by Dave Lindorf
Online readers of the New York Times might have been forgiven if, when they got to the editorial section on June 24, they thought they had accidentally jumped to the website of Socialist Action, or at least The Nation. In a 2,600-word editorial headlined: “Opinion: The Jobs We Need,” the editorial board laid out a powerful case that “over the past four decades, American workers have suffered a devastating loss of economic power, manifested in their wages, benefits and working conditions.”
The board members noted that over that same timeframe, the annual economic output of the United States had tripled, but, “with the help of policymakers from both political parties, the wealthy hoarded the fruits.”
“The Jobs We Need” is the third “chapter” in a series titled “The America We Need,” which, together with accompanying op-ed pieces, looks at the way confronting the Covid pandemic crisis could offer an opportunity to move the US away from its neoliberal/neoconservative experiment to a more collectivist and humane kind of society.
It moves well beyond opinion, though. In excruciating detail, it lays out the facts (many of them reported over the years in the Times by its own journalists, like now-retired labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, whose work is, curiously, not acknowledged or linked in the article). It shows that workers who used to earn union wages high enough to make them members of the middle-class were now earning half as much in constant dollars — barely sufficient to keep a family above the poverty line.
“Picture the nation as a pirate crew,” the editors write:
In recent decades, the owners of the ship have gradually claimed a larger share of booty at the expense of the crew. The annual sum that has shifted from workers to owners now tops $1 trillion.
Franklin D. Roosevelt noted in 1936 that “economic royalists” were complaining that his New Deal was attempting to “overthrow the institutions of America,” when “what they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.” Citing FDR, the editorial board wrote:
Now as then, the nation’s economic problems are rooted in political problems. And now as then, the revival of broad prosperity—and the stability of American democracy—require the imposition of limits on the political influence of the wealthy. It requires the government to serve the interests of the governed.
The editorial went on to recount the impact of the infamous (but, at least in corporate media, rarely mentioned) 1971 Powell Memo, sent by then–corporate lawyer Lewis Powell to the US Chamber of Commerce. That memo darkly warned that the US “free enterprise system” was “under threat,” and that it was urgent for business to “fight.” This call to arms by Powell, who was named to the Supreme Court a year later by President Richard Nixon, led to the creation of the Heritage Foundation by Joseph Coors, the Times editors wrote, and inspired the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) to begin a controversial campaign of “educating” federal jurists on the wonders of deregulation and unfettered capitalism.
Calling Powell and the leaders of America’s largest corporations working through NAM “counterrevolutionaries,” the editorialists write that they “embraced a radical view of the role of corporations,” adhering to the philosophy of free-market advocate Milton Friedman, a Nobel laureate economist who argued that “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”
The Times editorial recounted the weakening and destruction of the labor movement, as corporations spent huge sums lobbying Congress, pushing the message that the decline in the fortunes of US workers was the tough-but-fair result of market forces: “People will get paid on how valuable they are to the enterprise.”
The critique of neoliberal economics here was blunt, and not what Times readers have been used to seeing on its editorial pages. Certainly not during the tenure of editorial page editor James Bennet, who served in that role from 2016 through June 7, when he was unceremoniously dumped by the publisher. His sacking followed the publication of a “needlessly harsh” op-ed by right-wing Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, headlined “Send in the Troops” (6/3/20), which called for military action against anti-police protests going on in cities across the nation (FAIR.org, 6/19/20).
Could the collectively written “The Jobs We Need” editorial, published just over two weeks after Bennett’s departure, be an indication of a sea change in the paper’s editorial slant? The Times wouldn’t grant FAIR an interview to inquire about that. But it’s worth noting that Bennet hadn’t hidden his ideological bias against progressive, much less socialist, ideas. In a discussion with Times staffers upset with a perceived rightward tilt to the paper’s opinion pieces under Bennet—an off-the-record discussion that was secretly taped, leaked to and published in Huffington Post (2/27/18) a few months later—Bennett said:
I think we are pro-capitalism. The New York Times is in favor of capitalism because it has been the greatest engine of, it’s been the greatest anti-poverty program and engine of progress that we’ve seen.
Certainly the current Times editorial board authors of this particular editorial make it clear that they aren’t on board with that rather controversial and Friedmanesque assertion of Bennet’s.
By way of solutions, the editorial board calls for a $15/hour minimum wage “with regular adjustments for inflation.” They say workers should be able to join unions “without fear of reprisals.” They call, too, for the government “to restrain the power of corporations,” including banning the use of corporate profits for share buy-backs. They also call for an end to employer-based health insurance (presumably to be replaced by a government-run insurance program), so that workers are no longer deterred from changing jobs for better pay (or from going on strike to win union recognition or a better union contract).
What is striking here is that everything being argued in this editorial was in the platform espoused during the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns of 2016 and 2020. Yet there is no mention of Vermont’s junior senator or his campaign platform in this surprisingly radical proposal on the Times editorial page. Nor is there any mea culpa for the many times that the paper sought to ignore, dismiss or trash Sanders in covering both of those primary races.
Back in the 2016 campaign, for example, Sanders was the target of a hit piece in the New York Times by Jackie Calmes, headlined “Left-Leaning Economists Question Cost of Bernie Sanders’s Plans” (2/15/16). Calmes quoted four economists trashing Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal, claiming its costs would be too great, while ignoring the fact that the costs of the current system based upon private health insurance are vastly greater. None of the article’s economists, two of whom worked for Barack Obama and two for Bill Clinton, were actually leftists. (See FAIR’s piece by Doug Henwood criticizing this article—2/17/16.) During the current year’s Democratic primary, the Times continued its one-sided criticism of single-payer healthcare (FAIR.org, 4/15/20), even while conceding it might be a good idea during a pandemic.
Joe Biden, who has throughout this campaign year argued against Medicare for All, while assuring workers that he knows the value of their “hard-won” employer-sponsored health insurance plans (even as 16 million of them were being laid off and losing them), was also not mentioned in the Times’ “Jobs We Need” piece.
A Times media relations person, Ari Isaacman Bevacqua, denied FAIR’s request for an interview with senior opinion editor Kevin Delaney, editor of the three-part “The America We Need” package, but provided a statement: “‘The America We Need’ purposely avoids focusing on politicians and instead focuses on zooming out and examining solutions.” This, however, begs the question of how corporate media like the Times have for years, including this year, both through their news coverage and opinion pieces, limited and skewed the options available to US voters for addressing the very real problems raised in this unusually candid series of editorials.
A long-time Times journalist observed that the paper has “moved considerably to the left over the past five years,” beginning in 2015 (9/4/15), when the paper first editorialized in favor of a phased move toward a $15/hour minimum wage. But, he added:
I was surprised at how muscular the editorial you cite was! Everyone sees how ridiculous income inequality is, and how corporations are far too powerful, and how Republicans are in the pocket of corporate America, and how government too often overlooks the concerns of typical Americans and workers — and the editorial reflected that.
My old friend and neighbor, the late, great John Hess, spent his whole journalistic career at the Times, until retiring at the end of a long and bitter strike at the paper, and moving into freelance work. John, I’m sure, would have been pleased with his old employer’s belated editorial support for higher pay, better labor laws that encourage and protect union organizing and membership, some kind of government insurance program that doesn’t chain workers to their jobs, as well as for ending corporate money in the political system.
But always a cynic, he would probably reserve judgment about how that will affect the paper’s news coverage of these issues going forward. “Remember,” he used to say with a twinkle in his eye, “news is what the public does not know.”