Doing Without Wall Street

I can't tell you how happy I was to see the cover of your April issue. At Last! Someone was going to discuss the distressing Robert Rubin/Democratic Party connection. The article was most informative. It was gratifying to learn that President Clinton had at least an occasional moment of frustration at Democrats having to sell out to "a bunch of fucking bond traders" and become "Eisenhower Republicans," edifying to have affirmed that Hillary Clinton and Obama are securely in harness. And is there any way Edwards can do without Wall Street?

Margit Johansson
Boulder, Colorado

Not Just Southern

As Harold Meyerson points out, ["Wal-Mart Comes North," April 2007] the resistance encountered by the big retailer in Chicago, Los Angeles and other metropolitan regions constitutes but the latest battle waged between the low-wage, non-union Southern brand of U.S. capitalism and those elements of the polity that seek to sustain the labor standards and regulatory norms first put in place by the New Deal. But it would be a mistake to identify Wal-Mart's current posture simply with an unreconstructed South. Instead, Wal-Mart, along with Target, K-Mart, Home Depot, and the other big box merchants, represent something even more significant: the rise of the historically low-wage, low-benefit retail sector to the commanding heights of U.S. capitalism, where these retailers now wield the market power to squeeze or force offshore those manufacturing and transport firms that once provided the favorable social terrain upon which potent unions and a liberal, interventionist state could flourish.

A visit to Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville will graphically confirm this new reality. There, Colgate Palmolive, Walt Disney and some 700 other "vendors" have established branch offices, staffed by thousands of young, transplanted cosmopolitans from New York and similar venues. Like supplicants before the king, they seek favor and fortune from a new sovereign whose global market power and technologically sophisticated management can make and break towns and companies around the world.

Nelson Lichtenstein
Professor of History, UC Santa Barbara

Several years ago when our family was vacationing in the beautiful Missouri Ozarks, we asked a group of local teenagers what there was to do around there on a Saturday night. After thinking for a while, one finally said, very seriously, "Wa'll, there's a new Wal-Mart down the road a-ways."

Snobbish liberals, like Harold Meyerson, sneer at poor country folk like this young man who still find a trip to Wal-Mart the highlight of their week. Imagine, if you will, a small town, the only one for miles around that has a dime store, a grocery store, a hardware store, plus a drugstore and a service station. All of them are in run down decrepit buldings, poorly stocked with high-priced merchandise that has been on the shelves for years. The surly, poorly paid clerks are rude to their customers who come in once a month when they get their welfare and Social Security checks. The more affluent drive to neighboring towns to do their shopping.

Then a new Wal-Mart comes to town. Its clean, well-lit store is well stocked from top to bottom with every conceivable item, and the prices are unbelievably low. Furthermore, the new store is hiring dozens of people. True, the pay is not much more than the minimum wage and compared to the big stores in the city, their health benefits aren't all that great, but a job at Wal-Mart is a step up in the world. Yes, the other stores gradually close, but their employees have already found better jobs at Wal-Mart, and because the new store draws so many new people from the surrounding area, soon the town gets a new McDonald's -- something many of them have only seen on TV. A convenience store, a dollar store, and others follow to take advantage of the new business Wal-Mart has created.

These are the people that Sam Walton wanted to serve by bringing them a good selection of merchandise at low prices. Because the stores fill a real need, they have grown like wild fire. When his descendants tried to expand into the affluent, urban areas, they met with oppositions from the labor unions. However, the poor people residing in the inner cities where the high-priced unionized stores cannot afford to operate would appreciate a few Wal-Marts. Recently, when one opened in Kansas City's inner city, job applicants lined up for blocks. Aren't these the people we liberals were supposed to care about?

Jeanette Welch
Warrensburg, MO

"Win, Dixie," could be the cry of the "southernized" new Republicans. Certainly, as Harold Meyerson describes, Wal-Mart is, in effect, the economic arm of an ideology formed to, among other goals, repeal the New Deal. (Certainly without that Deal, TVA and rural electrification, much of the South would still be living on Tobacco Road.) Certainly, as I described Bush's '04 victory, it was due to "...Nixon's 'southern strategy' writ (very) large."

What Meyerson doesn't mention is what I've termed the "Sino-Wal-Mart League." Sam Walton once sported a "Buy American" button. Now his company deals in mostly Chinese made goods. Now this country is in debt to that government almost a trillion U.S. bucks. The irony of being dependant on China -- that once great threat to our way of life -- for low-cost consumer goods and the financing of our government seems to be lost. We went to war (thanks Nixon, the "China Lobby," et al) in Indo-China to fend off some Maoist osmosis. Trade was supposed to act as a democratizing influence; some writers have noted that any influence seems to be in the opposite direction: authoritarian, secretive, and exploitive.

