Certainly Blue Wave-ish

The downside of setting out my criteria for a Blue Wave ahead of time is that, given the results, I look like a curmudgeon if I stick to those, which show the Democrats just a hair short of my reasonable, but arbitrary, standards. In any event, the measure is not unambiguous and by any standard, the Democrats had a strong election. To recap:

U.S House   I said a wave would be a pick-up of 40 or more. As I write this, Democrats have won 37 and may pick up one or two more.

U.S. Senate   I said a wave would be a net loss of 1 or fewer. Assuming Mississippi turns out Republican, the net loss will be 2—but only by the barest of eye-lashes. And, as FiveThirtyEight points out, even in states they lost, Democrats overperformed in terms of the state’s historic “lean”.

Governorships   I said a net pick-up of 5 or more would constitute a wave. The pick-up was 7, including a number of states Trump carried—Michigan and Wisconsin among them.

Legislatures    I said a net pick-up of 5 or more legislative chambers would constitute a wave and the net pick-up was exactly 5.

In other words, as close to hitting my criteria as possible without actually making it.

What do I take away from this?

  • Impressive gains but still a lot of work to do. Republicans strengthened their hold on the Senate and will therefore continue to control the judicial appointment process. The current margin in governorships favors Republicans 27-23. Legislative chambers are even more lopsidedly Republican, 62 to 37.
  • There is no evidence the divides in the nation narrowed. Several analysts have offered a “red got redder, blue got bluer” Even in places where there were obvious gains in the Democrats’ vote totals, it was less a change of minds than a change of people. Specifically, cities continue to grow and the suburbs are changing. The 20 largest metro-hubs account for more than 1/3 of the population and the percentage of suburban voters with college degrees increased. Georgia had more overall Democratic votes than previously, but rural Georgia appears every bit as hostile to Democratic values as it was 2, 10 or 50 years ago. It’s just they have a little less sway.
  • By any measure it is clear that a lot more people voted for Democratic candidates than Republican candidates. However, the way the American political system is constructed gives large advantages to small states and in larger states a combination of gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, and other tactics magnify the voting strength of Republicans. (Democratic senatorial candidates received 12 million more votes than Republican candidates, but Democrats will lose 1 or 2 seats.) Given these structural considerations and given the strength of the Trump electorate, it would be foolish to assume that he could not repeat in 2020.
  • The Democratic party looks much more like the nation as a whole than the Republican party. Democrats elected many more women, many more people of color, and members of more ethnic groups. Fragmentary evidence indicates that voting increases—this was the highest percentage of eligible voters voting in a midterm for more than a century—were particularly heavy among younger and older Americans. And the role of women was particularly striking. No analysis yet on minority votes. But the degree of diversity in the party is an advantage only to the extent that people vote.

What Next?

I think this election raises three big questions:

  1. What should a Democratic House do? I am not sure there is a broad generalization about whether more liberal or more center of the road Democrats did better. My read is that it depended on local circumstances and individual candidates. That being said, it seems that a moderate approach over the next two years would position the party better for 2020. I believe the party of the future is the one that best offers a credible position that it is a party trying to unite the country rather than divide it. In that context, I’m taken with the agenda laid out by Ronald Klain in the Washington Post. First, he argues that leading with anti-Trump investigations, as called for as they may be, is not likely to be productive. Second, he suggests focusing on a smaller agenda that includes raising the minimum wage, attacking voter suppression, strengthening the ACA, a “non-porked-up” infrastructure package, and granting legal status to Dreamers. This agenda is well within what virtually all Democrats can support and can be constructed to be a unity agenda as opposed to a divisive agenda. Many of these things will die in the Senate, but if the House passes them it will force votes that clarify positions heading to 2020, when the Democrats have much favorable Senate map.
  2. What does this tell us about the 2020 presidential race? Not much beyond that it will be bloody. It does remind us we must stay focused and energetic if we actually want to beat Trump. The popular vote margin in New York or California will make a heck of a lot less difference than the popular vote in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida and maybe Ohio. I am not sure if Democrats would be better if there were an anointed front runner or not. Trump is much more dangerous running against people than running against himself. It would be nice if Democrats didn’t savage themselves, but political campaigns do get testy. Andy Borowitz suggested, in one of his satirical columns, that the Clinton campaign was upset that Bernie Sanders was actually trying to win the nomination. My guess is there will be lots of Democrats actually trying to win the nomination. But, maybe, with the field so relatively wide-open at this point, candidates will feel able to acknowledge their common positions and approach the campaign minimizing violence against each other. Most Democrats are more concerned about defeating Donald Trump and his Republican-enablers, than about what wing of the party a winner comes from.
  3. What needs to happen at state levels? The biggest thing is probably to limit harm. While Democrats picked up control of a net of 5 chambers, they were not in states that are most guilty of disenfranchising voters and other legislative atrocities. Several of the biggest advances for Democrats were not where they gained control of a chamber, but where they took away a Republican supermajority or gained a Democratic supermajority. No where is this more important than in North Carolina where the legislature has outrageously hamstrung the Democratic governor. Governor Cooper may still have difficulty getting his agenda through, but without Republican supermajorities in both chambers, he has more latitude to stop some of the worse ideas from the Republican Legislature. With redistricting looming after the 2020 Census, it will be crucial to Democrats to keep focused on the state races in two years.

