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The Progressive Republican Tradition and its Prospect for the Future
by William McGaughey, Jr.
As we look at American politics today, we see a populist backlash against the Democratic politics of Obama, Pelosi, and Harry Reid and a Republican Party living on the spent ideas of Reagan conservatism. We see an electorate hungering for new ideas relating to economic revival and jobs but finding little sustenance. Many consider themselves political independents yet, due to structural impediments, third parties have yet to gain a foothold in government.
The ideological ferment is now on the Republican side. I want to make the case for a post-Reagan Republican Party, hearkening back to what has been called moderate or progressive Republicanism. I want to give this tradition an ideological edge.
Its program is simple: peace and prosperity. Wasn’t this what the Republican administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower once gave the American people? Those were the golden years of America, in my lifetime at least. What I want to do now is propose a new set of policies for progressive Republicans based partly on what was done in the past. Three Presidents stand out in this tradition: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Is their legacy not worth defending?
In my opinion, moderate Republicans took a wrong turn in the 1960s. Back then, in the era of Barry Goldwater, there was the idea among anti-Goldwater Republicans that political ideologies were passe. It was said that the important thing in government was competent administration. Government would therefore be left to pragmatists, technocrats, and experts. Ronald Reagan proved them wrong. I give him credit for what he accomplished in a hostile political environment. But that was then, and now is now.
Pragmatism cannot be the basis of a political movement. People need to be guided by ideas that present a positive vision of the future. So that’s what progressive Republicans need to offer the American people: a set of ideas that are “new” yet consistent with Republican values in the past. These will not be Reagan’s ideas and they will not be ideas advanced by Democrats. They will be good, old-fashioned, mainstream Republican ideas adapted to the needs of people living in the 21st century.
the legacy of Lincoln
So, what are the core Republican values? Many people know that the party was founded in 1854 to oppose slavery. We can be rightly proud of that fact. John C. Fremont, who led an early expedition to California, was the party’s first candidate for president. Four years later, in 1860, Republicans elected their first President: Abraham Lincoln. In the campaign of 1860s, Lincoln was termed “the Rail Candidate”. Abe, the rail-splitter or candidate of the working man, won the election. And so, we can see that from the beginning, the Republican Party was friendly to the interests of working people.
We know of the Republican Party’s opposition to slavery. Republicans were in favor of something called “free labor”. This meant that working people were free to sell their labor through contracts with employers. Through hard and effective work, they could achieve economic independence. In the mid 19th Century, free men and women always had the option of moving west to be economically independent. However, if slavery spread into the western territories, that option would be closed. Initially, Republicans opposed the extension of slavery into unorganized territories rather than the abolition of slavery itself. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took that step.
Today we think of Lincoln as a great wartime leader. That is not what he wanted to be. In the 1850s, Lincoln and his supporters doubted that election of a Republican president would lead to Civil War. However, it did, and Abraham Lincoln took the steps necessary to putting down a rebellion against the United States. I would argue, however, that going to war was not a Republican ideal; it was a measure forced on Lincoln and his Republican administration by the secession of seven southern states and the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter.
We also associate the Republican Party with the militantly anti-slavery policies of “Radical Republican” legislators in the aftermath of the Civil War and with the Reconstructionist program imposed on the defeated southern states. Again, that is not what Lincoln would have wanted. In his Second Inaugural address, President Lincoln said these words: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right ... let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle ... to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
It is generally agreed that Lincoln favored a lenient approach to the defeated peoples of the south and not the harsh and humiliating treatment which followed his assassination in April 1865. It can be argued that, had Lincoln lived and succeeded in putting through a program of lenience, we might not have had the bitter reaction from white southerners in the late 1860s and 1870s. We might not have had the Ku Klux Klan intimidating and killing black southerners and their white supporters nor the segregationist “Jim Crow” regime that existed in the south until the 1960s. We also would not then have had the Civil Rights movement that ended that regime.
