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Back at the end of February, 2014, I did a posting, via comments here at Daily Cos, on how the pursuit of a minimum wage bill was playing out in Annapolis, Maryland.  

It deserved a sequel, which turned into much else, including my own story.  Here it is, in three parts.  

Dated June 2, 2014 and being posted on June 5, 2014.

June 2, 2014

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Economic “Justice” in Annapolis, Part II

Dear Citizens and Elected Officials:
This essay was never going to be the usual  post legislative session follow-up “report”  to Part I, which appeared at the end of February, and which was entitled Making Millard Tydings Proud, Economic ‘Justice’ in Annapolis.  Even when I was an advocate for NJ Audubon’s legislative goals in New Jersey in the 1990’s, I had an inclination to avoid euphoria over what we had managed to achieve. That avoidance wasn’t difficult: it was usually grounded in fact, because most of the time what we really wanted, and what was desperately needed in New Jersey - a state land-use plan with regulatory teeth - was not politically attainable,  due to the power of the real estate industry and the Right’s success in achieving an anti-statist and anti-regulatory  iron curtain.  
However, something happened along the way to Part II: a quickening of the national political pulse – on the left, at least - an outpouring of speeches, essays, studies and one powerful book (among other good ones)  that seems to have swept the serious reading public off its feet.  These I will name shortly, to set the broader context in which I will examine “economic justice” in Annapolis, and thereby temper my praise for its “famous men.” First though, let’s focus in some detail on what happened there between the end of February and the last day of the legislative session, Monday, April 7th, 2014.

Part One: The Annapolis ‘Balancing” Act: Gestures Towards the Working Poor; Estate Tax Relief for the Job Creators

On that last day of the session Maryland’s new minimum wage bill passed the House of Delegates by a vote of 87-47, bringing the state’s new minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, but not until July 1, of 2018.  (Maryland thus becoming only the second state to achieve the federal goal of $10.10)  This was the second vote by the House, necessitated by the fact that the Senate had made changes from the original version which the House passed way back on March 7 by an 89-46 margin. (HB 0295; SB 0331).  The Senate did not pass their version until Saturday, April 5th, by a vote of 34-13.  Of equal significance to me, as a reporter on the political economy, is the fact that on the same day the House first passed its minimum wage bill it also approved The Maryland Estate Tax - Unified Credit Bill – and pay attention to the comparative margin – by a whopping 119-14 tally. (HB 0739; SB 0602).  The Senate voted for this bill on March 20th, the Vernal Equinox, 36-10.

The  ten who voted against this bill in the Senate were: Jamie Raskin (D-21); Paul Pinsky (D-22); Karen Montgomery (D-14); James Rosappe (D-21); Victor Ramirez (D-47); Delores Kelley (D-10); Vera Jones-Rodwell (D-44); Edward Kasemayer (D-12); Roger Manno (D-16) and Richard Madaleno (D-18).

To help keep these voting numbers in proper political perspective, the Democratic Party in Maryland has a 98-43 majority in the House of Delegates, more than two-to-one, and in the state Senate it is almost three-to-one, 35-12.  Since Maryland Democrats and their presidentially hopeful Governor, Martin O’Malley,  like to portray themselves as “progressive,” these majorities indicate that they are a fair test of what the party stands for in the sense they have the numbers to pass what they want: they cannot plead “gridlock” as the Democrats can do in Washington, DC (where even there they could do better - by overthrowing the Senate filibuster rules.)  

There is more detail to add from this Annapolis session, however, plenty more.  Before the House passed its first version of the minimum wage bill, Delegate Heather Mizeur (D-20), a gubernatorial hopeful in the June 24th Democratic primary this year, offered an amendment which would have created a 2% annual adjustment upwards for inflation – a reasonable and important linkage, since the federal lack of one was a major factor, aside from the missing productivity gain adjustments, that allowed the federal minimum to fall so far behind its 1968 gold standard of purchasing power.  Mizeur’s amendment was buried, 8-124.  She did, however, for her courage, gain a $5.00 campaign contribution from me, and I don’t have many to give out, since I am a poor man in a rich man’s county.

This failed inflation adjustment for wages is not trivia, it has real practical and symbolic importance, since the adjustments made in Maryland’s estate tax bill will bring it into alignment with the federal tax law, which is linked to inflation, and will raise the current wealth exemption to $5.34 million dollars by 2019 - and those inflation adjustments kicking in in 2019 are projected to raise it to $5.9 million (according to a Forbes Magazine article from 3/20/2014).   Readers should, at this point, remind themselves by repeating with me: American is not a class based society, we just reward merit.  Wage earners have not accumulated enough merit to have their miserly earnings under the minimum wage law, even a rising one, linked to inflation; those who have accumulated enough wealth already to worry about estate tax thresholds have, and if we are not nice to them they will flee our state.  Or so goes the conventional wisdom.  And, according to some recent studies, Maryland now has the highest density of millionaires per 1,000 of population of any state in the nation.  

Maryland did not change the estate tax rate it will charge on the amounts that are not shielded, it remains at 16%.  Maryland also remains one of the 19 states with estate taxes in addition to the federal one, and one of only two, New Jersey being the other, which also have an inheritance tax (the rate is 10%), though its version is so riddled with loopholes that it would make Thomas Piketty weep, and keep estate and tax trust planners busy – and compensated.   While Maryland brings its estate tax into exemption alignment with the current federal law, keep in mind that Congress has been lowering the federal top rate over the decades from its 77% peak in 1941 to the current rate of 40%, even as the amount exempted has also risen to that $5.34 million figure – and is linked to inflation.

There was one other bill that I was tracking closely, and which turned out to be a very easy job since early in the session it was declared that it would never even get a hearing this year: the “Earned Sick and Safe Leave Act,” HB 0968 and SB 0753.  It would have mandated a week’s sick leave for employees of businesses over a certain size, as well as for other good personal reasons. Since I myself work for a Fortune 50 company here in the state that does not provide for  sick leave until so many hours are accumulated ( I work 20-30 hours per week and have zero sick time after 22 months) I thought this was a pretty important matter.  But a Democratic committee chairman was quoted in several press accounts saying progressives would only get their choice of one bill this year: pick and choose, either the minimum wage bill or Sick Leave…not both.  Well, perhaps another year, and let’s hope that the germs the service and retail sector workers will be spreading won’t be as serious as the new MERS virus (which ironically, or maybe not, is the same abbreviation as that given to the banking industry’s Mortgage Electronic Registry System that they set up without Congressional approval prior to the great real estate bubble bursting).  Is that the Progressive Democratic Party talking here, or a parent policing the cookie jar policy?  In a state which houses a good portion of the federal medical research establishment, including the relevant NIH, and a branch of the CDC, one might hope they would have been invited in, or butted in, to say something about this medieval and cruel labor policy with substantial health implications.  But I heard nothing about them.  Not their field, I guess.

Before I go into greater detail about the minimum wage bill that did pass, with difficulty and weakening amendments, and place this session’s work on the “political economy” into a deeper national perspective, I think it is fair that my readers know my personal bias in these matters.  In some ways, this is a sociological “coming out” of sorts: I come from lower middle class roots, not the working class (complex  itself in its structure) or the professional upper middle class, although all my life I have looked up, not down for inspiration and role models.  Yet by the work I have chosen to do, first in social services as a social worker and supervisor in the public welfare system, in a poor urban setting in Trenton, NJ, and then as an environmental lobbyist squaring off with – on nearly every issue I ever worked on– powerful business interests – my life has thrust me into matters of political economy and an acute awareness of both those below and above me in social and economic standing.  Now, in my sixties, I am objectively a member of the working poor, and downwardly mobile; which, I think it is fair to say, gives a certain “edge” to my observations and positions.  I have to work to make Montgomery County’s expensive ends meet; my forced early Social Security retirement check and modest NJ pension benefits (under $500 per month) leave me no choice.  
I work part-time for a Fortune 50 (not 500) Corporation and will be completing two full years with them very shortly.  I started at $8.50 per hour, received an 11 cent raise after the first year, and then a store-wide raise to $8.75, and finally, after a good second annual review earlier this year, a 22 cent per hour raise to $8.97.  So the Maryland minimum wage bill, which starts at $8.00 per hour on Jan. 1, 2015 and rises in very slow increments each year, will not affect me until July 1 of 2017, when the wage becomes $9.25 per hour.  The bill passed by the Montgomery County Council in late 2013 will arrive a little sooner, getting to $9.55 per hour by January of 2015.  It will reach $11.50 per hour by 2017.  The “relief” in 2018 sounds to me like a date for the next Rover landing on Mars: remote, very remote.

But dismal wages and inadequate legislative relief are only part of the broader story, and my own.  I now work in a vast service and retail sector of the economy where 28 million currently struggle for under $9.89 per hour.  Twenty-eight million.  It is increasingly difficult to categorize that workforce in the old ways as the young and under-educated.  Where I sweat we have young law school graduates unable to find legal work, and older workers, in their 60’s who have MBA’s.  This is a good thing about my workplace; as many professionals know from their own work experiences, there is lots of age discrimination in corporate America but under existing power rules, it is very difficult to prove in court.   At my place of employment, we also have a fragmented and diverse work force made up of immigrants from Asia, Indonesia,  Nepal, the Philippines, Central and South America, India, Pakistan and the Sudan, Muslims, whites, Hispanics, and black Americans, Haitians, and those from various other African nations whose strikingly different English and French accents - and native tongues - flavor every conversation.  

Aside from the wage problem, there is the great uncertainty of hours, especially for part time workers, but it can touch even the full timers.  Workers, for the most part, do not control their hours, management does, and they flow according to the broader corporate fate, the economy, and the seasonal rhythms of retail (workers are always trying to read personal tales of “standing” in the fluctuations, which cannot be ruled out.)  Unpredictable is the word.  My yearly hours are managed to keep the average work week under 30, but they can go from 38 to 17 on pretty short notice.  My expenses, though, are steady.  

