Posts Tagged ‘redistribution’
This was the first of three posts exploring the connections between Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, and so-called “education reform.” I have Alexis Goldstein to thank for pushing to to stop talking about this idea and just do it.
[T]his sort of smartness infuses the movement for corporate education reform. It can be seen in the pattern of seeking to provide maximum power to a few executives over public education, displacing the authority of schools boards, unions and the constituencies these represent: parents and teachers, and more broadly, citizens. This can mean mayoral control over schools, or top school administrators (some, like in Chicago, now labeled CEOs), or state appointed boards like Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission. The idea that a single strong authority can “fix” schools by overriding the concerns of other stakeholders is so commonplace it was the theme of the movie Waiting for Superman, which focused on reform darling / authoritarian and DC Chancellor Michele Rhee. Rhee made a name for herself through her confrontational style in relation to teachers and parents, famously taking a film crew along with her to fire a teacher. Significant experience teaching or administering schools is not required to wield this sort of unchecked power.
I’ve noticed that even when people are sympathetic to the concerns of workers, many people still use the unspoken idea that employers’ right to exploit workers is natural whereas government action to prevent such exploitation is an interference that needs some special justification. Part of this is a failure to notice what the baseline is, and that any choice of baseline is a political act, not one that can be justified by talk of what is ‘natural.’ That is, it is the same mistake that leads people to imagine that ‘redistribution’ is a coherent concept. Thankfully, those who came before us equipped us to avoid such mistakes, if we would only listen.
Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes:
There is an additional and compelling consideration which recent economic experience has brought into a strong light. The exploitation of a class of workers who are in an unequal position with respect to bargaining power and are thus relatively defenseless against the denial of a living wage is not only detrimental to their health and well being, but casts a direct burden for their support upon the community. What these workers lose in wages the taxpayers are called upon to pay. The bare cost of living must be met. We may take judicial notice of the unparalleled demands for relief which arose during the recent period of depression and still continue to an alarming extent despite the degree of economic recovery which has been achieved. It is unnecessary to cite official statistics to establish what is of common knowledge through the length and breadth of the land. While in the instant case no factual brief has been presented, there is no reason to doubt that the state of Washington has encountered the same social problem that is present elsewhere. The community is not bound to provide what is in effect a subsidy for unconscionable employers. The community may direct its law-making power to correct the abuse which springs from their selfish disregard of the public interest. [my emphasis]
The cost of doing business should, as a matter of course, include the cost of paying a living wage. Companies have no right to impose costs on the rest of us to facilitate their ability to make money.
The other day I linked to Balkin and Levinson’s excellent new piece, The Dangerous Thirteenth Amendment. The basic idea is that, because the 13th Amendment lacks a state action component*, and because coercive relations are exceedingly common outside the context of chattel slavery, a broader understanding had the potential to seriously disturb that status quo (especially racial and gender hierarchies).
Discussing why the North turned against Reconstruction and the cause of equal rights for black (men), Balkin and Levinson noted:
Northern white elites increasingly feared what they perceived as the threat of “socialism”—demands by freed blacks and their white sympathizers for redistributive programs. Elites feared that newly empowered majorities would be led astray by “[w]eak-minded sentimentalists or corrupt demagogues” who would stir up discontent among the masses. Benedict tellingly quotes a now-forgotten reformer, Abram S. Hewitt, who wrote that “[t]he problem . . . . is to make men who are equal . . . in political rights and . . . entitled to the [formal right of] ownership of property content with that inequality in its distribution which must inevitably result from the application of the law of justice.” (citations omitted)
One might think that it was generations of forced labor, rather than efforts to correct that, were ‘redistribution’. (This quote is also an important reminder that ‘socialism’ typically means ‘failing to reinforce inequality and hierarchy.’)
There’s a lot to this argument. But Balkin and Levinson frame the discussion around a choice between 1) understanding the term ‘slavery’ as simply applying to chattel slavery, which they argue was largely how it was meant at the time of the framing of the 13th Amendment or 2) understanding the term more broadly as “the project of ending domination in social life, and securing self-rule and self-sufficiency,” which is closer to how it was understood earlier in history and by later movements that sought to draw on it (like the labor and Civil Rights movements). But the text itself counsel against this, barring “slavery [or] involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Focusing on that, as well as understanding, as the court long has (as the authors discuss as well), that this extends to “badges and incidents of slavery,” suggests a far wider scope for the 13th Amendment without reaching back into history for alternate meanings. It’s also worth pointing out that the amendment contemplates primarily legislative enforcement, again, like the 14th and 15th Amendments, something that’s been largely ignored but flows logically from both history and text.
That said, when one adds together things like the Preamble, the Bill of Rights, and the 13th and 14th Amendments, I think you get to a fairly radical place, one which does at least question domination in social life. These provisions all embody the notion of equal personhood. There are parallels to be made between chattel slavery and other institutions, and it’s worth engaging these questions. Breathing life into the 13th would advance this project, which is one more reason why this piece is so important. It reminds us to take seriously the deep resonance between various forms of oppression and various movements of liberation. Challenging the normalization of coercion, tying together its different forms, is the best sort of politicization, something that is sorely needed.
*I actually think too much has been made of this when it comes to the 14th Amendment. The Equal Protection Clause requires states to provide the protections of law equally. (It’s easier to notice what it’s saying when you disentangle the words used). What are the protections of law for? Protecting us from others, especially private actors. I believe this was the way the clause was understood when it was adopted but that it was rewritten as about government discrimination for the same reasons – a broader understanding was and remains ‘dangerous.’