TPM Cafe: Opinion

This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. This article first appeared on the Economic Policy Institute’s blog.

The United States is unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic given that many workers throughout the economy will have financial difficulty in following the CDC’s recommendations to stay home and seek medical care if they think they’ve become infected. Millions of U.S. workers and their families don’t have access to health insurance, and only 30% of the lowest paid workers have the ability to earn paid sick days — workers who typically have lots of contact with the public and aren’t able to work from home.

There are deficiencies in paid sick days coverage per sector, particularly among those workers with a lot of public exposure. The figure below displays access to paid sick leave by sector. Information and financial activities have the highest rates of coverage at 95% and 91%, respectively. Education and health services, manufacturing, and professional and business services have lower rates of coverage, but still maintain at least three-quarters of workers with access. Trade, transportation, and utilities comes in at 72%, but there are significant differences within that sector ranging from utilities at 95% down to retail trade at 64% (not shown). Over half of private-sector workers in leisure and hospitality do not have access to paid sick days. Within that sector, 55% of workers in accommodation and food services do not have access to paid sick days (not shown).

Of the public health concerns in the workforce related to COVID-19, two loom large: those who work with the elderly because of how dangerous the virus is for that population and those who work with food because of the transmission of illness. Research shows that more paid sick days is related to reduced flu rates. There is no reason to believe contagion of COVID-19 will be any different. When over half of workers in food services and related occupations do not have access to paid sick days, the illness may spread more quickly.

What exacerbates the lack of paid sick days among these workers is that their jobs are already not easily transferable to working from home. On average, about 29% of all workers can work from home. And, not surprisingly, workers in sectors where they are more likely to have paid sick days are also more likely to be able to work from home. Over 50% of workers in information, financial activities, and professional and business services can work from home. However, only about 9% of workers in leisure and hospitality are able to work from home.

Many of the 73% of workers with access to paid sick days will not have enough days banked to be able to take off for the course of the illness to take care of themselves or a family member. COVID-19’s incubation period could be as long as 14 days, and little is known about how long it could take to recover once symptoms take hold. The figure below displays the amount of paid sick days workers have access to at different lengths of service. Paid sick days increase by years of service, but even after twenty years, only 25% of private-sector workers are offered at least 10 days of paid sick days a year.

The small sliver of green shows that a very small share (only about 4%) of workers — regardless of their length of service — have access to more than 14 paid sick days. That’s just under three weeks for a five-day-a-week worker, assuming they have that many days at their disposal at the time when illness strikes. The vast majority of workers, over three-quarters of all workers, have nine days or less of paid sick time. This clearly shows that even among workers with access to some amount of paid sick days, the amounts are likely to be insufficient.


Elise Gould is a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute.

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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. 

Public health officials agree: coronavirus’ spread is no longer a matter of if but when. The only question now is, how bad is it going to get? The answer will rest on the efficacy of the government’s response, its ability to get resources where they need to be, keep the public informed and react quickly to new developments. The bad news? We have a president whose team is uniquely ill-suited to lead this process. The good news, however, is the government is larger than the executive. 

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Wars, natural disasters, public health crises – these are the moments when people need to be able to trust that their government is working well, working for them, and telling them the truth. But as the American people prepare for the threat of a coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration has challenged that trust on a number of fronts. One immediate step that President Trump must take to restore that sacred trust is to fire Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar and replace him with a public health expert that the American people can have faith in.

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Dismay over inequality comes in a variety of flavors. For many, it’s simply about fairness — nobody “deserves” a billion dollars, that level of wealth is nothing more than a byproduct of an unfair economic system.

But extreme inequality is not just about fairness. It’s about the sustainability of democracy. Concentrated wealth is concentrated power. We are seeing this on display with former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who through shear financial means has propelled himself into the race for Democratic nominee. This shouldn’t be possible, yet it seems most of the Democratic nominees don’t understand the graveness of the situation.

At the Democratic debate in Nevada, MSNBC’s Chuck Todd broke character and asked a good question: Should billionaires exist?

Obviously, Bloomberg was okay with billionaires.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) said, “I’m not going to limit what people make.”

Mayor Pete Buttigieg seemed to agree: he began the debate by poking fun at Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), describing him as “a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) supports a tax on billionaires’ wealth.

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s solution to inequality is a familiar combination of higher taxes on corporations, increasing the capital gains tax — shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic kind of stuff.