I would argue that progressive Republicans should favor policies that might have existed had Lincoln not been assassinated rather than policies related to the racial conflict that actually came. Violent events deter progress.
shorter working hours
Returning to the theme of free labor, another threat to working Americans in the mid 19th Century was the displacement of labor caused by the introduction of “labor-saving” machines. The new factory system introduced machines to do the work more efficiently, and that meant that fewer workers were needed. Working people fought back with demands that the work day be shortened to eight hours. Even during the Civil War years, a self-taught mechanic named Ira Steward led a movement of working people toward that end. A nation-wide strike for the eight-hour day on May 1, 1886, laid the foundation for an international labor holiday known as May Day.
Republican administrations were generally sympathetic to that effort. In 1868, a Republican Congress passed and President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law a bill establishing an eight-hour work day. However, loopholes in the law allowed employers to evade their requirements. Labor agitation continued. Campaigning for President in 1880, the Republican candidate, James Garfield, said: “We may divide the whole struggle of the human race into two chapters: First, the fight to get leisure; and the second fight of civilization - what to do with our leisure when we get it?”
Another form of leisure was vacation time. On July 31, 1910, the New York Times published an article asking how long a man’s vacation should be. President Taft, a Republican, proposed three months. Business leaders disagreed, saying that one month a year was acceptable. Today, a century later, American workers average less than two weeks of paid vacation. Something has happened to the American dream.
President Warren G. Harding and his Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, played active roles in ending the steel strike of 1919. After reading a church report on the 72-hour workweeks in the American steel industry, Hoover concluded that such hours were a “black spot on American industry” and ordered the Commerce Department to do its own study.
President Harding’s help was enlisted. The President wrote a letter to the head of U.S. Steel asking that his company reduce working hours. He next invited top steel-industry officials to dinner at the White House to discuss the matter. Over much of the next year, President Harding and his cabinet members wheedled, badgered, and cajoled steel executives to end the long hours. Finally, on August 23, 1923, in the same issue that reported President Harding’s untimely death, the New York Times carried an announcement that directors of the American Iron and Steel Institute had approved plans for the “total elimination” of the 12-hour day in their industry.
After Herbert Hoover became President, the Great Depression began. The Hoover administration, enlisting the support of both business and labor, responded to the employment crisis by urging employers to reduce weekly working hours and pay. According to the administration, 25 percent of all employees were eventually put on shorter work schedules, saving between three million and five million jobs.
The Democrats reacted to this by passing their own shorter-workweek bill. The incoming Roosevelt administration initially supported the labor-backed Black-Connery bill calling for a 30-hour workweek. This bill passed the U.S. Senate on April 6, 1933, and the House was about to pass it as well. Then, according to historian Ben Hunnicutt, “the Roosevelt administration got cold feet and encouraged government jobs programs instead of work sharing to increase employment.” The House Rules Committee buried the shorter-workweek bill.
There is evidence that New York Senator Robert Wagner and his legislative aide, Leon Keyserling, worked behind the scenes to kill the Black-Connery bill. The National Industrial Recovery Act was drafted in its place. A Roosevelt advisor, Rexford Tugwell, wrote in his memoir: "It will be remembered that one of the reasons why NRA was sponsored by Roosevelt, and why the act was passed in the special session of spring, was the threat of a thirty-hour law being pushed by Senator Hugo Black."
Keyserling went on to become the first chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers during the Truman administration and later was an advisor to the United Automobile Workers. In the latter capacity, he vigorously urged the union to abandon its campaign for shorter working hours. This was considered a defeatist approach when compared with the option of economic growth.
Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration did later propose and enact two pieces of legislation promoting shorter working hours: The Walsh-Healey Act of 1936 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The latter set a standard workweek of forty hours and required that workers asked to work beyond forty hours in a week be paid one and a half times their regular rate of pay. However, this law had a defect in that the higher rate of pay encouraged workers to work the longer hours. The trade-union movement, which had once agitated for shorter work hours, now became filled with overtime hogs.
