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Remembering Eugene McCarthy

(1916-2005)

By Bill McGaughey

I was privileged to have known the late great Senator Eugene McCarthy, not in the heyday of his 1968 presidential campaign that changed history but in the later years which were more difficult. The former U.S. Senator died in Washington, D.C. on December 10, 2005.

Senator McCarthy and I wrote a book together, “Nonfinancial Economics: the Case for Shorter Hours of Work,” which Praeger published in 1989. We were supporters of legislation to shorten the workweek. The fact that we continued to advocate this proposal long after organized labor had abandoned it guaranteed that we would be marginalized politically. It was a key to Sen. McCarthy’s character that he was relatively indifferent to the political winds. He did what he thought was right.

At one time, Senator McCarthy was an important policy maker in this area. When the U.S. Senate convened a Special Committee on Unemployment in 1959 to consider the implications of automation, Eugene McCarthy became its chair. This committee considered various options to deal with labor displacement from continuing investment in labor-saving technologies. The committee report issued several recommendations including job-training programs and public works. Conspicuously absent was the recommendation to cut work time. The report stated that, while these other options should be tried first, it might become necessary to reconsider the work-time option should the problems persist.

Eugene McCarthy remembered those things. He remembered the context in which decisions were made then to pursue, not shortened work time but those other measures which became U.S. employment policy in the 1960s and 1970s. By the end of the 1980s, he was able to say: “In retrospect, the failure to reduce work schedules as employment rose was a significant policy mistake.”

Now Senator McCarthy is gone. I will debate with anyone the economics of shortening work time. But it is a dead letter politically. I will say, however, that, if the shorter-workweek proposal is dead politically, so, too, is the labor movement which turned its back on the issue that made it what it once was. So we are all sinking in a quagmire of mistaken policy.

One question needs to be addressed: The fact is that U.S. policymakers did not decide to shorten the workweek. In retrospect, we have also failed to see the high levels of unemployment that might have been expected. So what gives? That was the point of our book. We described the actual course of events in the absence of shortened work time. What happened instead might be characterized as an “economy of waste”.

Here we found ourselves skating on thin ice. “Waste” is a pejorative term, not the type of category that economists typically use. What is “waste”? It is an economic product that does not add to human happiness or material satisfaction. It is more like a “necessary evil”. When we consider the growing parts of the economy, we find a preponderance of this product: more wars, more crime and punishment, more advertising, more force-fed merchandising (especially at Christmas), more gambling, more litigation, more medication, more credit cards - the list is endless.

We pay for these things, not because we want them but because they are forced upon us. We succumb to them in moments of weakness or accept them as a personal responsibility. They generate tax revenue and keep people employed. The saner alternative - which is not on the horizon - is to dispense with all this junk and let working people spend more time with their families.

Enough of discussing ideas. What of Eugene McCarthy, the man? I first met him when he returned to Minnesota in 1982 to campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate. McCarthy had read my Op-Ed piece about the shorter workweek that was published in the New York Times . After I contacted his campaign, we had lunch together in downtown Minneapolis. I organized a campaign rally for the Senator at the Labor Center in St. Paul. It was relatively well attended.

McCarthy lost to Mark Dayton in the DFL primary, and Dayton lost the election to Dave Durenberger. McCarthy and I stayed in touch over the next several years. He had breakfast at my parents’ apartment in Washington, D.C. We had also lunch at a downtown restaurant. Out of this came the book project. I later saw Sen. McCarthy at two work-time conferences in Iowa City, Iowa, which Professor Ben Hunnicutt organized.

He and I presented a workshop on work time in the basement of the United Nations building at the prepcom for the 1995 UN Social Summit in January 1995. While I was away in New York, my neighbors in Minneapolis arranged to have the city condemn my apartment building. For the next several years, I had to shelve dreams of a shorter workweek and fight for my own livelihood. I drifted in another direction and saw McCarthy only once or twice after that.

Not knowing the former Senator too well but better than most, let me make several comments about him as a person. Senator McCarthy was an intellectual. He was a poet and a thoughtful prose writer. He was a humorist. He was a visionary. He was not a politician in the sense of someone who relishes power and goes along with the crowd. He formed his own judgments and stuck with them. He was not afraid of being ridiculed.

I remember once, during the 1982 Senate campaign, Senator McCarthy performed at the Renaissance Fair in Chaska along with the jugglers and clowns. He recited his own poetry in a tent. I thought this a bit beneath his dignity as an icon of our political culture; but McCarthy just smiled and said he’d try anything to get votes. The media then was not giving him the time of day. The former Senator was a trooper who kept going in adverse circumstances.

Eugene McCarthy ran for President several as an independent after he had been a major contender in 1968. This brought ridicule from political insiders and the media. McCarthy, who had once been someone, was now tilting at windmills. But I admired him for the same qualities. He was a man who did what he had to do, regardless of the political winds.

It is less well known that Senator McCarthy championed some other causes besides opposition to the Vietnam war. In addition to the shorter workweek, he was a champion of third-party ballot access. He was a critic of aggressive IRS tactics. He warned of our porous borders. He criticized the wastefulness of the automobile culture. He wrote books about these things, gave speeches, and ran for office. None of these causes won favor with powerful interest groups or was aligned with the prevailing political winds. He just did this because he thought it was right.

There is a story which McCarthy told which I think is illuminating. Richard Nixon quoted it in his memoirs. McCarthy said that journalists were like the birds that perch on a telephone line. As soon as one bird lands there, a flock of other birds soon arrives. And, when a single bird flies off the telephone line, the other s follow. McCarthy was describing the herd instinct, both among journalists and politicians. None is courageous enough to follow the dictates of his own heart and mind.

But Eugene McCarthy did. He was a man of courage, a courageous man who was also an intellectual - what a combination! It was my privilege briefly to have known such a man.

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