Read before you vote

State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence
Philip M. Dine

The Shock Doctine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
Naomi Klein
Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone
Rajiv Chandrasekaran

OK, so it’s probably too much to ask that voters read a couple of books before Super Tuesday.

In fact, it’s definitely too much to ask.

But as anyone who’s watched the various incarnations of election coverage on television or glanced at the dailies’ reports can verify, most reports about the “issues” are only concerned with polls and opinions. Very little new information (or, for that matter, old information) about the state of the nation and the world that the next administration will face is making its way into the public discourse, perhaps because all the space for discussing politics is taken up with analysis of how particular groups of voters “feel” about this candidate or that.

If you’re tired of the horse race, some reading is in order.

The loss of manufacturing in the United States appears to be a done deal. John McCain probably lost Michigan when he told the truth about that—the jobs are gone, and they ain’t comin’ back, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen. Mitt Romney turned around and lied about that—and won Michigan.

But if you’d like to understand where the jobs have gone, and why, and what can be done to stop the bleeding, it’s worth reading Philip M. Dine’s analysis of what’s happened to unions in the last three decades.

Dine is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a notoriously “liberal” paper (whatever that means these days) founded by Joseph Pulitzer, and one of the few dailies in the country which has actually had a labor “beat.”

His books gives a report on where organized labor is in the United States by providing a series of case studies: the firefighters’ union, which organized for John Kerry during the 2004 Iowa caucuses and brought him an upset that put him in the running for the nomination; the successful strike and boycott of Delta Pride, a catfish company in Mississippi that had turned the factory into a plantation; President Bush’s unsuccessful move to suspend “prevailing wage” protections for workers who were to rebuild New Orleans (which was already a low-wage area); the plight of coal miners, who’ve become canaries in the mine of occupational safety, for as union representation has decreased for miners, fatalities have increased (all the single-accident multiple fatalities in the last several years have been in non-union mines); and the trick that hospital management has used to break nurses’ unions by giving front-line nurses “some” supervisory duties to remove them from the bargaining unit.

Now, why should voters worry about the state of the unions? Don’t they just raise the costs for everybody else?

No, they don’t. What they do is raise the standard of living for everyone else. Strong unions not only raise the wages of non-union employees in their area, they contribute to a stable local economy. Just ask any small businessperson in Flint, Mich., what union jobs once did for their business. That is, if you can find any small businesspeople in Flint.

But the weakening of unions which began under the Reagan administration has contributed to the outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs, and if allowed to proceed unchecked, will continue to depress wages to the point that jobs in our new “service economy” will not provide a living.

What’s more, the removal of organized labor from the economic and political equation has resulted in an imbalance of epic proportions. During the expansion of the middle class, American government, business and labor formed a sort of “separation of powers” that could keep any one segment from getting out of control and exercising too much power over the economy. Now the economy is, for all practical purposes, managed by business and government. Unfortunately, because of the way campaigns are financed, the interests of business and government are so entwined as to be the same, and that means that business is running the whole show.

With government regulators drawn from the businesses and industries they’re supposed to regulate and with legislators finagling the best industry lobbying job they can for their “retirement” from Congress, there’s no one watching out for the workforce. It’s certainly not big business, which has “internationalized,” to the detriment of both American and foreign workers.

Dine offers an analysis of the public relations problems that unions have and enumerates the work that must be done to solve them. He also suggests a more grassroots approach; one that involves a more active membership and less of the hierarchy that has led to so many problems for unions. One of his most interesting points is that the economic populism of the last century, which brought strong unions and stable jobs, has been replaced by cultural populism, in which workers are convinced to vote against their own economic interests by the emphasis placed on cultural “values.” But when did fair treatment for workers stop being one of our values?

Yes, there’s a reason for unions, especially today. The only way to insure that Americans are paid a living wage is to organize. Otherwise, the “cheap labor” greed that has manifest itself in a business vision that can’t see past the next quarterly earnings will successfully turn us into the nation that sent all its work overseas—and many Americans will be looking into immigration.

Bridging the gap between economic and foreign policy issues is another book from 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein has received a great deal of attention in the media, and for good reason.

Klein’s book makes sense of what seemed nonsensical: how could “getting out there and spending money” possibly have been the best response to the 9/11 attacks? Yet that’s what our president told us to do.

But using both natural and man-made disasters as a way to propagate economic policy is exactly what Klein details in her book. The use of American firms on no-bid contracts to rebuild Iraqi infrastructure—while the Iraqi firms and laborers that had originally built it remained idle—is a prime example of using a “disaster” (in this case, the pure human disaster that is the invasion of Iraq) as a means to make a profit for the already wealthy. In this case, a number of Halliburton subsidiaries have made huge money rebuilding a nation on the taxpayer’s buck, while Iraqis have suffered horrendous unemployment.

Other examples include a description of how developers used the tsunami in Asia as a great chance to get rid of all those ugly little fishing villages and snag some land at cheap prices for new tourist destinations. And isn’t something similar going on in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina? Note that most of the working poor have not yet returned to the Big Easy, and some developers are pushing for the “Disneyfication” of Sin City.

The Shock Doctrine¸ when read in light of David Cay Johnston’s Free Lunch (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), makes clear that our current system is set up to take advantage of every stunning turn of events—and, while the victims and bystanders are still reeling from the forest fire, the tsunami, the hurricane or the war, the “disaster capitalists” stream in to enrich themselves even further.

If this book doesn’t piss you off, then you haven’t read it.

Of course, the greatest disaster of the current administration is, without a doubt, the invasion of Iraq. And the book that makes clear how much insider trading runs Iraq is Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (available this week in paperback).

Chandrasekaran, the Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau chief, had a front-row seat for the occupation of Iraq. He details the use of “Bush loyalty” tests to select the men and women who were to “rebuild” Iraq, and the way in which political ideology trumped any sort of experience at all. Diplomacy, technical expertise, maturity and cultural awareness were dumped in favor of people who toed the neocon line.

His depiction of the stubbornness, blind determination and basic lack of any understanding of either Iraq or the job of nation-building explains exactly how we ended up in such an awful mess of an occupation.

The “green zone” is the American-occupied area in central Baghdad, surrounded by walls, barbed wire and checkpoints, that safely insulates American workers from the reality of Iraq. And while well-meaning (if we can grant them that) Americans started a stop-smoking campaign to improve Iraqis health, it didn’t do a whole lot to guarantee that their smoke-free lives would last long.

Chandrasekaran has a very readable narrative style, but his tone sometimes left me wondering: Is he joking? Then I’d read the rest of the paragraph, and discover that no, he isn’t. The situation really is exactly this absurd. Our administration, the U.S. government, is really so clueless as to attempt to bring democracy to a country without any understanding of its culture and history. We brought in diplomatic workers with solid conservative credentials but no experience in running water plants, health care system and electrical grids. What good is it to be a devotee of Friedman’s economic theories if you can’t get the lights on in Baghdad for more than a few hours at a stretch?

And in fact, we lost Baghdad—and Iraq—when we couldn’t get the lights on and the water running. Now we’ve got to find a way to get out without doing more damage.

And yes, when you vote on February 5th, as I certainly hope you will, please remember to consider both our own economy and fate of Iraq. These books may help.