Only Sanders seems to identify and talk about the threat billionaires pose simply by existing.

Here’s the problem: A country that permits people to attain unlimited wealth allows them to possess unlimited political power. They can donate unlimited sums of money to political causes and campaigns, a problem compounded by the fact that political parties draw their own districts. When unlimited money means unlimited influence, those with money will continue to invest in politics to protect and increase their influence. It puts the country on the road to oligarchy. Wealth taxes are not just important tools to redistribute wealth, they are a critical check on the political power of the super wealthy.

In many ways the debate over the existence of billionaires comes down to whether you value individual liberty more than you value human lives. As Sanders said, it’s immoral to have billionaires while there are homeless people. There shouldn’t be billionaires while there are starving children or people who can’t afford medical treatments they need to stay alive.

A system that allows billionaires but taxes them at a higher rate is a system not long for this world. Money is power and influence. Eventually, the billionaires will wrest power back and change the tax rates, much in the way the GOP bamboozled Americans by lowering the corporate tax rate under the ruse that it makes America more attractive for business investment.

Capitalism requires strict regulations to ensure fairness. But those regulations are always an election away from being removed by moneyed interests. Because capitalism is okay with inequality, it’s inevitable that all efforts to hinder extreme wealth accumulation will eventually be thwarted or removed. Unlimited wealth means unlimited political donations which means laws and policies that favor the rich. It’s a game of cat and mouse that will only end when the megarich have consolidated power and there are no more mice.


Joe Ragazzo is TPM’s publisher.

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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. 

Speaking in Colorado on Thursday, President Trump went after a favorite target: wind turbines.

“They want to use wind,” he complained. “Wind blow, wind please, please keep the birds away from those windmills, please.”

“You look at Palm Springs, California. Take a look. Palm Springs,” he continued. “They’re all over the place. They’re closed, they’re rotting, they look like hell,” Trump said.

When President Trump talks about climate change — beyond dismissing the problem outright — it often looks like this. He regularly blames windmills for cancer and claims that television will not work on calm or cloudy days.

Such absurdities are possible because comprehensive climate action still frightens many. The Democratic candidate that addressed it most clearly (Inslee) is gone and some in the moderate lane spend little time addressing it. Pundits fret over how to pay for strong action and many fear job or investment losses.

Democratic candidates are these days identified as radicals often in relation to three policies: 1) taxes on wealth or the wealthy, 2) Medicare for All, or 3) a Green New Deal. These assertions do not make much sense. Taxes on wealthy Americans today are proportionately lower than on middle class wage earners. Universal health care exists in all prosperous democracies except America. That said, my focus here is primarily on the Green New Deal.

One underlying reason the “radical” label sometimes sticks is, of course, asymmetric political polarization. Republican politics has moved well to the right, while Democrats as a whole have not moved significantly to the left. This asymmetry is so comprehensive (and conservative media so strong) that reasonable policy advocacy can be branded negatively. Amazingly, denying that climate change requires us to alter our behavior — or just ignoring it outright — are not considered radical.

The Green New Deal — as proposed in a 2019 bill introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) — offers action on renewable energy, infrastructure, transportation and agriculture and largely eliminating carbon emissions by 2050. The bill foresees cooperation with farmers and the creation of more “good, union jobs” than would be lost. It also includes job and retraining guarantees for those with fossil energy jobs at risk.

Democrats up and down the ticket — and Republicans! — would do well to get behind some variant of this approach to clearly distinguish themselves sharply from Trump’s inability to even acknowledge the problem.

And legislators need not be concerned with the claims that the Green New Deal is a radical overhaul of the economy that Americans oppose: those claims don’t make any sense.

The need to reduce carbon emissions has been widely accepted by science and most nations for decades. Given that, what makes the idea so radical? In addition, most major American corporations and cities have already invested heavily in reducing emissions. And, reductions can be achieved while economic growth continues. Yes, some environmentalists advocate slower growth, but most versions of a Green New Deal do not.

While climate action does challenge fossil energy companies, it need not challenge America’s economic system as a whole. Nor will it necessarily challenge existing income or wealth distribution. Indeed a Green New Deal, as generally articulated, seeks restoration of pre-1980 wealth distribution, and can harness some of the populist outrage that has buoyed left-leaning Democrats as well as, ironically, Trump.

