Saturday, December 03, 2011

My Absence

I'm writing this post—with the help of my son Thuy—to explain my absence in this space. Early in October I suffered a fall, and as the result I spent 20 days in the intensive care unit at George Washington University Hospital. The doctors and nurses there are first-class professionals, and I am fortunate to have such good care. For the past few weeks, I've been working hard in my recovery to regain my strength, with the help of many therapists (speech, physical, occupational and nutritionists). I miss writing, and I have many ideas that I hope to share with you in the near future. Thank you for your support and happy holidays. Please keep up the good fight. Read more!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Distinguishing your right to property

So you support the right to property. Fine. But there are two kinds of right to property. Though often confused, they are so distinctly different that they are in conflict with each other.

-- One is the fundamental right of every human being to own property. (See article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

-- The other is the unrestricted right asserted by property owners to exploit their property to the detriment of others.

President Obama announced on September 20 that the U.S. government is joining a global effort seeking to ensure that the vast riches of the world’s extractive industries are not limited to property owners alone. Named the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), it a coalition of governments, civil society, and companies

About 3,500,000,000 people live in countries rich in oil, gas, and minerals – natural resources that can, under good governance, generate large revenues to foster economic growth and reduce poverty. “However,” as EITI points out, “when transparency and accountability is low, such resource revenue may result in poverty, corruption, and conflict.”

EITI has a set of 21 requirements that a government must meet to achieve EITI Compliant status. A board and international secretariat administer the standard for companies to publish what they pay and for governments to disclose what they receive. So far 29 countries have met that transparency standard. Norway was the first OECD country to do so.

The EITI Website explains:

“Transparency alone will not guarantee sound management of extractive resources but is very likely to lead to greater benefits for the people and more efficient management of the sector. The challenges for North Africa and the Middle East and other resource rich countries are immense, but the EITI is a good place to start – focusing on the industries and the revenues that could be harnessed to transform these societies.” Read more!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Tracking down the slaves who work for you

Our world has about 27,000,000 million slaves – men, women, and children -- who are forced to work without compensation in the vast production and distribution chain upon which ordinary consumers are inevitably dependent for everyday products. That is the conclusion reached by a U.S. State Department–funded project announced on September 23.

The project reveals the extent of the link: slave labor is used, for example, to mine mica, the mineral used to provide sparkle in cosmetics, and coltan, a component in electronics, and to make products like soccer balls from China and cotton from Uzbekistan.

Besides, through a newly launched Website,,the project encourages corporations to investigate their wide-ranging supply chains -- their contractors and subcontractors -- for use of slave labor.

The initiative was announced at a New York City news conference by Ambassador at Large CdeBaca of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. More details can be found on Facebook at
# Read more!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How U.S. China policy is tilted against American workers

What will it take for the U.S. government to reform its unbalanced China policy?

A new study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) lays down the hard facts on a trade relationship with China that is by far the most unbalanced in the world. For example:

 Between 2001 and 2010, the outsized trade deficit with China cost at least 2,800,000 U.S. jobs, 1,900,000 them in manufacturing.
 Included in that total for all sectors were 453,100 jobs lost or displaced from 2008 to 2010 alone.
 World trade in advanced technology products – once hailed as a source of comparative advantage for America – is now dominated by China. Hardest hit are the computer and electronic parts industry.
 China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 tilted the economic playing field further in favor of multinational companies, which “have enjoyed record profits on their foreign direct investments.”

The impact on American workers is not limited to lost opportunities to get jobs. Competition with China has also driven down wage levels of employed workers, especially in manufacturing. All workers with less than a four-year college degree are the most adversely affected.

The report, written by EPI’s Robert E. Scott, attributes the rapidly growing trade deficit largely to China’s manipulation of its currency in a way that effectively subsidizes China’s exports, “making U.S. goods less competitive in that country and in every country where U.S exports compete with Chinese exports.

In his last two paragraphs Scott evaluates the U.S.-China relationship:

“Is America’s loss China’s gain? The answer is not clearly affirmative. China has become dependent on the U.S. consumer market for employment generation, suppressed the purchasing power of its own middle class with a weak currency, and, most important, now holds over $3 trillion in hard currency reserves instead of investing them in public goods that could benefit Chinese households. Its vast purchases of foreign exchange reserves have stimulated the overheating of its domestic economy, and inflation in China has accelerated rapidly in the past year. Its repression of labor rights has suppressed wages, thereby artificially subsidizing exports.

“The U.S-China trade relationship needs a fundamental change. Addressing the exchange rate policies and labor standards issues in the Chinese economy are important first steps.”
Read more!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Time to halt this madness before it’s too late

A small group of people have pulled a fast one. They have manipulated the legislative process to entangle a small group of people in an impossible situation where any decision they make is bound to be disastrous.

Where in the constitution does it empower a small group of people to choose economic suicide for the United States of America? Read more!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Trust in policymaking role of banks and other financial institutions not merited, says UN agency

Given their “irresponsible behavior” in the economic crisis, banks and other private financials institutions do not inspire trust in the role they still have in shaping the recovery. So says an intergovernmental agency, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in its report on “Post-Crisis Challenges in the World Economy,” released September 6.

“Little has been learned about placing too much confidence in the judgment of financial market participants, including rating agencies, concerning the macroeconomic situation and the appropriateness of macroeconomic policies,” the annual UNCTAD report states.

“In light of the irresponsible failure of many private market actors in the run-up to the crisis, and costly government intervention to prevent the collapse of the financial system, it is surprising that a large section of public opinion, and many policymakers, are once again putting their trust in those same institutions to judge what constitutes correct macroeconomic management and sound public finance.”

The report emphasizes the importance of wage growth to recovery, since wage income is the main driver of domestic demand in both developed and emergent market economies. “However, in most developed countries, the chances of wage growth…are slim.” Declining wages dampen the private spending needed for recovery.

The thrust of the report is that, in the current crisis, the focus on cutting budgets and debt is counterproductive.

A new Census Bureau report underlines the urgency of the situation. More Americans are now living in poverty than at any time since records began to be kept 50 years ago. As a Financial Times news story put it:

“The aftermath of the recession has been a ‘two-speed’ recovery for Americans, as the wealthiest maintain their spending habits and lifestyles while a record number of their fellow citizens are mired in poverty.”


The Director-General of the International Labour Organization, Mr. Juan Somavia, said the time has come to “place the real economy in the driver’s seat of the global economy, with a financial system at its service”.

“This means putting productive investment in the real economy at the heart of policymaking; an enabling environment for sustainable enterprises; and less availability of unproductive and risky financial products”, Mr. Somavia told members of the European Parliament during an address in Strasbourg. Read more!

Monday, September 12, 2011

'Balanced' is the keyword for coping with economic storm

There we were, my wife and I, driving through a furious rainstorm, on the periphery of Hurricane Irene. About 15 minutes from home, when traffic slowed to a crawl, I began worrying without speaking. Would a breakdown of our sump pump, which failed in a storm three years ago, again flood the basement?

Further down Route 7, police cars blocked us from the flooded road ahead, and waved us into a detour. Soon the worry about a flooded basement faded into: do we have enough gas to make it home? After another restless half hour, we thankfully reached a familiar crossroads. Soon we were home, bedraggled but safe, and sump pump working as it was meant to.

Many millions, all along the East coast, weren’t so lucky. Within our own county, hundreds had to be evacuated from their homes. Swift-moving waters swept four people to their deaths, including a 12-year old boy. Rescuers had to pluck dozens from their stranded cars.

While the East coast was suffering a drastic surplus of water, most of the Southern region was enduring a devastating shortage. In Texas, the hardest hit, the combination of drought and wild fires has so far cost farmers and ranchers $5,200,000,000 in losses; raging fires have destroyed more than 1,500 homes. Five other Southern states were also affected by what one expert called the driest, hottest summer on record in the area since 1895.

Learning from Two Parallel Crises

I’ve long considered the extremes in the nation’s weather as offering a metaphorical lesson for its extremes in income. Both kinds of extremes have corresponding losses in lives and property.

For extremes in weather -- long spells of dry heat in one region, devastating floods in another -- the consequences are widespread and visible, but solutions lie largely beyond human reach. For extremes in the disparities between rich and poor, the consequences are less visible but even more widespread. The great difference between the two types is that solutions to gross disparities in income and wealth are within human reach, but only if enough people recognize the perils and have the will to take effective concerted action.

