I may already have mentioned this, but Dean Baker has an excellent book titled The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive that you can read for free here (although donations are welcomed). It is filled chock-a-block with all kinds of economic data, analysis, and all the other number-crunching goodness one expects to find when reading Baker.
But it is the premise of the book that I think is particularly worthwhile. Baker argues that Liberals need to start reframing, on a very basic level, the terms of the economic debate. Right now, the conventional frame is that “Conservatives like the free market” and “Liberals like government control,” but as Baker points out this frame is a fairy story.
By and large Conservatives don’t like the free market, what they like is monopolies and monopsonies (with themselves filling those roles), unfair information advantages over their competitors, government subsidies, and the “freedom” to defraud their customers. (As to that last point, just think of Wall Street and the Republicans’ recent filibuster of Richard Cordray’s nomination to the CFPB; the GOP admits that Cordray is qualified for the position, they are just refusing to do anything that will empower an agency whose sole purpose is to protect the American people from being abused and defrauded by the big banks.)
Baker argues that Liberals need to do a better job of hammering this home: that when Conservatives whine about “government intervention in the free market” what they really are whining about is anything that might prevent them from taking unfair advantage of their customers and competitors in an arena that – after all – was created and shaped by the government and all the rest of us to begin with. What they are whining about is anything that might interfere with their efforts to cheat.
I was reminded of Baker’s book this morning whilst walking my dogs and thinking about how I’d like to see First Amendment jurisprudence change to better accommodate 21st-century society, technology and media. Contrary to what a lot of lay people believe, the law is not a static thing. It is organic, constantly growing and evolving as its fundamental principles are necessarily re-interpreted to better fit the constantly growing and evolving human experience. That is why legal scholars refer to the Constitution as “a living document.” And it is the most fundamental reason why the law – at any given time – is never perfect: because it is always playing catch up.
The latest big step in First Amendment jurisprudence, of course, was the Citizens United decision, which proclaimed that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political broadcasts sponsored by unions or corporations. I remember that only a day or two after the decision was handed down I was listening to a discussion about it on NPR that included either current Republican frontrunner Newt Gingrich, or Karl Rove, or Grover Norquist (all three are easily confused in my long-term memory; I think it’s the Hitchcockian profile they share). Whichever GOP flack it was, he defended the decision, arguing that it “leveled the playing field” by making more political speech available to everyone, and harped on the fact that unions had just as much unfettered right to run political ads as do corporations (e.g., management).
And this morning I suddenly realized something that is so obvious I should have picked up on it immediately the decision came down: the Roberts Court would never have handed down Citizens United before now. Why not? Because it has taken this long to destroy unionized labor.
Union membership – public and private – in the United States is now at a 70-year low. Back in the mid-50s, fully 35% of the American workforce was unionized. Thirty years ago, 20% of all American workers still belonged to a union. Today it’s only 11.9%, but that’s only because of public unions (which is why they have been targeted for destruction by the likes of Govs. Walker and Kasich). Today, only 6.9% of America’s private workforce is unionized.
Do you really think the Roberts Court would have issued Citizens United back in the ‘50s, when labor unions actually had the muscle to stand up to corporate management? Do you think the Roberts Court would have done so even thirty years ago, when labor unions might at least still have put up a decent fight? Of course not. But today? Now that thirty plus years of successively gutting the labor movement has shrunk the unions until they can be kicked around with impunity? Oh, sure, now it’s no problem for the increasingly conservative Supreme Court to issue a ruling that “levels the playing field” by letting unions and management “compete in the arena of ideas.”
Now that management is Hulk Hogan and labor is Woody Allen, now it’s okay to get government out of the way, level the playing field, and “have a fair fight.” And may the best man win. (Wink wink, nudge nudge.)
Because that’s always the tell, you know. Whenever you hear someone argue against government intervention because they want “a level playing field,” “a chance to succeed on the merits,” “a fair fight,” etc. . . . pay attention to who’s making that argument. I’ll bet you that 9 times out of 10 it’s gonna be the guy who’s the biggest, richest and meanest prick on the block, which means that he knows he can take everything for himself and screw over everybody else if only he can convince the rest of us to throw out the rules.
He doesn’t want a fair fight. He doesn’t want to compete on the merits. He just wants the opportunity to pillage at will.