for Boston Review thatJohnson’s Great Society was actually a low in terms of voter preference:

the majority of Americans were opposed to many of the other domestic programs of the Johnson years. The Great Society and the War on Poverty were not responses to an upwelling of public concern for the disadvantaged or a desire to expand the role of government in addressing social needs…

In contrast, the Iraq War represents a high:

At least at first, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and Bush anti-terrorism policies had widespread public backing. The administration also enjoyed support from Americans at all income levels for the Medicare drug benefit, No Child Left Behind (a long-standing Democratic agenda item on which Bush partnered with Senator Ted Kennedy), and the faith-based social services initiative. New federal regulations on funding stem cell research matched public sentiments. The income tax cuts and estate tax repeal adopted in 2001 and 2003 were supported by majorities of Americans at all income levels even though they clearly provided the greatest benefits to those at the top.

Further, Gilens’s data are dated—the most recent are from 2002, before Citizens United,but after along with the rise of inequality. I’ve suggested that this means we should focus on corporate interests, but there is still a strong possibility that the 1% have very different interests than the middle class and 90th percentile (data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study indicate that the 1% has interests more similar to the 90th percentile than average voters). Adam Bonica argues that the wealthy and corporations tend to donate in a bipartisan or moderate fashion. This does not suggest they share the interests of Americans, but rather that they are attempting to buy influence. Corporations aim to change policy – the best way to do that is to sprinkle donations across party lines. Far more important are their aims, which the data suggest may not be broadly in line with those of average Americans.

We should aim to reduce the influence of money as much as possible. However the data suggest Nietzsche may have been onto something when he said, “In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” While most Americans have broadly similar preferences, most corporate interest groups are fighting for an agenda that benefits only them.

Originally posted on Policyshop

Life, liberty and the pursuit of property

It is a general rule, if not a law, of the modern business cycle that the working class is the last to gain from the boom and the first to lose from the bust. A recent report by Demos, a progressive think tank, finds that most of the job gains are not only in low-wage industries but in highly unequal ones. The report found that in 2012 fast-food CEOs were earning more than 1,200 times what the average fast-food worker made, and that over the next eight years, some 421,900 jobs will be created in the highly unequal food preparation and serving industry, which includes the fast-food industry.  

Bosses in these industries often victimize employees, stealing their wages, firing them without cause and subjecting them to brutal and unpredictable schedules. Workers are often misclassified and thereby denied legal benefits, and they make too little to pay their bills and therefore rely on credit card debt and payday lenders. Turnover rates are high, and workers are frequently subject to the vicissitudes of an unforgiving labor market.

Worker militancy, long ago banished by anti-unionization efforts and terror over the possibility of unemployment, has already shown nascent signs of return. The fast-food strikes in 150 U.S. cities and 30 other countries on Thursday, following those across more than 100 cities last December, highlight the increasing plight of workers and their desire for change. And companies are taking notice. In its most recent SEC filing, McDonald’s worried about risks including “campaigns by labor organizations and activists” and “reputational harm as a result of perceptions about our workplace practices.” In his recent book “Capital in the 21st Century,” French economist Thomas Piketty shows that these high levels of inequality are unlikely to abate in the near future.

American worries about inequality between capital and labor have a long and proud history. The founders, fearful of centralized economic power, believed that property should be owned widely. John Adams said, “The only possible way then of preserving the balance of power on the side of equal liberty … is to make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society.” In a remark that would surely have him branded as a Marxist today, Lincoln proclaimed in 1861, “Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” The key to solving this problem structurally is not merely redistribution through taxation and social programs. Although these ameliorate the worst degradations of our current society, they treat the symptoms of inequality rather than curing the cause. The key to reducing inequality is predistribution — the distribution of income and wealth prior to government redistributive efforts — through higher wages and employee capital ownership.

Profit-sharing

A higher minimum wage is part of the solution. Catherine Ruetschlin, a policy analyst at Demos, argues that a higher minimum wage would actually “boost the national economy” by giving workers more money to spend on goods and services. Critics allege that a higher minimum wage would kill jobs. However, the most comprehensive meta-study of the minimum wage examined 64 studies and found “little or no evidence” that a higher minimum wage reduces employment. The preponderance of evidence suggests that a higher minimum wage lifts people out of poverty. It alsoshifts income toward the bottom of the income distribution.

