A move away from the GOP by U.S. businesses, however unlikely, would be a defining moment

The backlash against Georgia’s recently-passed restrictions on voting, especially by voters that are more likely to support Democratic candidates, continues to build. Several Georgia-based corporations, including Delta Air Lines (which is the state’s largest employer) and Coca-Cola, have gone from carefully parsed statements of displeasure about the new legislation to stronger public comments from the companies’ CEOs on national media. Major League Baseball – rather surprisingly, in my opinion – decided to move this year’s All Star Game and Amateur Draft from Atlanta to Denver due to the controversy.

In yesterday’s Morning Brief from Yahoo! Finance, editor-in-chief Andy Serwer suggests the fallout from the ongoing situation is “changing the relationship between politics (mostly the GOP) and business.”

Used to be that if you ran a business in America you’d stay as far away as possible from politics, (unless you sold George McGovern T-shirts or some such.) The math was simple. Take a stand and potentially lose 40% to 60% of your customers. So most businesspeople when asked a question about politics kept mum, even when they felt strongly about an issue.

We accepted this choice of money over principles because as customers, employees or shareholders while we might not agree with someone’s politics, we just wanted the business relationship and knowing someone’s politics might make things awkward, inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Serwer quotes Dick Parsons, who is the former CEO of Citigroup, Time Warner, and was also briefly the chairman of the board of CBS. Parsons is African-American and a “lifelong Republican,” he said. He was one of 72 Black executives who signed a letter protesting Georgia’s new law.

My party has sort of said, ‘Well, look, we got one or two choices, we can either battle for those votes going forward or we can just try and preclude them from showing up again. And I think the direction that has been taken, certainly in Georgia and in other states is, ‘let’s not go out and battle for those votes. Let’s just try and keep them from showing up.’ That’s just flat wrong.

Dick Parsons

Companies like Delta and Coke have faced boycotts from both sides of the political spectrum: from the left for not speaking out soon enough or more forcefully; and from the right for now being too “woke.” Faced with that type of pressure, the traditional relationship of American businesses to the Republican Party is looking like it needs some counseling.

Senate Minority Leader (few things give me more pleasure than writing that phrase, even though because of the filibuster he still has tremendous power over what can and can’t get passed in Congress) Mitch McConnell made it clear that he doesn’t believe corporations should be playing politics:

Corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order. Businesses must not use economic blackmail to spread disinformation and push bad ideas that citizens reject at the ballot box…. My warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

Of course, that doesn’t include corporate free speech in the form of massive contributions to Republican campaigns, which McConnell is explicitly in favor of. “Give us the money and keep your mouth shut” is the real message here, which is not unlike getting mugged in broad daylight.

Adam Serwer (no relation to Andy Serwer), senior editor at The Atlantic, also wrote on the topic recently with a warning not to buy this “rebellion” against corporations by the GOP.

Republicans cannot imagine labor relations as exploitative except in that someone might have to sit through a tedious video on race or gender sensitivity in the workplace. They do not perceive the concentration of corporate power as perilous unless companies’ desire to retain their customer base interferes with Republican schemes to entrench their own political dominance. They see freedom of speech as vital, unless it prevents them from using the state to sanction forms of political expression they oppose. Their criticisms of “woke capital” go no deeper than this.

As such, the Republican anti-corporate turn is entirely superficial. That’s a shame, because the concentration of corporate power has had a negative effect on American governance, leading to an age of inequality in which economic gains are mostly enjoyed by those in the highest income brackets. Since the 1970s, despite massive gains in productivity, most Americans have seen their wages rise very slowly, while the wealthiest have reaped almost all the gains of economic growth. That outcome was a policy choice, not an inevitability.

I suspect that this posturing by both corporations and the GOP leadership will ultimately not change very much. But it’s possible if politicians like McConnell overplay this, assuming that there’s no where else for American business to go but back into their loving arms, they could be in for a surprise. The Democrats could make a play to be more friendly to business, provided improved respect and rights for American workers was part of the deal. Again, not likely, but not impossible. The Democrats would also have to overcome the antipathy of the left-wing of the party toward big business, which wouldn’t be easy at all. But an opportunity exists.

One last word on efficacy rates and a return to normal

I wrote a lot of words on Thursday about COVID vaccination statistics because I’ve been frustrated that the media – and by extension, the majority of Americans – continue to focus on the potential for more public health and economic distress from the pandemic instead of the positive overall direction we’re headed. It’s understandable, I suppose, since we’ve gone through such a bizarre shared experience and we’re likely always going to be worried that it will happen again.

And it might! I know that the positive impact that the several vaccines are already having doesn’t eliminate the possibility that some variant might still prove resistant to those vaccines, or that something else might happen that takes us back to square one. But what seems likely is a return to normal this summer, provided we understand that eradicating COVID can’t be the requirement for that to happen.