In the 1950s, continued progress in labor productivity prompted discussion of further reductions in hours. Vice President Richard Nixon spoke enthusiastically of the day, “not too far distant”, when Americans would be working only four days a week and “family life will be even more fully enjoyed by every American.” That was in 1956, in the heat of the Eisenhower-Nixon reelection campaign. The youthful Vice President was promptly overruled by advisers in the White House who dismissed the speech as “an unstaffed idea”.
A Special Senate Committee on Unemployment, chaired by Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, failed to recommend that the hours of work be reduced to meet the threat from automation. McCarthy himself later came to regret that decision. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson summed up the prevailing attitude at the time: “Candor and frankness compel me to tell you that, in my opinion, the 40 hour week will not produce missiles.”
Arthur Goldberg, Kennedy’s Secretary of Labor, stated: “Let me say categorically for the National Administration that the President and the Administration do not feel that reduction of hours will be a cure to our economic problem or to unemployment ... It is my considered view that the effect of a general reduction in the workweek at the present time would be to impair adversely our present stable price structure by adding increased costs that industry as a whole cannot bear.”
I think that a case can be made that Republicans have been better friends to working people than the Democrats with respect to promoting shorter work hours. Because of its close association with the labor movement, that would seem not to be the case but the historical record bears it out.
My proposal, then, is that progressive Republicans now support the call for a four-day work week that Richard Nixon recommended during the 1956 national campaign and that a Democrat of great intelligence and courage, Eugene McCarthy, proposed in the 1980s. Even if the unions are no longer backing this measure, it would go a long way toward easing the nation’s problem of long-term unemployment. There are few realistic alternatives.
This proposal now has an international dimension. It is a complicated subject which is not well understood. Further writings can be found at shorterworkweek.com.
a debt-driven economy
During the 1930s, a Democratic administration abandoned the work-sharing approach of Herbert Hoover to pursue financial solutions to economic recovery. In 1936, British economist John Maynard Keynes published his book, “General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money” in 1936, proposing the idea that government might ease national unemployment through deficit spending. During economic downturns, government money could create an artificial demand for products by spending with borrowed money. Then, when economies recover, the money could be paid back. The idea was that government need not have a balanced budget in all years - as narrow-minded Republicans seemed to favor - but should regulate spending to mitigate excesses of the business cycle.
In 1935, the Democratic administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Social Security program. An American physician named Francis Townsend proposed giving every retired American, 60 years of age or older, a monthly pension of $200 as an inducement for older people to withdraw from the work force and make room for younger workers. This so-called “Townsend Plan” soon had supporters in all parts of the country. The Roosevelt administration responded with its own less-generous program to encourage retirement. Its Old Age Assistance, originally $20 a month, was increased in 1939. A Social Security trust fund was established with contributions from employers and employees. Individual retirement benefits varied according to length of service and financial contributions.
Social Security benefits have risen from $1,278,000 paid to 53,000 beneficiaries in 1937 to 3,477,243 - $961,000,000 paid to 3.4 million beneficiaries in 1950 to $31,863,000,000 paid to 26.2 million beneficiaries in 1970 to $247,796,000,000 paid to 39.8 million beneficiaries in 1990 to $615,344,000,000 paid to 50.9 million beneficiaries in 2008. The Medicare program, enacted in 1965, to pay medical bills for older people cost $599 billion in 2008. Medicaid, a companion program for low-income people, cost $204 billion in 2008. Despite increased contributions from employers and employees, the benefit payments from these three programs cannot be sustained over the long term. Current workers are paying for benefits to workers in a previous generation.
The Great Depression lasted for twelve years. Down from 25 percent in 1933, U.S. unemployment was still at 15 percent in 1940. What ended the depression was not New Deal social programs but wartime spending and manpower use during World War II. The government borrowed heavily to finance the war. Millions of young men, who might otherwise have sought jobs, were drafted into the military. Because of wartime wage-and-price controls, employers to attract labor started offering health-insurance benefits. After the war, there was a pent-up demand for consumer products which carried the economy into more prosperous times.