Concluding Thoughts

One of the most striking things about Donald Trump is that he holds power by being divisive. There is clearly an element of the electorate that is fine with that. They are not going to be voting Democratic any time soon. Moreover, they will try to justify their position by arguing that Democrats are just as divisive because of their condescending attitudes. While there might be some argument that certain Democrats are insufficiently sympathetic to real problems, there is a qualitative difference in what “divisive” means. Donald Trump promotes divisiveness on racial and gender lines. He routinely looks for ways to demean opposition instead of finding commonalities.

Democrats will do best when they can come up with ways of presenting themselves that are focused precisely on overcoming the “us versus them” attitude that Republicans have sunk into. In truth, Hilary Clinton had the right idea—“Stronger Together” and a series of specific policies that made gradual improvements on many fronts. Unfortunately, she was the wrong messenger for the times. Everything about the midterm elections suggests to me that a carefully repackaged return to these themes—along with lots more enthusiastic organizing—might make huge changes possible through gradual steps.

Blue Wave….Or Not?

By Mike Koetting       October 30, 2018

I really want a blue wave. Really.

Blue Wave


But I have no intention of predicting whether it will or will not happen. There are people out there who follow it more closely and have access to a lot more data. And, as Nate Silver reminds us, the degree of uncertainty is much more than anyone wants to believe, certainly more than the media acknowledges.

Moreover, perhaps more than some other elections, this one is going to be decided by turnout. It is indisputable that the country is deeply divided and votes will be cast accordingly. But a blue wave will require a lot of turnout by people who don’t usually vote their weight—young people and minorities, particularly Latinos. I don’t know if there are good ways of predicting that, but I certainly don’t have access to any of it.

Accordingly, the goals of this post are very much more modest. I am going to set down my idea of what a blue wave would like before the election. Afterward, we can look at what happened and see how we want to score it.

The Senate

There are many elections taking place and they by no means have identical dynamics. The difference is probably most sharp between the national Senate and House races. Since Senate races don’t all happen at the same time, there is no clear national snap-shot; the relative outcomes are hugely impacted by where the races are taking place.

As any one who is paying attention knows, this year’s Senate map is particularly difficult for Democrats. There are 35 seats up, 26 of them held by Democrats. Five of the Democratic seats are in solidly red states; another 7 are in states that, while not solidly red, are so divided that there is no a priori lean. (For those following at home: Florida, Ohio, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.) To avoid losing ground, Democrats would have to hold on to all 12 of those or pick up seats elsewhere. There are a few possible places for pick up, but only a few. And while it is true that the historic momentum of mid-term elections favor the party that doesn’t hold the presidency, in the Senate, the possibility of a net increase in seats is against the severe head-wind of a brutal map.

It seems to me that a blue wave in Senate seats would be anything less than a two-seat loss. Flipping the Senate, especially with the return of Republican enthusiasm following the Kavanaugh hearings, while still possible, would suggest more of a blue tsunami than a wave.

The House

Democratic chances are much better in the House, where they need 25 seats to have a majority.  All the House seats are up and House districts represent more discrete groups of voters. It is possible for some of the voters to be persuaded without needing the entire state to go along.

Representation in the House is more influenced by the trend against the sitting party than in the Senate.  Since 1914 (when the House reached its current size) the average swing to the non-presidential party has been 32 seats, although the volatility seems to have receded somewhat since, say, 1960.  Out of the 14 elections since 1960, only 4 have led to a swing of more than 40 votes in the House. That might be a good watermark for a “wave” election as opposed to a “normal” swing from a president’s party. A pick-up of 40 seats would give Democrats roughly the same majority Republicans now hold.

House Swings

Source:  My calculations from Wikipedia


By no means is all the action about Congressional races. As has been made abundantly clear in the last decade, it makes a huge difference who controls statehouses. Not only are many of the programs that really matter in people’s lives controlled at the state level, but states have substantial discretion in deciding who gets to vote and the conditions of their voting, including districts, polling places, and election rules.The right to vote will get no protection from the courts, so the only way that voting rights will be preserved is by seizing control of the state machinery. This means state legislatures and governorships.

In almost all states, the redistricting is materially influenced by what the governor will or will not ratify. Currently, Republicans hold 34 seats and Democrats only 15. Alaska’s governor is official Independent and will be running again as an Independent. Of the remaining 49 states, 36 will have gubernatorial elections. For the most part, these are the governors who will preside over the redistricting after the 2020 census.

Depending on what pundit you want to believe, somewhere between 6 and 13 of those elections are competitive, including at least 3 with currently Democratic governors. It would be a good day in the governors’ contests if Democrats could close the 34-15 gap to 29-20, a net pick-up of 5. Any more Democratic victories would constitute a monster Blue Wave.

State Legislatures

Regarding legislatures, there are 99 separate legislative chambers. (Nebraska has a unicameral legislature.) Of those, 87 will have elections and there will be more than 6,000 sets in play. Roughly 1 in 8 of the legislators elected this November will be legislators who deal with redistricting. There are also many other issues to be addressed at the state level (Medicaid, education, reproductive rights, gun laws—just to name a few.) The example of North Carolina, where the Republican legislature has worked day and night to hamstring the Democratic governor, makes it clear governors must have some legislative backing to protect the status quo, let alone make major changes.

Currently, Republicans hold 67 of these chambers and Democrats 32. Again, determination of which races are competitive is not an exact science—and it changes as the election gets closer. But it appears that between 13 and 21 of them are undecided races, including several where Democrats have a slight majority now.