For positive results in dealing with the economic crisis, the keyword is “balance,” a quality lacking in the deficit debate and in its mindless outcome. The Congressional supercommission will fail in its mandate if it proceeds without a vision that the results must be balanced.

Economist Benjamin M. Friedman, for one, understands what that means, using a synonym for balanced: “broadly based.” As he writes in his book, “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth”:

“Economic progress needs to be broadly based if it is to foster social and political progress. That progress requires the positive experience of a sufficiently broad cross section of a country’s population to shape the country’s mood and direction.”

But that requirement, he points out, has not been met for more than a quarter century. “Except for a brief period in the late 1990s, most of the fruits of the last three decades of economic growth in the United States have accrued to only a small slice of the population….After allowing for higher prices, the average worker in American business in 2004 made 16 percent less each week than thirty-plus years earlier. For most Americans, the reward for work today is well below what it used to be.”

These days the average pay for work – when it is available -- remains more or less stagnated at the 2004 level. Meanwhile, according to numerous reports, corporate executive pay has continued to grow. CEO pay, according to AFL-CIO studies, has grown to 343 times the median pay of workers, by far the largest gap in the world.

“Only with sustained economic growth, and the sense of confident progress that follows from the advance in living standards for most of its citizens, can even a great nation find the energy, the wherewithal, and most importantly the human attitudes that together sustain an open, tolerant and democratic society.” – Benjamin M. Friedman, in the last sentence of his book. Read more!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Where Art meets work and the rights of workers

Rare are artists who feature work and workers. Judy Taylor of Maine is one of the rarities. I have just today become aware of her and a mural of hers that the governor of Maine banned from the walls of the state’s department of labor.

As a non-credentialed art critic, I find the mural on her website,
so awesome that I can hardly type this report. I could not reach her immediately to get permission to reprint her copyrighted work.

But, while the original 11-panel mural is now packed up and hidden at an undisclosed location, nearly full-size reproductions are on display until September 20 at the VisArts Kaplan Gallery in Rockville, Md. In publicizing the event, titled “Celebrate Labor: Where Art and Politics Meet,” the gallery’s Website, at, prints three of her panels portraying “the secret ballot,” “the first Labor’s Day,” and “the Woods Worker.”

Each of the 11 panels is an allegory for a struggle or an achievement in the history of the worker, especially in Maine. Panel 8, for example, depicts a pregnant woman receiving advice from Francis Perkins, a Maine icon who was the first U.S. cabinet member.

Taylor, commissioned to do the mural for $60,000, finished it in 2008, two years before a Republican, Paul LePage, became governor, and found the mural offensive. Ironically, his ban has awarded it national publicity. Belatedly, I featured the news on my Facebook page, and will display more of the panels as soon as I get permission to do so. Read more!

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Exploring human rights and global economy

The New School for Social Research will hold a conference on Human Rights and the Global Economy November 9 and 10 in New York City. The wide range of subjects to be discussed include trade and intellectual property; the dimensions of human trafficking; responsibilities that flow from benefitting from global injustice; climate change and global justice; and human rights obligations of corporations.

“This public conference will engage both speakers in conversation about human rights,” says Arien Mack, professor of psychology at the New School, who is founder and director of the Social Research conference series.

For information about the conference, consult the web page at Read more!

Monday, September 05, 2011

'The Chinese Invasion'

 Almost every American-themed trinket sold in the Smithsonian Institute is made in China.
 San Francisco is importing its new bay bridge from China.
 New York City awarded Chinese state-subsidized firms contracts to renovate the city’s subway system, refurbish the Alexander Hamilton Bridge over the Harlem River, and build a new Metro-North train platform near Yankee Stadium.

David Sirota, in an op-ed published in Truthout September 2, cited that spate of “mind-blowing” recent news headlines as evidence of “the Chinese invasion.” To that list, he added a reminder that the Martin Luther King monument in Washington was designed by a Chinese sculptor and assembled by low-wage Chinese workers.

Imagine the contradiction: a memorial for a civil rights leader who deplored “starvation wages” and died supporting a sanitation union’s strike is built by non-union serfs from China! The Chinese invasion, Sirota wrote, is caused by an America “no longer willing or able to invest in its own future.”

He attributed this shocking situation largely to our “golden age of big-money politics,” in which multinational corporations are “buying off our lawmakers.” But you can’t buy what’s already been sold.

Our China policy reflects the way most of our leaders really think, based on what they learned in the best universities about the sanctity of free markets. President Obama’s embrace of free trade and free investment agreements is consistent with what he imbibed at Harvard and Chicago.
That line of thinking has penetrated even some union leaders. At the June International Labor Conference in Geneva, a representative of the All-China Federation of Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), a component of China’s state/Party power structure, was elected to the governing body of the ILO, thanks to a decision of a divided Workers’ Group.

The International Union of Food and Hotel Workers (IUF) statement on that development was headed: “ACFTU representing workers’ interests….—that cannot be serious!Read more!

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Jobless crisis: its catastrophic impact on the whole country

Persistent high unemployment in the United States is having a “catastrophic” long-term impact on the entire country. In other words, the negative impact is not limited to workers who are currently unemployed (14,000,000 men and women), but is also affecting the rest of the population, even those with jobs.

The grim facts about the nation’s job crisis are detailed in a new briefing paper, “Sustained, High Joblessness Causes Lasting Damage to Wages, Benefits, Income, and Wealth,” just released by the Economic Policy Institute.

Current discussion of unemployment and the need for job creation “vastly understate both the damage done…and the extent of the population affected,” say the authors of the paper, Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierholz.

They debunk the claim that the problem is just “structural” – that employers can’t find the workers with the skills needed in the current economy. “It is not that this country is lacking the right workers; it is lacking work,” they write, and supply the supporting data illustrating “a profound lack of demand for workers, not that employers can’t find the people they need.”

Among the evidence they present on the pain of the crisis:

 The share of children with an unemployed or underemployed parent has doubled in three years – from 6,400,000 in 2007 to 13,000,000 in 2010).
 The monthly jobless rate puts one month’s unemployed workers in the foreground. In the background are the unemployed the other months. For the workforce overall, almost one in three workers were unemployed or underemployed at some point in 2009.
 For more than a year, the share of the unemployed who have been without a job for over six months has hovered around 45%.
 All education categories – college-educated workers included – have seen their unemployment rates roughly double over the last four years.
 Forecasters do not expect export growth sufficient enough to substantially reduce unemployment in the next few years. The Congressional Budget Office expects the unemployment rate to be over 8% well into 2014.

In their concluding paragraphs, Mishel and Shierholz briefly supplement their factual analysis with judgments. The persistence of high unemployment, they write, “is unacceptable in a modern, developed economy, and the means to address it are no mystery: stimulate demand which will create jobs.”

They list the programs that Congress could adopt to rejuvenate the labor market. Some of them are: repair and upgrade the nation’s 100,000 public school buildings; additional spending on transportation infrastructure, and fiscal relief to the states.
But they recognize a huge obstacle: the debt ceiling agreement of August 2011, which “all but rules out deficit-financed stimulus of an appropriate magnitude.” Renegotiate or repeal it, they advise.

“All of these policies,” they write in their final paragraph, “are in our power to accomplish as the world’s largest economy. We can make the choice to pursue them and deflate the high unemployment that will otherwise scar the country and its workers for a generation.”

Will we make the right choice? I fear that we won’t, and one reason is the negative role of some powerful Catholics in Congress. A new campaign has the potential to become a movement that could bring people’s attitudes and actions more in line with Catholic principles. See my blog posting of September 1 on the St. Francis Pledge to Care for God’s Creation.

For information about this campaign, see the Website of the Catholic Climate Covenant at
Read more!

Thursday, September 01, 2011

St. Francis Pledge to care for God's creation

A nation-wide initiative is under way to rally Catholic support behind two causes – protecting the environment and protecting the poor and vulnerable.

The first step in that direction – “your first step” – is to “take the St. Francis Pledge,” says an announcement of the campaign. The pledge is to

• PRAY and reflect on the duty to care for God’s Creation and protect the poor and vulnerable.

• LEARN about and educate others on the causes and moral dimensions of climate change.

• ASSESS how we-as individuals and in our families, parishes and other affiliations-contribute to climate change by our own energy use, consumption, waste, etc.

