Tag Archives: Great Depression

That side was made for you and me.

In this edition: The other side of the fence–one group’s liberty is the infringement of another’s liberty. Quite a conundrum. Everything old is new again as the oligarchs expose themselves, figuratively. Drawing a line between child labor and right to work laws.

This Land Is Your Land

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway;
I saw below me that golden valley;
This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

– Words and Music by Woody Guthrie (1940)

Purists will dispute that 1940 date since history seems a little vague on when to credit the writing of that song. We’ll just pick this date and go with it. The date has some meaning since it stands as the watershed between the extraordinary trials of the Great Depression and the more or less unified “greatest generation” postwar American identity.

This is NOT a boomer song (no, I am not being defensive, just putting it in perspective lol). It’s from the previous generation and relates to the generation before that, the boomers’ grandparents’ generation. This generation was passing as the boomer generation found a voice seeking social change in the sixties and early seventies. The boomers were most likely to have heard the sanitized version of the song including just the first 3 verses, perhaps even sung in grade school or endured in an elevator or on workplace Muzak.

It came to my mind following an NPR piece on the publication of House of Earth. The novel was written by Woody Guthrie and has only recently been published by Johnny Depp’s new publishing imprint at HarperCollins named “Infinitum Nihil.” Depp’s publishing partner, historian and author Douglas Brinkley, tracked the lost novel down after stumbling across a reference while doing research. I have not read it yet but plan to–it sounds like a powerful exploration of life in the 1930’s Dust Bowl and the economic inequity produced by the sudden reversal of fortunes in that era. It also has sex, lefty politics, and a man negotiating the enactment of his dreams amid difficulties, including lack of spousal faith.

A couple of Guthrie quotes:

“There’s a feeling in music and it carries you back down the road you have traveled and makes you travel it again. Sometimes when I hear music I think back over my days – and a feeling that is fifty-fifty joy and pain swells like clouds taking all kinds of shapes in my mind.”

“The note of hope is the only note that can help us or save us from falling to the bottom of the heap of evolution, because, largely, about all a human being is, anyway, is just a hoping machine.”

Guthrie’s life story reads like 5 ordinary life stories. His daughter (from a 3rd marriage if that tells us anything) keeps archival information at http://www.woodyguthrie.org/ including an unapologetic biography tracking his Oklahoma birth in 1912 to his death of  long-undiagnosed Huntington’s Disease in 1967, just months before son Arlo released his classic album and draft-dodger “how-to”, Alice’s Restaurant.

I call attention to the last 4 verses of This Land. Caught up in the myth-history of Americana we tend to forget that the oligarchs–the small group of wealthy families and individuals that want to run our country–had moved against workers 100 years ago, employing Pinkertons, police, and even the National Guard to break up union demonstrations with beatings, imprisonment, and even shootings.

With the game stacked in their favor, those in control of industry and finance enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom in the 1920s. Then, as in the run up to the 2007-2008 crash, investors ignored any economic signs that were less than optimistic and rode a dangerous aura of invincibility, over-investing and speculating in stocks. Prices were inflated and businesspeople succumbed to the illusion of a robust economy. In the twenties a dollar would leverage ten in stocks. Because of greed, the whole economy came down on their heads, leaving workers to live with little support in a world where 25% were unemployed and another 25% underemployed.

Eighty years later the same aura of invincibility (driven by the same bad impulse: greed) drove the banks and investors to use similar leveraging, trading risky mortgages bundled into securities. The demand for the investments fueled lending which, with low-interest rates, fueled the housing boom and speculative purchases by buyers in the market who wrongly assumed prices would rise indefinitely. Unfettered free market capitalism, favored by so many these days, inevitably leads to a fall caused by greed.

Effective federal regulation and a labor force cognizant of the need for equity and justice are the balancing forces against greed. Yet, the mood is for less regulation and many of the masses eat their cold gruel and and say thank you; assigning god-like characteristics to the rich and powerful. The top 1% of earners’ real wages grew 8.2% from 2009 to 2011 while the real annual wages in the bottom 90% lost 1.2%. So many are willing to attribute this to some sort of moral superiority instead of understanding that the deck has been stacked against the average worker.  Forbes doesn’t tell us that 40% of the billionaires on their list received a start on their billions from wealth gained from family or spouses.

Certainly every regulation needs to be evaluated for its need and effectiveness, but those financing the candidates who seek to repeal all regulation are the oligarchs who would benefit from reduced legal constraints the most. Those building “defenses” against the equalizing power of unions are interested in only one thing: silencing the voice of the worker. Their reduction in labor costs is our loss of a living wage.

Union workers made up 32% of the workforce in 1953, 20% in 1983, 13% by 2007. The number will have dropped even more today since the economy continues to hemorrhage public sector jobs, often unionized.  In 1933, the number of labor union members was around 3 million. A decade before it had been 5 million. History repeats.

An argument against unions and against minimum wage regulation is that it drives up the cost of labor. To this I say good! I’m increasingly convinced that the answer to getting back some of the 5% of GDP that has moved from workers to investors and owners (and often from there to offshore tax shelters) is to attack the wage issue from the bottom up.

But does the higher labor costs leads to higher product costs argument even hold water? I think we have to think in terms of the unit price of labor. For example, if at the hot dog stand the owner is forced by a minimum wage increase to pay an additional $1.75 per hour per employee. That employee works a 4 hour lunch shift where he prepares and serves 240 hot dogs  (4 hours of a hot dog every 3 minutes–conservative numbers). This adds just 3 cents per hot dog to the labor costs. Now that 3 cents can be made up in any number of ways including efficiency. That concept of unit price of labor applies up and down the line. If the factory owner trades the union’s higher wages for the promised higher productivity of union standards then it’s a fair trade.

The auto unions, seeing the need to negotiate, made concessions to the manufacturers. This kind of common sense approach can work in all cases where the time-aggregated pay and benefits of workers exceed the necessities in changing marketplaces. Higher paid workers don’t hinder an economy, they benefit it because they are the drivers of demand. If we can learn one thing from the last 30 years, let it be this: demand is the driver of a robust economy, not supply.

How far would the oligarchs go? In 1910 there were 1.5 to 2 million workers in American factories that were 15 years old or younger. Hard to believe? “Businesses liked to hire children because they worked in unskilled jobs for lower wages than adults, and their small hands made them more adept at handling small parts and tools.”  Facing the outrage of ordinary people–and seeing pictures like the ones below–Congress passed the Keating-Owens Act that established the following child labor standards: a minimum age of 14 for workers in manufacturing and 16 for workers in mining; a maximum workday of 8 hours; prohibition of night work for workers under age 16; and a documentary proof of age. Sounds like it errs on the side of the employers, but in a display of social irresponsibility this law was later ruled unconstitutional on the ground that congressional power to regulate interstate commerce did not extend to the conditions of labor. We can guess who had purchased those judges.

textile2 textile1

No, I don’t propose that a return to child labor is imminent. Instead, I’m trying to raise the issues that this is how far the greedy have gone in the past, that human nature hasn’t changed in the past 100 years, and that these same impulses still live in the sociopaths who guide large parts of the energy industry, financial firms and banks, and corporations like Walmart and GE.

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