Unitarian Universalism has an issue: radical goals and non-radical tactics

I finally wrote a full post on this tension I’ve had since September 2014 when I gave a guest sermon. This is based on “Not my father’s religion”, published in 2007. The contradictions in what UUs promise to do in the world and the distance they’re willing to do the radical things required is difficult. As an impatient young UU this bothers me- lots of people who were 60s radicals but have now settled down and ditched the needed politics.

Here it goes.

May 28, 2015

“Nothing in the middle of the road but yellow lines (and dead armadillos)”

This is not a lovely, soft sermon like many here. They are beautiful, but certain issues require a hardened tone. Do know that this is in the vein of Frederick Douglass, the greatest black orator in American history, when he told a group of Unitarian abolitionists, the UUs of their day, that he loved them all but would give them Hell for these twenty minutes.

The issue starts as the central point of “Not my father’s religion” by Reverend Doug Muder, from UU World. In it, he explains why his working-class factory worker father goes to a conservative Lutheran church, and not the one he preaches at. The article, which a masterwork of cutting through assumptions and stereotypes, comes to the conclusion that UUs have very few working-class members, and their beliefs contribute to that.

From an upper middle-class professional core, members don’t see the insecurity and danger in the world that regular laborers do, and often spend more time talking about the homeless than the near-homeless. There is always a danger of hidden elitism- when we use the term “flipping burgers” we often devalue that working at a Wendy’s is hard, unrewarding toil.

This taps into what I’d like to talk about, something that guided a 2014 guest sermon I gave called “And Society at Large”, which was about that Principle Five of the Seven Principles we cherish calls for democracy in all of society, including economic democracy. For the purposes of the sermon and the fact that “economic democracy” is a wide-ranging term, I didn’t use words like “socialism”. But the message that many got was clear- the church needs to live up to its radical talk. This is a church that, bluntly, is the radical children of the 1960s teaching a much more watered-down set of values to their own kids.

One person who sat up after the speech to make an announcement irritated me. Two things were annoying- first, she was making a regular political announcement (though I know the contradiction given my sermon) in the church sanctuary that is normally done outside. And secondly, she credited me as the inspiration to talk about how she needs everyone to go to the Democratic Party offices to work on the elections.

The biggest blow was not that I think the Democratic Party is a dead-end for the radical and religious, though I do. It’s that she took my leftist message and turned it into the kind of milquetoast liberalism that gives the Party its nickname- the graveyard of social movements. It’s the repeated appropriation- of gay liberation, of black resistance, of the mass left-wing movements that defined the twentieth century in many places, including the United States. These groups become cogs in a party machine and lose their independence. The black American experience we are seeing with police violence is clear- some leaders have long since joined the party apparatus, and thus their criticisms have evident limits. The young insurgents that I admire so much have sometimes booed Al Sharpton off the stage, because they’re too smart to be sold on a plan that doesn’t work. Smaller groups cannot influence large machines in the way that big money and white voter issues do.

The organization I am a part of rejects the two parties and sees that the only way to gain economic democracy, egalitarian society, and all these things that by the Seven Principles we are morally obliged to strive for- is to build a working class alternative that lacks the compromises that define the two big parties. And I felt our 2013 campaign in Seattle was an example of what many UUs may one day see as necessary- a challenge to liberal Democratic politics that are too tied to businesses and interest groups to achieve change.

Running under the then-insane demand of a $15 an hour minimum wage, our candidate Kshama Sawant- an immigrant woman of color, organizer, and professor- beat him out by the slimmest of margins, winning almost 94,000 votes.

And what happens with that radical alternative. The $15 an hour wage became a reality in Seattle, and now spread to San Francisco and Los Angeles, coming soon in Chicago and Minneapolis, New York and Berkeley. A ordinance was passed to stop landlords from raising rents by more than 400% (!) to keep gentrification at bay. Homeless encampments are allowed to stay rather than broken up by police every week or so. And the new budget is the most progressive in the country, including record funding for homeless LGBT youth and looking to invest in mass transit. Currently the struggle in Seattle is over a large oil rig headed to drill in the Arctic- given the chance by the Obama administration- where hundreds of indigenous people and environmentalists block the way out with their kayaks and banners.