And then there is the “medical coverage.”  I am 63 years old, and I have none, and haven’t had any since 2004.  I have no sick days either, and at the glacial pace I might earn them, I won’t have even a couple for a few more years.  So I work sick and I work hurt if I want to keep a roof over my head.  I applied for the President’s ACA on the Maryland exchange, but did not qualify for a subsidy and the cheapest monthly plan was more than $300 dollars, which I cannot afford, with outrageous deductibles of between $4,000 and $6,000.  I was going to sign up this spring for the more affordable company plan, but this January they announced they were dropping it entirely for part-time workers.  

So did the Democratic Party, the Unions and the mediating think tanks who set (and more on the setting later) and pushed this goal actually believe I would jump up out of my chair and cheer their achievement of $10.10 per hour, with a Mars Expedition kick-in date of 2018, and also with these “features” in the Maryland law :  no correction for inflation, a carve-out for certain seasonal employees, a sub-minimum wage of 85% for six months for those under 19 (teenagers, that is), keeping the traditional exemptions for those engaged in the ancient agricultural exploitations, err, work categories I meant….and those “employed by an employer who is engaged in canning, freezing, packing, or first processing of perishable or seasonal fresh fruits, vegetables, or horticultural commodities, poultry or seafood” (also categories of ancient exploitations: Cannery Row; whether current conditions in Maryland are so is subject to dispute, and Dan Costa of Economic Policy Institute suggests that employers  are looking to substitute immigrant visa laborers for those whose pay is already too high)  and no improvement for the base “wage” of the restaurant tipped workers, frozen at $3.63 per hour – and exemptions for workers in food establishments which gross under $400,000 per year, raised from $200,000?  Readers who want to peruse the final and very marked up version of what passed can take a shot at this:  

Deciphering that version will give you a good idea of some of what I did as an environmental lobbyist from 1988-2001, the years of my close and revealing window into how “democracy functions,” to compare with the lessons I received as an undergraduate schooled in Robert Dahl’s grand 1967 book, Pluralist Democracy in the United States: Conflict and Consent.

Still, I am not in the only “category” of working poor that this bill was aimed at.  The situation for we 28 million is more complex than that, and I was not about to oppose a bill that will have very little effect on me if it is true that, as the Economic Policy Institute testifiers proclaimed, it will raise the wages of hundreds of thousands, presumably those at the very bottom, at the current $7.25 wage.  Was my situation part of these claimed hundreds of thousands affected even though its provisions won’t reach me for years?  Or am I part of a secret, and silent, labor “aristocracy” amidst this vast sea of 28 million, waiting to punch their tickets into the middle class?  If I protested “far too little, far too late,” would I be helping to squash an improvement of about 37% percent for those in the – dare we say it – the employed “lumpenproletariet?” Had it come to that in the America I grew up in?  Was I now, at $8.97 per hour and twenty hours a week with no medical coverage part of a new labor aristocracy, yet one who still remembers the old labor aristocracy of unionized industrial workers in the 1950’s and 1960’s making $25-$35 dollars per hour, with generous pensions, medical benefits and other fringes, including vacations?  Vacations: what are they?  Should I be grateful at $10.10, or consider myself a sucker for settling?  I can say this with some firsthand certainty:  the working poor whom I labor alongside of expressed no great interest in, or admiration for, the “achievement in Annapolis,” at least none I could easily detect.  One whom I did have a conversation with raised an eyebrow, and his voice, as to “when that $10.10 takes effect.” When I told him “2018” he walked away rolling his eyes towards the high unpaneled ceiling.  I was going to say heaven, but heaven is very hard to locate these days.

One more thing about the “labor aristocracy.”  Indeed, how do the remaining members of that old 1945-1973 era aristocracy – the carpenters, plumbers, electricians, welders and other skilled tradespeople (the operating engineers and allies in the general laborers organizations too), and the now recently organized “militant” nurses,  see themselves in relation to the unorganized service and retail 28 million?  Brothers and sisters?  Not if the reports I receive from Bill Wolfe (at in New Jersey are representative.  The leaders of many of these workers in that state have been the allies of Governor Christie even as he has ferociously gone after government worker unions, especially the teachers – and their pensions, of course.  “Working class” doesn’t begin to describe the diversity here.  And the salaries of the skilled trades make them middle class today, even as their cultural preferences might place them elsewhere, as the Republican Right well knows.  

Before I go further into these matters, a brief refresher course is in order.  I have written about the political economy, and reviewed books written about it, for seven years now, and I guess I’m up to cumulatively, the equivalent of about four volumes of 1,400 pages or so.  I began following the increasing talk of raising the minimum wage about two years ago, or even further back, when economist James Galbraith came out with a call for $12.00 per hour, having abandoned all hope of enacting anything like a new New Deal of programs under the current Democratic Party’s – and the economic establishment’s worldview – not to mention that of the Republican Right.  There was much talk of the link to inflation, and then economist Dean Baker did some calculations reminding us of labor’s missing share of productivity gains, which would bring the minimum wage rightly up to between $16.00 per hour and $22.00, depending on which set of conservative assumptions went into the math.  Then the SEIU, which has left the AFL-CIO, began pushing for $15.00 for fast food workers.  I reminded my readers that without exaggeration, economists on all parts of the political spectrum of the field had been obsessed with it –  productivity – obsession is not too strong a word, and if you need current proof of that , the word has central importance in Thomas Piketty’s now famous new book, Capital in the 21st Century, with labor’s share of income and thus their wages being limited, if not governed by improvements in productivity, which in itself is a function of technological innovation and greater workforce educational levels.  But there is another “governing” factor which he didn’t stress: labor needs the structural political power to insist that it get this fair share from the owners of capital, if not by direct negotiations, then through the external market adjustors like the minimum wage, where doing so would depend on their “political” power.  

So to have labor’s brokers and organized labor itself settle for a link only to inflation, and to drop the whole idea of labor’s missing share of productivity gains, is a foolish and self-defeating negotiating strategy.  Labor would be justified in doing so if that is the very best that could be achieved under the boundaries drawn by forces inside Congress and state legislatures, like Maryland – but even then, it should, would have to be prominently footnoted with the caveat that this is an ongoing campaign and “we shall return” year after year until labor captures its missing and fair share of those productivity gains.  Am I making myself clear here?  But I can find no such attachments, footnotes or statements of future intent.  And that’s so even as Robert Reich had an article one day after Maryland passed the $10.10 bill, arguing that this number was inadequate and the goal should be at least $15.00 per hour.  Here it is at

Part Two: A Brief History of Democracy and Capitalism:  A Troubled Relationship

Before I conduct an examination of the Maryland Democratic claim that “this is the best we could do,” which involves an assessment of the legislature and its leaders in Annapolis, as well as the forces operating upon them, “constraining” them, I want to brief my readers on what I have been reading and listening to (at the Real News network) as deeper background for this writing.  I maintain that these sources form the intellectual basis for the quickening of the national left’s pulse and the talk of a new left “populism.”  Those sources have in turn built their views upon the cruel foundation of facts of today’s American political economy, the great and growing inequalities of wealth and income, and the related power to twist and deform our democratic institutions to produce these terrible outcomes for the bottom 50% of the population, the working class (who admittedly may not see themselves that way), and increasingly, the 40% who make up the “middle class.”  (That split follows the handling of data on wealth and income distribution by Thomas Piketty in “Capital in the 21st Century, who looks at the top 1% of earners, the top 10%, the 40% in the middle class, and the bottom 50%.)

I begin with Chris Hedges powerful and moving speech, which I first saw in written form in January of this year, but which launched in Santa Monica, California on October 13, 2013.  It is entitled The Myth of Human Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies. I won’t even try to offer you a condensed version, my words would fall short of the electricity and tensions contained within it, but I will say that Hedges has written elsewhere that American is now a “tinderbox” for revolution, or something close to it, which will most likely ignite from two of the most unhappy and disenfranchised sources: the indebted college graduates who can’t find any work, or who now make up a substantial portion of the 28 million I have written about, working in the service/retail sector and displacing those with less education, and the déclassé  intellectuals thrown out of journalism, publishing and teaching by the vast changes in corporate forms, technology and education itself.  Are they now obsolete? We shall see. I must note from my readings that these types were not hard to find rising to prominence in the early days of the French Revolution.  Now for Mr. Hedges, in his own words, taken from the very beginnings of his speech:

The most prescient portrait of the American character and our ultimate fate as a species is found in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Melville makes our murderous obsessions, our hubris, violent impulses, moral weakness and inevitable self-destruction visible in his chronicle of a whaling voyage.  He is our foremost oracle.  He is to us what William Shakespeare was to Elizabethan England or Fyodor Dostoyevsky to czarist Russia…Yet we, like Ahab and his crew, rationalize our collective madness.  All calls for prudence, for halting the march toward economic, political and environmental catastrophe, for sane limits on carbon emissions, are ignored or ridiculed…The corporate assault on culture, journalism, education, the arts and critical thinking has left those who speak this truth marginalized and ignored, frantic Cassandras who are viewed as slightly unhinged and depressingly apocalyptic.  We are consumed by a mania for hope, which our corporate masters lavishly provide, at the expense of truth.
If readers need a confirmation of some of Hedges more dire forebodings, consider the nature and fate of Wendell Berry’s Jefferson Lecture, the nation’s highest honor in the humanities.  He delivered It All Turns Upon Affection in April of 2012 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and the nation’s intellectuals virtually ignored it, despite the fact that Berry is neither frantic in style, or content, nor depressed.  But he was deeply critical of the state of the economy, and agriculture, the implications of technology, and the human costs of the character and pace of it, and, in his own way, patiently apocalyptic, waiting to begin again in a radically re-organized, decentralized local economy where things might, indeed, “all turn upon affection.”
Judge for yourself: here are the links:  (The video is 53 minutes long.)

My next intellectual cold shower, an online essay by University of Athens economics Professor Yanis Varoufakis, appeared at Naked Capitalism in late February of this year.  Given his vantage point in Athens watching  as the Greek people have seen their own elected officials cede the determining voice in their economy to neoliberal dominated external economic institutions – especially the European Central Bank, the IMF…and the punitive mood in Berlin and Frankfurt…Professor Varoufakis was prompted to wonder whether the magical powers of the Internet might indeed reinvigorate the flagging state of democracies in the West, where there has yet to be a political revolt that matched the intensity of the suffering imposed by the dispensers of economic austerity:  there is no revolt by the center-left, despite the fact that conditions in Spain and Greece approach if not exceed those our own in the Great Depression.