Based on history alone, it is enormously likely that the party not holding the presidency will pick up seats. Losses for Democrats were particularly steep during the Obama years, but 1918 should be an opportunity for Democrats to win back some of these legislatures. Bringing the number of chambers controlled by Democrats to parity is probably too much of a reach—there are entire swaths of the country where Democrats are simply not competitive. But a good outcome would be to reduce the gap by 10 from the current gap of 35. A 15 or more pick up would be a very Blue Wave.


I have set down my idea of what would constitute a “blue wave”. Whether it happens will be up to the people who vote. If all those unhappy with Trumpian politics show up, I believe there will be a blue wave. But even if we get what I have defined as a “blue wave,” there will still be a lot of Republican control at various levels of government. So there will still be work to be done.

On the other hand, if a large chunk of those unhappy with Trump watch from the sidelines, Republicans will continue to largely own the machinery of government.


ADDENDUM        A week of hate

 I can’t tell what, if any, impact the events of last week will have on the midterms. But it was a horrible week:

  • The week started with a man groping a woman on an airplane fight and, when arrested, asked why couldn’t he do that since the president could.
  • On Wednesday, a white man shot two black people in a grocery store and then tried to get into a black church with his guns.
  • Pipe bombs were mailed to a dozen people who are either Democratic leaders, liberal supporters, or the media that Trump has attacked.
  • On Saturday, a man shouting anti-Semitic slogans opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing at least at eleven people.

One can argue that a handful of deranged people can’t be used to discredit an entire political party—or an individual politician. And it is also true that all ideological groups have some deranged folks. But it is very hard to look at this string of events–and the clear line they draw back to Donald Trump—without concluding that however it turns out, this election is a referendum on what kind of country we are willing to tolerate.


How Do We Remediate Toxic Waste?

By Mike Koetting        October 11, 2018

Like the vast majority of Americans who have been paying attention, the events of the last week have been profoundly discouraging. For me, the ascension of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is awful. But it isn’t just that.

It is also that the process was so ugly. It certainly tarnished both the Senate and the Supreme Court, two institutions that are key to democracy. It even managed to get the #Me Too movement entangled in a very partisan way, something that may not be helpful to the movement in the long run. As a consequence of the hearings, the two sides hate each other more and the vast majority of the population leaves the hearings even more pessimistic, and more cynical, about the future of American political society.

David Brooks refers to this as unvarnished tribalization. In some sense, this is fair enough. But I think the term “tribalization” misses an important nuance. One is born into a tribe. Political parties are a choice, a choice dictated by one’s particular value constellation rather than the accident of birth. The Civil War was a tribal war, but it was also a fundamentally moral question as to whether slavery was going to persist as an American institution. The splits in American society today feel so lethal precisely because they are clashes over fundamental value propositions.

To be sure, the dividing lines today are not as neat. There are multiple, often competing values in play and each political party is a coalition of groups that don’t necessarily share all values, but are united primarily for strategic purposes. This is starker in the Republican Party. The moneyed elites share relatively few values with a large part of the Trump base. But without those votes, Republicans wouldn’t have any electoral chance at the national level. The Democratic Party is harder to parse, in part because it is a mosaic of more interest groups. Blacks, Latinos, trade unions, LBGQTs, college-educated whites and the women’s movement have plenty of differences in what they value most. But they need each other. Politics continues to make strange bedfellows

Given that both parties are to some degree cobbled together of less than monolithic interest groups, it seems it should be possible to create more opportunities for people in both camps to search for areas of common interest so that we can back away from the political cliff on whose edge we seem to be teetering.

But apparently not so. Both sides have lost the sense there is any point in compromise.

You start it

Impasses of this sort are very hard to resolve. On the one hand, simply arguing the other guy’s extreme positions are the cause of the stalemate doesn’t do much to resolve the impasse–since they think the same about you. On the other hand, no side is going to abrogate core principles.

That said, I can’t think much about the current mess—and it is a society-threatening mess—without concluding that this is more on the Republicans. I have read carefully the arguments of David Frum, Jonah Goldberg, and a few other conservative columnists on “Democratic overreach” and I come away convinced that while there is some shared blame, there is no parity. Mostly their ”overreach” arguments come down to some version of “it started when they hit us back”.

In the last dozen years or so, there have been critical societal issues where Democrats were obviously willing to make major concessions, but where Republicans have walked away. A few examples suffice:

  • From 2005 to 2007, Republicans killed a series of immigration bills that had been carefully pieced together by a bi-partisan group in the Senate. The provisions of those bills outlined a sensible immigration policy that a large majority of the country supported. No one has come up with anything like a better plan since.
  • Environmental protection had a long history of bipartisan support. But over time, Republicans abandoned it in favor of a position largely denying environmental dangers in the face of virtually all scientific evidence, which increasingly suggests that the environmental future of the entire planet is at stake. The poster child for this retreat was in 2010 when Republicans defeated a Cap and Trade policy that was a Republican idea as far back as Ronald Reagan. When it was actually advanced as bipartisan legislation. Republican support vanished, replaced by unfounded climate skepticism.
  • Lack of health insurance coverage was accepted by all parties as a major problem, with the uninsured rate approaching 20%. Democrats proposed the same plan that Republicans had touted as the solution since Bill Clinton was president. It had been implemented by Mitt Romney, later a Republican presidential candidate. But not a single Republican voted for the ACA—even though they had no alternative proposal.
  • In 2015, President Obama was prepared to do a “Grand Bargain” on the budget that would have given Republicans concessions that went far beyond what the Democrat base wanted. But Republicans walked away.
  • In 2016, President Obama nominated a Supreme Court justice who was much, much more middle of the road than Brett Kavanaugh. Republicans refused to even give him a hearing.