Some media are covering this good news. Vox produced a great seven-minute video that explains what the efficacy rate of the different vaccines really means and why that number isn’t the really important one:

It will be a bit irritating if we reach the so-called “herd immunity” – 70 percent or so of people vaccinated against COVID in the United States – but due to ongoing political and cultural clashes, those of us who’ve been vaccinated will still need to wear masks in public settings to protect those who’ve chosen not to, since it will be possible to be vaccinated but contract the virus, be completely asymptomatic, and spread the virus to those who don’t have protection. That’s why masks and social distancing will probably still be needed this fall, though not at the same level as over the last year.

It is good news, and it’s a credit to rational, science-based thinking, that we’re going to leave the pandemic behind.

Filibustered, part two

In October, I wrote about the tradition of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, and how it’s made effective governing in Washington nearly impossible. The concept of the filibuster used to mean that a senator could bring all Senate work to a complete halt by holding the floor and “debating” – actually, reading old speeches, recipes, children’s books, or anything else to prevent a bill from moving forward. To end this “debate,” the Senate must pass “cloture,” which under current Senate rules requires 60 votes to stop the filibustering.

These days, filibustering doesn’t even require a senator to actually stand and talk endlessly. Any senator can simply indicate that they would filibuster a bill and that’s a sufficient threat to gum things up. Part of the reason that works is that the Senate now runs bills through the chamber on multiple “tracks,” scheduled throughout the legislative day, and if one of those is held up by a filibuster threat, the rest of the chamber’s work can continue. This means the risk of seeming to be obstructionist is much lower, and in recent years it effectively has turned the Senate into a political body that requires a super-majority of 60 votes for nearly everything it does.

This is defended, even by centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, as a way to protect the rights of the minority in the Senate. Which might be a laudable position (and understandable if you’re concerned you might end up in the minority again, a likely proposition) if the super-majority requirement didn’t also effectively destroy the rights of the Senate majority.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution didn’t include super-majority requirements for passing legislation, and only had a few specific exceptions, including conviction of an impeachment charge (2/3 of the Senate), expulsion of senators or representatives from their seats (2/3 of the appropriate house), ratifying treaties (2/3 of the Senate), proposing amendments to the Constitution (2/3 of both houses), and overriding a presidential veto (also 2/3 of both houses). Other than that, majority rule in both houses was anticipated, a fact underlined by comments by James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution:

“It has been said that more than a majority ought to have been required for a quorum; and in particular cases, if not in all, more than a majority of a quorum for a decision. That some advantages might have resulted from such a precaution, cannot be denied. It might have been an additional shield to some particular interests, and another obstacle generally to hasty and partial measures. But these considerations are outweighed by the inconveniences in the opposite scale.

In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule: the power would be transferred to the minority. Were the defensive privilege limited to particular cases, an interested minority might take advantage of it to screen themselves from equitable sacrifices to the general weal, or, in particular emergencies, to extort unreasonable indulgences.”

James Madison, Federalist Paper No. 58

So those who defend the filibuster on the vacuous reason of respecting the minority are, in fact, disrespecting the duly-elected majority. And nothing gets done.

If Democrats are unable to move significant legislation through both houses of Congress and to the president’s desk in the next two years, they will lose control of one or both houses. Republicans will be able to point at their inability to act, and they’ll be right. The time has come for bold action on the filibuster; if not eliminating it altogether, at least modifying it to require that those filibustering a bill actually hold the floor (and stopping all Senate business altogether while doing so), or perhaps reducing the number of votes required for cloture depending on how long the filibuster has gone on (60 for the first three hours, 58 for the next three, and so on).

Democrats have the majority today. They should start acting like it.

Minimum wage mythology

Nothing beats getting lectured by White Guys in Suits about how they scrambled up the ladder by paying for college with their minimum wage jobs. Apparently they didn’t take any economics classes that might have explained inflation to them or even a math class that went over how percentages work:

Sen. Thune was born in 1961, so adjusting for inflation, his $6.00 per hour wage in the late seventies (when the minimum wage, incidentally, was around $2.90 per hour) would be about $24.00 per hour today. So a $15.00 minimum wage doesn’t even bring us close to parity with that.

As Timothy Burke notes, tuition at K-State has grown more than 11 times what it was when Sen. Marshall graduated, while the federal minimum wage has only doubled.

Some other things that have increased much faster than the minimum wage and might be considered critical parts of basic existence:

  • $500 worth of groceries in 1981 would cost about $1,400 today, an increase of nearly 190 percent.
  • Rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Port Huron, Michigan (the county seat of St. Clair County, where I live) was $150/month at the low end in 1981; today the low-end of similar apartment rents is $650/month – an increase of 433%.
  • Community college tuition in St. Clair County increased by 735% ($18.50 per contact hour in 1981 vs. $136.00 per contact hour in 2021); university tuition at Central Michigan University (my alma mater) went from $31.50 per hour in 1981 to $417.00 per hour this academic year, an increase of 1324%.
  • Admittedly, the doubling of the minimum wage has allowed consumers to keep pace with the price of some common items: gasoline prices are about 90 percent higher today than in 1981 (adjusted for inflation); new car prices are up only about 55% over the last forty years; the price of technology-related items have, in many cases, actually gone down.

