Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hidden Agendas

The Baby Bomb with no BOOM.

If people are looking for parallels between what is happening in Wisconsin, soon coming to a state near you, and what is happening on the Arab street, they would be better served to look back 50 years, to the start of the Kennedy presidency. Then as now, the factor driving national events was demography, though that was not the official rationale for program development. Here's a quick official history from the History.com web site:
This Day In History
Mar 1, 1961:
Kennedy establishes Peace Corps

Newly elected President John F. Kennedy issues an executive order establishing the Peace Corps. It proved to be one of the most innovative and highly publicized Cold War programs set up by the United States.
During the course of his campaign for the presidency in 1960, Kennedy floated the idea that a new "army" should be created by the United States. This force would be made up of civilians who would volunteer their time and skills to travel to underdeveloped nations to assist them in any way they could.
To fulfill this plan, Kennedy issued an executive order on March 1, 1961 establishing the Peace Corps as a trial program. Kennedy sent a message to Congress asking for its support and made clear the significance of underdeveloped nations to the United States. The people of these nations were "struggling for economic and social progress." "Our own freedom," Kennedy continued, "and the future of freedom around the world, depend, in a very real sense, on their ability to build growing and independent nations where men can live in dignity, liberated from the bonds of hunger, ignorance, and poverty." Many in Congress, and the U.S. public, were skeptical about the program's costs and the effectiveness of American aid to what were perceived to be "backward" nations, but Kennedy's warning about the dangers in the underdeveloped world could not be ignored. Revolutions were breaking out around the globe and many of these conflicts—such as in Laos, the Congo, and elsewhere—were in danger of becoming Cold War battlefields. Several months later, Congress voted to make the Corps permanent.
During the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of Americans—especially young people—flocked to serve in dozens of nations, particularly in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Working side by side with the people of these nations, Peace Corps volunteers helped build sewer and water systems; constructed and taught in schools; assisted in developing new crops and agricultural methods to increase productivity; and participated in numerous other projects. Volunteers often faced privation and sometimes danger, and they were not always welcomed by foreign people suspicious of American motives. Overall, however, the program was judged a success in terms of helping to "win the hearts and minds" of people in the underdeveloped world. The program continues to function, and thousands of Americans each year are drawn to the humanitarian mission and sense of adventure that characterizes the Peace Corps.
A good synopsis of the official story, recently revisited in the eulogies for Sargent Shriver.

The truth of the matter is more complex. President Kennedy was shaken by his visits to Appalachia during the campaign. Poverty was becoming more visible and disheartening. The President and many others read Michael Harrington's, The Other America. Foundations were starting to fund programs to get at the problems, and the President's Committee of Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime had begun antipoverty initiatives.

Excerpts from an Oral History of the origins of the war on poverty are here.

But to appreciate the relevancy of then to now, I want to add to the context of what comes next. The War On Poverty, now so commonly maligned, was conceived of as a stabilizing force. You have to appreciate the fact that the civil rights movement was gaining a head of steam. Now here's the kicker. What the members of the Committee on JD told the President, was the prospect that millions of young Americans (the first time the baby boomers are perceived of as a problem) had been highly educated and there were few jobs for them. They projected an alliance of black and white youths coming together to channel their frustration in a revolutionary uprising. Sound familiar? The problem then became how to forge programs that might defuse this potential and the Peace Corp was the first of many. Job Corp, Vista, Head Start, Legal Aid, the list goes on, all were developed within this context. The primary objective might have been to bring solutions to the stated problem but always there was what developers of those programs referred to as "the hidden agenda". The Peace Corp was really an elite corp of highly educated persons that had to pass tests before they could join. The genius of the corp was that persons joined and accepted meager pay for the honor and self respect that came from doing good. As programs continued to come on stream there were intentional designs to employ persons from the "target" populations to staff them. When evaluations were conducted that questioned the
the effectiveness of any of these programs in achieving their stated objectives, the off the record analysis would include how many persons were employed in the service of the program. So a jobs program was itself a jobs program.

Here is Martin Wolf in the Financial Times seeing the Arab revolt in similar terms. He appreciates the underemployment of these young people as being the driver of current events.

My perspective is that there are never going to be enough "jobs" here or abroad to satisfy the wants of the unemployed. If we scaled up production of BMWs, to satisfy those so-called wants, the consequences would be to choke the world. At exactly the same moment anyone can see there is no shortage of work to be done. The cries for dignity and recognition coming from the Arab street are not going to be satisfied by low wage jobs or make work. What might have a chance of creating a sustainable future for these people is a work corp, whose mission is not the stabilization of horrific regimes, rather the alleviation of the meanness of the physical conditions that surround them. They might have an agenda that included land reform, water development, distributed health care, or social security for the aged. The indigenous workers would prioritize their societal needs, and could organize the corps to relieve them. Critical to any such development would be the world valuing this work in much the same way the Peace Corp is valued. Rather than trying to prop up the failed economics of labor intensity, the world needs to evolve a value system that places the good works of people before the crassness of material extraction and exploitation.