In 1929, a writer named Kenneth Burke wrote a satirical essay titled “Waste - the future of prosperity” for the New Republic, accurately anticipating future trends in the economy. “War is our great economic safety-valve,” he said. “For if waste lets up, if people simply won't throw out things fast enough to create new needs in keeping with the increased output under improved methods of manufacture, we always have recourse to the still more thoroughgoing wastage of war."
Although this article was meant to be satyrical, it proved prophetic. In 1947, Bernard Baruch, who had directed the War Industries Board during World War I, proposed a 44-hour workweek to increase national output and jobs. He said: "Unless we work, we shall not be able to maintain our claim to power. That would be the greatest blow we could receive, for it would strip us of our strength to preserve our way of life."
There is evidence that top government officials in the Truman Administration favored increased military spending for purposes of economic stimulus. A National Security Council memorandum, NSC-68, written by State Department analyst Paul Nitze with Keyserling’s help argued that the United States could best achieve economic growth through an arms build-up to counter the Soviets. This document required that the United States increase defense spending to as much as $50 billion per year from $13 billion. Preparations for war would produce a “growth dividend” so that the weapons program, the report authors suggested, would practically pay for itself.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, a man of considerable military experience, argued forcefully against this approach in a speech delivered during his 1952 campaign for President. He accused the Truman administration of trying to fool the American people with a “deceptive prosperity” brought on by inflation.
Eisenhower said: "There is in certain quarters the view that national prosperity depends on the production of armaments and that any reduction in arms output might bring on another recession. Does this mean, then that the continued failure of our foreign policy is the only way to pay for the failure of our fiscal policy? According to this way of thinking, the success of our foreign policy would mean a depression."
Nevertheless, what departing President Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex”, championed by Keyserling and others, did carry the thrust of what became U.S. economic policy: We would “grow” our way out of economic difficulties by enterprises useful or not, including arms production. Besides containing Soviet expansion, such spending financed through debt would “prime the pump”. Becoming a military superpower on borrowed money was so much more important than what individuals having more free time might do with their stupid little lives.
And so, under the influence of Democratic administrations, more of the U.S. economy came under the control of government. More economic control was placed in the hands of persons who managed pools of money. Besides Social Security and related programs, we had private pension funds. We had more shares of stock managed through mutual funds. Health insurance was another growing type of monetary accumulation. Private investors also turned to money-market funds, real-estate investment trusts, commodity-index funds, private-investment funds, hedge funds.
It was a bonanza for Wall Street banks and investment firms. Such firms started giving to Democratic as well as Republican candidates. Politicians of both parties became beholden to them. Deregulation of the banking industry, introduced at the close of the Clinton administration, opened the floodgates to outright gambling with other people’s money. Meanwhile, public and private debt soared to unsustainable levels.
In the second half of 2008, the Lehman Brothers investment firm went bankrupt as the housing bubble burst. The Wall Street gamblers had bought credit-default insurance from insurance companies having inadequate reserves to cover their bets. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke at the Federal Reserve arranged for a taxpayer bailout of AIG to save Goldman Sachs and, they said, prevent total collapse of the nation’s credit industry. The voters rightly turned the profligate Republicans out of office and put Barack Obama in the White House. But the Wall Street party continued - more borrowing, more bonuses, more stimulus money to help interest groups.
Americans today are worried about jobs. Officially the latest recession has come to an end, but the jobs have not returned. There are currently 4.8 job applicants for every job opening. People realize that, in view of production being outsourced to low-wage countries in Asia, the well-paying jobs that used to be found in the manufacturing sector may never return.
Professional educators, playing upon those fears, hawk their high-priced product as the only way to avoid a life of menial labor or the unemployment lines. Today’s generation of young people therefore begin their careers shouldering a heavy load of student debt even as the job outlook remains bleak.
Debt, debt, and more debt are everywhere. Our national debt stood at 5.73 trillion when George W. Bush took office in January 2001. Barack Obama’s administration inherited a debt of $10.63 trillion in January 2009. Today, less than two years later, the national debt stands at $13.67 trillion.