In other words, the current situation is above and beyond that Kavanaugh was a jerk in the hearings—and even that he may have been something worse in his youth. This goes to the heart of Republican willingness to choose burnt earth over the compromises that are a necessary part of the democratic enterprise.

In the same column that David Brooks condemns the tribal behavior on display during the Kavanaugh hearings, he says our civic environment “isn’t polluted by a vague condition called ‘polarization.’ It is polluted by the specific toxic emissions we all produce in our low moments.” He’s wrong. It is produced precisely by polarization, which has become the political strategy of either choice or necessity, depending on your political party. The toxic emissions are a symptom, not a cause. If we want a better civic environment we need to show that it is possible to reach compromises on the substantive issues facing America. That is, govern, not divide and conquer.

In light of the recent history of Republican refusals to make even minimal efforts to compromise on the major issues in American domestic policy, no matter how concerned I am about the divide in American society, it is very hard for me to see how Democrats can be responsibly expected to take the next step. Particularly given that the Republican party is increasingly hitching its wagon to the bellicose style of Donald Trump—including fluorescent displays of toxic emissions that appeal to the worst instincts in human nature.

I am not optimistic about where this leaves us. I don’t think the country can successfully manage the innumerable challenges of an increasingly complicated world without a functioning government. (If you doubt this, see Michael Lewis’s terrifying book, The Fifth Risk.) We will not have a functioning government until our political parties eschew “no compromise” strategies. That will require leaders who are conspicuously willing to put a common future over party advantage. But where are they? Imagine how different the recent history of America would have been if Republicans celebrated the indisputable fact that the ACA incorporated long-standing Republican principles, then worked to improve its flaws, and rallied the country to the idea that society is better off with a series of measures that deliver affordable healthcare to all citizens.

While the existence of compromise is a general condition, it is clear that at this point the Republican Party has to travel much further. And until they start, I’m holding firm. I’m willing to talk with anyone until we are both purple in the face. But unless that gets translated into real, legislative moves that unite rather than divide the country, it’s nothing but talk. Right now it seems the only way back to a functioning government is for the Democrats to win big in elections, behave responsibility, but keeping winning.

If David Brooks wants to call that “tribalization,” fine. He’s not incorrect. But these are also reasoned, principled choices about values.


What Could We Get From Trade Policy

By Mike Koetting        September 25, 2018

I am still no expert on trade policy, but I have found the spinning out of the recent NAFTA discussions fascinating. You may have already forgotten about them because issues with China have taken center-stage in anything about trade that could be heard over the Kavanaugh furor. But, as will be discussed below, expect NAFTA to return.

First, repeating a mantra from earlier posts on the topic, there is simply no such thing as completely free trade. All trade happens under some rules. So simply incanting “free trade” doesn’t really shed much light on the full range of discussion. This is important because the stickiest points in the current NAFTA discussion are not around tariffs per se, but around the rules under which tariffs stay low—not that you could tell that from most of the media coverage, which continues to portray this as a cartoon contest between free trade and protectionism, with little coverage of the actual issues at stake.

To review the bidding on NAFTA: As it now stands, the United States and Mexico have reached a tentative bi-lateral trade agreement. Canada has participated in talks about some of the provisions, but is not part of the Mexico-America agreement. There is a wide range of opinion as to what happens with NAFTA if Canada does not come to an agreement with the other two parties. But the procedural rules governing Fast-Track approval require the publication of actual text by October 1 if an agreement is to be signed with Mexico before its new president comes to office. So the next week will be telling.

It is worth setting aside speculation on Canada and focusing on the Mexico-America proposed agreement because it provides an illuminating case study. As it now stands there are five major elements of the deal. The agreement would:

  • Raise the percent of parts in imported cars that must be made in North America from 62.5% to 75%. While this sounds good, in fact, due to the arcane way in which these calculations are performed, experts are divided as to whether this will make much difference. But no one suggests it is a step in the wrong direction.
  • Requires that a portion of any automobile or automotive parts must be made by workers who make at least $16/hour for the car to qualify for NAFTA’s duty free status. This, or a similar provision, would decrease the incentive to move jobs to Mexico and force manufacturers to pay better wages if they do. This is should help US workers but also help Mexican workers. Wages in Mexico have not risen at all proportional to the amount of work that has been moved there as a result of NAFTA.
  • Remove from NAFTA the Investor-State Dispute Settlement panels (ISDS). ISDS are extra-governmental panels created by the treaty and staffed by corporate lawyers who decide, in relative secrecy, on complaints brought by corporations that governments under the agreement have “infringed” their rights by enacting unfavorable legislation or enforcing unfavorable regulations. If the panel finds against the government, it can levy fines. (The US government has transferred almost $400M to corporations for various “infringements”.) It is widely argued these tribunals limit nations’ ability to make laws for the conduct of business in their own nations.
  • Guarantee union members secret votes on unionization and contracts, something woefully lacking in Mexico.
  • Create a 16 year sunset provision, with a review at 6 years.

