An Evening with William Greider and Friends

Last night Chris and I braved the incredible rush hour traffice in D.C. to attend a book-signing event for William Greider -- the book, Come Home America. The event was co-hosted by Campaign for America's Future Co-director,  Robert Borosage and the AFL, Executive Vice PresidentArlene Holt Baker at AFL National Headquarters.

In many ways the evening brought me back to the 'sixties -- for me a time of political activism (the civil rights struggle, the anti-war movement, and the contention between  New-and-Old Left self-styled revolutionary groups.)  Many in the over-200 people audience  likely shared an experience similar to mine and they will have remembered the disastrous split between progressives and the labor movement over the Vietnam war.

Times have changed. (For a walk down memory lane I recommend this mainstream film take on the 'Sixties, Take me Back). I have no nostalgia for that past, but one of the exciting features of the evening was to be attending a meeting whose underlying theme was how we need to  build a successful progressive movement which would replicate the kind of labor organizing that invigorated the New Deal and pushed FDR to take a stand against the economic royalists. (During the question period it was mentioned that AFL president, John Sweeney was in the audience.)

Baker did not give a pro-forma, pat-on-the-head introduction to Greider. As he said when he got up to speak, "She read the book."

Baker obviously had read the book and liked it. After a brief description of his  background  a journalist (Washington Post,Rolling Stone and currently a commentator for the Nation), she launched her intro by contrasting Greider's 1997 book, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism, to a review of it by the current guru of progressive economics, Paul Krugman, At that time he wrote a review in Salon magazine, The Accidental Theorist,All Work and No Play Makes William Grieder a Dull Boy. Krugman of course was proven wrong: Here are a few excerpts from the review: 

One of the points of this column is to illustrate a paradox: You can't do serious economics unless you are willing to be playful. Economic theory is not a collection of dictums laid down by pompous authority figures. Mainly, it is a menagerie of thought experiments--parables, if you like--that are intended to capture the logic of economic processes in a simplified way. In the end, of course, ideas must be tested against the facts. But even to know what facts are relevant, you must play with those ideas in hypothetical settings. And I use the word "play" advisedly: Innovative thinkers, in economics and other disciplines, often have a pronounced whimsical streak. 

 ... snip ...

 think I know what Greider would answer: that while I am talking mere theory, his argument is based on the evidence. The fact, however, is that the U.S. economy has added 45 million jobs over the past 25 years--far more jobs have been added in the service sector than have been lost in manufacturing. Greider's view, if I understand it, is that this is just a reprieve--that any day now, the whole economy will start looking like the steel industry. But this is a purely theoretical prediction. And Greider's theorizing is all the more speculative and simplistic because he is an accidental theorist, a theorist despite himself--because he and his unwary readers imagine that his conclusions simply emerge from the facts, unaware that they are driven by implicit assumptions that could not survive the light of day.

These days of course, Krugman is having second thoughts about such playful economists as Robert Rubin and Larry Summers/

Contrasting the Krugman of 1997 with Greider today, and his disparaging description of creative economists as "playful," Baker referenced  a metaphor that Greider uses in his new book, which compares the  US economy today to the frightening situation of an aging person whose health declines as he loses weight and muscle.

She encouraged every one to buy Come Home America. and endorsed Greider's message. Not only was he right in 1997, but he is right today.. "We must speak out," she said, and spread his message.

Greider laid aside his prepared notes and said he just wanted to say what is on his mind now. He described how he came to DC in 1966 as a reporter for the a Louisville Kentucky newspaper. His family was  mainstream, middle American and he had no with no experience of trade-unionism when he was growing up. He learned his economics on the job. Some of his education came from the staff at AFL-CIO headquarters, who would invite him over to talk when he would call to get their take on events of the day.

While he wrote Come Home before "the world cracked open," which is how he describes the current situation, he saw then that we were in for a dramatic blood-letting, and he said, it's  not over yet. He cautioned against any simplistic view that identified China as the main enemy. It is our fault not their's. For example, China is going around the world right now handing out development capital while the US sends Green Berets. Obviously China is becoming more popular than the United States but it would be foolish to blame them for this.

"We did this to ourselves," out of arrogance, and Democrats as well as Republicans bear responsibility.and it was a policy followed by Democrats as well as Republicans. It was a policy characterized by arrogance but what we need now is to learn humility. After WWII a mood of triumphalism swept the country, and a belief that it was our right to run the world.  Those days are coming to an end, as the Georgians learned last summer when they mistakenly thought they would have unconditional US support in their adventurous confrontation with the Soviets that could have led to war.