This is the end of the line for a type of economic policy begun in the New Deal and carried on through the Truman administration. Deficit spending is a policy that can be squarely tied to the Democratic Party. Old-style Republicans (Bush 2 not among them) are relatively clean.
today’s tax-cutting Republicans
But, of course, today’s mainstream Republican party is hardly traditional, being in the image of Reagan and Bush. Ronald Reagan was a masterful political leader but he did not understand economics very well. It was he who abandoned conservative fiscal policies once favored by Republicans to embrace tax cuts for the rich.
The policy in vogue during the Reagan administration was called “supply-side economics”. The idea was that, if the government cut taxes, it would recover the same amount of money in increased tax revenues because of the increased incentives for entrepreneurial activity. Candidate George Bush called this “voodoo economics” but he later embraced the approach. “Read my lips, no new taxes”, the elder Bush growled. The federal budget deficit meanwhile continued to grow.
The younger Bush who became President had to cut taxes for the rich once again. His administration had to propose a prescription-drug benefit for senior citizens producing a huge new unfunded obligation. Then, on top of it all, George Bush Junior was duped by the neocons into attacking Iraq on the false premise that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons to mass destruction that might be turned against the United States. Joseph Stiglitz puts the cost of this military adventure at $3 trillion. Thousands more had to be killed. Americans began to realize that the Bush 2 presidential administration might be among the worst in U.S. history. Not inappropriately, our economy went into a free fall as it came to an end.
Therefore, I am not advocating anything like the Republican administration of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. Those cardboard “tough guys” impress me far less than the namby-pamby, real-life liberals who used to hold office under the auspices of the Republican Party.
But neither am I impressed by what the Obama administration has done so far. Promising “change that you can believe in”, he has given us nothing of the sort. The so-called “health reform” legislation was a device to force everyone to jump into the high-priced U.S. health-care pit. It did little to improve the quality of care or cut costs as a single-payer system might have done. Meanwhile, the war continues in Afghanistan despite evidence of its ineffectiveness.
Obama may be better than Bush, but it would be better still to have a president in the mold of an Eisenhower, Lincoln, or Theodore Roosevelt.
Why not shorter work hours?
The long overdue adjustment to working hours after many years of cumulative improvements in labor efficiency will likely not be made. Neither Democrat nor Republican mentions this any more.
A priesthood of professional economics, weaned on Paul Samuelson’s best-selling textbook, continues to stand in the way. Samuelson had flatly stated that the shorter-workweek argument was based on a fallacy which he called the “lump-of-labor fallacy”. It was the idea, he wrote, that “there is only so much useful remunerative work to be done in any economic system.” No advocate of shorter hours whom I know holds that view. Of course, the economy is continually changing. This is a “straw man” argument, a refutation of something through misrepresentation of opposing views. What do dumb factory workers know about economics anyhow?
In fact, the “lump-of-labor” label was invented by a certain D.F. Schloss who was discussing workers’ attitudes toward piece work in an 1892 publication. Two decades later, the National Association of Manufacturers used the concept to oppose the eight-hour day. Samuelson may unwittingly have it picked up from a pamphlet issued by that organization. There are no known studies on the subject.
Yet, because a Nobel prize winning economist such as Paul Samuelson declared the shorter-workweek argument to be fallacious, others repeat his conclusion with confidence in its truth. For example, Princeton economist Paul Krugman, another Nobel prize winner, wrote in a New York Times column that “lump of labor fallacy is ... an idea economists view with contempt.” If academics awarded the Nobel prize view it with contempt, then so presumably should we. In reality, those economic priests have no idea what they are talking about. The criterion of truth is not found in judgments of personnel made by a Swedish committee.
I would suspect that this attitude dates back to Bernard Baruch, Leon Keyserling, and Gerald Swope who worked so hard to thwart the shorter-workweek proposal during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. It is not hard to understand why persons entrenched in high government positions would oppose the diffusion of power and wealth as the wartime economy was dismantled. If the U.S. military machine is maintained intact, then ambitious cliques of influential persons such as the neocons can commandeer this machine to serve their own ends.