Idle No More indigenous activists in Canada block a highway.
Idle No More indigenous activists in Canada block a highway.

In essence, the UUs need to change their principles or change their tactics. Many UUs will support the Democratic candidate, and I understand that. But without our own political power we will never win the victories that match our moral expectations. Indeed, when Democratic clubs all over Seattle held their 2015 endorsement meetings, they all came back with an endorsement in our district of “none of the above”- since our non-Democratic candidate cannot be directly endorsed. There is a split available more than ever in recent time between the establishment and the activists.

Unitarian Universalism would benefit from class diversity, just like it would from racial diversity, and more immigrants, and other things we discuss all the time. But class diversity is not going to be gained by tabling outside union halls and pawn shops. Our ideas are great but their expression is biased in favor of the well-educated, and those in communities that are not in crisis. I don’t see how a black janitor in a community where young men are being shot in the back will find our progressive ideals right for him, because they’re never communicated in the way he might see things.

Standoff between protesters and armed police in Ferguson, Missouri. 2014.
Standoff between protesters and armed police in Ferguson, Missouri. 2014.

As the new generation, I understand that I will be on the radical fringe until I settle down, have kids, and pay dumb taxes. But since what the UU needs are people who might see my worldview as better aligned with theirs, I can’t just be flatly ignored.

We can do this. Let’s be the radical kooks that our ancestors were when they said that slavery was an abomination and rose up as whole towns to chase slave catchers out of the North. They were one moderate reformers, but they saw the Light that radical solutions were needed to serious problems. Abolition stopped being symbolic the moment it became extralegal.

No other way: radical movement against climate change

Meditating on the climate actions on Sunday and the more radical movement on Wall Street the next day (with large-scale arrests and direct action), something that socialist Seattle city councilwoman Kshama Sawant said on Democracy Now! resonates with me. Others have articulated it, but this gets at the core of the mountain we all must climb:

“what we were talking about last night was that this collective action needs to be channeled into a really radical, militant, nonviolent mass movement that will raise concrete political demands.

What do we need to end, to really fight climate change? We need an end to fossil fuel use. We need a rapid transformation of the global economy into renewable energy. We need a massive expansion of mass transit, which will generate millions of unionized, living-wage jobs. And also, we don’t buy into the false dichotomy between jobs and the environment.”

These adjectives get at the meat of how the movement against climate change has to shift. It needs to go beyond the solutions offered by the political and economic establishment. It needs to be stout in the face of obstacles and oppression. It needs to keep the campaign in the nonviolent sphere, for violence is the strongest point of the groups that are responsible for wide-scale environmental destruction. And it needs to be big. Way bigger than 400,000 people in New York City. It stretches from rural cornfields in Iowa to sweatshops in Bangladesh and Vietnam. The entire energy economy has to be overturned. Whole communities must be placed on sustainable footing- the vast regions of coal fields and tar sands cannot be exploited if a thriving Earth is the objective.

Historian David Blight states bluntly in his marvelous free course on the Civil War and Reconstruction that at a certain point the abolitionist movement realized it had to move beyond mere reform and become extralegal. The crisis was so vast, with millions in chains and slavery on a path towards expansion, there was no other path than to break the law. The establishment will only give so much. Those used to signing MoveOn and Change.org petitions and holding carefully sanctioned protests will need to radicalize. Our communities, our countries, our planet is on a trajectory of great danger and destruction. My family down in Florida will find their homes underwater within my lifetime. Only radical movements can seize the initiative and put business and government on their heels. Action must be faster, more frequent, and more willing to take risks. The most effective activists are those that have worked through their fear.

Socialist Alternative meeting in Oakland, Saturday (June 28)

If you’re curious about the Socialist Alternative (SA) movement that got Kshama Sawant elected to the Seattle City Council and won an important (if flawed) $15/hr minimum wage proposal there, there will be a meeting at 3pm at the Downtown Oakland Library on Saturday, June 28th (event information here). There will be three speakers, notably Ty Moore, who came close to winning a seat on the Minneapolis City Council last year. Both Sawant and Moore have won significant labor support and their popular campaigns work to push groups often affiliated with the Democratic Party towards more radical policy solutions.

