Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#619 - The Bridge To The High Road -- Part 2, 07-Oct-1998

Our major problems all seem connected:

** Real wages for working people have been dropping for 20 years and
there are no national policies (either governmental or private) to
counter this trend. Indeed, there are legions of senators, Chicago
economists, newspaper editors, and captains of finance who view this as
a good thing --it holds inflation in check and "disciplines" working
people so they don't get their expectations too high. As an unspoken
industrial policy, America is vigorously pursuing the low road of
economic development --"de-industrializing" and expanding the low-paid
service sector.[1]

** As wages drop, working people are taking two and three jobs
(increasingly, part-time without benefits) to make ends meet, thus
making it harder and harder to pay proper attention to children,
family, neighborhood and community life. More and more, people deal
with their troubles separately and alone rather than in any organized
way. The social fabric is becoming frayed as people are forced by
circumstances to turn inward.

** The people who are promoting the low road are themselves getting
rich. The S&P 500 stock market index had quadrupled in the past 5 years.
[2] Mergers and acquisitions now total a trillion dollars each year.[3]
In many cases, speculative ventures have replaced solid, productive
business as major sources of new wealth. The newspapers have taken to
writing coyly about our "casino economy." Many of these speculative
Wall Street "deals" diminish the nation's productive capacity and
destroy good jobs.[4]

In short, many corporate chieftains have figured out that they can make
more money by buying and selling other corporations than they can by
providing high-quality goods and services. The chairman of U.S. Steel
epitomized this view when he said, "We are in business to make money,
not steel." And, sure enough, American steel companies refused to
modernize, foreign competitors beat them to the punch, and the nation's
steel-producing capacity was destroyed. Communities dependent upon
steel were simply written off, discarded, as thousands of good jobs
were knowingly destroyed. This is the cynical face of the low road.

** Our economy is now characterized by an astonishing inequality --the
richest 1% owns more than the bottom 90%.

** Inequality translates into political power for the few, and
disengagement for the many. In both political parties, big money
translates directly into insider influence with elected officials and
lawmakers, leading to tax policies that benefit the wealthiest 5% at
the expense of everyone else. This is the low road.

** Far fewer than 50% of the electorate actually vote, perhaps because
they see that the system offers no real choices and that voting no
longer promises to make any substantial difference in their lives;

** The "haves" have shown themselves dismayingly reluctant to invest in
anything that might specifically benefit the "have nots." This is the
low road. The wealthiest 40%, emulating the top 1%, tend to favor tax
decreases at almost any cost, so we are cutting back the hours at our
public libraries, and reducing budgets for our public schools. With
voucher proposals, we are encouraging families to abandon our public
schools entirely. In some central-city Baltimore public schools, the
children have no books, let alone computers. No books. Thus are they
being prepared for entry into the information age. Thus are we paving a
long, low road into the future.

** Government bureaucracies are still huge and burdensome, but they are
now in retreat, unresponsive, protected from public access by
labyrinthine voice-mail systems.

** Technological changes --the electronics and information revolutions -
-have put a tremendous premium on quality and quantity of education
that most people cannot afford. Yet neither political party --nor the
private sector --has proposed programs to help large numbers of working
people upgrade and modernize their skills, to keep America competitive.
This is the low road.

** Forty percent of the nation's children are being raised in poverty.
The prisons are being expanded now to house them when they grow up.
This is the low road --turning our backs on the development of our
people, writing off whole central-city populations.

In sum: America's governmental and private-sector leaders have chosen
the "low road" of economic development --the road that:

** seeks short-term, speculators' gain for a small portion of
the "private sector" no matter what the costs to communities or the
nation's productive capacity;

** treats workers like any other inanimate cost of production,
relentlessly driving down wages;

** actively discourages worker organizations;

** insists that firms and capital remain footloose and ready to move
offshore at the first sign that a community expects something in return
for hosting a firm;

** pays lip service to environmental values but refuses to develop
sustainable alternatives, such as renewable sources of energy, and
blunders ahead with powerful, poorly-understood technologies like
genetically-engineered crops.

In sum, the "low road" is now synonymous with "business as usual" in
America. And we are told that this is all inevitable and
unchallengeable, made so by forces of "globalization" that are entirely
beyond our control.

Fortunately, there is another way, though getting there will not be
easy. Dan Swinney, of the Midwest Center for Labor Research in Chicago
has recently published a manifesto called BUILDING THE BRIDGE TO THE
HIGH ROAD, subtitled Expanding Participation and Democracy in the
Economy to Build Sustainable Communities.[5] It could be as important
as the PORT HURON STATEMENT was in 1964, provoking a generation of
activists to do their best thinking.[6]

Swinney has worked for 20 plus years in Chicago, as a machinist, labor
union activist, and, most recently, analyst helping small and mid-sized
companies buck the trend and stay in business in Chicago. The low road
has cost Chicago 80,000 good jobs in the last 20 years, and Swinney
thinks 75% of those jobs could have been saved by people taking the
right actions at the right time. Recently, Swinney's purview has
expanded to New York City and beyond because the "low road" is
destroying jobs and productive capacity everywhere, and everywhere
people are looking for answers. Swinney's "high road" manifesto is the
beginning of Swinney's answer --he says he'll probably turn it into a
book during the next year or two.