Important politically within the U.S. are the economic benefits of climate action to the relative advantage of rural, Southern and other Republican regions. Texas and the Midwest are windy and Florida is the Sunshine State for a reason. Likewise, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada — all purple states — are well-suited for renewable energy. Democratic candidates can sell strong climate action precisely where they need to grow their appeal.

Additionally, a Green New Deal would benefit construction and industrial workers as well as farmers (think solar on outbuildings, wind turbines on hilltops, soil as a carbon sink and climate friendly tilling practices). Democrats should repeatedly tell Republican voters that hostility to climate action is costing them money and mention frequently that fossil fuels in America even now employ fewer people than clean energy. What fossil energy corporations do, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, is invest 13.7 times what clean energy does on political influence.

Nor does climate action threaten most firms. Even oil companies could gradually transition to become energy companies. Capitalism, business tells us, is all about adaptation. They are not wrong. Entrepreneurship can speed a transition to a low carbon economy. It is contributing already in large ways and small. So are shifting consumer choices like dietary habits and transportation choices.

A Green New Deal also can strengthen local government. Zoning and construction standards are crucial to reducing carbon emissions. Municipalities and states also bear responsibility for transit, cycling and walking routes. Decentralized decision-making was once a Republican mantra. Democrats could emphasize that climate action empowers local decision-making.

Democrats should make clear that many of the social policies they advocate go hand-in-hand with climate action. Universal, portable, health insurance enables career shifts, business start-ups and long apprenticeships. As important, reducing student debt frees ambitious young people to undertake or join start-ups. Small entrepreneurs in local, organic food, renewable energy and energy efficiency are crucial to building a low carbon economy. Similarly, higher wages via stronger unions or minimum wage increases would help existing households lower their carbon emissions. Selling climate action and social policies together reaches out to a broader political audience. This is crucial to avoiding future backsliding and to getting people engaged in the transition process as consumers, employees and investors (in addition to as political actors).

Climate action and a Green New Deal are especially important to mobilizing younger voters and broader support for climate action. That broader support can be built by making more visible, indeed celebrating, the changes people and firms have already made and those that have made them. Candidates can identify living examples of low carbon choices and opportunities in their districts and the local businesses those choices create and support.

It is important to recognize that creating a low carbon economy will take 30–50 years — a long time period, perhaps, for “radical” change, but an unavoidable one. Transition is necessarily slow because it requires new infrastructure and it requires re-learning how to do some basic things like mass air travel and metal smelting. Many existing carbon-emitting devices and installations are still new. Doing things in new ways, however, will provide a large boost to those nations or firms that succeed. America at the moment is inclined toward looking backwards.

This already emerging transition, made visible, grows its own political constituency. People who install solar panels are not going to support endless fossil fuel subsidies. Organic farmers will not support deregulating hazardous pesticides. The notion that a Green New Deal is radical will fade quickly when people see neighbors installing solar panels or watch them sprout over local parking lots or on church roofs. The people and enterprises of a low carbon future do not look very radical up close.


Robert Paehlke is a Professor Emeritus at Trent University. His books include: Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics (Yale, 1989), Democracy’s Dilemma (MIT, 2003) and Hegemony and Global Citizenship (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. 

The Democratic Party doesn’t have a great record of addressing race. Dialogue on the topic, including in recent presidential debates, has not emerged as a genuine focus. That’s unfortunate for everyone, especially as millions of Democratic voters will be selecting their nominee in the next days and weeks.

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Former New York City mayor, ninth-richest person in the world, and candidate for president Michael Bloomberg has been rising in the polls in recent weeks and just recently qualified for his first debate of the primary season. As the candidate with a net worth of $61.7 billion takes his agenda to the national stage today, viewers may be surprised to hear him assert that addressing inequality is one of his top priorities. While Bloomberg gets some important points right about tackling inequality, there are some very important things that he either misses or doesn’t address when it comes to this critical issue.

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In a towering act of sycophantry, the National Association of Manufacturers announced Friday that it will be giving Ivanka Trump the organization’s first ever Alexander Hamilton Award for “extraordinary support of manufacturing in America.” The organization made the outrageous claim that “no one”  — no one! — has ever “provided singular leadership and shown an unwavering commitment to modern manufacturing in America” like she has.

NAM is a trade group representing the interests of the manufacturing firms. In September, Ivanka and NAM’s Manufacturing Institute announced an expansion of a skills training and apprenticeship program created by Toyota Motor North America. Apparently, this constituted leadership and commitment to an industry like mankind has never seen.