• ACT to change our choices and behaviors to reduce the ways we contribute to climate change.

• ADVOCATE for Catholic principles and priorities in climate change discussions and decisions, especially as they impact those who are poor and vulnerable.

Pledges are being made in four categories: individual/family, parish, school, and organization.

I first learned of the campaign in a September 1 email attaching “Notes for Neighbors” from a department of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference. The note about the pledge explained:

“This October 4, celebrate the Feast of St. Francis by taking the St. Francis Pledge! Please encourage families, parishes, schools, and others in your diocese to take the pledge. The Catholic Coalition on Climate Change has developed new tools to assist parishes, schools, individuals, and organizations in caring for creation and learning more about Church teaching on climate change as articulated by Pope Benedict XVI and the U.S. Catholic Bishops and as embodied in the life and witness of St. Francis of Assisi.”

Read more!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Trade pact to be negotiated, and opposed, during Labor Day week

Government officials from at least nine Pacific Rim counties will gather in Chicago September 6-15 to pump some life into negotiations for a new Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement. On September 5, Labor Day, unions and other critics of the agreement will hold a rally in Chicago’s Grant Park, near the downtown hotels housing the visiting delegations.

Frustrated by a stalemate in the World Trade Organization, the Bush administration almost a decade ago started concentrating on bilateral and regional channels to seek its objectives. So far, success has proved just as elusive, even with the support of the new Obama administration.

Widespread public opposition to FTAs of any kind prompted President Obama’s trade representative, Ambassador Ron Kirk, to launch an unprecedented 50-state “outreach” in 2010 to sell TPP. According to a November 2010 Pew Research Center poll, now only 35% of Americans believe that free trade agreements benefit the United States.

TPPFTA negotiations began in earnest on March 15 last year with the governments of eight countries -- Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam, yes, Vietnam – on board with the U.S.

On March 14, Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, and the presidents of the Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore labor movements, issued a joint declaration on how the TPPFTA fails to meet the standards for a fair agreement. The shortcomings they cited were chiefly in the areas of transparency, worker rights, investment, environment, procurement, intellectual property, and consumer protection.

In a memo for reporters on August 26, the Citizens Trade Campaign summarized its case against TPPFTA. “With high U.S. unemployment,” it stated, “pressure builds for a fair deal or no deal.” (

The American Enterprise Institute, like other business organizations, strongly favors the agreement, to the point of considering it a possible model for all 21st century trade pacts. (

No one expects negotiations to be concluded by its deadline of November this year. The issues are so complex, and bound to become more so as other Rim nations join the current nine, that it doesn’t not seem possible – or desirable – for TPPFTA to be wrapped up even by November 2012. If ever. Read more!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

China’s secret deals strip African people of their country’s natural wealth

“Buccaneers are cutting themselves a large slice of Africa’s resource cake,” says Global Witness, a private watchdog agency that has exposed a series of scandals involving China and corrupt African leaders.

In its own follow-up investigations, Economist magazine in its August 13 edition ran an unusually long article with the subtitle: “China’s oil trade with China is dominated by an opaque syndicate. Ordinary Africans appear to do badly out of its hugely lucrative deals.”

Because of the volume of oil Angola sold to China over the years at rigged, non-market prices, the profit to China’s secret syndicate could amount to tens of billions of dollars, according to the Economist. Moreover, the syndicate promised to build cross-country highways, low-cost housing, hydroelectric plants, and other forms of infrastructure, but has delivered little.

Another dimension of the scandals is that the syndicate’s cash props up certain regimes and thereby fuels violent conflict. In Guinea, for example, the syndicate came to the rescue of the cash-strapped rulers after government officials massacred 150 protesters in a stadium and raped scores of women. A month later, the syndicate transferred $100,000,000 to the country as part of a minerals deal.

Model for Plunder

“Rather than fixing Africa’s lack of infrastructure, Chinese entrepreneurs and Africa’s governing elite look as if they are conspiring to use the development model as a pretext for plunder,” the Economist concluded.

Global Witness has individual reports on eight African countries in which the syndicate has one-sided deals for current and future wealth: Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Madagascar, Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

Global Witness conceived and co-launched Publish What You Pay (PWYP) campaign with more than 300 member groups seeking to promote greater transparency in the oil, gas, and mining industries. “A concerted coordinated response is urgently required that cuts across the political, institutional, and industry spheres,” says Global Witness. A key problem is the secrecy provided by U.S. shell companies that stash the syndicate's (and other) ill-gotten gains in American banks.

In the last Congress, two Senators – Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, and Grassley, a Republican from Iowa – introduced legislation to make it harder for corrupt politicians, terrorists, and other criminals to form and hide behind anonymous U.S. shell companies. That effort got nowhere. In July President Obama signed a new Strategy to Combat Transnational Crime, which proposes a series of laws to achieve its goals. That effort looks to be a victim of the continuing mindless debate about the U.S. federal deficit and future budgets.
Read more!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Free Trade hits black workers hardest

Thanks largely to free trade agreements, urban black workers are suffering from especially high joblessness, William Lucy, former secretary-treasurer of a large AFL-CIO union, writes in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Unemployment rates reach almost Great Recession heights in cities with a large population of blacks, Lucy points out: 18% in Cleveland, 25% in Detroit, 22% in Milwaukee.

“There are some politicians who would have us believe that the proposed free trade agreements with South Korea, Columbia and Panama will heal the jobs crisis and restore the manufacturing jobs lost. Either those politicians have historical amnesia, or they have not been to Cleveland to see what we've seen,” he writes, adding:

“Since the North American Free Trade Act was signed in 1994, more than 682,900 jobs in America have been displaced to Mexico. The bulk were in manufacturing, the very jobs that helped to create a black middle class. The South Korean FTA is estimated to cost the United States another 159,000 jobs. During a time when so many are struggling to find jobs or straining to hold onto the jobs that they have, how could anyone think that more free trade agreements are what our communities need?

“Maybe they can't see the effects of an auto factory or textile factory shutting down. Maybe they can't fathom the devastation that happens when a company relocates an entire electronics assembly line to another country. Maybe they don't understand that for all the hundreds of thousands of jobs lost, those are communities devastated, workers who can't provide for their families, an entire segment of the population struggling to maintain the economic gains they've made.“

Lucy is founding president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and former secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. His article appeared in the August 13 issue of the Plain Dealer.

Read more!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The skimpiness of U.S. minimum wages

Would raising minimum wages really cause people to leave the job market, as many charge? Yes, a minimum wage of $80 or $100 an hour would certainly have that effect, but the federal minimum of $7.25 doesn’t seem dangerously high. The Canadian province of Ontario has a minimum of $10.25 and thousands of unemployed Canadians don’t sneak across the border to supplement their jobless pay by snaring a job in the U.S.

“Americans should face the truth: we pay poor people crap because we can, because they have few choices and nowhere else to go but jail.”

So writes Salvatore Babones on his Website Benchmarking America. He supports his case by citing the most recent OECD data, which puts the U.S. the federal minimum pay at the bottom of the rate paid by 10 rich countries.

“What’s more,” he adds, “people working minimum-wage jobs in all the other nine countries have some form of national health insurance coverage, so their true wages on a like-for-like basis are even higher than in America."
Babones is a senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney in Australia. His current academic project evaluates U.S. performance over time and against other countries. The paragraphs above on minimum wages are a summary of one of dozens of his analyses, illustrated and salted with plain-speaking prose.

His book, “Benchmarking America,” will be published next year. Meantime, previews of some chapters are available on his Website of that name, as well as on Facebook. He speaks and leads a discussion on Monday, August 15, at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington.
Read more!

Friday, August 05, 2011

Wealth gaps between whites and blacks at record high

The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households – the largest since the government began publishing such data a quarter century ago.

So reports the Pew Research Center in its analysis of newly available U.S. Census Bureau data from 2009. Among other significant points made in the Center’s report:

-- Plummeting house values were the main reason for the inflation-adjusted decline in wealth (assets minus debt) of both whites and blacks. Among white households, the decline was from $134,992 in 2005 to $113,149 in 2009. Among black households, it was from $12,124 in 2005 to $5,677 in 2009.

-- Wealth disparities between whites and blacks have always been much greater than gaps in income, which covers the annual inflow of wages, interest, and other sources of income.

-- In 2009, about a quarter of all black households had no assets other than a vehicle, compared with just 6% of white households.