Indeed, the morning headlines in late May are delivering the political ramifications of Europe’s economic troubles. The populist Right has surged in the European Parliament elections held on May 26, 2014.  In Greece the left Syriza Party did very well, outpolling the governing “center-right” New Democracy party according to the account in Andrew Higgin’s article “Populists’ Rise In Europe Vote Shakes Leaders: ‘Painful’ Doubt is Cast on Political Order.” (New York Times, May 27, 2014, Page A1.)  What also caught my attention in Higgin’s account, and something to keep in mind as this essay’s theme unfolds, was the comment by Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democratic vice chancellor in Angela Merkel’s coalition: “ ‘Europe has grown far too far apart from its citizens.’”
 I was particularly drawn to this essay because the Professor’s questions led him back to the ancient history of democracy, especially that of the Greeks, Athenian democracy to be more specific, in the 5th century B.C.  Varoufakis’ work also crossed paths with those of someone I had been reading and writing about:  the late Sir M.I. Finley (1912-1986), one of the world’s most respected classical scholars, and one who had been driven from teaching at Rutgers during the early days of the HUAC-McCarthy era.  Ironically, for our own democracy perhaps, it was the honor bestowed upon him by Rutgers itself – an apology, perhaps, for voting to banish him in the first place – to deliver the first Mason Welch Gross Lectures, which became his book Democracy.    Although I had been reading Democracy: Ancient and Modern (1973) and The Ancient Economy (1973) and Varoufakis yet another of his works, our concerns about democracy crossed the same paths, despite one ocean and one sea of separation between us.  Why no revolt in Greece; why no revolt in the US; and why, when U.S. Democrats are worrying about apathy and low turnout in the Congressional elections of 2014, and New York Times columnist Charles Blow was writing on April 9, 2014 that “We Should Be in A Rage,” do the vast majority of my fellow 28 million working poor continue to just tread water, silently stewing – or lingering just below “simmer?”  Here is M. I. Finley in Democracy going after “elite theories of democracy” and their inclination to welcome the apathy of the masses:

My argument is that, far from being a healthy necessary condition of democracy, apathy is a withdrawal response to the imbalance in the access of different interest-groups to those who make the decisions…If political apathy has not always been evident on such a large scale in democratic societies, its current intensity must be explained before it is either welcomed or despaired of. .. there is flawed logic in a doctrine which denies large sectors of the population’s effective participation in the decision-making process on the ground that their demands are likely to be ‘extremist’ and then seizes on their lack of restraint as proof of the rightness of their exclusion.

I think if we examined closely how it was that between the Democratic Party, the AFL-CIO and the left think tanks that they support, they all “arrived” at a minimum wage goal of $10.10 per hour, we would find that there was little or no direct participation of the 28 million working for below $10.00 per hour in the determination process, a process that as best I can judge, took place far from public scrutiny, rightly or wrongly, out of sight. At least from the reaction of those that I work with, they are not jumping with enthusiasm and ready to turn out in November of 2014 to say “Thank you Democratic Party, you changed my economic life.”  As is so often the case, the policy dimensions were set long before voters had a say on them, or  in their formulation, and in the  processes they will search in vain to find traces of, “the who, why and when.” “Elite theory” of Democracy anyone, even when the means of survival of the working poor are at issue?  How did the SEIU feel about the sudden “precipitation” around $10.10 per hour, when they had been sticking their necks out, very publicly, for $15.00 per hour?

Coming back to our very contemporary Greek economics’ Professor’s views, we find him asserting that


believe that a fair reading of liberal Democracy’s history confirms this is so.  That the devaluation of citizenship is an integral component of a ‘successful’ modern democracy, not a failure to be corrected by technical means… the ‘free world,’  a term we often use interchangeably with ‘Western liberal Democracies,’ is free only in a limited sense: Citizenship (including formal liberties) is distributed liberally to all citizens but its reach is confined to a small political sphere; a sphere which is increasingly losing out to a separate economic sphere where all the capacities to change people’s lives (for better or worse) congregate but where citizenship is irrelevant.
No wonder that when the now lionized French economist Thomas Piketty was on his first US book tour for his best -selling Capital in the 21st Century, and was asked what he felt was his most important worry from his findings about inequality, he said it was the impact  of that  inequality upon the West’s democratic institutions.  Indeed.  
Here is the link to Varoufakis’ essay:

Is there something special for political aspirations, aside from the human species’ biological roots and urgings, in the notion of “springtime?” That the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775; that the Estates General convened in Versailles on May 5, 1789, that the French National Assembly was born on June 17 followed by the clergy voting to support the Third Estate on June 19th, and the Tennis Court Oaths sworn on June 20, 1789?   That the mass demonstration on May 15, 1848, in Paris, gave a European wide signal for revolt, for that year of the “Springtime of Nations” (and which would be crushed in Paris by the end of June)?  That Thomas Piketty was feted at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, DC on April 15, 2014, on his first grand American tour, when he answered an audience question with his worry about inequality’s threat to democratic institutions?  Or that dated April 9, 2014, the essay Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens” appeared, and quickly rocketed around the Internet?

This paper was written by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern, and in some ways it is the political science equivalent of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, not only because of its findings about inequality,  but also because it makes available troves of data on the outcomes of 1,779 policy gambits launched between 1981-2002, which income groups (at the 90th, 50th and 10th percentiles of income distribution, starting at the bottom) did or did not support them, and the polling data behind their positions, which was  correlated to  income declarations of the respondents. This study was able, through a new and complex mathematical model, to run many more variables covering these essential factors than previous versions, and was therefore also able to test the four leading theories of how democracy operates in the United States.  As the authors put it, they were able to see “…which set of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens, economic elites, and organized interest groups, mass based or business oriented.”  

So what did they find?

In our 1,779 policy cases, narrow pro-change majorities of the public got the policy changes they wanted only about 30% of the time.  More strikingly, even overwhelmingly large pro-change majorities, with 80% of the public favoring a policy change, got that change only about 43% of the time…
What do our findings say about democracy in America?  They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of ‘populistic’ democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the preferences of their citizens.  In the United States, our findings indicate the majority does not rule at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.  When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and or with organized interests, they generally lose.  Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.  
So there are the major findings, but I should add in one more twist to complicate matters just a little bit more for an American left attempting to construct larger working majorities among the citizens of the republic, and to others who are embarked upon building new co-operative economic structures starting at the local level: “It turns out, in fact, that the preferences of average citizens are positively and fairly highly correlated, across issues, with the preferences of economic elites.”  
And here is the link to the study:

As I began reading Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century this March, I was simultaneously in the home stretches of Ira Katznelson’s even longer volume, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, which came out in 2013. It is a powerful and stimulating work, the first major re-examination of the New Deal from the left in a very long time.  It has won deserved acclaim in major reviews because of its radical shift in perspective, in two senses.  First, as is fitting for a political scientist (Katznelson is one at Columbia University), it looks to the national legislature, Congress, as the center stage, core democratic process in the New Deal, not the larger than life figure in the White House who has dominated most of the previous accounts, and understandably so.   Second, it places what happened in the U.S. in direct comparison to the fates of national legislatures in Germany and Italy, where they were crushed by the rise of the dictators, highlighting the troubles that the Western democracies were having during the great strains of the Depression years.  And of course, there was the Soviet model further to the East, a far left dictatorship almost as evil as the right-wing one that came to power in Germany.  Some would say it was worse, but the U.S. made the decision, and rightly so during the war years, to make a pact with that state to defeat Hitler.  It was a military necessity, whatever its moral costs - and they were high for the peoples and nations of Eastern Europe.

The even greater fascination for me in Fear Itself (which is why my friend Bill Wolfe recommended it) is that the grand legislative narrative about the New Deal’s major accomplishments, and its limitations, turns upon the importance of the American South, and the “pact” which FDR had to make with it, with our own domestic racial and political evils, again at a very high price, as we will see.  That’s because the South was a virtual one party region dominated by Democrats, also marked by low voter turnout, racial apartheid/Jim Crow and the horrific stain of repeated lynching’s of black people, 28 in 1933, including one in Princess Anne, Maryland.   The South also was, by comparison with the rest of the country, impoverished, with share cropping and tenant farming keeping both poor whites and most blacks in a virtual debtor’s prison without bars.  Yet its elected national office holders, building seniority decade by decade, held many powerful committee chairmanships in Congress and formed a large enough voting bloc, should they decide to withhold their votes, to prevent the  Democratic party from turning its desired policies into successful legislation.

Given these terrible Southern realities and his international comparisons, Katznelson asks: was the Southern Democratic Party a dictatorship of sorts itself, with its one party rule?  His answer is direct, and more than a bit problematic:  that the party and the region were too chaotic, anarchic and decentralized to be that, “but it had powerful authoritarian tendencies and a strong exclusionary tilt.”  Poll taxes were levied on both whites and blacks,  and indirectly led to the corrupt buying of votes, while they also pushed voter turnout down to 20% or less in some years – for example in the 1940 presidential election in four states.

In brief, this was a region of enormous contradictions, some of its major ones going back to the nation’s founding aspirations as a democratic republic built on slavery and with a strong bias towards  rule by economic elites, the white yeomanry be damned and contained.  When slaves were formally freed, the key control mechanism became economic and voting repression, and Katznelson has a fine eye for the irony that the South never hesitated in opposing the dictatorships abroad, including the Nazi one built on fantasies of racial superiority, and did not share the isolationist tendencies of the Midwest Republicans.