Let’s set aside the fact that Ivanka’s own businesses (and her father’s) frequently manufacture their products abroad, and just focus on manufacturing in the United States. As the President runs for reelection, he is pointing to a strong economy as a “success” for American workers and touting what he says is a resurgence in blue collar jobs.

But this ignores a key fact: manufacturing entered a recession in 2019!

By October of last year, U.S. manufacturing had seen two consecutive quarters of contraction. The sector shed 5,000 jobs in December and 12,000 jobs in January. In December, the Institute of Supply Management’s manufacturing index displayed the fastest rate of contraction since June 2009. And although the ISM suggests an uptick may be on the horizon, the sector still lags behind most others.

So whatever Ivanka and the Trumps are up to, it ain’t working.

Unlike most sectors, manufacturing is one in which Trump has taken direct action in the form of tariffs and despite his righteous, self-congratulatory bluster, they have likely amounted to a net decrease in employment.

Let’s look at steel tariffs, ostensibly meant to increase domestic production of steel. Well, we have added roughly 1,000 jobs in steel production, but estimates show we may have lost 75,000 manufacturing jobs where steel is an input. So more people are making steel, but way fewer people are using the steel. It’s a net loss.

What is a manufacturing success? I think most of us would say increased employment and increased wages. Further still, we’d probably say improved working conditions. However, in this context it’s challenging to see any extraordinary results.

According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing employment peaked in June 1979 with about 19.5 million workers. Employment had already fallen precipitously by the time the U.S. entered the 2007 recession, when the number of Americans employed in manufacturing stood at 13.7 million. The industry bottomed out around February 2010 at 11.4 million. By the time Obama left office in December 2016, manufacturing had rebounded to 12.35 million. At the end of January, this figure was 12.85 million — following two straight months of declines.

Put another way: Manufacturing employment is 34 percent lower than it was at its peak in 1979. Manufacturing employment has grown 3.5 percent since Obama left office, lagging overall non-farm employment which has grown by 4.5 percent.

Diving further into the numbers reveals that manufacturing jobs are no longer more lucrative than the average job. From the BLS:

In 1990, average hourly earnings of production workers in manufacturing ($10.78) were about 6 percent greater than those of production or nonsupervisory workers in the total private sector ($10.20). By 2018, however, manufacturing workers were earning approximately 5 percent less ($21.54) than their total private sector counterparts ($22.71). Over this same period, manufacturing production workers’ share of total private sector employment fell by half, from 17.2 percent in 1990 to 8.5 percent in 2018.

Another way to measure success is to look at growth in total production. Every month, the Institute for Supply Management issues a report on the economic activity of the sector. The good news is that the index was 50.9 in January. (Anything over 50 indicates expansion, anything under indicates contraction.) The bad news is that while the broader economy has expanded for 129 straight months, this was the first time since June of 2019 that the index showed growth. Further, it’s unclear how real or sustainable this expansion is. The ISM report shows that to the degree there’s any positive change, it originates in either pharmaceuticals or computer and electronic products. Tariffs, Trump’s favorite thing, are not helping.

During his State of the Union, Trump talked about a “blue-collar” boom and how we are “restoring our nation’s manufacturing might.” But he’s added fewer jobs than Obama did and manufacturing spent the final two quarters of 2019 in a recession. In the words of manufacturers themselves, further growth is far from guaranteed or even expected.

Meanwhile, this week the House passed meaningful legislation to help manufacturing workers in the form of the PRO Act. It has no chance in the Republican-controlled Senate. The PRO Act aims to strengthen workers’ union rights by limiting companies’ ability to interfere with organizing efforts, creating penalties for employers who fire or retaliate against workers trying to form a union, and protecting workers’ right to strike and protest (among other things). An organization that advocates for workers in manufacturing, as opposed to the owners of manufacturing — the AFL-CIO — strongly endorses the PRO Act.

It’s a law that will help America’s blue-collar workers, but will go nowhere.

This is the state of American politics. I’m sure the White House is preparing to take a victory lap based on Ivanka’s manufacturing award.

One could argue — and pundits do — that manufacturing is the symbolic foundation of the blue collar support Trump supposedly has. Trump loves the working people, they say. Nobody has done more for ordinary Americans than Donald and Ivanka, they say.

It’s all nonsense. This administration’s policies have hurt manufacturing and continue to do so.


Joe Ragazzo is TPM’s publisher.

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