The Pew Center report can be found at

For detailed timely information on income and wealth disparities in the U.S., see the Economic Policy Institute’s State of Working America at Read more!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Inequality, not poverty, is world’s top challenge: African leader

Huge disparities in wealth are fomenting rage to the point that narrowing inequalities within nations has becomes the most urgent development task facing the world. So says an African leader, John Githongo, most recently in an article published in the July 24 issue of the New York Times.

In that article, titled “When Wealth Breeds Rage,” Githongo, chairman of the African Institute for Governing with Integrity, draws on the recent outbursts in the Middle East and North Africa, where young protesters have toppled some of the most ruthless strongmen on the planet. “Radical and growing economic inequality animated much of what was at stake in the various Arab uprisings,” he writes, “and it will play a major role in shaping African politics for years to come.”

The resentment, he holds, has two important characteristics:

-- It is “particularly acute among members of the giant youth bulge across Africa and the Middle East.” For example, in Kenya, his native country, over 75 percent of the population is under 34 years of age.
-- It is “heightened by the tools of the information age, which remind them that they have been excluded from feeding at the trough enjoyed so blatantly by the nouveau riche – a lifestyle that is showcased by the newly minted wealthy on television, Twitter, Facebook, and the Web in infuriating detail.”

“Indeed, if the Arab revolutions have taught us anything, it is that inequality and perceptions of inequality within poor countries have now replaced poverty as the No. 1 development challenge. And consequently, the struggle to mitigate inequality…has become the most urgent task. Narrowing wealth disparities within nations rather than among them is now paramount.”
Githongo acknowledges that economic growth has brought about a huge decline in poverty, but adds:

“Across the world, as growth has spread and accelerated, so has inequality. It is clear that growth is often not enough to guarantee stable, cohesive societies. Rather than create a rising tide that lifts all boats, it can actually increase inequality in a society. And inequality, unlike poverty, is far more easily politicized, ethnicized and militarized, especially in African countries with heterogeneous populations and weak judicial and regulatory institutions. It is also far more combustible because it creates an identifiable enemy — a class that benefits disproportionately because of its unfair access to those who wield power. Mismanaging it can be catastrophic.” Read more!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Great Turnaround: Developing Nations Outdoing the Rich Ones

“As rich economies’ prospects dim under their crushing debt burden and political paralysis, the world’s hope for economic dynamism rests with developing nations,” Dani Rodrik of Harvard points out in his weblog, and illustrates with the graph above.

“For the first time ever, developing countries as a group have been growing faster than industrial countries,” he writes. “Not only that, as the figure makes clear, the growth differential between the two groups has been widening in favor of the poor countries.”

In his July 21 posting, titled "The great divergence, the other way around," Rodrik cautions that the growth in Africa and Latin America is fragile, “much of it making up for lost time, rather than real convergence.” He is more optimistic about the durability of growth in Asia. Read more!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Religious leaders to deficit negotiators: Put ‘Circle of protection’ around the vulnerable

A delegation of religious leaders met with President Obama and congressional leaders July 20 to urge that current negotiations on the deficit and debt protect programs for the most vulnerable, including the poor and hungry.

Congress and the Administration, they said, must consider these moral criteria to guide their decisions:

1. Every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity.
2. A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects “the least of these” (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work, or in poverty should come first.
3. Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times.

Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, representing U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCC), told the President that the bishops are not advocating “a particular plan, but a fundamental moral principle: put the needs of the poor first in allocating scarce resources…The poor have no powerful lobbyists, but they have the most powerful moral claim on this process. Please do all you can to defend the poor and vulnerable in all you say and do at this moment of crisis and the hard days ahead.”

“Your Members of Congress need to hear the same message,” a USCC statement on July 22 said, and described how to reach them through the phone and Internet.

Most delegation members belong to the “Circle of Protection,” a new initiative to spare federal programs for the neediest. Read more!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Age of Greed -- and Deceit

When a friend of mine, Gerry Holmes, learned that I had bought a new book, “Age of Greed” by Jeff Madrick, he warned me that reading it could provoke a bad case of depression.

Actually, newspaper stories, especially the latest ones, have just about exhausted my capacity for depression. Madrick’s panoramic account – subtitled “The Triumph of
Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present” – lends itself more to outrage than depression.

Madrick rejects the notion that the age of greed and its recurring crises can be blamed on natural swings of the political pendulum or on an inevitable force of history. No, he insists; they were caused by human beings and their reactions to change, especially to troubling events. So he tracks the financial crises of the past 40 years largely through the words and actions of human beings – specifically, three dozen influential men.

Take, for example, Walter Wriston, son of a university professor who used his academic platform to preach against FDR and the New Deal. Disregarding his father’s advice to pursue an academic career, he joined New York’s National City Bank in 1946, when banking was far different from what it is today. Wriston changed that. A dedicated free market evangelist and vigorous opponent of government regulation, he built up a bank deemed too big for failure and thus dependent on government to save it. Citibank, its successor had to be rescued several more times.

Partly through his leadership, the whole financial industry – banks, brokers, and insurance companies, operating under much weakened government regulations –- became such a source of great personal wealth and power that eventually finance no longer played second fiddle to the great manufacturing, transportation, communications, and retail industries.

To my mind, of all the types of wrongdoings that Madrick chronicles, the worst was deception – lying – especially the systematic lying by the accounting industry, whose organizations sold the right to be called a profession. Wholesale deception enabled Wall Street firms, time after time, to misallocate fabulous amounts in bad or foolish investments.
The Supreme Court aided and abetted that vicious habit. Reversing 60 years of precedents, it ruled in 1994 that accountants, lawyers, and bankers could no longer be sued for participating in a fraud perpetrated by a client.

In his final paragraphs, Madrick writes:

“For all these endeavors, Wall Street professionals got fabulously rich. They channeled hundreds of billions of dollars into wasteful investments that could have been spent on energy, transportation, and communications infrastructure, health care and medical research, education, technical and business R&D, and new, truly innovative consumer products and business equipment. The question was not whether Wall Street bankers contributed enough to the economy to warrant their compensation, but how much they cost the economy in the damage done….

“Wall Street has continued to complain about how new regulations would undermine its profitability, and has threatened to leave those financial capitals that impose restrictions they deem damaging. America has not yet turned the page.”

To which I would add: This is the Wall Street that some respected persons would trust to “privatize” Social Security and Medicare. Read more!

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Petitioning President for a summit on widening wealth gap in U.S.

“The large and growing wealth gap between a tiny fringe of super-rich Americans and most of the rest of us robs all of us. It means that people in poverty struggle to live with dignity, the middle class is eroded, and every person’s wellbeing declines. It affects our health, our children’s educational performance, incarceration rates, levels of debt and financial insecurity, participation in our economy and our government, and our sense of equal opportunity and community.”

So begins a petition to President Obama to convene a White House summit “to explore the causes and consequences of the current wealth gap in the United States, and develop a response,” adding:

“We believe that enormous wealth concentrated in the hands of the elite few is cracking the democratic foundation of our nation. It gives disproportionate political power to those who have the most economic power and weakens the ability of our government to serve the common good.“
The petition is being circulated by Network, a Washington group founded in 1971 by 47 Catholic sisters to speak out as “one voice on behalf of justice for all. “ Since then its membership has grown to include other Catholic religious congregations, as well as thousands of lay people (I am one of them).

The huge disparity in wealth is a crucial moral issue, and documented by a wide variety of authoritative sources, such as the Economic Policy Institute, which recently reported:

“Wealth, or net worth, is a measure of a family’s total assets, including real estate, bank account balances, stock holdings, and retirement funds, minus all of their liabilities such as mortgages, student loans, and credit card debt. Although economic inequality is often described in terms of income inequality, the distribution of wealth is actually more unequal than the distribution of wages and income….America’s wealthiest households in 2009 had net worth that was 225 times greater than the median family net worth.” Read more!

Friday, July 01, 2011

What’s at stake in the debt ceiling negotiations

By Heather Boushey, Senior Economist, Center for American Progress Action Fund

GUEST EDITORIAL republished from the Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good’s website at
Washington is all a-buzz this month trying to sort out how the negotiations over the debt ceiling are going. But, you may be wondering what the big hubbub is all about. Sure, if the U.S. cannot borrow any more money, that may not be a good thing. We all understand what it means to be credit-constrained these days, after all. You, I, and everyone else cannot take out any more funds on the home equity line since the collapse of the housing bubble. But, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. What’s at stake in the negotiations over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling, and if so, at what price, is no less than your future. And this is not overblown hyperbole or an exaggeration.