While I am sure I don’t understand all the fine print in this agreement, what is striking to me is that none of these provisions seem to fit into the narrative structure, advanced by the business community, that dismisses any attempt to modify trade rules as anti ”free-trade.” The Business Roundtable complained “that today’s announcement might signal not an improvement, but rather a step backward by requiring a sunset provision, weakening investment protections and constraining access to dispute settlement procedures.”

Rather, it seems to me, these provisions could best be characterized as an attempt to better balance the benefits from trade between the people of the two countries and the corporation owners, whom the previous provisions favored.

Fair Trade

Not surprisingly, unions tend to support the new provisions. Unions do, however, caution that the agreement continues to lack sufficient teeth around enforcement, and, in general, there are plenty of things progressives would want from a trade deal that are not contained here. But there is general sentiment this a step in the right direction.

In any event, the opposition of the business community and the absence of Canada in the agreement make it unlikely that Congress will move quickly on this issue, which would probably push any ratification past the midterm and past the installation of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as the new president of Mexico. Thus, adoption of these provisions, indeed the entire future of NAFTA, remains uncertain.

Still, this proposed agreement is interesting because support does not fall along party lines. While Trump’s base, like Trump, is instinctively protectionist, this is totally divergent from the Republican party’s established position, which has been strongly “free trade” for the last 30 years. (Historically, Republicans were the party of trade protection. But starting in the 80’s they realized the world had changed such that it was more beneficial for the elite to have “free trade” than “protectionism”.)

Democrats are also split. The big-money portion of the party supports existing and proposed deals (like the Trans Pacific Partnership). But the base is sufficiently hostile to all trade deals that no Democratic candidate with an expansive notion of trade deals will be viable in the near future. In the moment, the Democrats are attacking the threat of a Trump tariff war. But this is more schadenfreude at Trump’s problems with his own constituencies than any coherent policy position. In fact, as one hopes party leadership realizes, thoughtful trade pacts are an important way to prevent trade wars—so they will need to have a more proactive position when they regain a majority.

Sensible policy should start with the position recognized by virtually all experts on the topic that, on balance, increasing the amount of trade leaves America better off than restricting trade. Some of the benefits are reflected in the increased production of exports and some are reflected in lower consumer prices for some products. But it is also demonstrably the case that some people get banged up pretty badly when “free trade” proceeds willy-nilly and that a very disproportionate amount of the returns go to the investor class. Addressing these issues will difficult. For instance, if one wants to oppose tariffs because they may raise consumer prices, one also needs to keep in mind not only the costs to other Americans of keeping those prices low, but also the warping effect the mechanisms used to keep those prices low has on the distribution of American wealth. And that is before considering the impact on other countries, which sooner or later will return to haunt us. Conversely, a more protectionist policy also creates winners and losers, as well as the threat of tariff wars, which would probably have a worse impact on general welfare than the current policies.

It seems the best approach would be policy that embraces trade, but uses trade agreements in ways that achieve a better balance of the benefits. Perversely, it seems the Trump administration has somehow stumbled into an agreement that could actually have some modest benefit for both American and Mexican workers without obviously undoing whatever positives there are to a trade agreement with Mexico. However, since Trump doesn’t seem to operate from any fixed principles, it’s not clear whether he has any capability to steer this agreement through a Republican Congress—let alone whether he could ever repeat it.

But this seems exactly like the direction Democrats should be exploring—not getting rid of trade agreements, but using them to balance the benefits. In addition to real benefits, this approach touches on an area of common interest with the Trump base at a time when those are very hard to find.


Who Owns the Future of Work?

By Mike Koetting    September 12, 2018

One of the articles I read when I was preparing for my Labor Day post was “It’s Not ‘The Future of Work’, It’s the Future of Workers That’s in Doubt.” by Sarita Gupta, Stephen Lerner, & Joseph A. McCartin, all three labor advocates. Given that I have had several posts devoted to “The Future of Work,” it’s not surprising that this article got my attention.

They argue we should be less focused on the abstract “Future of Work” and more focused on making the world safe for workers. Without this, they suggest, inequality grows and that inevitably threatens democracy. They do not gainsay the looming issues of technology change but they say:

It is the concentration of wealth and power in this new economy, not computerization or artificial intelligence, that represents the gravest threat to our future. It is that concentration that will determine how innovative technologies are deployed and in whose interests they operate. The future of work will be determined by who wields power and for what purposes.

About the same time, I ran across the article “The Doomsday Investor” in The New Yorker. It is a profile of Paul Singer, whom Bloomberg has called “The World’s Most Feared Investor”. Singer is a high-stakes pirate. He finds companies that he perceives have some weakness and buys up a chunk. He then proceeds to do whatever it takes–and I mean, whatever it takes—to drive up stock prices, then pockets the proceeds. His record reflects nary a consideration of workers, communities, or overall value to the economy. He is phenomenally wealthy. (And, not surprisingly, is a massive contributor to the Republican Party; in the 2016 election-cycle he contributed $24 million.)