The second part of the solution is to increase stock ownership. Many companies spend billions each year on share buybacks, which help only those who own stocks. Walmart, for instance, spent $7.6 billion on share buybacks in 2012. The benefits of such actions should be spread more widely. In fact, employee capital ownership has a long history in the United States. In 1792, when the U.S. government first subsidized the cod industry, it mandated that three-eighths of the subsidy go to the crew. Any company that refused to sign an agreement promising its workers a share in the profits would not receive government aid. Today, about 47 percent of American workers participate in a profit-sharing agreement. Sadly, however, arrangements are far less common among workers at the lowest end of the spectrum.

Profit sharing and other forms of employee ownership benefit employees. A study of 40,000 employees at 14 firmsfound that workers in profit sharing arrangements have higher pay and benefits, greater job security and higher job satisfaction. Profit sharing also helps employers by boosting productivity. A meta-study by Chris Doucouliagos examined 43 published studies and found that profit sharing, worker ownership and worker participation in decision making are correlated with higher productivity. A U.K. study that found employee ownership increased productivity by 2.5 percent confirms this finding.

There are numerous ways to incentivize an ownership society. More progressive capital gains taxation would discourage accumulation at the top. Firms with broad ownership could be favored in federal contracts or economic development projects. Currently, corporations can include “incentive pay” (read: bonuses) as a cost of business (and therefore subject to a lower tax rate). This break should be allowed only to firms that establish incentive pay for all their employees. Ownership policies can be bipartisan. Two of the most vigorous defenders of employee profit sharing are conservative Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and the socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders. Turning workers into capitalists through ownership has been proposed by the more liberal Robert Solow and also the conservative James Pethokoukis.

Another promising idea is “baby bonds.” A “baby bond” grants citizens a small capital stake that becomes available to them when they reach adulthood, which can be used to pay for education or finance a mortgage. Hillary Clinton floated such a scheme — $5,000 for each child — during her 2008 presidential campaign. In Britain, the Child Trust Fund established by the Labor Party in 2005 granted every child born after Sept. 1, 2002, 250 pounds. In the name of “fiscal austerity,” Prime Minister David Cameron eliminated the program and replaced it with tax-exempt junior individual savings accounts, which only exacerbate inequality, because poor and middle-class families often cannot afford to fund such accounts.

Complementary goals

A higher minimum wage and broader ownership of assets are complementary goals. The first strikes at income inequality — it raises wages for workers enough to live, which should be the standard. It should be axiomatic that an able-bodied worker produces enough to provide for his or her basic needs. The second tackles the issue of wealth inequality; wealth provides a buffer for workers in hard times, a nest egg for retirement and money to fund education. Our economy has been working very well for some people but leaving the vast majority of Americans with little or no wealth. More and more Americans own no stock, have little saved away for retirement and rent, rather than own, their home. They increasingly have negative wealth in the form of credit card, student and home debt. New research finds that rather than being the result of lavish spending, these debts are an economic inevitability in an increasingly unequal society. Unlike large corporations and wealthy bankers, they are unlikely to be bailed out.

The current system is unsustainable. Inequality is straining our democracy and our shared sense that we’re all in this together. The goal should be to harmonize the interests of capital and labor by granting some control of the former to the latter. James Madison wanted America to be a country with “universal hope of acquiring property.” Today, most Americans can only hope to acquire debt.

Originally published on Al Jazeera.

The Tea Party’s perverse leftist fantasy

The left has spilled pages of ink and innumerable pixels wondering why the middle class votes against its interests, debating the effect of the Democratic Leadership Council, and which candidate would be the best presidential contender in 2016 (one of us is guilty ofsuch indulgences). Lefties have harangued Barack Obama, even suggesting that Richard Nixon was more liberal. By doing this, the left has has succumbed to right-wing ideas about social change – that it comes from great men, rather than collective action.

Throughout history, we can find examples of this mythos. FDR, the liberal hero, was not a Nietzschean overman, he was confined by his circumstances. Economics professor Richard Wolff argues that he could only raise marginal tax rates to 90 percent, create a vast array of make-work programs and push through a universal pension because capitalists were so terrified of a mobilized left.

Similar outside pressures also account for the widespread myth that Nixon was a leftist. As Erik Loomis noted discussing Nixon’s environmental record, “Richard Nixon was however a very shrewd politician operating in the time of the postwar liberal consensus.” That is, no matter how conservative Nixon was, he simply could not veto the bills before him without either being overridden or digging deep into his limited cache of political capital. In the same way, no matter how much Obama may want to pass universal health care or gun regulations, he cannot. The central lie of the DLC was not neoliberalism, but the idea that the presidency mattered. By shifting the focus to an almost sacrosanct view of the presidency, the left has forgotten about movement building to fawn on “progressive heroes.”