Right now, the House Republican Leadership is pushing our economy to the brink. It appears – although no one who is not in the not-so-secret negotiations knows exactly – that they are forcing the White House to choose between two potentially very bad outcomes for you and me, and for the Common Good.

Here’s the issue: Congress places a limit on how much the U.S. government can borrow. In some ways, this is nonsensical: Congress has already approved spending through the regular appropriations process. But, even though Congress has already approved the spending, the debt limit forces Congress to vote a second time to approve borrowing the funds necessary for that spending.
It’s akin to going on a spending spree with your charge card. You’ve made your decisions on what to buy, you’ve made your purchases, but then you decide you’d rather not pay all your bills. Um, no, that’s not the way it works.

The White House had proposed a “clean” vote on the debt limit. That is, Congress should increase the debt limit without any additional conditions. This is exactly what has happened 6 times in the past 10 years.

Voting to raise the debt limit is urgent. Right now, the U.S. government revenues are equal to about 60 percent of what the federal government spends. That’s right, 60 percent. The problem is largely the result of lower tax revenues because of the mismanagement of the economy during the 2000s (including massive tax cuts for the wealthy alongside two unpaid-for wars), and the Great Recession and higher needs because of that same recession. That means if the debt ceiling is not lifted, government spending will be immediately reduced by 40 percent. This could take a variety of forms, from withholding Social Security checks, to furloughing massive numbers of federal workers, to not paying government contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s almost shutting down the government.

And, if the immediate drop in spending doesn’t cause a double-dip recession, the near-certainty of a financial panic, with U.S. interest rates rising sharply and likely staying high for some time to come, certainly will induce a financial panic. Markets need stability and the high-stakes political game the Republican leaders are playing is very risky.

With the near-certainty of economic disaster in one corner, the Republicans have said that they will only vote to lift the debt ceiling if there are large and immediate cuts in spending and they so far are refusing to budge on pairing these cuts with tax increases. This, too, could be bad for you and me, and for the Common Good.

Spending cuts would almost certainly come from discretionary spending. Your middle-school student can look forward to higher college prices, less student aid, and fewer teachers in the classroom. Your community may not be notified of a devastating tornado three years from now because the U.S. will not upgrade our weather satellites. Your neighbor’s toddler may get very ill – and some children even die – from a virulent strand of e.coli as the budget for food safety inspections is cut (yet again). Your brother who currently travels for business every week will see greater flight delays and more near- misses on the runways, freaking him out so much that he quits his job and moves in with you (yikes!).

Of course, there is a way out. Congress could vote for a clean debt limit increase and regroup in the fall to address the long-term budget issues. Addressing the long term issues is important, but is this the way to do it? It feels like the current negotiations are the ultimate case of cutting off America's nose to spite her face. And, why would we want to do that?

--Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good • 1612 K Street NW, Suite 400 • Washington, DC 20006 Tel/fax 202-466-1665 • • Read more!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

China’s Labor Organization is ‘evolving,’ says Han Dongfang

Han Dongfang, director of the China Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong, used to think that the official labor organization in China, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), was so much a part of the Communist Party apparatus that it could never become a union. Now he’s changed his mind.

He expressed his new view publicly in a June 26 commentary published in a leading UK newspaper, The Guardian, and in his own Bulletin.

“Workers are angry,” Han writes, pointing to the wave of strikes last year and a recent riot in Guangdong province. Such activism has forced the ACFTU to review its own role and begin to “look for ways to become an organization that really does represent worker interests.”

Han cites some signs that the ACFTU is already moving in that direction. In March, for example, the union at an auto plant in southern China negotiated a 30%-plus pay increase; a year earlier workers striking for higher pay were beaten up.

But the same old ACFTU lives on, subject as always to the Communist Party, Han acknowledges. But “in today’s market economy [the Party] has to be flexible….If the ACFTU can show it can better serve the Party’s interests (ensuring economic growth and social stability) by standing up for the rights and interests of workers, the Party will certainly take note.”

Han’s commentary is, to a large extent, devoted to arguing that Western trade unions take note. He urges them to intensify contacts with the ACFTU. “Their wealth of experience in genuine collective bargaining can help the ACFTU better serve its members and eventually become a real trade union.”

Although he is exiled in Hong Kong, Han’s phone access to people throughout China keeps him well informed on the political mood in various circles there. Still, his changed perspective on the ACFTU and its evolution may be more a reflection of his hopes than of the grim political realities in China. Read more!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Add ‘land grabbing’ to global human rights issues

Land grabbing, a hectic part of U.S. westward movement in the 19th century, is now playing a destructive role in globalization.

On June 7, the Oakland Institute, a think tank based in the California city of that name, released a report concentrating on land grabbing in Africa. In at least six African countries, hedge funds and other foreign speculators have, in 2009 alone, acquired land equal to the size of France.

Besides displacing millions of small farmers and often devastating the environment, “these land grant agreements lead only to dollars in the pockets of corrupt leaders and foreign investors,” the institute report said. But the repercussions are not just local, the institute emphasized:

“The same financial firms that drove us into a global recession by inflating the real estate bubble through risky financial maneuvers are now doing the same with the world’s food supply.”

Later in June, Grassroots International, a Boston-based human rights advocacy group, and nearly 500 other organizations around the world jointly circulated an appeal calling upon governments “to immediately cease all massive land grabs and return the plundered land to communities.” The document, called the “Dakar Appeal Against Land Grabbing,” was originally drafted at the World Social Forum held in Dakar in February 2011.

“The massive acquisition of agricultural land by transnational companies…,” the Appeal states, “has multiplied farmer evictions and reduced the capacity of many African, Asian, and Latin American countries and communities to feed themselves.”

‘Reversing land reform’

In a paper prepared for the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation conference in Rome this April, Father François Houtart, a noted Belgian sociologist, outlined various crises afflicting the globe. Here is an excerpt from his analysis of the crisis in agriculture.

Over the last few years there has been an expansion of monoculture, resulting in the concentration of land-holdings – in other words, a veritable reversal of land reform. Peasant and family agriculture is being destroyed all over the world on the pretext of its low productivity. It is true that monoculture can produce from 500 and even 1,000 times more than peasant agriculture in its present state. Nevertheless, two factors should be taken into account.

-- First, this kind of production is leading to ecological destruction. It eliminates forests, and contaminates the soil and the waters of oceans and rivers through the massive use of chemical products. Over the next 50 to 75 years we shall be creating the deserts of tomorrow.

-- Second, peasants are being thrown off their lands, and millions of them have to migrate to the cities, to live in shanty towns, causing urban crises and increasing internal migratory pressure, as in Brazil; or they are going abroad, as in many other countries in the world.

Together with public services, agriculture is now one of the new frontiers for capital, especially in times when the profitability of productive industrial capital is relatively reduced and there is a considerable expansion of financial capital seeking sources of profit.

Recently we have witnessed an unprecedented phenomenon: the land grabbing by private and State capital, particularly in Africa, for the production of food and agrofuels. The South Korean corporation Daewoo obtained a concession of 1,200,000 hectares in Madagascar for a period of 99 years, which provoked a serious political crisis in that country. Countries like Libya and the Gulf Emirates are doing likewise in Mali and various other African countries. European and North American mining and agro-energy multinationals are securing the opportunity to exploit tens of millions of hectares for long periods, as Chinese State and private enterprises are also doing.

There is very little concern for the ecological and social implications, which are considered as ‘externalities’, i.e. external to market calculations. And this is the second aspect of capitalist logic, after the rate of profitability. It is not capital that is having to deal with the negative effects, but local societies and individuals. This has always been the strategy of capital, even in the countries of the center, with no concern for the fate of the working classes, or for the peoples in the peripheries under colonialism. There is no concern, either, for nature and the way of life of local populations. Read more!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Staggering decline in workers’ share of U.S. national income in 20 years

Under the title of Human Rights for Workers, my blog lists its major theme: “How our global economy undervalues work and working people.” Now I have firm statistical proof how scandalously the United States, the major force in the global economy, has been undervaluing its own working men and women over the past 20 years.