The New Yorker article makes the same point as I cited Senator Warren making in my last post: in the years since Ronald Reagan, business philosophy has come to accept the idea that companies exist solely to serve the interests of shareholders. Once this happens, companies take positions that can drive up stock prices in the short term, but are long run detrimental to the larger society. Reflecting on Singer, The New Yorker says:

Over time, this lack of long-term vision alters the economy—with profound political implications. Businesses are the engine of a country’s employment and wealth creation; when they cater only to stockholders, expenditures on employees’ behalf, whether for raises, job training, or new facilities, come to be seen as a poor use of funds. Eventually, this can result in fewer secure jobs, widening inequality, and political polarization.

In short, the situation that now marks American society.

Too Much Future

The connection between these two articles seems obvious. We have a relatively small group of investors making stunning amounts. Some off nothing more than the manipulation of stocks and prices, providing no value and probably weakening the long-run potential of the economy. Others, who, while actually providing goods or services of communal value, have become so rich and powerful that they have an outsized impact on the future of society—not only because they have so much money, but also because the nature of their enterprises directly shape the future. (Think how Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, the Waltons and other less well-known capitalists influence every aspect of our lives through what and how they sell us.)

The question, then, is who is going to control the future of work? Do we really want those choices to be shaped by business elites who accept the notion that businesses exist primarily to make money for their owners?

Unfortunately, it is not obvious what other formulation actually works in our society. If Amazon changed the nature of its business, wouldn’t Walmart try to undercut them? And, in fact, the world doesn’t stop at international borders. If Walmart couldn’t take over from Amazon, Jack Ma and Alibaba (the Chinese equivalent of Amazon) is there to take over. Alibaba is already a player in American markets and they will play tough. Ma said in a letter to employees when they entered American markets:

Lying behind the massive allure of the capital market, there is unparalleled ruthlessness and pressure. In this market, only a small number of outstanding enterprises can maintain a gallop.

It is important to remember that, while we may disagree with the way the elites structure the choices, it is still the case that market choices make a difference. Walmart continues to thrive because so many people choose to shop there. Conversely, it’s safe to assume that if they unliterally decided to raise employee wages significantly and stop hammering their suppliers so mercilessly, some people would stop going there.

If they had an alternative.

Which is why it is so important that as a society we stop pussyfooting around the idea that markets will not self-regulate and create appropriate checks and balances.

Democrats currently have a hard time bringing themselves to be clear about this. Understandably, they suspect that if they are too open in their willingness to interfere in markets, it will hurt them at the polls because large parts of the population don’t want to admit that, however obvious it has become. Not to mention what it might do to their fundraising.  (Bernie Sanders showed that it may be possible to fund a campaign on small dollar donations; but it sure is harder and less certain.)

Which brings me back to the role of unions. Unions served as “balancers”. When union membership was over 30% of the workforce–and union families voted together—it was more than half of the voters. It made owners listen to unions. And was certainly more than enough to keep the Democratic Party sharply focused on economic issues. Democrats may have had to avoid being “communists” but they still had an unambiguous mandate to make sure that capitalism didn’t run wild.

Moreover, union membership—at least in many unions—gave people a sense they were involved in controlling their own lives and that carried over to other aspects of democracy. Union membership also created, albeit varying from time to time and place to place, a sense of solidarity that made them more disposed to communal sacrifice if the benefits for their brothers and sisters were clear enough. The current degree of inequality dampens both impulses and replaces them with rage and resentment.

If our society is going to be guided into a future that nourishes workers and thinks carefully about the distributive impacts of policy, it is going to be because some group forces that. The rich guys aren’t going to give us an alternative version of the future, even if some of them have generous foundations and vote with us from time to time.

For better or worse, it’s hard to imagine a re-emergence of unions as the organizing force that gets to a future not controlled by the Paul Singers and Jeff Bezos. If we want a different future, we need constructs that replicate the roles of unions—creating a coherent Democratic party committed to addressing economic inequality supported by an engaged electorate that understands that the work at hand will require sacrifices.

Can this be Indivisible-style, disaggregated, internet-based organizing? Might unions figure out different ways of organizing service workers and forge functioning coalitions with their historic membership? Will the various minority organizing groups invent ways of turning out the vote in their communities? Will the disparate element of the Democratic Party settle on a common vision of how to achieve economic justice? I haven’t a clue. I can think of reasons why one or all of these work and reasons why they won’t happen.

We’ll have to see. But it does seem to me that the current overall strategy of the Democratic Party—college educated and minorities—is not exciting the kind of solidarity that unions did in the 50’s. There are lots of reasons to not want to go back to the 50’s, but unless we recreate the physics of that period, we will be at the mercy of the investor class, who have all momentum on their side.

Voters vs Non Voters

Voter Attributes

Source: Pew Research, via Washington Post

Unions in America

By Mike Koetting     September 3, 2018 

What with today being Labor Day, it seemed an appropriate time to reflect on unions in America.

It is difficult to over-estimate the positive impact that unions have had on American life. Unions are in some way responsible for humane wages, 40 hour working week, vacations, pensions, and safer working conditions. For all workers, not just union members. It is also the case that when unions were strongest, immediately after WWII, inequality was lowest. Certainly many factors contributed to the rise of a more egalitarian society.  But, as shown in recent research on unions, summarized by Mike Konzcal in The Nation, the rise of unions explains the increase in overall societal equality “every bit as much as theories about education or any other single factor.”

Despite this, unions have lost favor in America.

What happened?

