The U.S. is a better place this weekend than it was last with Rod Blagojevich no longer the Governor of Illinois. Illinois has long had a deserved reputation for dirty politics and this is an opportunity for the state to clean things up once and for all. A friend once worked for the state and the stories he’d tell of how jobs in state government were filled was truly frightening. Competence or qualifications for a job were secondary to political party and how much you’d raised, even as a state employee, for the winning candidate. It’s no one wonder almost every Governor of Illinois ends up in prison.
Further, the former Governor’s missteps in trying to “sell” Barack Obama’s Senate seat were but the most flagrant of his myriad of transgressions. It has raised the issue, however, of how the U.S. goes about replacing Senators when they die or resign to do other things. None of the experiences this year with Governors replacing Senators have been tidy, although none sink to the sordid depths of Illinois. This week Senator Russell Feingold along with Senators John McCain and Mark Begich introduced a constitutional amendment that would require special elections for Senate vacancies. (Information courtesy of CongressDaily 11:30 EXTRA yesterday). It’s a great idea although it will be a tough row to hoe in getting the majorities required in both Houses, not to mention the requisite assent of states. It needs to be pursued, however. I’ll leave it to this Washington Post Editorial, entitled How Not to Pick a Senator which appeared on January 24, to make the case for special elections to fill Senate vacancies. I agree with it completely.
As concerns the U.S. economy, the news continues to get worse. We’ve driven off a cliff and it’s appearing that it will be a mighty challenge to get back to anything approaching normal soon. It could be the rest of my working life, now unfortunately itself prolonged as a result of the depreciation in my life savings. Having said that, there was blurb in yesterday’s New York Times business section entitled “A History Lesson” (which can be found in a larger story entitled Bank of America Needs a Nudge) that offered a little hopeful news to balance the doom and gloom. I recommend giving it a read. It points out that this isn’t likely to be the Great Depression. I know I felt a little better after reading it.
Finally this week, I’d like to briefly address an issue that has the potential to get very heated in the months ahead. It is the issue of labor unions and their role in our economy. Our new administration will be much more friendly to labor as the Democratic Party owes labor a large political debt. Paying off that debt may be very costly to the country and the economy. Let’s begin with the news that unions at a number of petroleum refineries around the country are threatening to strike. This news could mean shortages, at least regionally, of petroleum products like gasoline. The issues include safety and wages. While I understand safety, I cannot see the entire country being held hostage over the wages of employees of refineries. If they don’t like their wages, I suggest they build their skill set and seek better paying jobs. Right now there are surely many that could and would take their place for the salaries they currently receive. That is the essence of the market. Jobs that are in economic demand in relation to the supply of workers able to do those jobs get higher wages than those jobs where workers are a dime a dozen. This apparently includes corporate CEOs who operate in a rarefied, and in my opinion perverse, market that I neither understand nor condone. Unions, however, are able to interfere with that market by threatening significant economic loss (through a strike action) to the employer and potentially to the entire economy (in the case of petroleum refinery workers) if their demands for higher wages are not met, notwithstanding the fact that there are others who’d only be too willing to work for those same wages. The market therefore gets skewed. Wages end up being higher than the market tells us they should be and that impact ripples through the economy. Eventually, things get so out of line that market prevails, as it has in the case of Detroit of late. The wages and benefits extracted by labor over years of collective bargaining break the bank and it all comes tumbling down.
So, immediately, with this potential of an economy-jolting refinery strike, the administration may be presented with a dilemma that is not unlike the one that hit President Reagan in his early days in the White House with air traffic controllers. Then, Reagan told the air traffic controller’s union to take a hike. This President will be unlikely to tell the refiners’ union to do the same and he will likely fail an important leadership test. We’ll have to see.
Another leadership test will be in how the President handles union demands for enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act. He’d like to put this bill off for as long as possible into his administration although Vice President Biden this week suggested that it would still be brought up for Congressional action within the year. Expect a knock-down drag-out fight of huge proportions on this one. Especially in a major recession, this is one I don’t see labor winning and if they do, it will be at great political loss for Democrats, as this will not sell well in most of America. Already corporate America is circling the wagons and it will get nasty. A good story explaining this looming battle can be found in a January 9 New York Times piece entitled Bill Easing Unionizing is Under Heavy Attack. You can guess that I will be no fan of this legislation and will side strongly with corporate America. This bill must be defeated, especially now.
And that’s it for this week. For the record, I’m not sure that the Weekly Roundup is a sustainable feature of this weblog. Writing a column every day of the week takes an inordinate amount of time and energy and by the weekend I need a mental break, if nothing else. I always say to myself that I’m going to do a short one that won’t take more than an hour and then I conclude the piece at least two hours later. We’ll have to see, but his could be the last. All the best.