US imports have declined dramatically and this is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is not that China exports goods to us but that the  American economy will  no longer be able support a mass consumption society. Our standard of living will necessarily be reduced as we  rebuild our hollowed-out economy by restructuring our industries over the next decades. Its not only a quesiton of trade imbalances, but the need to accomplish a shift to alternative energy  and  reprocessing the products presently consigned to the waste dump.

Over the past decades multi-national corporations were given a blank check to pursue profits regardless of the social impact and this will have to stop.Our democracy has decayed and powerful interests (military as well as financial) dominate US policy despite efforts of the President and Congress to rein them in. In order to reverse this it will be necessary for Amerians "step up and reclaim their role as citizens,"  not merely in the voting booth but by mass action of one sort or another. He said he hopeful that the country will "get to a better place on the other side of the crisis," but this will only  happen if there is a movement which empowers citizens.

A crisis such as we are now facing is also a unique opportunity for such a movement to emerge. And, in his opinion, it will hopefully be led by the labor movement. "Labor should reclaim its role as a trusted voice" and play a key role not necessarily by organizing working people into unions, but organizing more broadly. The Democratic Party counts on money and votes from Labor, but they do not give labor a serious policy voice; instead they mediate (straddle) between workers and financial interests, and this has to stop. In the words of the old Woodie Guthrie song, labor must force the political issue,  expressed in the words of the old song, Which side are you on." 

An animated discussion followed, led by Borosage.who questioned what kind of politcal process would be needed to accomplish this.

Greider believes that a US accord with China is key. The Chinese have already put together a major stimulus package. If we can negotiate a deal on exports with them and the rest of the world will follow along. We can function as the locomotive for the world recovery one more time but after this recession we must begin to cap the trade deficit, so that it is gradually lowered. At the same time we need to redeploy US capital to rebuilding industry inside the US by imposing gradually increasing tax penalties for outsourcing value-added off-shore production.  This is something that the Europeans and Japan (and most trading countries do as a matter of course to defend their national interest).

Borosage  told a joke which began about what a $1000 invested in AIG or Lehaman Brother's is worth today compared to the same amount consumed in drinking beer. Beer-drinking wins out because recycling the cans can earn $214. 

Greider said the worst thing with the present policy is Summers' policy of muddling through or Obama's "first do no harm." Seeking to preserve the continuity of financial insitutions is a big mistake, he said. We don't want more of the same. We don't want the Geithner policy of maintaining continuity in the banking system by supporting the value of toxic assets. Not only don't we want to continue the power of the speculators who aspire to be masters of the universe but the crisis is such that such an effort will fail. The danger is that Obama's reform agenda will be destroyed too. Obama has to take control of the banking system and jettison the idea banks and financial institutions can be too big to fail. The country needs to return to a banking system composed of smaller local and regional banks that operate on conservative lending principles.

In answer to the challenge that his idea of building a citizen's movement to force these changes is romantic, Greider  said that he thought attempting to organize a national third party is unrealistic, it was important to make politicians insecure. One way to do this is to target some Blue Dog Democrats in the next election. Democrats do not believe that they will have to pay a cost for not representing labor or progressives. That has to change.

He also envisages mass actions breaking out unexpectedly. This happened in the New Deal when to FDR's surprise labor had a massive organizing drive. (Greider didin't reference the Martin Luther Kings civil rights movement, which also  came mind.) But he pointed to the need to educate Americans (most of whom are completely unaware of it) of  the positive role that unions have played historically in winning the gains from the New Deal that we still benefit from such as the minimum wage and social security.

You may want to check out two articles Intrepid Liberal's interview with Grieder

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This was a really interesting event to attend with respect to the auspices, those in attendance and the subject matter discussed. Greider conveys a sense of urgency, possibility and a need to think outside the box in exploring solutions and activities which have for so long been considered out of reach. His emphasis on the need to get "the people" active in reclaiming their citizenship, the crisis, not settled, which will get worse, provides the backdrop and opportunity for the organizing activities which he thinks will help. His views seemed to me to be spot on. There'll be some who say he's not radical enough, and some who say he's too radical altogether. I thought he was quite realistic, presenting multi-facetted aspects of the global crisis we are living through and called on to deal with, because we are here, along with political and economic solutions which seemed proportional to the problems which he presented.