My point, however, is that the cost of basic life necessities – housing, food, and education – have grown well beyond the ability of the minimum wage to keep up. The $3.35 per hour federal minimum wage that was in effect when I started college in 1981 would need to be $9.64 today. And that $9.64/hour wage would result in an annual income for an individual of $20,051.20, assuming 40 hours per week times 52 weeks. The cutoff for eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is 130 percent of the federally-established poverty guideline, which works out to $16,744. So you’re above the poverty line, you’re not eligible for SNAP or many other assistance programs, but you’re supposed to live on about $1,670 per month.

A minimum wage shouldn’t just be a “subsistence wage.” It should be significant enough to allow for a decent living standard, some savings, some room for investment in education or other self-improvement. Reducing economic insecurity would have positive impacts on many social problems, including crime.

We hear, usually from the White Guys in Suits, that raising the minimum wage would cause small businesses to cut jobs to compensate, or that the additional costs would be passed on to consumers. These effects can happen, but may also be offset by having more money in the pockets of both current and potentially new customers. Henry Ford, hardly a social progressive (to put it mildly), did have it right when he observed

The owner, the employees, and the buying public are all one and the same, and unless an industry can so manage itself as to keep wages high and prices low it destroys itself, for otherwise it limits the number of its customers. One’s own employees ought to be one’s own best customers.

Henry Ford, 1926

Why do we assume that it’s a zero-sum game? If we pay people better, doesn’t that give them more money to spend in the overall economy?

When the federal Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938, the minimum wage was 25 cents per hour, and the intent was for that to be not just a “minimum” but a living wage, as described by President Roosevelt at the beginning of the Great Depression:

It seems to me to be equally plain that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933

I’d like to be charitable and assume that Sens. Thune and Marshall are just not experts on the history of labor and compensation, but that’s why they have staff, so I’m more inclined to think that they’re being intentionally obtuse because they hope their constituents will take their “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” nonsense to heart. But nearly 60% of Americans are in favor of raising the minimum wage, either all at once or gradually over several years, to $15.00 per hour.

While many states and cities have their own, higher, minimum wage, the federal standard of $7.25 per hour hasn’t changed since 2009. It’s long overdue to be adjusted to an amount that reflects not just the value but the dignity of all work and all workers.

The Age of Rush

I’m half hoping that the title of this post will draw fans of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart, but I somehow doubt it.

Rush Limbaugh died today at the age of 70. Limbaugh was a radio legend, whether you liked or agreed with him or not. While not the first conservative radio host by a long shot (this great article by Michael J. Socolow on Slate.com goes into that history very well), Limbaugh was the first to really give political radio shows the full shock jock treatment. While Howard Stern can be political at times, Limbaugh wasn’t interviewing Playboy models or deviant tabloid celebrities (though many of the politicians he championed had plenty of deviant, tabloid personal characteristics).

He was probably not too different from his on-air persona; many shock jocks and blue comedians have a natural need to offend, raise eyebrows, and draw attention to themselves. He confided to people close to him that most of his broadcast antics were just that, an act, intended to encourage his supporters and outrage his detractors. This was especially true in the earlier days of his rise as the King of AM Radio (he was often given credit for saving the AM band after FM took over the terrestrial airwaves in the 80s and 90s).

I used to listen to Rush occasionally, at least one or two days a week. While I’ve never considered myself to be particularly conservative (or liberal, for that matter – you are, after all, stuck in the middle with me), I did share Limbaugh’s distain for Bill Clinton. As I’ve mentioned before, there was always something about Clinton that irritated me, and I didn’t vote for him either time (I voted for independent Ross Perot in 1992 and Libertarian Harry Browne in 1996, if you’re curious). So his shtick parodying Clinton amused me.

He was a lot more amusing back then. He certainly had a nasty edge, but a lot of the show was so over-the-top in terms of his boasting and ego that it was impossible to take seriously. Like a good shock jock (he’d started at small stations in his native Missouri), he knew how to put on a performance that would create loyalty among his listeners. Even if you hated him, you had to admire his ability to dominate the AM airwaves at a time when everyone else was abandoning it.

Later, he seemed to forget where the line was between the performer and the performance. His endless, often tasteless, attacks on Barack Obama and his administration began to be unmoored from any connection to facts. Perhaps some of it was connected to his addictions, or maybe it was his diminishing role in Republican circles after several on-air controversies and the failure of right-wing candidates he’d championed to do well in elections, but he seemed to become more strident and even desperate for attention. He was rather late to the Donald Trump show, even criticizing Trump in 2015 for not being a “genuine conservative,” but once he realized how useful Trump could be, Limbaugh was all-in (as were many other Republicans who had been critical during the 2016 presidential race).

At one point, Limbaugh was so popular that ESPN thought it might be a good idea to add him to the Monday Night Football booth. That experiment ended quickly after he, predictably, made offensive comments about Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Rush Limbaugh spawned dozens of imitators, none of whom ever approached his relevance, or even dominance, of American political culture in the same way. It’s hard to imagine anyone taking his place.

Just as well, really.