On the other hand, if the fruits of economic progress are taken in the form of leisure, there are no concentrations of money to be managed by well-paid Wall Street professionals. There is no debt to be offered at high rates of interest by the banks. From the perspective of insiders having a hand on the levers of government, it would be a shame to let the millions of Americans simply spend their lives in whatever way they pleased. So much wealth that I could get my hands on might slip away.
Another reason that the shorter-workweek movement fizzled is that the labor movement, once built upon its idea, also fizzled. Workers were, as we said, diverted from their original end by the perverse incentives of overtime pay. Beyond that, employers found new ways to cut the cost of operations performed by high-priced union labor.
There was no need to resist union demands during contract talks. Employers could keep labor cheap by closing unionized work places and opening up new facilities with non-union labor. This largely accounts for the mass exodus of industry from the northern to the southern states during the second half of the 20th Century. Employers also made increasing use of immigrant labor, sometimes undocumented, who would do the same work for less. The government’s free trade policies later allowed production to escape from the United States to low-wage nations abroad.
free trade and the U.S. labor movement
Republicans used to favor protectionist policies. Abraham Lincoln once called himself a “Henry Clay tariff Whig”. He imposed a 44 percent tariff during the Civil War to finance the war and protect domestic industries. The McKinley Tariff Act of 1890 raised tariffs upon imported products to 48.4%. President William McKinley said: “Under free trade the trader is the master and the producer the slave. Protection is but the law of nature, the law of self-preservation, of self-development, of securing the highest and best destiny of the race of man.” This was the Republican policy until the United States became dominant in international trade in the years following World War II.
President Reagan gave business leaders what they wanted by promoting policies of free trade. In 1988, the United States Government concluded a free-trade agreement with Canada which removed trade barriers between the countries over a ten-year period. The maquiladora enclaves in northern Mexico, also introduced during this period, allowed goods to be processed outside the United States and then brought back into the country with tariffs only on the value-added portion.
The next step was the North American Free-Trade Agreement proposed by the first President Bush. A Democratic President, Bill Clinton, twisted arms in the Congress to receive authority to negotiate this agreement with the Mexicans and Canadians. Reportedly, he did this in return for promises that Democrats would have parity with Republicans in campaign contributions from Wall Street firms.
Free trade is a direct threat to high-priced union labor in the United States. The absence of protective tariffs and other trade barriers allows U.S. manufacturers to make substantial cost savings in the labor component of their products and then bring goods back into the United States without paying tariffs. The goods are sold at approximately the same price as if produced domestically. As a result, corporate profits receive a quick boost and top executives are rewarded accordingly. The U.S. consumer market is slowly being dissipated as high-priced jobs are lost.
In 1945, about 36 percent of American workers were represented by unions. That percentage has recently fallen to less than 9 percent. In the 1940s, less than 10 percent of public-sector employees and nearly 34 percent of private-sector employees belonged to unions. Today, 36 percent of workers employed in the public sector are unionized, compared with less than 7 percent of workers in private industry. Outsourced production and closing of union shops obviously plays a part in that shift. Governments cannot move abroad to escape labor costs.
As a result of the increased share of public-sector employees, the trade union movement in the United States has become more narrowly focused on electing sympathetic candidates to public office. In particular, it has become a campaign auxiliary of the Democratic Party. There is a certain conflict of interest in this situation in that “management” consists of the same people whom the unions have helped to elect to government office.
Because unions are an organized group striving to improve its members’ wages and benefits, government workers now tend to be more highly paid and enjoy better working conditions than their counterparts in the private sector. The old idea that it is “good” for unions to win strikes may have less validity if such victories serve mainly to increase income disparities between those who do and do not work for government. Public affluence in the midst of private squalor won’t work.