Consider the press around Bill de Blasio, the newly elected progressive mayor of New York City. For the most part, it has succumbed to the “great man” narrative, and many New Yorkers wait with baited breath for him to single-handedly obviate income inequality. But de Blasio’s success was not his alone, and his governance will not be either. As Harold Meyerson documents, it was the Working Families Party, which spent decades building a progressive infrastructure in and around the city that de Blasio needed to win and it is WFP defense attorneys, city council members and public advocates that will make his time as Mayor successful.

 

If a Democratic president sits in the Oval Office it may well be due to the tireless efforts of organizations like National Employment Law Project, Demos, Project Vote, Common Cause and others that register voters, build coalitions and sue states just to get them to comply with laws on the books.

The best palliative for this great-man obsession is “The Lego Movie.” In the movie, the “Master Builders,” await a prophesied “special” to destroy Lord Business. When they finally meet the special, Emmet, they find him entirely banal. Eventually, they realize there is no savior, and that they must use their own talents and abilities, contribute what they can to create an emancipatory movement. Such is the debacle of the left. Our hero, long prophesied, has come, and though he is extraordinarily capable, there is simply no way that he can single-handedly end all wars, pass immigration reform, save Social Security, stop the rising oceans and slash rising inequality.

In “The Lego Movie,” the opposition was not only wrong about who would bring change — they were wrong about how change would come about. The Master Builders thought they were going to use their existing institutions and infrastructure. Although they did not use manuals, they still loathed to deviate from the prepared plan. It is Emmet’s insight that the plan is fatally flawed – there is no need for a vanguard party, but rather a mass collective action. His insight is scorned by the council who expected to simply storm Lord Businesses’s offices again, even after Metalbeard’s failed assault. For us as for them, the existing institutions and infrastructures are only part of the equation. Sheldon Adelson votes, like you and me, but he also spent more than the residents of 12 states combined on the 2012 election cycle. In their recent study, Larry Bartels find that the wealthy are not only more engaged in terms of voting, they are also more likely to vote, donate money to campaigns, attend rallies and meet with or call candidates. The left cannot continue storming the Presidency and expecting change.

The right learned the lesson of 1930s and began a mobilization of their own, one which has become so powerful it is almost unseating them from power. The Tea Party is, in nearly every way, a leftist movement. It is based on a perversely egalitarian sentiment, a “makers and takers” narrative, and leftist mobilization. Many may be surprised to learn that the Republican primary candidate who raised the largest percentage of his money from large donors was the most moderate: Jon Huntsman. Like the communists and socialists of the post-depression years, the Tea Party has obliterated the paradigm, pushing change from outside the political system.

“The Lego Movie” is in stark contrast to other “leftist” movies, like “Elysium,” that rely on “great men” to save humanity. “The Lego Movie” is not meant to be communist propaganda, but rather aims to obliterate the “hero narrative” that Joseph Campbell identified in “Hero With a Thousand Faces.” In “The Lego Movie,” Emmet is not “the special.” In fact, the the prophecy predicting such a figure was made up by Emmet’s mentor Vitruvius. But Emmet’s adventure over the course of the film still mirrors the Hero’s Journey narrative laid out by Campbell. However, somewhat contrary to Campbell’s outline, Emmet’s journey doesn’t change him. Instead, his journey changes those around him: his allies the Master Builders and the people of Bricksburg.

Christopher Vogler’s book “The Writers Journey” adapts Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to the craft of writing. In it, he discusses the various kinds of heroes seen in storytelling. Emmet fits into the category of “Catalyst Hero”: “A certain class of Hero is an exception to the rule that the Hero is usually the character who undergoes the most change. These are catalyst Heroes, central figures who may act heroically, but who do not change much themselves because their main function is to bring about transformation in others.” Emmet’s journey teaches the Master Builders and the greater Bricksburg population that everyone is special and should use their personal talents to work together.

In this story, the hero is not unwilling, but impotent; he is not called, but rather stumbles upon his fate; and he does not grow, but rather those around him do. This is a far more realistic description of the reality of Obama’s presidency the salvific narrative that surrounded his election in 2008. His failures remind us that it is not “Great men” who act as a force for social change, but rather great movements. Norberto Bobbio recognized that the central feature of the left was the belief in human equality. As Rousseau said, “the destruction of equality was attended by the most terrible disorders.” In  a brilliant bit, British comedian Robert Newman diagnoses the problem on the left,

When I first started getting involved with Radical-Direct-action-Non-hierarchical-Eco-autonomous-grassroots organisations, I didn’t understand the concept of no leaders. I thought I did; but I didn’t. And I’d go upto the nearest alpha male or alpha female and say, “Here’s what you should do – Why don’t you do this – It’d be great if you all did this – And when are you going to do this?” And they’d give you this look, that I never understood…

What this look meant was, “Yes, good Idea, why don’t you do it yourself? You print the leaflets, I’ll distribute them; you call a meeting, I’ll attend; you organize an action, we’ll come along”.

