Saturday, March 23, 2013

Members of the Club

George Bernard Shaw, in his fabulous book, The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism," gives many wonderful answers as to the causes of economic inequality and illuminates many of the conundrums of human nature. One such conundrum is how, in a glaringly unequal society like the United States, so many people do not do what they can to make it less unequal. Shaw points out that many people, in the employ of the 1%, do not want to bite the hands that feed them.

The doorman, for instance, doesn't want to take his grievances to the owner of the luxury hotel, both because he fears for his job and, secondly, because he is persuaded by the argument that, even if the owner makes hugely more than his staff, he still is the employer, and his profits trickle down to the doorman. This necessarily brings up how labor unions act to level the playing field and exact a better deal from the employer. Owners, however, have been very successful in persuading many, if not most, workers that they are better off without a union to even the score.

They do this in a variety of ways: by buying off or firing key employees who could be organizers, by using propaganda to convince workers either that company profits are not sufficient for a raise, or that the owner will move or close the company, or by taking advantage of internal union strife to turn one worker against another. Then there's an even more insidious way to co-opt the union: by convincing union leadership that their financial security depends on the oppressive and exploitative system itself. That's easy to see when it comes to the management of employee pensions.

Should pension funds be invested in the banks which wrecked the economy and relentlessly squeeze or ordinary credit card or checking account customer, or should those funds go into socially responsible investments? The employer says no -- socially responsible investments won't generate as much of a return as an investment in Chase (where I bank) or Exxon/Mobil. Why not? Just trust me, they won't. This big lie -- that exploitative companies are better money makers than socially responsible ones -- is at the heart of the oppression of the 99%. Their pension, savings, and mutual fund accounts could be used to make investments in firms that are making money off renewable energy, using the internet to create jobs and opportunity, or making scientific advances to promote human welfare. Yet the investment advisers retained by the large union and municipal employee funds are not eager to shift funds into these types of firms.

To progressively invest is to check out of the exclusive club of the 1%. Just as the doorman doesn't really want to challenge the owner of the luxury hotel, the union members and their representatives don't really want to go up to the big investment advisers and question their investment strategies. We haven't seen any big pension funds following the lead of the college students who are getting their schools to divest from fossil fuel companies in the name of stopping global warming. I'm sure those colleges are finding safe havens for their cash. It's time for unions to do the same, and leave the cozy clubhouse where they may be tolerated, but are certainly laughed at once they leave the room.


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