Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Neoliberals Take A Bow At The New Republic

Back on Oct. 30th, I wrote of Peter Beinart's attempt to link Thomas Frank and other dissenters from neoliberalism to xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric a la Lou Dobbs ("The Neoliberals Seek Their Revenge For Questioning the Market God"). From his bastion as an editor of The New Republic, Beinart decried our new breed of economic populists:

For writers like [Thomas] Frank, the tragedy of that era was that the free-trading, Wall Street-friendly Bill Clinton did not use economic populism to permanently lure these angry white males into the Democratic fold. Now Democrats have another chance. But renouncing future NAFTAs won't be enough. Many liberals would like to pick and choose their anti-globalization politics--arguing for more regulation of international trade and investment, but resisting punitive measures to regulate the flow of international labor. Morally, that's perfectly defensible. But, politically, it is likely to fail. There is a reason that the late nineteenth-century populists Frank admires were nativists: While low-skilled immigration may benefit the United States as a whole, it rarely benefits low-skilled Americans. And, for many blue-collar Americans today, Mexican immigration--whether legal or not--is not just linked to broader anxieties about globalization; it has become the prime symbol of those anxieties.

As the title of my article implied, I was less than impressed with Beinart's analysis. To my mind, he was comparing apples and oranges: on the one hand, assuming Lou Dobbs's nativist rhetoric could speak for nuanced policy criticisms for people like Frank; on the other, using the conflation of the two to set up a straw man that was much easier to defend his own precious neoliberal theories against.

So it was a pleasure to see my own (I admit, I'm mugging a bit, but I'm proud) analysis verified by the same magazine this week.

"[I]mmigrant laborers are being screwed by being paid lower wages than Americans (and sometimes lower than the law allows), and the average American worker is being screwed because our jobs are being lost to lower wage workers, who are, as before, being screwed themselves," I wrote. "Does that sound like we're on opposite sides here?"

And lo and behold! This week, in the editors' column in The New Republic, TNR's editors came out with much the same conclusion.

Writing of a highly publicized immigration bust at six Swift & Co. meatpacking plants, the editors note,

This was a theatrical stunt, not the makings of an immigration policy. But, if Bush did want a new-and-improved immigration policy, meatpacking would be a good place to start. There is, after all, a reason that immigrants populate the Swift plants: An industry that once prided itself on its stable, middle-class workforce has become a hellhole that only the most desperate workers would enter.

The story they go on to tell should be well-known (and, as it happens, is to readers of Thomas Frank, who devotes a good deal of space in What's the Matter With Kansas? to the subject): Following Upton Sinclair's devastating expose of the meatpacking industry in The Jungle, a series of reforms were launched that eventually cleaned up the industry. Meatpacking was dominated by well-paid union workers by the post-war period; wages were upwards of $20 an hour in today's money, with benefits. Then, slowly came the backsliding: Plants moved to rural areas, wages fell, and safety took a back seat.

"[W]with their move, they changed how meat was processed," write the editors.

They replaced skilled and semi-skilled workers with assembly lines that turned out packaged beef and pork products. Workers now stood on slippery floors in dark, fetid buildings wielding knives and power tools with which they would slice steers or hogs as they swung past at high velocity. They were paid about half of what their unionized counterparts had earned. The Jungle had reemerged.

The new assembly-line jobs were extremely dangerous. Lacerations were common, as were maimed limbs. Repetitive muscular injuries were virtually unavoidable. (Imagine throwing a baseball with the same motion 10,000 times a day.) Nearly one-third of workers at the average plant suffer a work-related injury each year. That has contributed to an astoundingly high turnover rate.

Immigrants became the primary source of labor since the combination of inhuman conditions and low pay meant that no self-respecting American would take the job. Under Reagan, the National Labor Relations Board was de-fanged, and union organizers are frequently fired and occasionally assaulted, in union-busting moves most voters are probably unaware still exist in this country.

So what is the solution to this problem put forward by The New Republic?

if the Bush administration truly wanted to alleviate the tension that surrounds immigration, it would reform the industries that rely on immigration. It could begin by enforcing the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which makes the federal government responsible for assuring "safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women." Of course, Bush has done exactly the opposite. One of his first presidential actions was to overturn the ergonomic standards that the Clinton administration had adopted. These would have applied directly to the meatpacking plants. To add insult to injury, the Bush administration even stopped requiring employers to report these injuries, enabling it to claim the industry has become safer.

Hmm. I seem to remember writing something like:

So this really is a situation in which the little guy loses out and the companies make huge profits; politicians then play the little guys off one another to win elections, and the companies get off free. I say, put the immigrants on the same level as natural-born Americans, prevent exploitative labor practices, and the demand for illegals begins to drop and a competitive labor market exists that does workers a lot better than the system we have now, which to one degree or another the neoliberals support. Fine the hell out of companies for employing illegal immigrants (why always the double-standard when it comes to tough-on-crime tactics with regard to corporate America?) and stop American companies from taking advantage of migrants and, in the process, putting Americans out of jobs... The way of equitable economic policy does not necessarily lead to nationalist demagoguery; it's a low electoral tactic and nothing more, and we shouldn't let neoliberals like Beinart convince us to throw the baby out with the bath water.

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