Business, and by extension, the Republican Party, had vociferously opposed unions since their inception. But in the years immediately after WWII, America was hit with a large wave of strikes. Many people saw these as labor overplaying its hand—at a time when the population was anxious to get back to “normalcy”. As described by Rich Yeselson, this led to solidification of the forces against unions—the business community, the Republican Party and the South, which feared unions would ally with a nascent civil rights movement. These forces culminated in the passage, over President Truman’s veto, of the Taft-Hartley Act.

Taft-Harley was, in its direct consequences, not particularly draconian. But it unleased a wave of indirect consequences, including freeing states to pass “Right to Work” laws and, in general, making unions much more defensive and cautious about their role. It was supplemented by a massive corporate PR attack linking unions with corruption, labor racketeering, and communism. While unions continued to exert significant influence for years, this was the beginning of the long decline in union membership, pushed along by an aggressive regulatory, judicial and legislative campaign from Republicans and corporations.  From a high of over 30% of the workforce in the early Fifties, union membership is now about 10.7%, with a bare 6.7% of the private sector unionized.

Opposition by Republicans and corporations was not the only reason for the declining importance of unions. The nature of business in America changed. Largely due to automation, manufacturing is a smaller portion of the workforce and what remains is geographically more distributed, making it increasingly difficult to organize.

Beyond that, unions have lost the public relations battle. Unions are widely perceived as being more concerned with protecting their members than is consistent with needs for larger social changes. Some of this is simple jealousy. Many people, whose main complaint with unions is that union workers have been able to hold onto benefits that other workers have lost, seem to think that is a compelling reason why unions should give up those benefits. Obviously balderdash. All workers should have these benefits, including higher wages. The reason unions reduced inequality is because they made these benefits widespread. When unions were diminished, corporations felt more confident in taking them away. But this hardly makes it right.

There are other issues. Americans have always had a strong streak of individualism, often misguided, and corporate PR has played up the idea that unions were “anti-individualist” Unions also lost traction within the Democratic Party. Even with progressive union leadership, rank-and-file in some unions have been anti-progressive. Defection of union votes in the late-Sixties and into the Seventies helped nudge the Democratic party away from a focus on union issues. Perceived lack of support for minority and women’s issues exacerbated the drift. (Interestingly, as Konzcal points out, the empirical evidence is compelling that on balance unions were a powerful force for racial economic justice. Individual unions, and individual union members, however have been egregiously unhelpful in this regard.)

I would also summon my own experiences. For most of my career I’ve been a management guy in largely unionized organizations. I never begrudged the fact that unions won higher wages than would have been the case were the workers not unionized. But working with the unions was endlessly frustrating:

  • The need to battle over the smallest changes in work procedures
  • The insistence on seniority to determine job eligibility
  • Bumping rights
  • The protections afforded for employees, no matter how awful they were

While I do appreciate that these evolved as defenses against very real abuses by management, they are nevertheless often at odds with the demands of today’s rapidly changing business environments and technologies.

The Consequences

Whatever unions’ problems, their weakening has affected the entire society. While there is no single cause for the rising inequality in America , the loss of union power is certainly an important one. Numerous economists have presented strong evidence that the weakening of unions has contributed significantly to rising inequality of the past forty years. Nathan Pippenger summarizes:

Economists have estimated that declining union membership over the last four plus decades could account for as much as 15-20 percent, or perhaps even a third, of the growth in inequality among male workers. And it might have caused as much as 20 percent of the growth in inequality for all workers.

Unions vs Top 10%

Source: Economic Policy Institute

What Next?

On the one hand, it is hard to see how there would be a return to the traditional unionism. Too much has changed. On the other hand, there is abundant evidence that the pressure for some change is building. Union advocates Bruce Raynor and Andy Stern contend:

Young people are experiencing the worst career prospects since the Depression. This is now true among both the educated and poorly educated. It is causing many members of this generation to question America’s political and economic systems and established institutions.

The overwhelming defeat of a proposed “Right to Work” initiative in Missouri—a state that Trump won 57% to 38%–suggests they may be right.

But as Raynor and Stern also acknowledge, today’s unions will need twenty-first century answers.  There are several directions that must be pursued, which I will summarize in three major groups.

First, make institutional changes in the way America thinks about corporations.  Senator Warren has introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act that would mandate changes in corporate organization designed to make them more oriented to longer term commitment to workers, the community and the economy.  She has noted, for instance, that in 1981 the Business Roundtable, a major business lobbying group, suggested a corporation’s goals should be to “enhance the enterprise, provide jobs, and build the economy.” But by 1997, they saw the “principal objective of a business enterprise is to generate economic returns to its owners.” Among the provisions in this act is the potential for requiring worker participation on the corporate board.  Senator Tammy Baldwin has also introduced legislation requiring worker representation on boards.

Second, unions must be more flexible in their approach to organizing. Given the changing nature of work, they need approaches. A recent article in The American Prospect offers several examples of possibilities for sector organizing rather than working on individual firms. For instance, the New York City establishment of a Wage Board for food service workers, allowed organizing across the sector rather than store by store. The core of these tactics is to align the union goals with goals of the broader community, which they call “Bargaining for the Common Good”.

Finally, actually win legislative battles to reverse the long-term erosion of workers’ rights. The Economic Policy Institute has recently put together a 15-point agenda that would restore a better balance between workers and corporations. Many of these points are familiar suggestions to rejuvenate workers collective bargaining rights that have been undermined by years of adverse regulatory and judicial decisions. Democrats have historically given lip service to these goals, but even when they have had majorities, have been unable or unwilling to actually pass relevant laws.

