The American Jobs Plan

At the moment, the Biden administration is meeting with Republican officeholders, including members of Congress, to revise his American Jobs Plan to gain bipartisan support. While many local and state level Republicans support the measure, Republican Congressional leaders are opposing it.

The plan is often referred to as the infrastructure bill and much of the debate has revolved around the definition of infrastructure. Merriam-Webster’s first definition of infrastructure is “the system of public works of a country, state, or region also the resources (such as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity.” The Congressional Republicans have been using the more narrow “public works” definition and complaining the bill goes far beyond “roads and bridges” which is true, but, while we certainly do need investment in car/truck transportation, the country needs much more than that.

In the transportation sector, we need to upgrade airports and railways, subways and bus systems, and charging systems for electric vehicles. Our electrical grid is antiquated and fragile, leading to horrible consequences such as the Texas blackout this part winter. It needs to be modernized to better incorporate distributed and utility-scale renewable energy and storage, which will make energy systems cheaper and more reliable. Water and sewer systems need massive overhauls to eliminate lead pipes, avert leaks, and bring clean drinking water to places that still do not have access. (One of the truly heart-breaking deficiencies in our water systems brought to public notice during the pandemic was that many people living on Tribal lands do not have access to clean running water needed for the recommended hand-washing protocols and daily life in general. The infection and death rates among indigenous peoples were higher than average, due to the ongoing lack of resources and medical care.)

The pandemic also pointed out the inequities in our communication systems. With so much learning and so many jobs going online, fast and reliable internet access became essential. Those with low income and rural folks suffered when they didn’t have those services available. This deficit has been obvious for a number of years and a few states, such as New York, have been working on it, but it is better to have the federal government involved to make sure that no one is left out.

The US also needs a lot of upgrades to buildings. Many of our schools, hospitals, and housing units are deficient in their heating/cooling/ventilation systems and need insulation and energy efficiency upgrades. Some also need structural work and renovation. Sadly, this impacts low-income areas more than high-income areas. Again, the federal government needs to step in to make sure that all people have safe, functional buildings.

The part of the plan that Congressional Republicans object to the most is support for our care system. There has long been a dearth of high-quality, affordable caregivers for children, elders, and people with debilitating illnesses or conditions, due in part to the low wages paid for this kind of work. During the pandemic, many child-care centers and schools closed, leaving parents with the tasks of 24/7 childcare plus tutoring, often combined with paid jobs. This impacted mothers more than fathers, with many more women leaving the workforce or cutting back hours of paid work to tend to caregiving duties. Now that more employers are wanting people to work on site, parents are faced with difficulties in trying to find child or elder care that they can afford. It’s also worth noting that the US is woefully behind other advanced economies in supporting social needs. The greater support for caregiving, health, and education in the UK versus the US was an important factor in my daughter and son-in-law deciding to settle their family in the UK.

The American Jobs Plan has provisions to support caregiving, such as paying good wages to people who provide care and good wages to other workers so that they can afford to pay for care if they need to. It also offers free access to pre-school for three- and four-year-olds and community college for high school grads. Somehow, Congressional Republicans have twisted this into a negative, arguing that the Plan is against family caregiving and would force more years of mandatory schooling. The pre-school and community college funding is available to all, but not compulsory. The option to choose family caregiving would expand if one salary can support the household, leaving a second adult free to engage in unpaid caregiving or to take an outside job without having all the money earned go to pay the cost of care. For households with only one adult, affordable, high-quality care availability makes it possible to work and support their family. One of the difficulties with the pandemic economic recovery is that many employers are not offering enough hours at a high enough wage for workers to be able to cover living expenses, often including caregiving costs. The answer to this problem is not to cut off unemployment payments as some have suggested; the answer is to pay living wages for all jobs. If a business cannot afford to pay its workers a living wage, it does not have a viable business plan and should not be operating.

