Voodoo on the Primary Trail

Originally published April 30, 1984







            THE DEMOCRATIC Presidential primary campaign that is now drawing to a close can be counted as another of the evil consequences of the Vietnam War. For several months we have watched a candidate sincerely cultivate a liberal “image” (that awful concept), successfully appeal to many intellectuals, and at the same time vehemently attack labor unions as “special interests.”

Nothing like this could have happened before Vietnam. Before Tonkin Gulf, it went without saying that liberal intellectuals were for labor unions, and that labor unions were for liberal policies. There were exceptions, like the Teamsters, saddled with such as Jimmy Hoffa; and the building trades, bemused by racism. But in general the Democrats could count on the liberal intellectuals and organized labor. They were both concerned about the common man, and they were both members in good standing of FDR’s coalition.

With Vietnam, this changed. Aside from the few who were engaged in waging the war, the intellectuals came down pretty solidly against it. And the unions, with some exceptions, supported it. Intellectuals accused the unions of a conspiracy with the bosses to raise prices, profits and wages under the pretense of patriotism. Unionists accused intellectuals of a cowardly concern for their own skins. Antiwar marchers shouted taunting slogans; machos in hard hats beat up on the marchers. It was then, if I am not mistaken, that the term “hard hat” came into general use, and it did so as a disguised synonym for “hard head.”

Once the intellectuals began badmouthing the unions, they found much to say, especially about the alleged conspiracy with the bosses. Eventually, someone among the bosses or their publicists was struck by lightning. Whether there had been an actual conspiracy, or merely a tacit understanding, or nothing but a figment of intellectual imagination, the conspiracy theory had effectively split the intellectuals – who by now included press and TV reporters – from the labor movement. If anyone wanted to launch an antiunion offensive, his rear was protected.

With the winding down of the Vietnam War, more and more such offensives were launched. Union leaders, some of whom had prophesied an era of good feelings in boardroom negotiations (not the same thing as a conspiracy), were caught by surprise. Suddenly they had no friends outside the labor movement, while inside the movement they were faced with waning enthusiasm and declining membership.

All this had its political side. The chaotic Democratic convention of 1968 had tarred AFl-CIO President George Meany and Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey with the same brush as Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, contributing to the election of Richard Nixon. The more sedate conventions of 1972, 1976 and 1980 left the unions isolated. Hence their early backing of Walter Mondale’s bid to be the 1984 Democratic standard bearer in hopes of reversing the trend.

And hence a predicament for Mondale rival Gary Hart. It must also be remembered that Hart, as George McGovern’s 1972 campaign manager, had additional reason to be cool toward the unions.

But for a Democratic candidate to attack labor unions as special interests is to adopt an ultimately self-defeating political strategy, as well as to do a considerable disservice to the American economy. An attack of this kind is self-defeating because (if successful) it splits nonmanagement workers and drives half of them into voting Republican or going fishing. It is a disservice to the economy because unions are at present the sole viable force working for a reasonably egalitarian society.

Talk about a reasonably egalitarian society sounds, I admit, pretty pompous. Yet that is simply a sign of how far we have drifted from an understanding of justice as the basis of political economy. I will say this: If justice is not the basis of political economy, the whole thing is a series of squabbles over private whims and satisfactions. As Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, observed approvingly, “Quantity of pleasure being equal, [the game of] pushpin is as good as poetry.

Since, however, justice is the basis of political economy, no matter how frequently forgotten, it is possible to inquire into the justification for our enormous and growing gaps between the top and bottom incomes, and between the top and bottom amounts of personal wealth. Further, it is possible to argue that these should be narrowed, for reasons I hardly have space even to list. But my point is that the steady thrust of union activity, whatever else you may think about it, is toward narrowing the gaps.

Some unions are of course more successful than others. It is fashionable to contrast the relatively high wages in steel and automobiles with the much lower wages in other industries. It is, for example, shown that wages in steel and automobiles increased 137 per cent and 112 per cent, respectively, between 1972-80, while average manufacturing wages increased 104 per cent in the same period.

As I never tire of emphasizing, there are always two ways of looking at such comparisons. The Chamber of Commerce way is to see steel and auto wages as too high. The labor union way is to see the other wages as too low. As far as the mathematics is concerned, both visions are equally valid. As far as economic justice is concerned, the labor union way is surely the correct one. What we need is stronger unions in the disadvantaged industries, not attacks on all unions as “special interests.”

BESIDES BEING unhappily misoriented, Hart’s campaign has not been lacking in ironies. He has presented himself as the man of new ideas. What these ideas may be has not been much publicized – and for this the media are no doubt more to blame than the candidate. Nevertheless, I can name two.

The first is his long-standing fascination with a so-called consumption tax. After he became a conceivably successful candidate, Hart understandably muted this idea. Robert S. McIntyre, of Citizens for Tax Justice, quotes him as saying, “If anyone can think of a better title for this than ‘expenditure tax’ or ‘consumption tax,’ I would certainly welcome it.” Well, I can think of a better title: “sales tax.” It is neither a new idea nor a good one, and it leaves me speechless (almost) that anyone presenting himself as a liberal or a neo-liberal Democrat could entertain it for a minute.

Taxing consumption is, in fact, a central idea of supply-side Reaganomics and was the excuse for giving tax breaks to the rich, who were expected to save their windfalls. Fortunately they spent them instead, and their consumption expenditures (together with those of the Department of Defense) have fueled the current so-called recovery. Even the business press acknowledges that this is a consumption-led recovery, which ought to be puzzling to supply-siders, if they are capable of being puzzled. It is sufficiently shocking that Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan, in spite of what has happened, still wants to tax consumption; it is preposterous that any Democrat should ever have toyed with the notion.

Hart’s second “new” idea is his espousal of the Atari Democrats‘ suggestion that a committee of neoclassical economists and investment bankers with time on their hands direct the reindustrializing of America. This idea is not so new, either, having been thought up by President Herbert Hoover in the form of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation something over a half century ago.

There is an even more ironical aspect to the new ideas issue. I have in my hands a document (to use a once-popular phrase) entitled, “Rebuilding America: A National Industrial Policy.” If there is anything wrong with the proposals therein, it is that they are largely indistinguishable from Hart’s “new” ideas on the same subject. The document, I hasten to say, is published by the Industrial Union Department, AFLCIO, alleged to be a special interest.

Hart’s vagueness about his positive program is unfortunate – yet understandable, given the way we run our campaigns. His innuendo-laden attack on the unions is bad. Worse than both, though, is his scorn for” old solutions” to our problems. Since he does not name what he rejects, one must suppose that the “old solutions” he has in mind are those of the New Deal and the Great Society. Thus he parrots the Ronald Reagan view of history, as he has adopted the Donald Regan view of taxation. But as John E. Schwarz shows in his recently published book, America’s Hidden Success (part of which ran in THE NEW LEADER of November 28, 1983), those “old solutions” were in fact remarkably successful and should be extended rather than abandoned.

Primary campaigns seem inevitably productive of rhetoric that is later regretted. One can desperately hope that Senator Hart’s words will be no more harmful – either to him or to Walter Mondale – than were George Bush’s words about voodoo economics.

            The New Leader

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