We all need to root for unions.  For whatever problems they pose, a revitalized union movement is as much for the benefit of the broader society as for the benefits accrued to any specific workers.

Looking Back to the 1968 Chicago Convention

By Mike Koetting     August 24, 2018

Fifty years ago I was with my friend Charlene in front of a hotel on Michigan Avenue, clean-cut with a coat and tie. We were arguing with an alternative delegate to the Democratic Convention from New Jersey. The street in front of us was filled with protesters.

We had been among the crowd that tried earlier to conduct a peaceful, well-organized march starting in Grant Park. But the police had refused and tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas. The crowd did not disperse and eventually flowed onto Michigan avenue, where it remained. Chanting and yelling and closing the street, but otherwise not bothering anything.

Then the police decided they were going to clear the street through whatever means and started to club and mace protesters and, indeed, anyone in sight. The alternative delegate scurried into the hotel, but the hotel’s security would not let us in because we weren’t registered. Charlene and I headed down a side-street to get away from the police—who were now clubbing people wildly and indiscriminately. Suddenly police came at us from all sides. I was clubbed in the head and ducked away from two other swings at me. Charlene wasn’t hit—just pushed around. The Mobilization Committee carted me off to Billings Hospital (as the University of Chicago Medical Center was then known) to get stitched up.

Chicago Police


I was shocked, but not surprised. If I had been overly worried, I wouldn’t have been there. I knew that the organizers of various protests anticipated, perhaps hoped for, police over-reaction to whatever happened. In this case, the over-reaction was over the top and it was available for the whole world to watch.

When I returned home to St. Louis, I wrote up the events of that week and sent a ditto (people my age will remember the purple print and funky smell) to many friends. It was like a Facebook for the rotary phone era. I wrote this note because I sensed then that this was a serious breaking of the threads holding the country. The riots, protests and descension of the previous years had all been building to this point.

I wanted to create a record of how events unfolded at my street level. I figured this would become another particular in the bill of goods against all the protesters, particularly my generation, for destroying the country.

My premonition was correct. As it turned out. the Chicago convention was the crossing of the “law and order” Rubicon. “Law and order” would become the watchword for large parts of the country who wanted to stuff everything about the Sixties back into the box from which it sprang. As if that could be accomplished with tear gas and truncheons.

In retrospect, I wonder how much of that was a real belief that the clock could be turned back and how much was simply a desire to exact revenge. The more I learn about the astonishing cruelty that whites could inflict on black people because “they didn’t know their place”, the more I wonder how many of the “law and order” urges were simply a desire to spank unruly children by whatever means necessary.

This “law and order” mantra contributed significantly to the election that year of Richard Nixon. Nixon’s election was part reflection of the growing cultural divide in the country—but also a significant cause. Instead of trying to bring the nation together, his opportunistic politics realigned the political structure and exploited these cultural gaps. Subsequent events hardened these divides as certain politicians built on the gaps and nurtured them to the point where today this divide creates a distinct anxiety about the future of American democracy.

One should be careful about over-ascribing the importance of specific events. History isn’t neat. Different trend lines get broken all the time. There were all kinds of things changing in the Sixties that weren’t going to get unchanged. And there were trends that started much earlier and would continue longer. Still, if one is looking for a single point at which all the disparate impacts of the Sixties came together with one mighty rent in the society, it would be that night in Chicago.


Welcome to Chicago

Reflecting back on all this, people might wonder whether all those protesters in Chicago—and elsewhere in those years—did the right thing.

Speaking for myself, and a relatively large group of friends, the answer is unequivocally “Yes”. Not that any of us anticipated, let alone hoped for, a cultural rift that won’t resolve. In fact, we resolutely believed this was a step toward reconciling the divides. Perhaps uncomfortable in the short run, but something that would be well received in the longer arc of history.

How it would ultimately turn out was something we couldn’t know then. In the clear and present of that moment, however, the choice was to acquiesce or to protest. There were all kinds of protests, and some were less offensive to the general population than others. But make no mistake. They all stemmed from the same basic question—to accept the existing circumstances or to oppose? From our point of view to accept the old order of blacks in their place, napalm in Vietnam and women in the kitchen was simply wrong. What we did was what we could—because it was a moral imperative to do something.

After the events of the Sixties, there was no going back for America. Although back to what isn’t clear. It’s not as if there were some halcyon days when everything in America was great and the protests ruined it. Many things were good, but many things were not. Ignoring the problems would have been squandering the amazing advantages America had given us, selling out progress to preserve our own place.

The choice to protest was the right choice. The problems that have followed have been much less the fault of the protesters, and much more the fault of the reactions to those protests.

Just as, lost in the collective memory of the Chicago convention, is the irony that it was the police who had rioted, not the protesters.


As you might guess, this post is based on material in my book, You Must Choose Now: A Journey Through the Sixties. The book contains a longer description of what happened in Chicago on August 28, 1968, including an abbreviated version of what I wrote then and distributed by dittograph. The book is available in both e-format and paperback from pretty much wherever you usually get books, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. (For those of you who already reading the book, many thanks. I hope you are finding it interesting, but please let me know what you think. I must, however, note that I have discovered another downside of self-publishing: even the purchased proof-reading was not as good as I had anticipated. Changes are in progress, so be forgiving.)