Yet, despite all these realities and contradictions, this region’s elected Democrats were some of the New Deal’s most passionate supporters from 1933 through 1935, what Katznelson describes in Chapter 7 as its “Radical Moment.”  How could that be?  The key to understanding this riddle is that the South was poor, the nation’s poorest region by far.   Thus it still had more than just traces of populism from the late 19th century, the agrarian “populist” revolt, and even the economic elites, and their hoped for “New South” industrial experiments, harbored deep resentments against the power of northern industrialists and bankers.   The heart of the South’s economy though, was still agriculture, an agriculture built on cheap labor, and, in many cases, deeply indebted labor.  In the future, the South hoped to compete for industry based on its long history of low wages.  But it was not yet an industrial power, far from it.  
So that is the basis for the political “pact” that allowed the South to support the New Deal’s most radical moment, and Katznelson reminds us that he thinks its achievements were close to a small “r” revolution in the American political economy, backed up by the judgment of fellow political scientist Theodore Lowi, of Cornell, one of my own favorite authors.   Yet the price of this support was high - and cruel.  To keep Southern support, both the National Labor Relations Act (better known as the Wagner Act, after its chief architect, Senator Robert Wagner of New York) and the Social Security Act, which were signed into law on July 5 and August 14, 1935, deliberately left out domestic workers and agricultural workers, a huge omission and one dictated by the South.  
Ironically, it was the two Senators from the state of Maryland, the senior Millard Tydings, and his junior partner, George Radcliffe, who tried to out-South the deeper South in offering weakening amendments to the Wagner Act, centering on the implications of the phrase “free from coercion or intimidation of any source.”  Noble sounding words, out of context, but they would have been fatal to the purposes of the bill in empowering unions, given the legal climate in the courts of the day.  Maryland’s senators won the support of only five other southern Democrats, Katznelson tells us, and the amendments failed.

Yet the political realities, the compromises necessary to achieve the Wagner Act and Social Security caused a good part of  the American left, those to the left of the New Deal that is, a great deal of anguish, because they rightly saw that its promise was not going to be extended to the poorest of the American poor, white or black, especially in the South, just as the AAA agriculture price “support” payments (to prevent over-production and thus drive down prices and incomes for all farmers) never reached the tenant farmers.

Editor’s note: Although Katznelson focuses mainly on the South’s protection of its cheap agricultural work force from New Deal attempts to reach them, he only mentions the farm support income payments in passing.  Yet, in another cruel asterisk to what democracy does or doesn’t mean, and who it does or doesn’t include in its processes, the design of these price supports were eminently decentralized and had to be voted on by the members of the organizations that represented farmers in each state.  In the Midwest this meant one thing, with most able to participate, including small farmers; in the South the structure of farm organizations left the mass of tenant farmers out of the process – and the payments, despite the best attempts by the federal designers to keep them in the system, never reached the neediest.  It’s a very good example of the tensions which reside in the interactions between the two interrelated spheres: the economic and the political, and just what type of democracy will emerge, if any at all from the interplay of the two.  And it is a reminder that the history of democracy, from the time of Athens in the 5th century BC, through the small city state republics of the Renaissance (Florence and Venice, in particular) and the foundation of our own in the late 18th century is laced with the tensions between elites and the demos, and arguments over scale, decentralized face-to-face democracies versus the more distant and impersonal “representative” democracies with their hoped for balance between competing “interests.”  We shall soon see how that plays out in America.  

The cautious, boundary ridden honeymoon between the South and the rest of the New Deal did not last.  Despite the largest landslide vote in American  history in the 1936 Presidential elections, which told the whole world how the American people felt about FDR and the New Deal, the Southern leadership in Congress was reaching its limits to accommodate the leftward drift of American politics.  It is amazing to me that the Wagner Act was able to pass at all, and perhaps it was due simply to the fact that the South wasn’t yet industrialized enough for it to fear the full implications of labor’s empowerment.  Labor’s most powerful surge came after the act’s passage, in late 1935 and 1936, stamped forever in our memory by the images of the famous sit down strikes. The South came to understand that the CIO was to be taken seriously, and that it also carried more than just the message of greater economic equality: it also had powerful implications for the racial regime in the South.  

It is one of the finest achievements of this book to trace the gradual but eventual great turning of the Democratic South against its own party and the New Deal itself, to see the very beginnings of the future alliance with the Republican Party emerge from an as yet not fully shared ideological schizophrenia.  The basis of that schizophrenia was the fear of a powerful federal government acting in matters of the political economy, to nationalize the standards of the labor market, especially; yet also, and perhaps even more fearfully, to do the same in matters of racial equality. Yet at the same time, following upon the great mobilization of World War II, and the beginnings of the Cold War,  the federal government was given almost unlimited powers, formally granted, it is true, and yet in many instances informally carried far beyond the normal democratic practices and oversights, to become a “crusading” power internationally, for better and worse.  And Edward Snowden has brought that story right up to date with our brave new cyber world.

Before I turn to the moving summary judgments Katznelson issues in his Epilogue, about the way the New Deal, so greatly shaped by the fears of the American South, altered our basic political processes, I want to share the fate of one of the last monumental legislative achievements of the era, the Fair Labor Standards Act, which passed in the spring of 1938.  This was the bill that would gradually reduce the number of hours Americans worked each week, starting at 44, and ending at the “40 hour work week,” and which also set and then gradually increase the minimum wage at which they must be paid.  Its ideas were in the Democratic Party platform of 1936, in response to the Supreme Court destroying the National Recovery Act’s attempt to grapple with the same issues. Yet it directly touched upon “a cluster of issues concerning labor markets and labor unions that began to divide the Democratic Party more decisively.”  And it passed only after “‘one of the most desperately fought battles ever waged on the floor of Congress.’” Once again, the South led the attack on the bill’s attempt to create uniform and national standards for wages and hours, in a land where one third of the workforce earned less than thirty-three cents per hour.  And once again, as with the Wagner Act and Social Security Act, the price of passage was to carve out exemptions for domestic servants and a vast array of agricultural workers.  

And this is when I came to realize where that language for Maryland’s own agriculture exemptions came from, that I cited in the very opening pages of this essay, as being part of the “ancient exploitations.”  Here is Katznelson from page 271 of the Chapter “Radical Moment,” actually describing the “swan song” of the early spirit of the New Deal:

Along the way, the legislation underwent significant change to win southern, especially border-state support. In the original bill, the extent of the agricultural exemption had been vague, left to the interpretation of the proposed administrative board in Washington, but ‘as the bill progressed the discretion became more and more narrow and the specific exemptions became larger and larger.’ Now including ‘farming in all its branches,’ this classification incorporated every kind of work ‘in conjunction with farming operations, including preparation for market, delivery to storage or to market or to carriers for transportation to market.’ Not only was the definition of agriculture broadened; so too, was the understanding of who could count as a ‘person employed in agriculture,’ a category that expansively included any individual involved in the ginning of or baling of cotton when the services of that person were seasonal, a definition clearly tailored to affect southern black labor.
The South and its border allies also played both sides of the national-regional adjustment see-saw.  They accepted the national standards for wages and hours, working to head off discretion by a board that might prove too generous; then they eventually won “regional guidelines” language that industry boards could apply to make sure the South could continue to work its cheap labor advantage to maximum effect in attracting industry.  

There is another very large and important reason I have to elevate the importance of what Katznelson has written, the history of how the South set the limits on the New Deal, and foreshadowing the limits on the economic tools and interventions into the economy that have so hamstrung us today.  It is because I have written extensively about the reasons for the legislative stalemate in the current Congress in these matters, tracing its deeper causes to the spread of neoliberalism in economics throughout both parties, but especially inside the Republican party, dominated by the Right (and now including the old deep South, border states and parts of the West), and comparing it to the congressional polarization in the 1850’s over slavery. Today, however, the axis of disagreement is centered on the role of the federal government and the nature and scope of its allowed interventions into the economy, just as in the later days of the New Deal, after 1938.   The South, I have written, is today’s most fanatical defender of conservative (neoliberal) economics, although its geographical base has widened considerably since the 1850’s – and the 1930’s, has been universalized in a sense,  and what little work  that does get done in Washington on the economy does so on the basis of what centrist Democrats share with the Right.  There is no better illustration of that shared ground than the policy curve of the two terms of Bill Clinton’s administrations.  The fact that the old New Deal is a forbidden topic inside both parties is stark testament to the depth of what is wrong today, in the economy and the impaired functioning of our democracy. The inability of Cass Sunstein’s 2004 book The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever to gain even mild traction on the left testifies to the common economic ground the Right and Center share.
The repercussions from the great gridlock are so powerful that these New Deal problematics have also led to left intellectuals like Bill Greider and Gar Alperovitz walking themselves away from the idea that anything like a new New Deal could be repeated under today’s political polarization – or that in some respects - even that it would be desirable, although that is a more complex matter I will address shortly.  It is clear that in matters of the political economy, but also in matters of the imperial National Security State, American politics has been “Southernized,” and, in the spirit of Barry Goldwater, also Westernized more than a bit.  In this sense too, Lyndon Johnson can be seen as the last domestic New Dealer, whose good intentions at home were swamped by what the National Security State had become already in the Vietnam War: a massive anti-democratic surveillance and disruption force at home, and a systematic executioner abroad (see esp. Project Phoenix.)  

So far, I have focused on the contemporary economic implications of the limits put on the New Deal by Southern Democrats.  But Katznelson also stresses the close relationship between the economic realm and the processes of American democracy itself, and he does so especially well in Part IV, “Democracy’s Price,” and in Chapter Ten, entitled Public Procedures, Private Interests.” He does this by contrasting the fates of two agencies, the National Resources Planning Board, and the Bureau of the Budget, which were moved into the Executive Branch in 1939.  The NRPB had the longer history, although the author cautions that “in the main it did not plan, but rather, called for planning by gathering information and offering proposals,” and some of its last proposals before being put out of existence by Southern Democrats allied with Republicans in 1943 (and Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland helped drive in the final ideological stake), were to supply the substance for FDR’s notion of that “Second Bill of Rights.”  Yet although its chief mission and products concerned plans for civilian life after the war was won, the NRPB managed also to symbolize the best achievements of the most radical and decisive successes of the New Deal, 1933-1935.  At its best the New Deal sided actively with workers, the unemployed and the pension-less aged, and reigned in the worst of the economic excesses of Wall Street and laissez-faire capitalism.  It was morally grounded, (FDR used  Biblical analogies and language in many of his Fireside Chats)  and worked to achieve a new economic ethic as well, as long as one understands the Faustian bargain imposed by the nature of the American South.  In other words, it was for a time a national government and a state with a clear direction and bias, although it did not ever threaten capitalism’s basis in private property, which can be seen in FDR’s failure to publicly endorse Upton Sinclair’s EPIC campaign in California in 1934, which planned to utilize unused farms and factories in cooperative efforts by the poor.  One can see, however,  why the new conservative alliance killed the NRPB but allowed the BOB to expand and thrive with its more indirect and distant fiscal and budget tinkering with the business cycle, utilizing the new Keynesian tools, which themselves today have become the very devil’s playthings in the eyes of the Right.