Jerome Bronk
San Francisco, CA

Missing Piece

As insightful as this article by Paul Starr is, there is a significant piece of his analysis missing, in my view. His issues where conservative leadership has failed include economic inequality, wasted government red ink, the environment, and a failed foreign policy; and this is where liberals have a better shot. What's missing is the issue of crime. It's under the political radar now, but for a generation it contributed greatly -- and indeed it may have defined -- the Republican Party as the one that is tough on crime. It was a signature liberal-conservative divide: Republican conservatism was punitive (tough); Democratic liberalism was preventive (plus due process, plus rehabilitation, i.e. soft).

It would be an interesting debate on which issue in American public policy for the last generation and more has been the worst, but American crime policy is arguably on top (or bottom), as defined by ignoring research and expertise and making the problem worse. One of the lessons of the centrist Third Way and others is that Democrats can win elections by being for capital punishment, guns, and tough on crime. So far, liberal leaders have not contradicted that, and they should; but they are still afraid of the specter of Willie Horton.

Every part of the liberal agenda will suffer until liberal leaders can answer the charge, which has been their albatross, that the tough-soft distinction is false and must be replaced by dumb-smart. And this applies to foreign policy as well.

Michael Israel
Takoma Park, MD

The Case for Perfection

I was distressed to read Melvin Konner's review of Michael Sandel's book, The Case Against Perfection [May 2007]. His review does not accurately or adequately sketch Sandel's position before proceeding to denounce it, and anyone who has read Sandel's book would spot Konner's distortions rather quickly. But never mind that: not all reviewers are equally generous or thoughtful. There is, more importantly, a much deeper problem with Konner's review: in failing to present Sandel's arguments fairly, he misses the really critical questions about bioethics that Sandel tried to raise, and which are legitimate, pressing questions for any thoughtful liberal or progressive today. Before I proceed to those substantive points, I should offer a disclosure upfront. I am a graduate student at Harvard, and have taught bioethics in a course run jointly by Michael Sandel and a professor of stem cell biology. This does not mean, of course, that I necessarily agree with Sandel or speak for him in any way. Academic discourse is founded on disagreement and attracts argumentative people with diverse views.

My major complaint against Konner is that he relies on two very dubious presuppositions which, taken together, account for his giving short shrift to Sandel's arguments and failing to appreciate the progressive case against some of the new biotechnologies. First, he assumes that it is up to parents to do what they want to their children: "it's their kid and their money," as he puts it bluntly. Second, he adopts, without making explicit, the idea that a libertarian, market-driven individualism is the proper orientation for public policy and morality. I disagree strongly with both these background assumptions, and I suspect that a great majority of TAP readers would similarly, had Konner laid out his own position carefully. But Konner fails to do that, and remains content, instead, to denigrate public reason, adopting a view that one rather expects in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, not in the pages of The American Prospect. Out with philosophy and in with private preferences and market transactions, declares Konner, without explaining why we ought to agree with him.

We can do better that that in thinking about the new biotechnologies. Indeed, a constant theme in the history of 20th century American liberalism is the effort to bring public reason and scrutiny to bear on the 'free contracts' made in the market and to improve the private treatment of the vulnerable, especially children and the disabled. We can bring this same sensitivity to the debates over genetic enhancement, which is what Sandel's book tries to do. Now, there may be reasons to disagree with Sandel in any particular, but Konner fails to adequately characterize his concern about private oppressions, particularly in the market. Issues of class, inequality and deprivation are skimmed over or dismissed blithely in Konner's review, but they are not, however, marginal to the contemporary debate over biotechnology. In confronting the brave new world of genetic engineering, our choice is not between pious rejectionism and libertarian permissiveness, though Konner would give you that impression. The American Prospect owes its readers a more thoughtful discussion of these issues.

David Grewal
Ph.D. Candidate, Government Department, Harvard University

Mel Konner's review of The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering by Michael J. Sandel ["Our Bodies, Our Choices" May 2007] gives us fair warning that narrow religious/political/bioethical thinking may well attempt to restrict our options to improve our physical and mental characteristics due to scientific discovery because of "moral questions." He challenges many of Sandel's arguments and begins by pointing out that in the past many scientific advances were strongly resisted and condemnation was administered. Anyone today resisting those would be considered daft. Regarding sperm and ovum banks for instance and even controlling their own conception parents are making choices as they have done in the past when choosing mates selecting for the most desirable qualities. The one adverse problem he sees in inequality of access to improvement. His thoroughness makes it easy to reject reading the book especially as Sandel was a member of President Bush's Council on Bioethics. With George W. Bush's record of making bad choices I would not invest $18.95.