What strikes me about the Congressional Republican position is that they favor jobs, like construction, that are predominantly filled by males, while discounting jobs, like caregiving and education, that are predominantly filled by females. In many areas, caregiving jobs are held predominantly by women of color. The Congressional Republican approach to the American Jobs Plan seems to be that physical objects like roads and bridges and the workers that make them are more important than people and the work to care for and educate them.

This is unfortunate. The Plan’s comprehensiveness is one of the things that impresses me the most. It integrates employment with addressing social, environmental, and justice concerns. For example, it creates jobs for workers displaced by the winding down of fossil fuel extraction to cap abandoned wells and clean up mines. It creates a Civilian Climate Corps to help us conserve land and prepare for future conditions. There are provisions to support US research and development and manufacturing within the country to boost employment and make sure we have supplies of important products made here to avoid shortages, especially in crisis situations. We all saw what happened in the early months of the pandemic when masks, gloves, and other medical equipment were in short supply because they were almost all imported goods. The Plan also looks to increased membership in unions which traditionally facilitate good wages and worker protection measures.

While the American Jobs Plan has majority support among the public, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says that no Republicans will vote for it. I don’t know if that will change after negotiations are complete. If the vote fails in the Senate after negotiations because Republicans still are not on board, then the Democrats should pass the original bill under budget reconciliation rules.

I should also point out that the Plan includes a way to pay for the costs over time, mostly through corporate tax reform and enforcement. The Republicans don’t like that. The public does. When pollsters ask about the American Jobs Plan and include the payment mechanism in the description, the approval rating rises even higher.

I do have a Republican representative in Congress and I ask her and her colleagues to think about whether they are there to serve their constituents or their corporate donors. We’ll be able to tell their answer by how they vote on this bill.

Whose labor?

Today, the United States observes Labor Day, which celebrates workers, especially those who are members of unions.

I heard a discussion on the radio today about jobs that have been replaced by technology and another about the rights of workers who are considered independent contractors instead of employees, which generally means they get no benefits. These discussions also touched on the nature of work and what it means for human dignity and living standards.

One caller touched on a subject that is close to my heart, that people who act as unpaid caregivers are not considered part of the economy at all, despite their value to their families and communities. Most of the tasks that I have done over the years can be paid work, too, such as child care, elder care, driver, cook, laundry worker, and now even grocery shopper. Of course, these occupations are usually low-paying, reflecting the devaluation of caregiving in the United States. Granted, most people with paid employment also have to take care of homes and/or family members, but many of them pay someone to do some of that work.

Caregiving is work and those that do it should be respected and recognized as part of the economy. This dynamic is part of the movement for a universal basic income, most publicly articulated at the moment by Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang.

Having spent most of my life in volunteering and family caregiving, I know that my labor has made valuable contributions to society. It would be nice to have meaningful national recognition of that.

Green New Deal

The Green New Deal is a concept that combines a rapid transition to sustainable energy to help keep global warming as low as possible – the Green part – with social justice action, not only to fund the initiatives but also to guarantee living wage jobs and truly affordable, quality health care – the New Deal part.

At this point, it has not been formalized as legislation, but there are plans to have a Congressional committee to study all the components and put them together into a viable bill, if not for the current iteration of Congress, perhaps the next.

Time is of the essence, as recent scientific reports both from the US and internationally have made clear that the next 10-12 years are critical in keeping climate change impacts from becoming catastrophic. We know that we are already experiencing some disturbing impacts and that there is no currently known way to fully reverse those changes. We also know that the United States has had very high carbon emissions over the last century and a half and, therefore, carries a major obligation to cut emissions quickly and to make major contributions to help our country and the international community to adapt to climate change impacts. The Green New Deal looks to be a powerful aid to doing that.

Yesterday, I was part of a group visiting our local Congressional office to deliver petitions and discuss the Green New Deal. Our representative, Anthony Brindisi, just took office last month, so we wanted to let him know that climate change, good-paying and secure jobs, renewable energy, labor rights, regenerative agriculture, and environmental and economic justice are important to many of his constituents.

The staff member with whom we spoke was very attentive and let us gather and talk in the office. This was a stark contrast to our former representative who did not want us gathering even outside the building where the office is and called the police to remove us, which they didn’t do because we were on public property and not blocking passersby.