Republicans as a labor party
Disappointed by Democrats who betrayed the interests of working people, some labor activists proposed creating a Labor Party in the United States similar to those in Europe. I would suggest, however, that a progressive Republican Party could function in that role. Labor should receive preference in public policy as it is the moral foundation for economic benefits that people receive. Republicans should help working people in all sectors of the economy regardless of union or nonunion status.
The Republican Party is not a welfare-rights party. It believes in a safety net but not a set of incentives to stay on the dole that overshadows the rewards for working. The Democrats, from Roosevelt’s New Deal through Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”, have been the party of government welfare programs - paying people who make little or no contribution to the economy. This is unfair to the people who do work and pay taxes. Private-sector business and the people they employ are the engine of economic progress, not government and not foundations or nonprofits. We prosper through wages, not grants.
Right now, working Americans need more than a little help. For at least the past forty years, real hourly and weekly wages in the United States have been declining. In constant 1982 dollars, the average private-sector worker made $302.52 per week in 1964. This rose to $331.59 in 1973, but subsequently dropped to $277.57 in 2004. The real weekly U.S. wage is therefore 12 percent below the level of 40 years ago. With respect to working hours, there has been a slow upward drift in hours. In 1967, American workers averaged 1,710 hours of work per year. In 2007, this was 1,860 hours a year - an 8 to 9 percent increase in working hours over a forty-year period.
The big story, however, is that American women have entering the work force in increased numbers. Women now comprise more than 50 percent of the U.S. work force. Not only does this have an effect on consumer spending and debt, it also reduces the time available for child care as the total hours at work per household increases. Young children need continual parental supervision. The older children need someone to help them when they get sick.
However, paid sick leave is unavailable to many American workers; and, if it is available, this benefit is often for the employee alone and not for the employee’s family. As a result, working mothers often have to lie about the reason they are absent from work when they have to care for a sick child. Humane supervisors may get in trouble if they bend the rules to accommodate an employee with urgent family obligations. The bottom line is that low-ranking employees who become sick run the risk of being fired.
As “mean and lean” companies lay off employees to cut costs and boost profits, both the laid off worker and the one left behind to handle an increased work load face significant stress. In 1950, Americans ranked in the top five in terms of longevity. Today, our average length of life ranks #49 among measured nations. One fifth of American workers do not receive paid vacations. The same is true of paid holidays.
Americans spend $80 billion a year on medications to treat depression. A quarter of our children experience hunger in their lives. Eighty percent of low-income employees lack paid sick time. Even at enlightened firms which offer flex time to meet workers’ personal needs, only 15 percent of male employees and 20 percent of female employees feel confident enough about their job security to take them.
I would submit that this is a record of abject failure. The United States is well behind other industrial countries in most measures of worker well being. We evidently feel welfare or incarceration is preferable to helping people who are employed unless, of course, they are employed in the upper echelons of management and finance.
Surveys show that 75 percent of Americans favor legislation mandating paid leave. This could be a winning issue for Republicans of the progressive stripe: Help people who work for a living. Help working mothers, fathers, and their children. Let honest, hard-working people enjoy some measure of leisure and prosperity. Make life more bearable for Americans. Isn’t that better than maintaining an empire of military bases around the world?
What this will take is government intervention. Employers must be legally forced to do something or inhumane policies for employees will drive out the humane. We assume that someone in upper management could decide to give pay increases and shorter hours or allow sick employees to take time off from work without repercussions. Yes, that is true if the top manager owned the business or felt secure enough in his position to make such decisions. The reality is, however, that upper management, too, is under the gun from institutional investors, stock analysts, and other to show continual improvement in quarterly profits. The CEO’s job, too, is on the line.
In today’s business climate, it is considered softheaded to put employee comfort and convenience above considerations of the bottom line. But if the top manager can say “government made me do this”, there is no argument. That is why government, if it truly represents its citizens’ interests, should make employers do these various things. We need legislation to shorten the work week, provide minimum vacations and holidays, allow time off for sick employees or sick family members, and retirement benefits for older workers who have been with the firm for some time.