Cornelia Smollin
Pittsburgh, PA

The Health of My Nation

As a frequent user of the British National Health Service until about twelve years ago, I would like to comment on Ezra Klein's "The Health of Nations" [May 2007].

Although general practitioners in Britain are paid on a per capita basis, they do not do less -- they do more. This is because the service is free at the point of use. Britains go to the doctor's surgery (office) much more frequently than do their American counterparts, other than the elderly. My most recent experience of in office waiting periods compared favorably with those encountered here. Doctors run clinics for children, the elderly, and expectant mothers; still make house calls; but the sue of expensive diagnostic procedures is less common.

Drugs from the extensive NHS list are free for children and the old but there is a modest fixed charge for others. There is no prohibition on seeking private medical treatment or drugs and the cost of doing so is usually cheaper than it is here; but NHS contributions are mandatory.

Hospital treatment remains a source of irritation for many NHS users. There is usually no problem with emergency treatment but patients for elective surgery (such as hip joint replacement) often suffer from long waiting lists. Because hospital treatment is totally free the demand for expensive procedures is high. Most of this demand is quite legitimate but beyond the allocated resources. In America treatment is sometimes prevented by a personal inability to pay in Britain it is delayed, but not prevented, by limitations on national resources.

Why does Britain not spend more on its health service? The answer may lie party in voter psychology and economics. Where the provider and consumer are separate entities the position is clear: If the would-be consumer cannot pay what is demanded by the provider, he goes without. Voters, as a group, are in the position to demand the impossible -- to require a service but refuse to properly fund it. This phenomenon can be observed with some American services, where a partial solution appears to be to load future generations with debt. Since British voters are resistant to tax increases, additional funding for the NHS would require the reduction or elimination of other government programs with the consequent pressure from affected interest groups.

R.S. Milborrow
Gulfport, MS

Bankrupt Poverty

Your special report in your May issue on "Ending Poverty in America" suggested many good anti-poverty policies. However, your report did not address labor demand policies targeted at reducing poverty.

Several authors, including Bill Spriggs and Jared Bernstein, quite rightly pointed out that the economic growth and job creation of the 1990s significantly reduced poverty. As they pointed out, this implies that an important part of any anti-poverty policy is macroeconomic policy to increase aggregate job growth. But if aggregate job growth has important effects in reducing poverty, what about the effects of job growth that is targeted at disadvantaged groups?

There are a number of policies that the United States and other developed countries have tried over the years to increase job growth, and to target that job growth where it is most needed. In the U.S., these efforts include the New Jobs Tax Credit of the 1970s, which tried to increase job growth in times of high unemployment. In addition, there are some interesting state programs, such as the Minnesota Employment and Economic Development program (MEED) of the 1980s, that used government subsidies to create both public and private sector jobs for the unemployed. The Supported Work program of the late 1970s used rigorous experimental methods to show that publicly created jobs and other work supports had significant effects for welfare recipients in increasing long-term earnings.

Goring further back in history, the United States extensively used public job creation during the New Deal, with the WPA. Finally, most Western European countries extensively use labor demand policies as part of their portfolio of active labor market programs.

In my book Jobs for the Poor: Can Labor Demand Policies Help? (Russell Sage Foundation and Upjohn Institute, 2001), I argue that these past experiences with labor demand programs suggest that targeted labor demand policies can make an important contribution to reducing U.S. poverty. Among the policies that might be considered are tax credits to increase job growth at times or in local labor markets of high unemployment, and programs to subsidize both public and private jobs for disadvantaged persons. If properly designed, such policies can cause a significant increase in job opportunities for the poor. With proper design, we can minimize problems in subsidizing jobs that would have been created anyway, or problems from displacing other workers from jobs.

Well-designed targeted labor demand policies are a useful complement to the policies you do advocate in your report, such as job training programs and expanded high-quality preschool programs, a higher minimum wage, and increased unionization. We need to provide all American workers with higher skills, create sufficient job opportunities, and make sure that these job opportunities pay sufficient compensation. Higher skills, more jobs, and higher quality jobs are all needed as part of a truly comprehensive anti-poverty strategy.