We are hopeful that this will be the first of several visits and meetings to engage with Rep. Brindisi and his staff. We think that the Green New Deal concepts will help the people of our district, as well as the rest of the country and the world.

Update:  You can read the Green New Deal Congressional resolution text here.

Good News for the Southern Tier

Like many other former industrial powerhouses, my home region, the Southern Tier of New York (midway across the southern border of the state with Pennsylvania), has struggled with economic development.

In recent years, while there has been some growth in the education, health care, and arts sectors here in the Binghamton area, the formerly strong manufacturing and hi-tech sectors are a shadow of their former selves.

Since 2011, New York has had an economic development system organized as various regional economic development councils, which make plans which compete for funding. The eight counties of the Southern Tier have won some funding in prior years, but this year the stakes were especially high, with three regional prizes worth $500 million ($100 million a year for five years) each available. The other five regions will share a larger-than-usual pot of funds, so no one is left out.

The Southern Tier economic development plans have always been well-received, including in 2011 when the timeline for initial plans was very tight and coincided with a record flood. Some of our projects have been funded, but progress has been slow, leading to additional hand-wringing and pressure to allow shale gas development, even though only a few jobs would be generated at considerable environmental cost.

While I am grateful that shale gas development was (mostly) taken off the table in New York State last December, our area needed more concrete plans to add jobs in our region.

In the form of one of the $500 million awards announced yesterday, we finally have commitment from the state to help make that possible.

The Greater Binghamton area where I live is central to the plan, with major revitalization centered around the Route 17c corridor.  The Binghamton segment is mixed-use, blending business, retail, arts, increased living space, downtown University presence, and waterfront development. Johnson City is centered on health science/technology and culture, with Endicott, the original home of IBM, centered on advanced manufacturing, including an industrial 3D printing center.  We are excited to begin!

There are projects already lined up for the first year allocation of $100 million, with plans to leverage additional private capital. Of course, the rest of the region is not left out. There are plenty of other projects being funded, too, including food/agriculture initiatives for our many rural communities.

I have been one of the rare cheerleaders for our region, which tends toward pessimism about everything, including our typical-for-the-Northeast weather. I often used some of the earlier projects of our Regional Economic Development Council as alternatives to fracking in my years of commentary on that topic, for which I was frequently ridiculed.

I am ecstatic that my optimism is being rewarded.

Excelsior!

(Excelsior is the state motto of New York and is usually translated as “Ever Upward.”)

 

The “Confidence Gap”

The last several years in the United States have seen a number of articles, books, and studies about why women remain much less prominent than men in the upper echelons of business and government.

Some put the onus on women themselves for (variously) taking time off or cutting back responsibilities at work to tend to family, lack of self-confidence, and lack of ambition.

Research has made clear, though, that our country and our businesses, which we all like to think are meritocracies, are in fact, not.

What research has found in brief:
Women in the United States have been graduating from college at a higher rate than men and often have higher skill levels.
Though women are more skilled, they are also more likely to be humble. Men tend to exhibit a confidence level that they can’t actually back up with their skill set.
Despite this, managers tend to promote confident but less-competent men over more-humble but more-competent women.
If women adopt behaviors that are more confident, even when they have the skill set to back it up, they are viewed negatively, considered pushy, bossy, etc.

While women have been blamed for not being confident or ambitious enough, the bottom line is that the system is executed in a way that favors male-prevalent behavior patterns and penalizes female-prevalent ones, while also penalizing women who adopt more stereotypically male behaviors.

We need to stop blaming women and start changing corporate practices. Make assignments and promotions on the basis of demonstrated skills, not on who talks a good game. Actively solicit ideas and opinions from everyone on the team. Organize work hours in a way that helps people to manage their other responsibilities to family, community, etc. This is not just a women’s issue. Men also need to juggle multiple commitments.

To continue in the current mode is a waste of some of the knowledge, skills, and talents that women can bring to our companies, organizations, and government.

It’s (past) time for a change.