An AFL-CIO blog headline June 14 on how the workers’ share “nosedives into the lower depths” caught my eye. So did an accompanying chart illustrating the trend in a striking way. I was particularly anxious to get a clearer chart.

By searching three or four hours, I finally found the original chart on the Website of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. Here it is:

The AFL-CIO blog discovered the chart at another blog, Talking Point Memo, and commented that TPM’s analysis “pretty much says it all.” For example:

Workers tend to bear the brunt of the American economy's boom and bust cycles. When recessions hit and unemployment rises, workers' share of the national income -- the money people earn through wages and salaries, as opposed to corporate profits and capital gains -- tends to decline. And when the economy recovers, workers' portion of the country's income rebounds to somewhere around its level prior to the recession.

At least that's how it went in the 20th century. But since the recession of the early 2000s, we've seen the decline without the recovery -- even after the recession ended, workers' portion of national income continued to drop consistently, declining up to and through the recession of the late Bush and early Obama years. Which raises the question: Has the economy changed in a fundamental way that will prevent workers from enjoying the benefits of the current incipient recovery?
Missing from that analysis, in the AFL-CIO view, was “that CEO pay has skyrocketed --with CEO’s of the largest companies receiving, on average, $11.4 million in total compensation in 2010.”

The St. Louis FRB article where I found the original chart had no direct analysis on it. None that I can remember. I couldn’t find the article again. I gave up quickly, after only two or three minutes.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Children's rights on global agenda

Children form about one-third of the world’s population, so it’s about time that their rights get the concerted attention of global agencies, public and private. A significant sign of the new focus is the on-line portal on “Business and Children” launched on June 14 by the non-profit Business & Human Rights Resource Center.

Broad in its perspective, the new portal covers issues such as child labor, parental leave, education, and sexual exploitation; its publisher, the Center, is an active participant in human rights initiatives of other global institutions.

Currently, the Center participates in an important UN Human Rights Council initiative: developing a set of principles to guide companies on the full range of actions they may take in the workplace, marketplace, and community to respect and support children’s rights. A few weeks ago, UNICEF and two other agencies invited businesses and civil societies to join on-line consultations to shape those principles, with the goal of promulgating them in November.

Meanwhile, the International Labor Organization (ILO), a pioneer in the struggle against child labor, was agitating for activities across the globe to mark the World Day against Child Labor Day, June 12. Also, in a new report, it warned that “a staggeringly high number of children” – estimated at 115,000,000 – are involved in hazardous work, with adolescents suffering injury rates akin to those of adults.

That information added to the reasons for the June session of the International Labor Conference to adopt a Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, the first to set global standards for domestic workers, about a third of whom are children. The proposed convention is scheduled for discussion and (probable) adoption on June 16.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Bush era tax cuts costing trillions

Wall Street had reason to set off fireworks on Monday, June 6, but didn’t. Celebrations might have called unwanted attention to that day as the 10th anniversary of the massive Bush era tax cuts disproportionately benefiting the wealthy.

To mark the occasion, the Economic Policy Institute issued an anti-celebratory memo on the 10 ways that the Bush tax cuts were – and still are – “expensive, ineffective, and unfair.” Some of the telling points that the memo documents about the Bush tax cuts:

--They were much more expensive than avertised.
--They were so expensive that they added trillions to the national debt.
--They continue to be expensive (financing the national debt will cost nearly $50 billion alone).
--They will be more so unless allowed to expire.

For details see the EPI paper by Andrew Fieldhouse and Ethan Pollack: Read more!

Monday, June 06, 2011

Silencing VOA: why should U.S. aid China's censors?

Ann Noonan, president of the Visual Artists Guild’s New York chapter, gave a speech at the New York City June 4th Tiananmen Square Commemoration held at the UN's Dag Hammarskjold Park. Here is an edited version of her remarks.

Young people throughout the world, like the young people who risked their lives 22 years ago in Tiananmen Square, are risking their lives today for basic human rights, freedom, and the right to participate in governing themselves. They look to the United States for inspiration. Their stories deserved to be shared.

Voice of America (VOA) operates under a Congressional mandate to provide news broadcasts that promote freedom and democracy from the United States to the world. Yet in its budget request for the next fiscal year, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA, proposes to end its radio and television broadcasts to China. This is not part of a budget cut, but rather a reallocation away from Cantonese and Mandarin language services in a budget that is actually higher than last year’s.

Today as we commemorate the 22nd Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, a day in history when the world watched students in China who sought freedom be cut down, killed, jailed and exiled, I’d like to ask each of you to contact Members of Congress about plans that will censor Voice of America’s Chinese services as of October 1st.

This campaign against VOA is insidious. It comes during China’s suppression of stories on dissident artist Ai Weiwei and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo. It comes during a media crackdown in China against any stories about the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng and other prisoners of conscience. It comes during a time when China’s media has blocked news about uprisings in Egypt and Libya.

Why should a nation as large and vast as China, which already has to endure an oppressive Internet censorship, be made to suffer from U.S. bureaucratic changes that will hide the struggles of the young people in China who seek religious freedom and democracy?

Our Members of Congress need to reject the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ proposal to eliminate VOA’s Chinese language services. We must maintain Voice of America’s broadcasts and continue to transmit our ideals of freedom.

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Friday, June 03, 2011

Does a union make a mine safer? You bet your life it does

Miners in unionized coal mines are far less likely to be killed or injured on the job than miners in nonunion operations. That’s the conclusion of a new study conducted by Stanford University law professor Alison D. Morantz and funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“Unionization predicts an 18 to 44 percent drop in traumatic injuries and a 27 to 68 percent drop in fatalities,” Professor Morantz writes in his May 19 paper titled “Coal Mine Safety: Do Unions Make a Difference?”

The study used a comprehensive database and updated methodology to examine the relationship between unionization and underground, bituminous coal mine safety from 1993 to 2008.

“Miners have long known there is a union ‘safety effect,’ as the study calls it,” Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said. “Working in a union-represented mine, with the backing of our Local Union safety committees and our International Union safety experts, makes a huge difference.”

Tragedies have happened at UMWA represented mines, most recently nearly ten years ago, in Brookland, Ala., Roberts pointed out. “We in the UMWA learned hard lessons, in that tragedy and others that preceded it. We took steps to provide better protection for our members, and this study shows that those steps are working.”

Morantz’ 35-page paper is available from the Social Science Research Network at

Full disclosure: In solidarity with the world’s miners, I’ve joined the United Mineworkers of America as an associate member.

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Thursday, June 02, 2011

Business, labor embrace UN human rights program

In time for the UN Human Rights Council meeting in June, the world’s leaving union and business organizations have given their endorsements to UN guiding principles for universalizing human rights in the global marketplace.

The guiding principles are the fruition of six years of work by Professor John Ruggie as Special Representative to the UN Secretary General on business and human rights. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) praised the result in a letter May 27 from Sharon Burrow, general secretary. Three business groups – the International Organization of Employers, the International Chamber of Commerce, and the OECD Business and Industry Advisory Committee – expressed their approval in a joint statement on May 30.

All the organizations renewed praise for the Ruggie-devised Framework that the Council adopted two years ago. Ms. Burrow wrote: “An early effect of the powerful set of ideas in the Framework is the recently adopted revision Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.”

“The powerful set of ideas” didn’t look so powerful a few years ago. In their original, mandatory form, they were almost buried in 2004. Its supporters, including me, assumed that countries would, on the international level, adopt measures they wouldn’t consider on the national level.

Ruggie went to work discovering – and shaping – what those countries were ready for. He did so by consulting not just governments but a wide range of stakeholders, including business. For one example of a recent meeting with business, see the issue of this blog dated March 4, 2010, at
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Saturday, May 28, 2011

A quiz on your political label for yourself

How does your way of thinking about important issues compare with the views of the rest of the American public? You can get a rough idea by taking a quiz on political typology just published by the Pew Research Center.
The quiz has 20 pairs of opposing policy positions, from which you declare yours. One pair, for example, states:

-- “The government should do more to help needy Americans, even if it means going deeper into debt” or
-- “The government today can’t do much more to help the needy.”
You then are asked to check your political party attachment, age group, and gender, and, voila, Pew identifies you as belonging to one of eight politically engaged groups or a ninth group of less engaged “Bystanders.” From my responses, the Pew test concluded that I am “solidly liberal, along with 14% of the American public.” Solid liberals, I learn, are one of the “most secular groups: 59% of them say that religion is not that important to them.