The high road is about developing the nation's economy around high-wage
jobs, investing in people and equipment to make firms efficient and
productive and therefore competitive and profitable. But it's about
more than that. It's about people in communities taking responsibility
for CREATING WEALTH, insisting that they can control their local and
regional economies.

This is the most far-reaching message for environmental and community
activists in Swinney's paper.

For years, in an unspoken social contract, we have allowed the business
community to create wealth, and we --tens of millions of us working in
different ways --have restricted our efforts to urging a fair
distribution of that wealth. Labor unions have urged that working
people get their fair share. Housing activists have pressed for
homeless people to get at least a pittance. Many people have urged that
libraries and schools should get decent funding, that the minimum wage
be raised, that the well-to-do pay their fair share of taxes. Others
have urged that the salmon be protected, the trees preserved, and
that "justice for all" must include environmental justice. Most of us
have approached these problems in a single-issue way, focusing our
efforts narrowly, fiercely, without letup. But we have taken a hands-
off approach to business.

It is now clear that we have failed --failed to achieve a fair
distribution of benefits, failed to persuade the well-to-do to invest
adequately in the nation's human capacity, its infrastructure, or its
productive capacity, failed to protect the ecosystems provide the
platform that supports us all.

And so the old social contract is broken. It is simply no longer in
effect. Communities and working people must begin to see themselves as
having the responsibility to not merely redistribute wealth, but also
to CREATE wealth and to do it sustainably. It will take 30 or 40 years
to make the transition to the high road, but we are left with no
choice. We must seek control of the economy, insisting on our right and
our capacity to manage it at every level. That is what it means to be a
sovereign people. Only then can the economy be made modern, efficient,
and sustainable.

In Swinney's view, the high road is characterized by:

** Development that is environmentally sustainable, which requires
companies to make products and use processes that are good for the
health of workers, consumers, and surrounding communities; and that
restore rather than damage the environment;

** Good jobs that can support a family and allow time for leisure,
education, and social participation;

** Development that is socially sustainable, with a goal of overcoming
historic divisions and oppressions related to race, class, gender, and
national origin.

** A strategic alliance between the labor movement and political,
democratic, environmental, economic, new immigrant, and social
organizations;

** Recognition that labor and community must accept the responsibility
to lead in creating wealth and developing productive capacity;

** Recognition that the business sector includes friends and allies as
well as low-roaders, and that we must be prepared to modify a narrow
anti-corporate analysis;

** Identifying market forces as well as mass movements as our tools and
terrain for change;

** Being entrepreneurial --seeking to be leaders in the market place as
well as in the social and political world --and defining the essential
connection between the two;

** Defining a clear role for government, including a responsibility to
expand our civic structure and life, and to measure success in
governance by progress at the company and community levels.

Dan's paper is much richer in detail that we can recapture here. He
offers numerous vignettes of real companies in real communities
struggling to get onto the high road, some succeeding and some failing.
Dan's paper is not the last word on this broad and deep subject, but it
is an excellent first crack at stating the problem and the direction we
need to go.

Dan is a member of the board of directors of Sustainable America (SA).
We urge all our readers, including elected officials and business
people, to join Sustainable America, so that, together, we can build a
strong infrastructure for ongoing multi-issue work. Check out
www.sanetwork.org, send E-mail to sustamer@sanetwork.org, or telephone
executive director Elaine Gross in New York City: (212) 239-4221.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

=====

[1] Michael Perelman, THE PATHOLOGY OF THE U.S. ECONOMY; THE COSTS OF A
LOW-WAGE SYSTEM (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993, 1996).

[2] Data from Prophet Information: www.prophetinfo.com.

[3] "Merger Volume Caves in Amid Fall Market Slump," INVESTOR'S
BUSINESS DAILY October 6, 1998, pg. 1

[4] Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, AMERICA: WHAT WENT WRONG?
(Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1992). And see Donald L. Barlett and
James B. Steele, AMERICA: WHO REALLY PAYS THE TAXES? (New York: Simon
and Schuster, 1994). Barlett and Steele both work for the PHILADELPHIA
INQUIRER.

[5] Dan Swinney, BUILDING THE BRIDGE TO THE HIGH ROAD (Chicago,
Illinois: Midwest Center for Labor Research, 1998). Available from the
world wide web --www.mclr.com --though you have to download it in 14
sections and reassemble them into one piece. You can also order a paper
copy for $10 from MCLR, Room 10, 3411 W. Diversy, Chicago, IL 60647;
phone (773) 278-5418.

[6] The text of the PORT HURON STATEMENT is available many places on
the world wide web. For example, see http://lists.village.vir-
ginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Primary/Manifestos/SDS_Port_Huron.html
(omit the hyphen).

Descriptor terms: democracy; economy; inequality; wealth; poverty;
sustainable america;