And from that moment, I realized that, my whole philosophical outlook changed. And from then on, instead of suggesting things other people could do, I stopped suggesting things altogether, in case they expected me to do them…

Such a problem won’t be found in “The Lego Movie,” where characters are exhorted to “start building” with whatever they have on hand. The left needs more middle class donors, giving not just to political campaigns, but unions and think-tanks. The left needs more writers, artists, policy analysts, historians and scientists. The truth, the one that no pundit will ever write publicly, is that it doesn’t matter whether the Democratic nominee is Warren or Clinton, what matters is whether there is a mobilized worker’s movement, student demonstrations and new and refreshed leftist thinking. McGovern didn’t end Vietnam; hippies did. We, the people, did.

Originally published on Salon. 

ALEC-Laffer Ranks Are About Ideology, Not Economic Policy

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) released its 2013 Rich State, Poor State rankings report in May. The report ranks states by “economic outlook,” but by the report’s standards a positive economic outlook  is narrowly defined by the extremity of regional anti-worker laws and regulations. ALEC’s metrics are more concerned with ideology than economic growth, prioritizing twisted value judgments over facts.

ALEC’s selective reasoning is blatantly obvious in its ranking of Mississippi as the state with tenth strongest economic outlook, largely because of low taxes, low minimum wage, and weak unions. ALEC’s rosy outlook on Mississippi is in stark contrast with this description of Mississippi from The Economist:

Mississippi spends less per student on education than all but four other states. It has a law that directs extra funds to schools in poor counties, but has not complied with it, [David Jordan, a state senator from Greenwood] complains, shortchanging the neediest spots by a billion dollars over the past four years. In all the states of the region and at the federal level, [Christopher Masingill, joint head of the development agency Delta Regional Authority] concedes, budgets for education and development have been getting skimpier.

The Mississippi Delta is in a particularly bad position, The Economist further reports: “The entire county has ten private businesses (other than farms), employing just 99 people. Like the region as a whole, it suffers from low rates of education and high rates of obesity and diabetes.”

ALEC’s ranking bears little resemblance to reality.  A recent report by Peter Fisher finds that ALEC, “fails to predict job creation, GDP growth, state and local revenue growth, or rising personal incomes.”

Another example of the report’s failure is the fact that this year’s BEA numbers show the economies of Washington, Oregon, California and Utah growing at about the same rate.  Why  does ALEC rank Utah as number one, while Washington is 36, Oregon is 44, and California is 47? The only reason for these rankings is a  bias against progressive economic policy. Utah is bolstered by its anti-unionism, low workers compensation payments, low minimum wage, and regressive tax system. The other states, although growing just as quickly, are held back in the ALEC report by their liberal policies.

The purpose of these rankings is to push the ugly legislative agenda of ALEC, which gives a state like Wisconsin, with disturbingly low growth rates but shown a penchant of anti-unionism, a gold star while more union-friendly states get hit with low marks. ALEC assumes that taxes drive wealthy people out of state, decreasing tax revenues. That’s false. Lower taxes will bring in more revenues? That’s false. Estate taxes reduce growth? That’s false.

The worst thing about the rankings isn’t the blatant partisanship masquerading as rigorous analysis.  State governments take these rankings seriously, and change policy accordingly. When Peter Fisher analyzed how states that followed ALEC’s prescriptions performed, he found the states were more likely to see a decline in median family income and an increase in poverty. The purpose of ALEC’s rankings is not to promote growth, but to give conservative legislators’ intellectual credibility. Look, they have white papers too!

ALEC’s lobbying goes practically unopposed in some states because the American labor movement is a shell of its former self. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data for 2008 (the most recent year for which all countries are available) shows that the unionization rate for America is far below average. This means that in America we have two parties beholden to corporate interests and no counterbalance. Is it any wonder that Larry Bartels found in 2005 that politicians respond almost exclusively to the preferences of wealthy voters and ignore the needs of poor voters?  There should be no surprise that lower unionization rates correlate with higher levels of inequality.  But if the union movement in America remains suppressed by powerful corporations, it’s hard to imagine anything other than ALEC-style legislation winning the day.

Originally Published on Alternet.org

Contact Sean at: seanadrianmc@gmail.com