Tim Bartik
Senior Economist
The W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research

The Census family income survey [featured in the "Ending Poverty in America" report, May 2007] shows the top quintile supposedly getting 50 percent of income. But the Census doesn't count family income above one million dollars a year -- so called "top coding." (What was a sensible adjustment 40 years ago, when you didn't want a few billionaires to throw off the general picture, now hides the real story instead.)

To get a ballpark guess of top quintile income I take the increase in per capita income over the same span as a hopeful approximation of the filled out family income gains -- workout the gap -- and add that to the top quintile: yielding 60 percent of income going to the top quintile by my armature calculations.

Another, much more crackpot government stat is the federal poverty level: three times the price of an emergency food budget (cannot buy a can of beans; only dried beans). If you go by the poverty line suggested in the book Raise the Floor the line should be twice as high -- potentially leading to a poverty rating of 25 percent instead of 12.5 percent, 40 years after L.B.J. declared the war on poverty.

What a shockwave that would make on the national economic discussion.

If conservatives want to claim that food stamps and other help are not counted in the income: fine; I'll take 25 percent that would live below poverty w/o food stamps, etc.

The liberal media will push, push, push on its social agenda -- but somehow feels constrained not to go "too far" pushing the economic truth that is so critical to the average person, even when it is undeniable to anyone who can do eighth grade arithmetic.

Denis Drew
Chicago, IL

A Conservative By Any Other Name …

I want to thank Paul Waldman for being able to watch Papa bear and to keep track of Rush. ["Blowing off the War," May 2007] Blame the war on liberals seems to be the tack they have taken all along. I wish Mr. Waldman would develop another title for the slime and vitriol jocks that he calls conservative. The hate and reductionism that dominates the TV airwaves needs a name. I am sure conservatives do not want to be in a name with these folks.

Margaret Wilkie
Via email

The Right Reich

Robert Reich's already strong argument, in favor of heavier taxation of the wealthy, can be further strengthened by taking note of the nation's more than two trillion dollar indebtedness to foreigners and the related and growing interest burden thereon. Perhaps, it is the patriotic duty of the financially able-bodied to defend the country on that front.

A fairer idea than a farm ore progressive income tax, might be an annual and progressive tax on personal net worth in excess of a substantial threshold. High marginal income tax rates make it harder for the not-yet-wealthy to become so; while taxing high net worth only makes it harder for the already-wealthy to remain so; without continuing to be, or becoming, exceptionally productive.

Jetson E. Lincoln
Montclair, NJ

No Longer Shul Politics

Garance Franke-Ruta correctly described the, "intra-Jewish community divide over religious practices, concern for Israel, and political affiliation" as the "great kippah divide." The American Jewish community is becoming more and more divided along a line that finds mostly Orthodox [the kippah or yarmulke wearer] and their "undercover" Conservative or "Modern" orthodox fellow Zionists who regularly attend synagogue, but don't wear a head covering in their daily life, on one side of the political divide, and the emerging majority of American Jews on the other.

However, the essay's title, "Shul Politics," is absolutely incorrect in describing the dynamic reality of politics within 21st century American Reform Judaism. The word [Yiddish] "Shul" implies that the synagogue is the central institution of American Reform Jewish life, as was the "Shul" back in Europe or the in the immigrant American Jewish communities.

In fact, the contemporary American Reform synagogue, with some few exceptions, has abdicated its role as the central institution in the life of American Reform Judaism. It has failed to function as either a meaningful house of prayer and spiritual reflection, an open house of American Reform community assembly and dialogue; or as a house of learning about ethics. How many times, for example, have we all heard of a Reform congregation refusing even to host a debate on the most significant issues--from the Middle East to the loss of civil liberties, since 9/11?

The real world religion and politics of Liberal and/or Progressive American Reform Jews is taking place outside of the synagogue -- not because we are secular, but because the synagogue has become an empty shell of an institution, spiritually vacuous, and frankly an increasingly boring and meaningless place to visit.

For most American Reform Jews in the 21st century, the synagogue is absent from both our religious and political life. Give us back that "Old Time Reform Judaism," when our faith was a universal and ethical one, and the synagogue was a voice for justice for all--rather than a mouth piece for some bellicose foreign nation--which by the way has over 200 nuclear weapons, and we will give you, a meaningful American Reform Jewish synagogue-based politics.

David Eugene Blank, Ph. D
Louisville, KY

Correction: In the column, "Is Rising Inequality Reversible?" by Paul Starr, he refers to the total income of the 300,000 Americans who make up the "top 1 percent." In fact, 300,000 equals the "top .1 percent," or the "top tenth of the top 1 percent" of the U.S. population.