Here is how Katznelson summarizes the promise and the threat of our nation’s first and last attempt at “national planning,” muted though it was:

Taken together , the pamphlets and reports the board issued constituted an ambitious effort to articulate a vision of how the national state should direct markets, ensure high levels of employment, and provide comprehensive social welfare.  In a credo issued in 1942, the board announced the aim of cleansing capitalism from ‘irresponsible private power, arbitrary public authority, and unregulated monopolies.’  Through planning, it insisted, the federal government could help secure a greater freedom for the American people.
But that is not the nature of the national state and the democratic processes that we ended up with after the end of the New Deal and the rise of the National Security State.  The termination of the NRPB and the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, over President Truman’s veto, were the punctuation marks for a new system, of an ostensibly far more neutral federal government overseeing a fierce competition among private interest groups: may the best organized, and the best lobbyists win.  Katznelson is penetrating in his sketch of what this has meant for the type of democracy we have, and his descriptions strongly echo the findings of the Gilens and Page paper I summarized earlier in this essay, and seem to prepare the way for Sheldon S. Wolin’s Democracy Inc.  and his story about the rise of the corporate dominated state.
Here is how Katznelson frames the three main “democracy” problems which emerged, slowly over time, in America’s post New Deal world. From the Epilogue, with the highlights being mine, not his:
First is a narrowing of politics to thin, confined, restricted, and potentially polarized interests. This contraction of civic sensibility to a politics without public purpose or norms can heighten conflict over limited matters and lead to gridlock or the rule of intense minorities…Second is how putatively neutral rules favored those with more resources…A state without substance is a state ripe for special interests to grab hold of key elements of  government.  Although the procedural face of government did not officially recognize particular private interests as more privileged than any others, it effectively reduced the scope of labor as a national class, and in so doing helped enhance the power of capitalist firms and business ideology.  This was quite an achievement, even a surprising one, in light of how much the Depression had shattered business prestige and had put market capitalism’s legitimacy in question.  Especially with limits placed on organized labor, indeed with the steady decline in union membership since the mid-1950’s, the political system has failed to counterbalance economic power…unless strong counter pressures can be mobilized, inequality grows, poverty is neglected, and equal citizenship is compromised…Third is how, with ‘sovereignty…parceled out among groups’ and with public values trumped by private-regarding goals and power, the procedural state generates recurring crises of public authority and civic trust.  Disillusionment and cynicism result when a system declared to be impartial and just by definition is found to be unfair.  The result is either too little political participation or episodic and volatile participation by enraged citizens who are convinced that the putatively neutral rules of the game are rigged. Once the New Deal’s more assertive projects for managing capitalism ended and the prospects of a national labor movement diminished, both the result of actions by fearful southern representatives, the longer-term prospects of American democracy were sharply constrained, and the range of feasible options narrowed to a conservative return to business capitalism or a liberal defense of the fiscal policies that the New Deal ultimately fashioned.  
Enter now Sheldon S. Wolin, who was in his late eighties when he wrote his 2008 book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.  He is thus no newcomer to the field of political science, having reached a high place in his career holding a professor emeritus of politics position at Princeton University.  What he has done in this book is to sketch the outlines of our contemporary state of democracy, especially in light of the directions it has taken after the two terms of George W. Bush and the now perpetual war against terrorism, and the mighty consolidation of the National Security State, already far too powerful by the end of Katznelson’s saga, which carried the New Deal up to the beginning of Eisenhower’s first term.  In many ways, Wolin’s conclusions seem to flow directly out of the Epilogue to Fear Itself. They also, but in a darker, more contemporary and worrisome form, laced with global warming alarms, connect directly to William Greider’s warning from his 1992 classic, Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy.  In his now famous chapter on “Citizen GE,” Greider anticipated that corporate America would step into the vacuum created by the late New Deal’s “procedural state,” the “state without substance” and a “politics without a public purpose” in Katznelson’s terms.  No “public interest” in diverse America?  Very well, corporate America will be more than happy to fill in the blanks.

The state has been captured by corporate interests, and it no longer has the dispositions of the best years of the New Deal, 1933-1935.  The state, whether under Bush or Obama, draws its top policy making personnel from the corporate, and especially today, from the financial world, and there is no better way to summarize this than by watching where they land after they pass through the revolving door, heading in either direction.  At the Federal Reserve, the various economic counsels to the President and at Treasury, with few exceptions, this corporate state also draws upon the “state” of knowledge and ideology in the economics profession. If you have followed the tribulations of even a mildly liberal member of their own, one Paul Krugman, you surely know by now that he has not been able to make much of a dent in the consensus formed around neoliberalism’s anti-labor and anti-public spending attitudes, which have come to be known as Austerity, and which function much in the same way as the gold standard did in the first phase of globalization in the 19th century:  by limiting what governments could do about the inequalities and crashes generated by capitalism.  Wolin’s book is getting increasing attention because everyone is worried about the impaired state of our democracy and the power that corporate America wields over its processes, and indeed, as I was anticipating writing this section, there was Chris Hedges recommending the book in his weekly column here at Truthdig at the end of May:

Wolin’s book also addresses something which I have increasingly stressed in my writing over the past two years: how the rising power of corporate capitalism has shaped our cultural landscape. It is always  pushing to privatize and to encroach upon previously public domains, like research at universities, the NIH itself, charter schools and the bad mouthing of public education (by hedge funds especially) - essentially, in Wolin’s terms, by trying to destroy what remains of the public “commons.”  This is a trend that has followed along with the rise of the Right and has become thoroughly bi-partisan, especially through contracting out not only in defense matters but all phases of formerly governmental functions, including social service programs.  And thanks, Al Gore and Bill Clinton, for bragging about it so publicly while ignoring its deeper consequences: breaking down the barriers between the public and private sector, and helping the corporate state emerge in a new more intensely blended form.

There are other consequences flowing from the accelerated rhythms of the economy of the corporate state.  Besides a faster pace in the already relentless pace of technology changes,  there has been an intensification of the work process: by  pushing the workforce to expanded hours in the middle and upper reaches of the professional segments, even as the 28 million in the retail and service sector struggle for adequate hours, often having to hold two jobs to obtain a 35-40 week, both sections of the workforce have therefore been subtly undermined in their civic capacities, in what Wolin describes as the most demanding job of all, that of “citizenship.”  Leisure time has disappeared.  And you know in which segments of society there is still leisure time, and perhaps more importantly, the ability to make up for its loss by the capacity to spend limitlessly into the political process.  By reminding us of the high price to be paid in human and democratic terms because of this accelerating pace of technology, work and life, he reminds me, once again, of the warnings in Wendell Berry’s Jefferson Lecture from 2012.

And that brings us back to the ancient tensions between democracy and elitism and the elitism that goes hand and hand with economic power.  Here is Wolin at his best in his final chapter, “Democracy’s Prospects,” with my own emphasis in bold:

The persisting conflict between democratic egalitarianism and an economic system that has rapidly evolved into another inegalitarian regime is a reminder that capitalism is not solely a matter of production, exchange and reward.  It is a regime in which culture, politics, and economy tend toward a seamless whole, a totality.  Like the regimes it had displaced, the corporate regime manifests inequalities in every aspect of social life and defends them as essential.  And like the old regimes, the structure of corporate organization follows the hierarchical principle of graduations of authority, prerogative and reward.  It is undemocratic in its structure and modus operandi and antidemocratic in its persistent efforts to destroy or weaken unions, discourage minimum wage legislation, resist environmental protections, and dominate the creation and dissemination of culture (media foundations, education.)
In early March of this year I came across a New York Times article which seems to confirm much of what Wolin has written, not only about the seamlessness of the new corporate state, but how it has managed to escape the checks and balances built into the “foundational” structure of our government and Constitution.  Granted, this starting framework was still one which Wolin says favored an elite dominated republic, not a demos driven democracy, but nonetheless, he maintains the founders would be shocked and disapproving of the “Superpower” corporate state that has emerged.  Indeed, I was so dumbfounded at what was in this story that I clipped it and saved it for future reference.

The front page story headline, “U.S. Hopes Boom in Natural Gas Can Curb Putin,” states the broad purpose, but not the shock a citizen gets when the means to achieve that purpose emerge, the stories buried within the story, fodder enough for a half- a- dozen books, each looking at a different aspect of our new energy “diplomacy.” First is the complex tale of our deep involvement in the Ukraine mess: is it all about helping democracy emerge?  No hint in this story that all the competing brands, including the Russian one, are about oligarchical economic power.  No hint in this story that the struggle over the shape of the Ukraine was the very last straw in our old broken pledge to Gorbachev not to push NATO up to the borders of the old Soviet Union.  No sense that our intervention into the Ukraine crossed an explicit Russian red line.  No sense in this story that the fracking method of producing our natural gas is very, very controversial among the citizens of many states of our former republic, or that those most detailed in the fight against global warming don’t believe it is the transition bridge to solar and wind alternatives.  In fact, they maintain it is not going to reduce the carbon footprint, or be that cleaner alternative to coal because we have significantly underestimated its methane leakages, among its other types of significant pollutions and leakages.   And they also maintain that the whole fracking frenzy, which has come to resemble the energy equivalent of the 49ers Gold Rush and other pre-bubble financial booms, is dramatically undercutting the whole structure of price and policies that have propelled wind and solar. And the final thrust of this story is that as the US looks to export its supposedly vast reserves of natural gas by expediting the LNG permits needed for shipping, we will transform our old identity from World War II’s “arsenal of democracy” to the new “arsenal of energy.”  