Previously I’ve written in support of Sawant, Moore, and the big-picture goal of Socialist Alternative. Even though I have some ideological differences with the organization (I consider myself a non-Marxist socialist, SA is Trotskyist), its policy goals are crucial to the long-term health of American democracy and the general welfare of common people. The creation of a popular mass movement in Seattle, and lesser but substantial results in places like Minneapolis, give credence to the idea that if it can work there, it can work in the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere. There is a base of political progressivism that can be turned towards radical policy solutions, in the face of serious issues with affordable housing, transportation, and medical care.

If you’re interested and have the time, check it out. I’ve been waiting for an event like this in my area, so if you’re in the SF Bay metro area, it may be a potential place to learn and network with activists. My summer right now isn’t that busy, so I’m hoping to get involved.

Turning the tide: the fight for a $15 minimum wage

Income growth distribution. Source: http://news.good.is/beg-borrow-steal/econographic#%21/2
Income growth distribution. Source: http://news.good.is/beg-borrow-steal/econographic#%21/2

There is a war going on in the Pacific Northwest. It has garnered some national attention, and cities across the country will be influenced by the result. Which side wins, and whether they get most of what they initially wanted, will ripple across the nation.

Seattle is debating a $15 minimum wage.

This is an extraordinary fight, because it was linked to an extraordinary campaign. Kshama Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative, defeated a sixteen-year Democratic incumbent to win a seat on the Seattle City Council. I’ve written about Sawant several times (here was my pitch prior to the election), and her success is one of the biggest events in the American left since the McGovern campaign. The whole campaign was tightly bound around a single campaign promise- a $15/hr minimum wage.

Her victory, against the grain of traditional Seattle politics, indicated that popular sentiment was on the side of her campaign and the organization she helped found, 15 Now. Seattle is joined by San Francisco in pushing for a ballot initiative. The engine is Seattle though, with over a year of constant campaigning. Pressure has given the proposal wide political acceptance, even among business-friendly Democrats.

The split between worker productivity and worker wage increase
The split between worker productivity and worker wage increase

The argument is straightforward. Since the end of World War II-era price controls, worker productivity has increased substantially, but since the Nixon Administration is no longer matched by increases in wages. This era has also been one of sharply rising costs- education, healthcare, rent. I’ve drawn a grasp with permanent markers to give you the result. No, seriously:

A simplified graph of wages vs. costs since 1970
A simplified graph of wages vs. costs since 1970

The minimum wage isn’t tied to inflation, so it buys far less than in decades past. Increasingly, those that make minimum wage (or close to it) no longer have a living wage. They can’t afford to raise their kids, or live anywhere near where they work. Thus they rely on two things- credit and welfare. There are plenty of people working crazy hours yet still in the economic strata to require welfare to make basic ends meet. Without a strong wage, the taxpayers are footing the bill for underpaid workers.

There are two broad concerns at play in Seattle. The first is about the minimum wage as a whole- that it kills business, competitively, leads to unemployment. I tackled these broad issues last August here. I found there to be a lack of solid evidence that the minimum wage is a great harm to society- people often say that it is, but they’re relying on the standard (typically called ‘neoclassical’) model, which actually isn’t that accurate. We’ll return to that thought.

The second are the specifics of the wage increase. Basically, who has to increase to $15 and by when? Originally the idea was an increase from all businesses immediately. The version that’s being filed and will probably get voted on soon has a three-year lead-in for small businesses and nonprofits. $11, then $13, then $15.

In terms of a debate, the place I’ve found with the most content dedicated to the issue is The Stranger, Seattle’s sweary alternative newspaper. They strongly endorsed Sawant (dedicating an issue to making a case for her), but they’ve been releasing editorials in pairs- one advocating for an exception, one against. Currently, four pieces on the minimum wage are in the “most commented” section on the front page.

This is a bitter fight. Big businesses (especially those for which most of their staff make under $15) are fighting tooth and nail- and sometimes use small businesses as a front to advance their own interests. There is clear evidence in leaked documents. This is nothing new, but it’s important to pay attention.

While not anything close to an expert, I’ve taken enough college economics to have a decent grasp of minimum wage mechanics, as one of the basic aspects of the labor market. There has been quite a lot of misleading statements- and one would assume that if San Francisco and Seattle ultimately succeed, they will pop up again and again as the fight moves to other areas.