So, on this issue, I don’t quite fit the model, since for the quiz's’s two pairs on religion I checked both “Religion is a very important part of my life, “ and “It is not necessary to believe in God and have good values.”

Taking the Pew quiz can satisfy your personal curiosity about the political label you apply to yourself. More important, the whole study, “Beyond Red vs. Blue: the Political Typology,” is an enlightening report on the labels now in wide but seldom defined use. Some familiarity with those loosely applied labels could make the nightly news and talk shows somewhat more comprehensible.

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Monday, May 23, 2011

How can trade and finance work for people?

“Making Trade and Finance Work for People and the Planet” is the subject of a public symposium to be held in Geneva June 22-24 by UNCTAD (the UN Conference on Trade and

Governmental and non-governmental leaders will discuss the subject from various aspects in two round tables and eight break-out sessions, with emphasis on interactive debate. Simultaneous translations will be provided in the six official UNCTAD languages.

The International Trade Union Confederation will lead a breakout session on the proposed financial transaction tax.

For more information contact UNCTAD at Deadline for registration, which is mandatory, is June 10.

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Investment in U.S Infrastructure Shrinking

Lulled by a policy of “out of sight, out of mind,” the United States has long neglected to maintain its bridges, sewers, and transportation facilities. In fact, according to a report released this week, infrastructure investments this year are falling further behind under pressures to cut government spending.

Meanwhile, “in most of the developing world and in many of the emerging markets, countries have committed to fulfilling infrastructure objectives as essential for sustaining or enhancing living standards in an increasingly competitive global marketplace,” says the report of the Urban Land Institute.

So far, neither the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse nor Hurricane Katrina served as a wake-up call, the report, “Infrastructure 2011: a Strategic Priority,” points out.

America’s 15.000,000 unemployed need jobs. The nation needs to repair its infrastructure. “Why is it so hard for lawmakers to connect the two?” the Institute asks. Read more!

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Bishops told: speak clearly on Budget issues

“Bishops have shown no reluctance to speak authoritatively on issues of abortion and same-sex marriages. Bishops and the whole Catholic community must speak with the same clarity and vigor about the budget and the direction it sets for the country.”
In such clear words of its own, a leading Catholic weekly, America magazine, has alerted Catholics of the many grave issues involved in what may become “one of the most important legislative debates of the new century” – the battle over the 2012 budget.

Recalling President Obama’s recent pledge to reject a budget that continues Bush-era tax cuts “that contributed so grievously to the current fiscal crisis,” the magazine urged the church to stake out this position as its own.

When the final decisions are made, the magazine wondered, who will speak for the poor? “The U.S. bishops have been among the few consistent voices in defense of the needs of the most vulnerable,” and now those voices need to be heard loud and persistently against ideas like “Representative Paul Ryan’s proposal to convert Medicare and Medicaid into yet another free-market enterprise.”

“This would amount to federal welfare for the shareholders and chief executives of the nation’s for-profit insurance companies.”

America wrote that the budget struggle “will be a matter of life and death,” one that should show clearly what side the Bishops and all sectors of the church are on.

For more details on America’s case, see its editorial and a separate column by John J. Dilulio Jr. in the May 9 issue at

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Papal Teaching and the Modern World

The Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies of the Catholic University of America will mark the 120th anniversary of the Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum (Of New Things) with a two-day symposium (May 2 and 3) on “The Church, Labor, and the New Things of the Modern World.”

Keynote speakers will be Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and John Sweeney, president emeritus of the AFL-CIO.

Panels of experts will include Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, Harold Meyerson of the American Prospect, John Carr and Kathy Saile of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Rev. Cletus Kiley of Unite Here.

The Symposium, to be held on the CUA campus, is free and open to the public. For more information and registration, phone 202/319-5999.
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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Income Tax Down for Wealthy

Inncome Taxes Down for Wealthy

“The wealhy are enjoying some of the lowest taxes in generations,” according to a report issued April 14 by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

Although the nation’s overall tax rate – the share of income paid in taxes – since 1979 has fallen slightly, the share for those at the top income ladder (the top 400 families) has fallen dramatically, says EPI. The report is based on data from the Congressional Office and the Internal Revenue Service.

See previous posting on the “two-level” tax policy which investors also get rewarded with tax breaks.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Wealth vs work: our tax system

Take two taxpayers with incomes of $400,000 a year:

One is a neurosurgeon who, the first in her family to attend college, broke through the glass ceiling through hard work and now earns $400,000 per year, on which she pays a top marginal income tax rate of 35 percent.

The other is a wealthy heir who, instead of working, jaunts port-to-port on a yacht while collecting $400,000 a year in investment income from his multi-million-dollar inheritance, on which he pays a top marginal tax rate of only 15 percent.
Those two hypothetical cases illustrate one of the gross inequities of America’s “two-tiered” tax system. It rewards income from stocks, dividends, real estate and investment portfolios with a marginal tax rate of only15 percent, while income from work – wages and salaries – pays 35 percent.

A surprising group of wealthy taxpayers have stepped up to the plate to propose an end to this favoritism toward wealth over work. Responsible Wealth and United for a Fair Economy have launched a campaign to “Tax Wealth Like Work.”

Among the points made by the campaign:

-- “Eliminating the special break for capital gains and dividend income would raise enough to completely avoid the massive $61 billion in budget cuts being proposed by Republican members of Congress.”

-- “Alternatively, the revenue could be used as federal aid to states, eliminating a significant portion of the $112 billion in budget deficits faced by 44 states.[

-- “Taxing the earnings of just the top 13 hedge fund managers as ordinary income, instead of the special 15% rate as capital gains, would generate enough revenue to pay for 300,000 teachers.”

For details, see the Website

Although the issue of taxes is not treated in the encyclical by Pope John Paul II titled “On Human Work,” the document gives no support to a two-tier tax system. To the contrary. Certainly not in its chapter, “Priority of Labor.” (

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Thursday, April 07, 2011

'We will not be silent"

Father Clinton J. Kiley of the Bishops' Priestly Life and Ministry Committee giving invocation at the April meeting of the AFL-CIO Construction and Building Trades Department. Read more!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Guidelines for business and human rights

It’s a new paradigm on business and human rights that “recognizes the central role that States need to play, gives business predictability in what is expected of them, and provides other stakeholders, including civil society and investors, the tools to measure progress where it matters most – in the daily lives of people.”

That’s how Harvard Professor John Ruggie, UN Special Representative for business and human rights, describes a set of “Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights,” which he is presenting to the June session of the UN Human Rights Council for approval.

The Guiding Principles are the product of six years of research and extensive consultations involving governments, companies, business associations, civil society (including unions), affected individuals and groups, investors, and others around the world. The 27-page document outlines how the UN “Protect, Respect, and Remedy” Framework, proposed by Ruggie in 2008 and unanimously approved by the Council the same year, should be implemented.

For details, see

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Lenten thoughts on unions facing crises

The season of Lent is a time when you can make an examination of conscience to reflect on your life and how to make it better. You can do so as an individual in examining your family life, but also in examining your working life.

Let’s say you are a union leader. What might be the scope and substance of your examination of conscience?

Here is an illustration taken from a major address that Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers, gave in June last year to the Center for Automotive Research Conference. Titled “A UAW for the 21st,century,” the speech drew on King’s 41 years in the UAW. It was a product of intense reflection on the state of his union both before and after the crisis of 2008-2009.

“Although triggered by the financial meltdown,” he said, “the crisis in the auto industry had its roots in behaviors and cultures – both within the companies and within the union – that were outmoded and unsuited for the 21stcentury…. The UAW of the 21st century must be fundamentally different from the UAW of the 20st century.”

The 20st century UAW, he said:

-- grew in an era of national rather than global economics, where employers did not face the intense pressure of global competition. The 21st-century UAW recognizes that flexibility, innovation, lean manufacturing and continuous cost improvement are paramount in the global marketplace.

-- joined with the companies in a mindset that it was the company’s job to worry about profits, and the union’s job to worry about getting the workers their fair share. The 21st-century UAW embraces as our own the mission of producing the highest quality, best value products for our customers.

-- was not primarily focused on the needs of the consumers, and we failed to champion forcefully or effectively enough the goals of preserving our environment for future generations through green manufacturing. The 21st-century UAW makes as a priority the interests of consumer safety, energy efficiency, and environmental protection.