Maryland residents worriedly contemplating our own possible venture into fracking, and the export of gas via the as yet not approved facility at Cove Point, will appreciate how the national groundwork for this was being laid.  I didn’t know, but learned in this article, that late in 2011, while Hillary Clinton was still Secretary of State, she set up an 85 person Bureau of Energy Resources, inside the State Department, headed by Carlos Pascual, who is a former ambassador to the Ukraine.  And it is implied, but not clearly stated, that the governmental bureau is working with some powerful corporate names in energy, such as Exxon Mobil, Shell, and Halliburton, to expedite the search for energy in places like Poland and the Ukraine. Here is the Times article link:

In mid-May of this year, there were additional press accounts about energy doings in the Ukraine, with deep U.S. ties, ties which are another illustration of Wolin’s thesis about the corporate state.  According to the Wall Street Journal version from May 13, the youngest son of Vice-President Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, will be joining the friend and college (Yale) roommate - Devon Archer - of John Kerry’s stepson, Christopher Heinz, on the board of Ukrainian gas producer Burisma Holdings Ltd.  Both Biden and Archer work at a domestic US firm, Rosemont Capital.
  Read the story at

As I was steadily working through this background reading on the state of American democracy, and its fate at the hands of the US economy, I was also listening to the interviews being conducted with Chris Hedges, Ralph Nader and Gar Alperovitz at the Real News Network, whose home link is here: Because each of these public intellectuals was the focus of three or so separate segments, half hour interviews with the skillful and knowledgeable host Paul Jay, there are too many links to provide directly, but you can find them using the “search” button at the top of the home website, by just typing in their names.  The interviews ran from December through the late winter of 2014.  I wanted to use what was said in them (and also in Alperovitz’s interesting book from 2013, What Then Must We Do: Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution) to discuss where the major fault lines in American politics lie, and how the left does or does not address them.  

I think that the central one which emerges is the nature (and fate) of the great stalemate, the standoff in the Congress between the Republican Right and the Democratic Centrists, like the President. ( I do place the Libertarians firmly inside the Right on most of the key issues of the political economy…are you surprised to learn that the Koch Brothers are Libertarians? – see this review of a book about them here )
When something does sneak through that Congress, it is almost always because the Democrats have moved to the Right, not the left, and still share, in economic matters, some substantial ground with the Right along the lines of Bill Clinton’s announcement that the “era of big government is over,” and due homage to “free markets.”  Sometimes it is difficult to tell where the Republican’s intense tactical opposition to President Obama begins, and where the more fundamental, bedrock ideological opposition ends, but I seriously doubt the result – gridlock – will be any different with a new Democratic personae in the White House.  And the bedrock nature of the ideological differences have been dramatically illuminated for us by the work of Ira Katznelson in Fear Itself.   Although much has been written about the racial progress made in the South, and there is much truth to it, in formal terms, at least, the economic views of the South which helped usher them into Barry Goldwater’s GOP after 1964, meeting George Wallace’s Democrats more than half way, has led to the Southernization of the Republican Party, with an added geographical base in some of the old border states and good parts of the West.

The whole Cliven Bundy package from April of 2014, of armed defiance of federal authority, refusal to pay federal grazing fees, and a return of the repressed thoughts about black people and slavery, is not a bad illustration of the most extreme version of the contemporary Right, where the old South meets the new Southwest.  Yes his open racism was denounced by elected Republican officials, yet the ideological intensity displayed was a good illustration of how the Democratic Centrists in the joint “corporate state” react when faced by the militant Right: they retreat.  After more than 20 years and repeatedly lost legal struggles by Bundy, the federal government still has not collected its light grazing fees, cumulatively now over $1 million dollars, still allows Bundy’s illegal cattle grazing to continue, and withdrew from the armed pubic confrontation (probably a wise tactical move but with terrible long term implications if nothing is done after a cooling off period).   Perhaps the 1850’s are not such a bad analogy after all.

 A little noted New York Times article from April 24, 2014, casts some strong doubts upon the hopeful demographics the Democratic pollsters are always talking about: the youthful browning of American - giving the Democrats a long-term demographic edge, which is going to return the party to electoral dominance.  It certainly didn’t pan out in 2010 and 2012, at least not in the South.  In those years, increased white voter turnout more than matched the higher turnout of black voters in the South, and young and Hispanic voters in other regions.  And notice the framing in this very interesting article by reporter Nate Cohn, summoning us back to the antebellum era, more than a hundred years before the white South broke with the New Deal: “While white southerners have been voting Republican for decades, the hugeness of the gap was new.  Mr. Obama often lost more than 40 percent of Al Gore’s support among white voters south of the historically significant line of the Missouri Compromise.”

 Here at

This regional capture gives the Republicans just over 40% of their total voters, but Cohn points out that in the rest of the country, and for the crucial matter of the Electoral College votes, the Republicans are losing ground.  He observes that “whatever is causing Republicans to excel in the South, whether religion or race, just isn’t helping them elsewhere.”  Please notice that he didn’t mention the South’s views on the economy, the political economy, where the region’s visceral anti-government, anti-tax and anti-regulatory positions sure sound a lot like the basic ingredients of global neoliberalism.  And isn’t it interesting to note that the broader national Republican Party stands accused, most pointedly by NY Times’ columnist Charles Blow in his April 9th column, “We Should Be  in a Rage,”  of adopting a milder yet none the less real voter suppression program aimed at keeping  poor people from voting.  Isn’t this more than just a faint echo of the not so long ago tactics of Jim Crow in the post Reconstruction South?  Is it race or is it class voting patterns that the tactics are aimed at?  In America, the two strands of analysis often are hopelessly intertwined, with Hispanic immigrants now thrown into the older dynamics to further complicate matters.  

This is just background, however, to my central assertion, that the economic and ideological divisions between the two parties and the long standing stalemate in the Congress have created a deeply pessimistic outlook among some of the most prominent thinkers on the left, especially about the possibilities of ever obtaining a new New Deal adequate to our current problems.  And add to that the obvious question/observation that the Democratic Centrists don’t really want another one, do they?  This factor, and the dismal status of the fight against Global Warming (its standing in the polls as well as in Congress) have helped shape a powerful de-centralizing trend among leading thinkers on the left, turning them towards local and state actions, and seemingly having had them give up on the idea of again capturing the commanding heights marked by the control of Congress and the White House.  Going a bit further, and this is especially true of Alperovitz and Naomi Klein, less clear with Nader (though he leans toward decentralization in some of his comments), but also true with Chris Hedges, because he constantly stresses the ecological disaster we are headed for; these thinkers do not want to pursue a traditional Keynesian demand led growth in the economy as it now stands because of the calamitous global warming outcomes.  Lost or forgotten (or perhaps written in the Van Jones sage)  in their assessments is the logic of a Green New Deal, where it is the transformation of energy generation, buildings and transportation - most of our infrastructure – that would form the basis for millions of new public and private sector jobs and a new economic dynamic.  Yet there would still be the objection, if this would remain an otherwise neoliberal world economy, that most of the goods purchased with the money earned through higher employment (and higher wages) would still be produced by the dirtiest carbon intensive sources which are now in Asia.  So you can easily see how this logic can drive the ecological left to deeper and more radical transformation proposals for the economy: build it (grow it)  here, and build it local and carbon free.

My further observation is that, especially after reading Sheldon Wolin’s book on Democracy Inc., and its “field demonstration” in the State Department under Secretary Clinton, to make America the “arsenal of energy,’ the government that has been “captured” by corporate and financial interests has “hardened” into something “else,” a corporate state that cannot be turned out of office easily just by electing a new Congress and a very different President.  Could an election like 1800, 1828, 1860 or 1932 – the small “r” electoral revolutions of our past, cure these almost structural pathologies, especially if it has to be held under the terms of the “managed democracy” that Wolin thinks we now have?

I don’t know, the logic drives in that direction but I am still reluctant to abandon the hope that the progressive populist currents now building might spread well beyond the left, with implications for three-quarters of the country, if not that last Southern quarter.  Katznelson’s work reminds us that if we want to preserve a national democracy, as the New Deal did, we still have to grapple with the reality of its central national operating mechanism, the Congress, and the electoral races that legitimize its members.  Wolin though, writing near the end of the two Bush terms in 2007-2008, clearly has sided with the decentralizers.  He says it is not possible to build a large national public interest again, although there is a touch of ambiguity in his last sentence below.  I would remind him and others that the New Deal drew upon not only the Progressive Era programs of 1900-1914, but also the social service experiments of New York state under both Al Smith and FDR, and the state wide egalitarian movements of Huey Long,  Dr. Francis Townsend, and Upton Sinclair ( whose End Poverty in California, EPIC program bears more than some resemblance to the directions advocated by Alperovitz, who did not mention it in his book, probably because it turned into too raucous of a high profile program and campaign…to put it mildly…(See Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century by Kevin Mattson (2006)

 and this Nation magazine article )

Here is Wolin:

The demos will never dominate politically.  In an age where identities are potentially plural and changing, a unified demos is no longer possible, or even desirable: instead of a demos, democratic citizenries.  Democratic political consciousness, while it may emerge anywhere at any time is most likely to be nurtured in local, small- scale settings, where both the negative consequences of political powerlessness and the positive possibilities of political involvement seem most evident.  Further, a vital local democracy can help to bridge the inevitable distance between the representative government and its constituencies. There is a genuinely valuable contribution which democracy can make to national politics, but it is dependent upon a politics that is rooted locally, experienced daily, and practiced regularly, not just mobilized spasmodically.
It has been fascinating to listen as Ralph Nader thinks out loud, speaking to Paul Jay in these interviews.  Nader has been having breakfast with billionaires, trying first to raise a billion dollars from them to fund his proposal to get a thousand volunteers to advocate for a set of core progressive programs and watchdog the sitting Congressperson -  in each of the  congressional districts.  There would have to be paid, experienced staff directing each operation.  At times Nader tells the pubic that “folks, it’s easier than you think; for the time some spend bird watching, or give to their other hobbies, if they would redirect their energies we could do this…” Then he waxes nostalgic for the heydays of his PIRG organizations, when the politicians of both parties really could feel the “rumble of the people” in the streets and knocking on doors.  Of course, that was a time when there were still mildly progressive Republicans, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.   Then he wonders whether “the people” today are still able to do this…which is a cultural as well as an economic and political question, and that is one reason I have gone into some depth with the authors who have spoken about the complex message of voter apathy.  Is it indifference, or a rational judgment about being locked out of determinative policy processes…before the elections are held?  Is it the rational response of poor people with poor access, not enough money, and just as important, not enough leisure time?