A number thrown out in the debate is 60%- the increase from the current state minimum wage of $9.19 to $15. Often the proposal is said to be a “60% increase in labor costs.” That’s not even close to true. What’s important to know is that essentially no business pays every worker minimum wage. If they did, it’d be 60%, but if people are making $10.50 or $12.75, it’s a lot less than that. Also there are plenty of workers who make over $15 in a given enterprise who won’t see any increase- at least directly.

$15/hr protestor in New York City. Peter Foley/EPA
$15/hr protestor in New York City. Peter Foley/EPA

Another issue is distorting costs. While labor costs are important, they sit alongside the cost of land, rent, licenses, legal and financial assistance, and of course whatever a business sells. The best read of The Stranger editorials is this one by bar owner Andrew Friedman. He got an overwhelming pushback by commenters, including several who work for a small business. As an accountant stated, if their firm raised all employees to $15 it would be a 4.33% increase in costs. There’s a big difference between 60% and 4.33%. While all cost hikes will affect total costs, labor is not all of a businesses’ costs.

A proposal has been made to include “total compensation”. A series of essays go back and forth starting here. What’s wrong with $15/hr total compensation? Well, a few things. It allows the employer to include (and overvalue) other non-wage benefits. Given the rapid rise in health care costs, this could easily eat into the actual wage earned until there is no rise at all. And it gives employers a great amount of power- they figure out the costs, they determine what total compensation is. You can’t make a good argument for wage theft because the wage has no solid meaning anymore. It’s just part of the total compensation soup.

The reality is simple. Large corporations, that employ a huge amount of minimum wage workers, are skating thanks to government subsidy of their business (sweetheart tax deals, plus tax loopholes) and government subsidy of their workers. The end result is incredible US corporate profits. A move towards a $15/hr minimum wage is recognizing that there is no disaster for American corporations if labor starts closing the gap between what it produces and what it is ultimately paid. It’ll throw a wrench into the economic idea that profits must constantly rise and increase- the system where shareholder concerns are much more pressing than labor concerns. But that sort of escalating system also causes destructive market bubbles, so maybe it needs a wake-up call.

Source: http://qz.com/192725/what-another-record-year-of-corporate-profits-means-for-the-us-economy/
Source: http://qz.com/192725/what-another-record-year-of-corporate-profits-means-for-the-us-economy/

I’m tired of people making hackneyed economic arguments that don’t have a solid foundation beneath them. The dangers of a high minimum wage are a meme, perhaps exacerbated by the fact that most introductory economics courses are strongly slanted to that conclusion. As I pointed out in a rebuke of Alex Berezow’s ill-suited attack on Sawant, many journalists and pundits don’t cite anything more complicated than N. Gregory Mankiw- often just leaving it at ‘common sense’.

Serious discussion is due for the minimum wage. Each month brings new depressing confirmations- income inequality is soaring, it’s reversing decades of gains by the middle class, people are getting wrecked by increased costs and don’t have the money to save, invest, and eventually retire. When a movement emerges that actually offers a potential solution, efforts must be made to understand it from their perspective. US journalism tends to start from the perspective of how a new policy will affect corporations.

Perhaps they should think of how the lack of a new policy current affects workers and families.

Kshama Sawant’s socialist response to Obama’s record and promises

Kshama Sawant, the socialist Seattle city councilwoman elected last November, produced a response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address (text here). As her campaign, along with Ty Moore’s in Minneapolis have done, it is a reality check on how progressive Obama’s plans are.

If he says that no full-time employee should live in poverty, why is he only suggesting $10.10 as a minimum wage- an amount that is not a living wage anywhere near where I live.

If he wants to fix the immigration system, why has he deported close to double the number of people in his one term than Bush did in two?

If he promotes his achievements in ending foreign wars, why was the timetable in Iraq not his idea, but his predecessor? And why did he attempt to keep troops there past the January 1st, 2012 deadline?

If he wants reconciliation with the Islamic world, why does he support drone strikes against Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia?