-- fell into a pattern with our employers where we saw each other as adversaries rather than partners… Our new relationships with these employers are built upon a foundation of respect, shared goals, and a common mission.

-- tried to find ways to achieve job security, such as job banks, that in the end did not achieve the result we were seeking. The 21st-century UAW knows that the only true path to job security is by producing the best quality product, the safest product and the longest lasting product, at the best price.

-- reacted with hostility and resistance to the historic changes brought about by the globalization of the economy. The 21st-century UAW is adopting a constructive and positive approach to global trade and global development, and we are committed to being citizens of the world and achieving trade that spreads prosperity and lessens poverty.
King’s outline, even for a large national union with a global reach, offers ideas that could be adapted to other kinds of unions – even to U.S. unions in the public sector coping with their own crises. Take this variation on one of King’s points:

Our union will join our governmental counterparts in our joint mission to render the highest quality and best value service for the public.

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

China moves ahead a bit, Wisconsin back a lot

As Wisconsin is stripping public employees of their collective bargaining rights, months of collective bargaining at a Honda parts plant in Guangdong between management and the local unit of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions won a substantial pay increase for workers on March 1.

According to “China Labor Bulletin,“ published in Hong Kong, the vice chairman of the Guangdong provincial labor federation became personally involved in the plant’s labor relations after a strike broke out there in May last year.

Although the union pressed hard for the worker demands, it left the workers on the sidelines, with 40 of them observing but not participating in the negotiations.

Han Dongfang, CLB director, commented: “Hopefully this will be the first step toward proper collective bargaining and that during the next round of bargaining, democratically-elected worker representatives will be allowed to conduct rather than just observe the negotiations.” Read more!

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Family values devalued in U.S.

The United States lags far behind most countries in ensuring the wellbeing of its working families, Human Rights Watch says in a new report “Failing Its Families: Lack of Paid Leave and Work-Family Supports in the U.S.”

At least 178 countries have national laws that guarantee paid leave for new mothers, and more than 50 also guarantee paid leave for new fathers. More than 100 of those countries offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave for new mothers.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does enable workers with new children or family members with serious medical to take job-protected leave, but it is unpaid and covers only about half of the workforce.

The adoption of laws to enable workers around the world to meet work and family obligations has largely been in response to the massive growth in women’s participation in the labor force lover the last century. Even though women now are nearly half of the work force in the U.S., the federal and state governments have changed little to support the modern workforce.

As a result, says Janet Walsh, deputy women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report, “Workers face grave health, financial, and career repercussions. U.S. employers miss productivity gains and turnover savings that these cost-effective policies generate in other countries.

Research for the 90-page report included interviews with 64 parents across the country.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Public employees get public backing

The strategy of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to clamp down on public sector unions is not supported by most Americans, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

Key findings of the telephone poll, as reported in the Feb. 28 issue of the Times:

-- By a majority of nearly two to one (60% to 33%), Americans oppose weakening the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions.

-- By almost the same margin (56% to 35%), those surveyed also oppose cutting the pay or benefits of public employees to reduce benefits.

-- About 61% said they thought the salaries and benefits of most public employees were either “about right” or “too low” for the work they do. Print Page

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Airline workers to get own 'alliance'

Workers of the 12 airlines in the Oneworld Alliance airlines will soon have an alliance of their own. The only question is what kind of alliance, and that will be discussed at an April meeting in Washington hosted by the Transport Workers Union of America, which represents ground workers at an Oneworld partner, American Airlines.

In London an officer of the International Transportworkers Federation, Brendan Gold, said that the ITF is committed to building a global network of unions as a counterbalance to the employers in airline alliances. Creating a “One World of Labor Council” is also on the agenda.

This is the latest initiative in the world labor movement to adapt to globalization. Perhaps the most important is the growth of Global Union Federations, which bring together unions that share a common employer in different countries. Read more!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Income growth now more lop-sided

It used to be that the bulk of income growth in America went to the bottom 90% of families. That’s no longer so. Over the seven-year period between 2000 and 2007, average income of the bottom 90% of households actually declined, while the richest 10% accounted for a full 100% of average income growth.

The new interactive St;ate of Working America Website, lets users look at any two years between 1917 and 2008 to see how much the top 10%, versus the bottom 90%, contributed to growth in income. Read more!

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The teachers' union leader whose principles and practices inspired Hong Kong democracy

Facebook, the social network which I recently joined, has a form that asks you for the names of “People Who Inspire You.” I wrote “Szeto Wah.,” who died in Hong Kong on January 2.

I was privileged to meet Szeto Wah during a brief rest stop in the mid-80s. Five years ago, he visited Washington to give a talk about his experience as president of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union and as leader of the ex-colony’s democracy’s movement.

Because of illness I was unable to attend the talk, but I still have a copy of his seven-p;age text. Here is my summary of part of one page.

In the Chinese tradition, teaching has a statis above that of ordinary occupations. Teachers do not organize into trade unions. They do not involve themselves in matters like wages, hours, and working conditions – doing so is considered “unprofessional.”

It was the experience of the American Federation of Teachers, led by Al Shanker, that inspired me to lead Hong Kong teachers on a strike and after the strikes’s success, to form the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union. Since the day it was established, the PTU has heen the strongest trade union in Hong Kong. And it went on to inspire the formation of other unions and to unite them in the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions., with me as its first Secretary General.

From Al, I learned that professionalism and labor rights are compatible and that, in combination, they can promote democracy in society. The development of democracy is in turn the best guarantee professionalism and labor rights.

Throughout my career, I have been guided by the understanding that democracy and freedom of association must be fiercely protected. Democracy based not on strength representative institutions, but on the will of rulers, isß always in danger of being diminished or removed.

Independent trade unions are the principle force in protecting and promoting democracy in society. The key word here is “independent’ – not being controlled or influenced by any government. It is no surprise, therefore, that in totalitarian countries, independent unions are outlawed.

It should be no surprise, either that the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union is the flagship of Hong Kong’s democratic movement and, in concert with the independent trade union movement as a whole, provides the energy and organizational strength that sustains it.

According to Wikipedia, “Szeto was admired in Hong Kong politics for his strong principles, for eschewing personal gain, and for his rare political acumen.”

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Principles for fair union elections

On the first day of business for 2011, the United Auto Workers [UAW] released a set of 11 principles for unionizing workers at Toyota and other foreign-owned factories in the United States.

Topmost of those principles is: “The right to organize a free trade union is a fundamental, human right recognized and respected in a democracy.”

The final principle declares that the union has a “Partnership in the mission of the employer”: “11. The UAW pledges that if the workers choose union representation, the union as an institution will be committed to the success of the employer and will encourage our members to engage in the employer’s successful achievement of its mission. The UAW and the employer will work together in fulfilling the mission of the employer. The UAW embraces a performance-based and participatory culture where the union contributes to continual improvement of processes and shared responsibility for quality, innovation, flexibility and value.”
Other principles, dealing largely with correcting problems in the present representational election procedures, are listed under these headings:

-- No coercion, intimidation or threats
-- No repercussions from management or the union
-- No wage or benefit promises from management or the union
-- Equal access to the electorate
-- Disavow any threats from community allie
-- No disparaging the other party
-- Immediate Resolution [of certain disagreements]

Secret ballot elections and collective bargaining are covered in some detail:

"9. The democratic right of workers to freely and collectively choose if they want to form their UAW local union is the workers’ First Amendment right. A secret ballot election incorporating these principles is an acceptable method of determining union representation if principles two through six have been adhered to, and if there is no history of anti-union activities. The parties may select an alternative method on a case-by-case basis that reflects the best process for demonstrating employee wishes. If the parties cannot agree on specifics of the procedure, an arbitrator may decide.

“10. If employees choose to unionize, the employer and union will engage in collective bargaining to achieve an agreement as soon as possible. The goal will be an agreement that takes into account the employer’s need to remain competitive; the dignity, respect, and value of every employee; the importance and value of full employee engagement and creative problem solving; and that provides a fair compensation system. The employer and the UAW commit to full information sharing and joint creative problem solving. The employees will vote on whether to accept the agreement. Disagreements between the union and company will be discussed in a respectful manner. If no agreement is reached within six months of recognition, the parties may mutually agree to mediation and/or interest arbitration to resolve any outstanding issues. “

The full text can be found at, Read more!