And then Nader has also been having additional breakfasts with some more billionaires, he tells us – it’s not clear if these are the same as the earlier ones – but the purpose is to convince one of the more progressive ones to run for President, to shake up both parties, Ross Perot style.  I have jibed back that with a billion dollars, Gar Alperovitz could really build a good running start for the co-operative economic ventures he is advocating for, like the one put together from many funding sources in Cleveland.  He might get the seed money for some public banks to be run along the same lines.  Utilities too.   This would be a fruitful and more direct alternative to the ways many of America’s top 1% currently give to NGOs and their causes, which has been scathingly taken apart by Warren Buffett’s son, Peter. He has described the foundations as trying to repair with the left hand what the donor’s private sector activities have created with the right.  I think, but am not entirely sure, that he excluded his father from that syndrome.

Nader also has a new book out about the coming merger of “left-right populism”: Unstoppable.  Take a close look at where he thinks there might be consensus, what issues.  Perhaps to break up the big banks, but will that transform the hedge fund-private equity driven “shadow banking system,” or lower the interest rates charged to consumers or approach Michael Hudson’s call for debt relief?  On some banking matters, and the reform of the National Security State, I agree tactical alliances are possible, even plausible; but how about on a full employment program and a $15.00 minimum wage, and a World War II type “mobilization” to fight global warming?  I think at times Nader is driven too hard and too implausibly by the terrible dilemmas thrown up by our democracy’s gridlock, by that ideological roadblock in the national legislature.  I call it “The Wall,” and it is vexing everyone on the left, in one way or another. Citizens in the middle, as well.

Who is correct on these very consequential matters:  of the left aiming for the national commanding heights of the political system in order to reshape the economy, or starting at the local level or state level in a long haul to build new economic structures from the ground up? And how is that working out in the dynamics between Mayor Bill De Blasio in New York City and Governor Andrew Cuomo in Albany, Cuomo being the new poster boy for the neoliberal Democratic “Centrist.  And let’s throw in Cuomo’s relationship to New York State’s Working Families Party, which is about to expand into Maryland.  

 I still lean towards the first, more traditional course of national action on two grounds.  The level of pain in the economy right now is so great, the bottom half of the citizenry cannot wait decades for relief, and the urgency to combat global warming also cannot wait 20 years to begin a slow transformation of ….well, just about the whole economy, to put it bluntly.   And there is intellectual momentum building on the left, as I have tried to document in this essay.  Yet I am old enough to know that the American left has always been diverse and fractious, in a very large and diverse country whose institutions still have the skeletal structures of federalism even if the ideology has coalesced in neoliberalism; so individuals will follow their hearts’ and heads’ desires and best judgments and we will see activity in both directions, with unknown outcomes and many unforeseen events influencing us along the way.  I can’t close the door on either and we should live with the intellectual tensions between them.  

I experience these tensions along other dimensions as well. I can look at Katznelson’s findings in Fear Itself, look at the alliance of Libertarians and the Republican Right, and conclude, in matters of state and economy, that their views, if usually at odds with the Democratic Center, will be even more so as the left moves that Center further in its direction via the new populism, as some have called it.  As things stand now, the main currents on the political economy are irreconcilable, as great as between the abolitionists and the slaveholding South in the 1850’s.  And more and more, global warming activists are describing their cause in those terms, as another abolitionist movement, to abolish the old carbon economy.  We should remember though, that the abolitionists never converted the South and we went to a Civil War after the South seceded.  Sometimes I think, to listen to the decentralizers on the left today, that it is they who want to secede from the Union.  I don’t think that will work, but more and more democracy is struggling in its current constrained national forms.  To succeed, the left, including the ecological left, must find converts from the middle of the spectrum in all parts of the country, and especially in all the swing states.  An insistence on a national minimum wage of $15.00 is a good issue to build around.  Even that can’t be done unless the 28 million see themselves as fully worth that pay, and begin to assume more of the heavy burdens of citizenship that Wolin describes.  Upton Sinclair had his 1934 EPIC program in California built around the poor and unemployed creating their own economy from the discarded portions of the old, including their own internal script currency.  Author Kevin Mattson tells us that Sinclair’s “production for use” was Jefferson’s democratic dream merged with the cooperative movement.  I invite my readers to learn from the good and bad about that movement and all that took place in Sinclair’s run to be Governor of California in 1934.  What happened to Sinclair in that race, the nature of the opposition, eerily foreshadows much of what we don’t like about elections today.  

Which leaves the South to discuss.  Am I being too pessimistic about its future voting behavior? That is the criticism that Nicholas Lemann, author of the moving book The Promised Land:  The Great Black Migration and It Changed America makes in his review of Fear Itself, here at  Lemann asks us to consider how much the South has changed, moved closer in income and lifestyle to the rest of the country, since the end of Jim Crow, and especially in racial matters.  But does Lemann in turn underestimate the same ideological factors bearing on the economy and the state that the author of the New York Times article did?  After all, the white “yeomen” of the South, most of whom did not own slaves, followed the slave owning “gentry” right on through to the Virginia led “Pickett’s Charge” on the last day of Gettysburg, in July of 1863.  Why would a Wal-Mart worker in Alabama today, earning $8-9 dollars an hour continue to support the political economy of Speaker John Boehner, who himself appears to have been an exploited under-age worker in his family’s business?  And now he’s taking it out on us, asking us all to repeat his experience.  That’s character building, I guess.

Yet I felt, and saw the changes in attitude towards the political economy inside the left, pre-Piketty; I have been noting the shift at least since December when I first starting reading Karen Garcia’s tough “fight back” comments in the New York Times, often chiding Paul Krugman for not going further, and drawing, regularly, 1,000 “likes,” quite an initial surprise for me from the readers of the Gray Lady.  But even if the left cannot convert the core white voters of the South who are currently turning out, what about the large numbers of poorer whites, and blacks who do not vote?  We see the stirrings in the “Moral Mondays’ movement in North Carolina:  can it spread?  Can the new Pope move some of the old Reagan Democrats back into the spirit of the New Deal, whatever its modern manifestations?  I don’t know, but look at the phenomenon of Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century, which in the magical way of “one book in a million,” including many written on the left, finds the perfect timing of message and “national” mood and takes off, finally giving the left a “text” to rally around, with its declaration in Chapter Seven, “Inequality and Concentration: Preliminary Bearings” that “…what primarily characterizes the United States at the moment is a record level of inequality from income from labor (probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world, including societies in which skill disparities were extremely large)…” {My emphasis.}.

And locally in Maryland, some candidates for the state Senate are sensing the change in mood.  Hence Dana Beyer’s gutsy challenge to sitting Senator Richard Madaleno, in District 18, something of a “blue-stocking” district; perhaps the challenge had something to do with his surprising vote against the bill to give estate tax relief to Maryland’s millionaires, one of only ten to vote against it.  Who would have figured that vote based on his legislative record?  Beyer got another one of my $5.00 donations, one of my three this election cycle.  Soon my name will be appearing alongside the “Potomac” addresses in the national listings of big $ contributors.

Part Three: Why The Caged Birds Don’t Sing in Annapolis

And now let me take these musings, and my readings in the history of democracy and the political economy of the United States, and come back and visit the doings in that sleepy, isolated, old colonial town with the remarkably preserved architecture, but no rail connection, Annapolis.  What is the nature of the “cage” that prevents those vast Democratic majorities in the Assembly and the Senate, comparable to those that Democrats and FDR enjoyed after 1936 from doing more?   Well, we have already seen that the two Maryland Senators led the attack on the Wagner Act, foreshadowing the Southern Democrat-Republican alliance that would become a powerful national force after 1938…and especially after 1964.  But I don’t just want to hurl charges against the timid nature of the Democratic Party in Maryland, I want to try to understand the forces operating to construct that cage of ideas, of political economy limits that restrains them.

So my first question is:  is Annapolis a unique world, reflective of the not so progressive traditions of Maryland’s’ half slave, half-free character before and during the Civil War?  Or is it also, like most of the United States, and the rest of the world, living under the “apparatuses” of “repression” and “justification” that Thomas Piketty hints have lain behind capitalism’s three century’s ability to maintain a rate of return on capital of 4-5%, enough to insure the great inequalities of wealth and income that have been the norm,  not the exception, both in Europe and the United States – and which now go under the banner of “neoliberalism,” or, if you would prefer, “free-market capitalism” – and the “managed” democracy that Wolin says now goes with it?   And Maryland, it seems to me, is not so unique in the divisions it obviously has between its rural northwest counties, and southeastern ones,  those lying outside the economically dominant metropolitan areas close to Washington and Baltimore.  You can find the same divisions and tensions in New Jersey, New York too, and as those who follow fracking have come to know, in Pennsylvania, the vast semi-rural areas that lie between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and have always lain outside all that was meant by the term “the Main Line.”

I think that the Democrats in Annapolis, like Centrist Democrats everywhere, and even the ostensibly more social democratic socialist parties in Europe, currently live and work inside the intellectual structures of “free-market” capitalism’s cage, and now I’m going to try to empathetically understand how its mechanisms, and justifications, work.  First of all, capital, even vast industrial chicken farms, like those of Perdue, are mobile, and they are always threatening to leave if they are not treated right in terms of light regulations, light taxes, and due deference, if not more, in the legislative halls – and pre-legislative “working dinners.”  So Maryland, like every other state, is caught up in competitive economic pressures that always operate in a “race to the bottom” of these standards, never towards the top.  

Thomas Piketty says they now operate intensively between nations in a vast race to throw off corporate taxes and hide income; the real worries about his data come not from the recent challenge from the Financial Times, he handled that very well; rather, they come from Piketty’s own worry that all governmental data understate wealth inequalities today because there is so much off shored/tax haven buried wealth and income.  Yet the warning outcome to these tactics is surely the fate of Ireland, the tax less corporate welcoming state of the 1990’s – with - echoes of Maryland’s and Montgomery County’s obsession with good education -  Ireland has the best educated work force in Europe; yet it could not escape the disasters visited upon it by being so deeply enmeshed in the destructive currents that go with “free-market” capitalism today.  Do Governor O’Malley, and our two other “famous men,” long serving Senate President Mike Miller and Assembly Speaker Michael Busch,  understand what happened in Ireland, the most accommodative and meekly subservient of welcoming states (and isn’t that a twist, a strange turn upon the ancient Irish temperament)?  What it suggests to me, and what is suggested by Piketty’s analysis, is that even the fastest and most adaptive “runners” in a race to the bottom, no matter how successful in the short and medium term, cannot “outrun” the logic of the current system’s deepest pathologies, that it has become a predatory economy on the lower half of the population – and upon nature itself.  As Karl Polanyi warned us in 1944: no one, left, right or center, can live with a “pure” free market, it is that destructive.  And I fully acknowledge here that Maryland is not the worst in these runnings, but rather lives with the constant pressures to move in that direction, never totally giving in but yet never – and who has – coming up with a way to break the vicious cycle.