There was more than one "hidden agenda" in those heady days. The other great unsaid. That which drives most of the Republican push back against unions, the poor, and democrats in general, was the fact that those of us in community action "knew" that the overthrow of oligarchs was also on our agenda. The racist, the dispassionate, the exploiters, were all on the hit list of social activists who appreciated that moms who gathered in large numbers to enroll their children in Head Start for example, might also appreciate those numbers when election day rolled around. And so it was that in the vacuum left after white flight, the vast majority of cities in America were re-governed by Democrats, often of color. The persistence of their re-elections was attributable to the votes of the civil servants beholden to them for their jobs. So when Republicans fight job creation, or when John Boehner states that he doesn't care if federal jobs are lost as a result of his budget reforms, or Governors attempt to union bust, that is code for their not wanting voters added to the block that opposes them. The recruitment of middle class workers in their army of opposition is just madness. There is just too much evidence that the so-called tea-parties are being had. A recent addition to that observation comes from the hallowed business rag of the right. Forbes has a story here on the Koch brother s involvement in the Wisconsin battle.

It is still to be seen who will co-opt the change agents in the middle east. The true oligarchs have not left the oil fields, nor the armies that protect them.


  1. "The genius of the corp was that persons joined and accepted meager pay for the honor and self respect that came from doing good."

    So I guess the question is, what does it take to get people to think about econmics in terms that are not completely monetary?

    As I mentioned to you, I'm in a field, medicine, that is effectively "choking the world" (or at least the Country). The difference between medicine and BWMs is that people are more likely to notice a glut of BMWs than they are a glut of physicians and misguided (not not mention expensive) tests/treatments.

    This isn't done intentionally. Most physicians believe that what they do helps people (occasionally it does), but the bottom line is that there too many of us treating too many people for too many nonexistent illnesses. (A good book on this, for anyone interested in this--Worried Sick by Nortin Hadler, just scratches the surface, though).

    It's easy to bash public unions. The idea is absurd. It's one thing to protect workers from a big corporation, another to protect them from...who, exactly?

    The thing is, most working class people benefit from similar, albeit less obvious, setups, if they're honest enough to really think about it.

    Not so much a question of labor negotiation as it is resource utilization, right?

  2. let me respond in order: Most of us are deeply involved in economically significant behavior that is not monetary. Start with the uncompensated work of women and then move from there to all of the non-remunerated "work" we do because either we have to, or we love it. Study after study concludes that something like 10% of people produce all the goods and services the rest of us need. The majority are acting out some set of culturally determined rituals organized to control the otherwise "savage beast" that would devour us if left to its own devices. The "idle hands" cliche.

    One of the effects of this "employment" of workers is to professionalize what might better be achieved if "we did it ourselves". This fits neatly into the rights agenda of crippling the "welfare state" but of course they don't extend the idea into the private sphere. As a doctor you are on top of the data that validates the "heal thyself" behavior and know that most of the infirmity we suffer is a result of self abuse. That statement itself is value loaded. One persons alcoholism is another's evenings entertainment. The issue is who pays?

    Unions are quietly thankful for what is happening in Wisconsin. No one could create a better object lesson in why workers need unions. Their employment cannot be at the whim of a political breeze. That's why civil service employees are protected from the vagaries of elections. I understand in Ohio, where this anti-union movement is moving, the author of the union busting bill couldn't justify the bill on the basis of cost savings. She argued it was her philosophy.

    What bothers me in the process is that the workers are hitting the street when their pension is under attack. Where were they, where are they, when the theft of those pensions, the predicate for what is causing all of this, was taking place? We have a situation where managers were paid by the states to invest pension trusts, violated their fiduciary responsibility for any variety of reasons, had the investments blow up, and only now are the workers reacting to the consequences of that fiasco. Union busting is another diversion away from the causes of this situation, and it seems the workers still don't get it.

  3. In other words, these pensions have been pillaged over the years, and rather than owning up to it, those responsible blame unions and attempt to renegotiate themselves more favorable terms. They then tell the taxpayers, "the unions are stealing your money," and we basically go along, with the belief that's it's democracy at work...??

    Another question: Was the looting of the pension funds to begin with yet another result of our tendency to pay others to do what we might do on our own with better results?

  4. Most union funds don't have an opt-out provision. Many government funds opt out of social security and are the exclusive retirement vehicle for their employees. Historically the wise and prudent rules trumped the individual as they were thought to guide pensions funds in ways that were more secure than individuals inability to make wise investment decisions. Wise and prudent investments were those considered investment grade by the rating agencies. The first level of criminal fault is there. Why the big three have not been indicted is beyond me.

    Proposals to "privatize" social security are brazen attempts to shift yet more of what's left to wall street. One would have to be mad. But then, we just might be.

  5. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/25/opinion/25krugman.html?_r=2

    Wonder if he reads your blog...

  6. Was thinking more about this...

    Bottom line--the attack on public unions is political first, economic second. They (Repubs) are going after public unions because it's easier to rally support for this (they'll go after private unions later, right?). Once this is done, it will make it easier to grab wealth from the middle class in the form of lower wages and limited (or no) benefits.

    Also, it's likely that the same people who will get harmed the most by this will support it, at least at first.