Most publicly held companies in the United States have significant blocs of stock controlled by fund managers. There is fierce competition among the various funds to have rapidly growing portfolios. The shares held by the fund should be increasing rapidly in price, driven by growth in profits. The fund managers have the power to vote the shares of stock held in the funds with respect to firm management. Their concern is focused on short-term profitability. That means that institutional investors have an inherent interest in making sure that top management puts the bottom line first. Humane treatment of employees is of secondary concern.
That being the case, we also need legislation, perhaps in the state where the firm is incorporated, stripping fund managers of the right to cast votes affecting the firm’s management. Only individual owners should be allowed to vote shares of stock. That would give corporate management more breathing space with respect to treatment of employees.
I know that this would be considered tough medicine for U.S. business - perhaps even “socialistic” for those who have no idea what the word means - but it is soundly within the Republican tradition of an earlier, progressive period. I refer, of course, to Theodore Roosevelt, the original “progressive”. Roosevelt stood up on top of a table in Kansas and delivered a stem-winding speech about the evils of concentrated corporate power. This Republican president was a trust buster . His administration sued 45 companies under the Sherman antitrust law,and the subsequent Taft administration sued 75 companies.
Theodore Roosevelt said at the 1912 Bull Moose convention: “'This country belongs to the people. Its resources, its business, its laws, its institutions, should be utilized, maintained, or altered in whatever manner will best promote the general interest ... Mr. Wilson (the Democrat) must know that every monopoly in the United States opposes the Progressive party.”
We have already discussed the Republican legacy of Lincoln. Besides trust busting, Theodore Roosevelt is known as a strong champion of the conservation movement. He created the U.S. Forestry Service and several of our national parks. Add environmental protection to the list of causes which progressive Republicans should support in our time. In 1906, Roosevelt also helped pass the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and Pure Food and Drug Act. He was a champion of consumer protection.
In 1901, President Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington, a noted black educator, to have lunch with him at the White House. It was a welcome gesture toward improved race relations. Roosevelt won the Nobel peace prize for brokering a peace agreement between Russia and Japan in 1905. World peace is another worthy goal although I do have concerns about his imperialistic moves in Latin America. On the whole, however, Theodore Roosevelt created a positive legacy for Americans and for the Republican Party.
An urgent need at this time is to formulate economic policy with the earth’s carrying capacity in mind. Progressive Republicans should respond to this need; conservative Republicans may not. Although Al Gore is a Democrat, there is indeed for Republicans, too, such a thing as global warming. We Americans produce a major share of the carbon emissions, but it is people in Africa, India, and west Asia who sustain the bulk of deaths from a heated and dried environment. We need to get back to less than 350 parts per million in carbon emissions from the 390 parts per million now.
In 1961, 49 percent of the earth’s sustainable land surface was used; in 2001, 121 percent of capacity. Right now, we’re overshooting what the earth can provide by way of material support for its human population. We need to be more efficient in our use of extracted minerals. Between 1980 and 2005, the United States increased its consumption of such materials by 66 percent; Europe, only 9 percent. But above all, we need to get away from an economy predicated on continued economic growth.
Materials consumption dips during recessions. Nations such as Germany that feature shorter working hours also tend to have both lower unemployment and a lighter ecological foot print. A more general reduction in hours is the key to an economy that adequately provides for people’s needs without being growth-oriented, materials consuming, and therefore damaging to the environment. I think this objective is consistent with the brand of Republicanism espoused by Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot.
The fact is, however, that the United States cannot go it alone in solving the world’s problems. (We would do well to avoid creating some of them.) We Americans will need the cooperation of other national governments, of international political organizations such as the United Nations, and of other institutions to create solutions to problems on a global scale. In that regard, progressive Republicans should be internationally minded. We should respect the United Nations and be flattered that its headquarters is located in our country.
Yes, it was Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, who proposed the League of Nations, and Republican Senators who blocked U.S. membership in that body. It was also Presidents Roosevelt and Truman who supported the creation of the United Nations in 1945. However, some progressive