Even if you’re not totally on board with a socialist program, it opens up the spectrum of debate. Democrats are not left-wing, they never have and they likely never will be. If libertarians and uncompromising conservatives have a large presence in the American political discourse, then socialists and other leftists should be heard as well.

And that is an uphill climb, but as the victory of Sawant in a major city can prove, there are ways to become impossible to ignore.

Follow-up: Sawant campaign issues rebuke of Berezow’s article

So the day after my article criticizing Alex Berezow’s shallow, smug opinion piece against a woman with far more expertise on economics than he has, the Kshama Sawant campaign has issued their own rebuttal. It is similar but more a rallying point than my own beef with Berezow’s overly simplified view of economics, and his contempt for academia.

Alex Berezow is a hack: good old fashioned Red hysteria

As the ballot counting in the Seattle City Council race shows Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant gaining a narrow lead over incumbent Democrat Richard Conlin, there is now a surge of national media attention on Kshama. This also includes the American media’s love of treating mainstream economics as gospel and creating a strawman of what socialism is.

Alex Berezow’s column “Why Is Seattle Socialist Kshama Sawant Allowed To Teach Economics?” typifies this. There are many things wrong with the column, both in terms of economics and in terms of journalism.

1. He admits that he doesn’t cover economics much. Given that he cites N. Gregory Mankiw, the author of the main survey course economics textbook, I assume he doesn’t have a formal background in it either.

2. He states that “people respond to incentives” and says it is basic and obvious. This is mostly to contrast to his conception of socialism, where there are “little (if any) incentives”. As anyone who reads the books and listens to the lectures of 21st century behavioral economists can tell you, incentives are complex and often depend on variables that aren’t obvious like money, time, or capital.

3. He fails to recognize that socialism has plenty of incentives, they are just different incentives than a normal market capitalist economy. To think that capitalist motives are inherent and self-evident, one would have to explain the many societies throughout the world and history that functioned well without the same view of value and worth.

4. He blithely ignores the respected place socialist theory has in academic disciplines, like philosophy, literature, political science and, yes, economics. He compares socialism in economics to AIDS denial in microbiology. Academic institutions do not keep teaching courses on socialism and its related branches because they just don’t get it. They do it because it’s a valuable part of the process and its critiques help people understand capitalism, consumerism, and the market in proper context.

5. He fails to understand the simple difference between unionizing Amazon and collectivizing Amazon. Here’s the nickel tour on that: what Sawant wishes to do is unionize companies like Amazon that have resorted to underhanded tactics to quash workers wishing to organize. She aims for workers to collectively bargain for pay and conditions, which they currently cannot. To collectivize it would mean to liquidate its private ownership and turn over all the capital, land, and money to the workers. These are radically different things.

6. He follows Mankiw once again on rent control, never once stating that while popular, Mankiw was an economic adviser during the George W. Bush administration, and has a strong conservative bias. In fact, he was in the news this week for a bogus comparison between having children and choosing a car. The large opposition to rent control in orthodox economics is countered in other social sciences and in people who have different values beyond economic efficiency.

This all creates this insidious argument of how dare a college think a socialist should teach economics. Berezow freely admits that she has a doctorate in economics, yet thinks that using that education to critique capitalism and market economics is somehow a wrong that should be righted. It reeks of attempts to silence academic freedom when teachers have unpopular ideas. But if you don’t let anyone with unpopular ideas teach, then there is no dissension, no debate. The social sciences and humanities cease to have any value. Marxist economist Richard D. Wolff often talks of how much pressure there is on colleges to deny tenure to economics professors who don’t think capitalism is a good system- after all, most big donations come from people who made (or inherited) their money through capitalism. Do you think Phil Knight, founder of Nike and a huge source of the University of Oregon’s buildings and programs, wants an economics professor pointing out the horrible system of child labor and dangerous factories that made him all his money?

So this is a piece by a journalist who took the lazy route to bash a socialist. Kshama Sawant has more education in economics, and more background in academia than Berezow. His attempts to make her ideas look stupid come off as childish and smug. The idea that there is a scientifically validated bloc of mainstream economists (of which Mankiw is the leader) pays a disservice to the discipline and all the credible people who offer criticism and alternatives.

And if people do respond to incentives, why did they show up in huge numbers to vote against capitalism as it stands? What is there incentive there?