Let me give two illustrations of these forces at work inside Annapolis, but they are really national and international in scope and force.  The Majority Leader of the Maryland House of Delegates, Kumar Barve, from my own District 17, sent out an explanatory letter of his vote in support of the Estate Tax exemptions, the bill to bring Maryland’s law in line with what Congress has done, to raise the exemptions to over 5 million dollars and link them to inflation.  It was the multiple out-of-state residences of some of Maryland’s wealthiest families which made it so easy for them to flee, upon the death of a spouse, and take the tax “jurisdiction” over their wealth with them – to friendlier states.   The Majority Leader said he knew of several instances personally, and the departing sums were very large, harmful to the revenue of the state if lost.  We might ask, more harmful than the estimated loss, in the bill’s fiscal note, of reaching $100 million per year by the time the exemptions fully phase in?  Given Maryland’s repeated claim that it has exhausted progressive tax measures, how will it close that gap, especially since the legislative leaders have explicitly ruled out making the sales tax more progressive by taxing a fuller range of the services of the “service” economy?    
 Second, we were delighted to read the New York Times account of the legislative drama which unfolded over the threat of the makers of the House of Cards Television series to leave Maryland if the state did not kick in with $15 million worth of subsidies to keep them here for their third season’s filming.  Apparently, this was in addition to the $26 million they had received in tax credits from an existing state program to lure film makers to Maryland.

 Here it is at  

In particular, one Democratic legislator, Delegate  C. William Frick (Dist. 16),  was very upset over the lack of manners displayed by what he felt was a too direct threat to leave or postpone filming if the state did not fully  accommodate the company’s -  Media Rights Capital – request.  Frick turned his indignation into an Assembly-Senate battle over competing bills that were still coming up $3.5 million short.  The differences were never settled in time, but Governor O’Malley did succeed in finding that sum from other sources, so the “demands” of the company will be fully met, despite their breach of etiquette. And that is the way I read this tale by reporter Trip Gabriel: it was about a breach of good corporate manners, not a principled opposition to shakedowns.  The message: don’ t fully embarrass us with public demands, we’ll meet everything you want as long as the subservience and power relationships are kept in the quiet, normal channels of corporate arm twisting and domination.  Viewed through another prism, the one of Governor O’Malley’s national political ambitions and his seat at the table of the National Governor’s Association, wouldn’t this have been a great time to call the other governor’s into a national moratorium of sorts, to put an end to the outrageous subsidies to gain or keep the magically evasive good corporate jobs, running to wasted billions annually?  Not a chance of that, those invisible cage bars are too strong.  In this present political universe, the caged birds do not sing (here noting the death of Maya Angelou, on Wednesday, May 28, 2014).

As I was probing a bit more deeply into the worldview of the Democratic leadership in Annapolis, low and behold, I found a late March, 2014 joint letter by Senate President Miller and Assembly Speaker Busch, which appeared in the Baltimore Sun on the 24th, entitled “A Plan for Building Maryland’s Economy.”   It might as well have been signed by Governor O’Malley, because the contents surely bear the stamp of his policy inclinations over the past eight years.

 Here it is at

The plan is a remarkably short document, full of bullet point type summaries and program outlines, starting out with the announcement of something that had already happened earlier in this legislative session, the formation of a “transformational economic development commission” to be headed by Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin.  The timing of this document’s release looks a bit suspect to me, coming so late in the session, just two weeks before its close. Sounds like this document is meant to balance the likely, but shaky passage of that minimum wage bill, because it never mentions it; this is a corporate and private wealth friendly document, and a further clue, after the descriptions of the business joint ventures with higher education, is that it ends by noting that Maryland acted to reform its estate tax laws, “re-coupling” them to the national law, with the “re-coupling …supported by many foundations and nonprofits in Maryland.”

 I hadn’t heard that anywhere else, least of all from the non-profits themselves.  It sounds like a cover story to me, one needed even before the Piketty phenomenon fully took off, since he says stiff estate taxes are one of the few means to reign in the growth of rampant wealth inequalities.  In fairness, citizens and legislators, the truth of my own experience with non-profits, and they are a large sector in the US, is that we look in vain to them to perform any serious countervailing “balance of power” role to offset the rise of the corporate state and managed democracy.  It makes some sense, even though I didn’t hear it announced by the non-profits themselves, that their funders and board members would be “all on board” with the generous wealth sheltering contained in this “re-coupling” legislation.

As for the contents in the rest of the document, it is a continuation and perhaps intensification of Maryland’s attempt to become an investment broker itself, adding its own funds to match guided and supervised (how well we will see) investment gambits in research and business ventures undertaken inside the state.  It is a curious thing, though, in the nation which supposedly has the “widest and deepest capital markets in the world,” why this would be necessary, this state injection and supervision?  Is it confirmation, indirectly, that things are not quite well, that, indeed, the world of capitalist finance is not up to the job, at least not in Maryland, but perhaps more broadly, inside the old boundaries of the 50 states?  It is a sign of job desperation, to me at least, that now we will not only have the old urban “enterprise zones” (which couldn’t save Baltimore, Newark or Detroit…to name just a few…) but we will have them extended wherever the current geography of existing university or federal government research “clusters,” exist, often in quite decent surrounding neighborhoods.   And I hear the longing, shared by nearly every state with a research university, that the state government should attempt to turn these little green shoots into the vast, hoped for “Silicon Valley effect,” constructing forced feeding greenhouses to push artificially what has not unfolded through the reluctant chemistry of more “natural” business evolution.  So Maryland and business and universities and public laboratories will be working not only in the universally longed for “biotech” area, but also in nanotechnology, cyber-security (isn’t that an oxymoron now, post Snowden?)  And pure “R&D.”  Is the public interest (remember that concept, if it still exists?) and moreover, the public’s money fully protected in these ventures, and are we getting a decent share of the returns?  My initial forays into these questions a few years ago never got much beyond the official defenses and statistics which said all is well.  Good returns and no rip-offs.  But then again, I haven’t exactly sensed that Maryland is home to a vigorous investigative press or too many citizens curious about this direction for our political economy.  So I’m not blessing it at all, just saying it needs a vigorous watch-dog function because it has the potential to be abused.  And I’m not sure this was exactly the type of “co-operative” venture that Gar Alperovitz was calling for.

I did manage, though, to get a look at the composition of this “transformational economic development commission” announced at the beginning of the “plan.”  Amidst all the private sector and educational institution “heavies,” I did manage to find one union member representative, the head of a painters union.  I’ve never heard of him, and I have to say his slot looks a bit forlorn amidst the broader biographical landscape.  
And that brings me to some further generalizations about the nature of Maryland’s bar less “iron cage” of ideology.  Can you find the average citizen, the Maryland portion of the national 28 million working in the service and retail sectors for under $9.89 per hour in this memo-plan?   I couldn’t.  The underlying message, as with the subsidies to the film makers and the attempts to keep Maryland a comfortable home for all our millionaires, is that “only the private sector” can create jobs; not a new New Deal that we don’t have, and its green CCC or WPA for a new energy economy.  We will twist the world of education to meet the ever shifting private sector demand to invent new products, including technologically adept students, but we are clueless, historically memory less, and unable to “innovate” with public jobs themselves, despite not being reluctant at all to have the public supply its capital to the inadequately functioning private sector.  And despite the fact that the Federal Reserve used the powers of its magical money creation machinery  to keep the large banks afloat, and send them on their merry way to new “carry trades” abroad, where the returns appeared to be much better – for a while, a long while, actually.  But being creative and experimental here at home, directly for the unemployed and underemployed, as the New Deal was? Forget about it, it’s ideologically forbidden.  In this realm, the millions of the “not yet middle class” birds are not going to be allowed to sing.  

May I translate this world of Senator Miller,  Speaker Busch and Governor O’Malley, the residence that they have sketched out for us inside this cage of ideology; can I do so by borrowing from Garrison Keillor’s imaginary land of Lake Wobegon?

Here we are in Maryland, and Montgomery County, lands where “all the women ‘Lean In,’ the men are hedge fund operators or venture capitalists, and the children have each won ‘early acceptance’ from the Ivy League school of their choice.”

Amen to that, say we of the 90-99% percent, depending on how you slice it. It’s good that we weren’t left out of the arrangements, as we wait for the job creators to work their magic.   Is there anything else we can do for them?  

Back in reality now, I am reminded of a little quoted passage from De Tocqueville, who wrote about the coming of the French Revolution as well as the meaning of the democracy emerging in Jefferson’s and Jackson’s America.  Speaking of the French Revolution, he said “Never was any such event so inevitable yet so completely unforeseen.”

The best to all my readers,
Bill Neil
Rockville, MD

PS   Credit for part of the title of this essay, must, of course,  be given to James Agee’s difficult but now near canonical work from 1941, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  It was his account of a stay, on assignment from Fortune magazine,  with some of America’s poorest rural families, in the deep South, during the Depression, and was written, in good part,  in 1938 while he lived in Frenchtown, NJ, one of the wonderful “river towns” that most people from outside the state don’t know exist. Agee’s text was blended with photographs of the tenant farmers and their surroundings by the noted photographer Walker Evans.

If you’ve never ventured into the book, a sample of Agee’s prose now used as an introduction by the hotel he frequented, can give you an idea of his writing.

  Here at   The selection is a rendering, as only Agee might attempt to pull off, of the city of New Orleans.  I don’t think Mike Miller will like it.

And this recent essay makes the case for his heightened relevance for our times.

Originally posted to billofrights on Thu Jun 05, 2014 at 02:52 PM PDT.

Also republished by Maryland Kos and Community Spotlight.

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