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On Reality Asserts Itself, Mr. Babones, author of “Sixteen for ’16”, says while he grew up in a right-wing, conservative working-class family, social science brought him to progressive public policy conclusions

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. This is Reality Asserts Itself. At The Real News, as you know, we’re particularly interested in solutions, not just critiquing what there is, but what should people demand, and if you actually had a progressive government, if you actually had a government that was interested in governing in the interests of the majority of people, well, what would it actually do? Well, there’s a new book out which tries to deal with all of this. It’s called Sixteen for ’16, that is, 16 proposals: if someone running for president in the 2016 election actually wanted to solve the problems with effective public policy in the interest of the majority of people, well, here’s 16 things they could actually run on and maybe do. Now joining us in the studio is its author, Salvatore Babones. Salvatore Babones is an associate professor in sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney and an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. He holds both a master’s degree in statistics and a PhD in sociology from the Johns Hopkins University. Before moving to Australia in 2008–’cause he is an American–he worked in financial risk management and taught sociology and statistics at several universities in the United States. Thanks for joining us. SALVATORE BABONES, ASSOC. PROF. SOCIOLOGY AND SOCIAL POLICY, UNIV. OF SYDNEY: Thanks for having me on. JAY: And once again, latest book is Sixteen for ’16: A Progressive Agenda for a Better America. BABONES: That’s right. JAY: Okay. So you begin the book with a little biographical sketch, and you kind of repeat about four or five times how conservative you are. BABONES: I am. JAY: What’s so conservative about you? This is not a very conservative agenda for America. BABONES: I think it is a very conservative agenda for America. JAY: Well, how do you define conservative? BABONES: Well, I think the very bedrock definition of a conservative is someone who wants to turn back the clock. And I think many of our best social policies were put in place in the 1930s and in the 1960s. That’s the last century. So if we want to go back to the last century to get good social policy, in a lot of ways that’s a conservative agenda. JAY: That’s kind of parsing it, ’cause, I mean, this is 1960s at a time there’s a mass movement, a big civil rights movement, enormous demands on the system. BABONES: Sure. Sure. Look, I’ll give you more serious answer, which is that I want an agenda that will give Americans the opportunity to earn their own way in the world, to have good jobs, to make good money, to get themselves off of reliance on government. Now, that’s a conservative program. I don’t want to–I’m not proposing in this book a series of government programs that will solve the problems of the poor. I am proposing a series of policies that will bring people out of poverty. JAY: But you are proposing a big, massive government jobs program. That’s a very big government policy. I mean, that’s–I think you’re talking about five, six million government jobs that would then trigger another four or five million, but a big public works program. BABONES: Sure. But I want policies that we know will work. When I say I’m conservative, I mean I don’t believe in taking big chances on policies that have never been tested. I mean we should do things that we can say with, I think, absolute confidence that would do what we want them to do. JAY: But you’re not conservative in the way the word gets used normally, which is, government, get out of the way, although that isn’t what they really mean, ’cause most people that consider themselves conservative–not libertarians, who I think are an exception to what I’m about to say–are for big government as long as it’s big military. They’re just not for big government if it comes to any kind of social safety net or that sort of thing. But in the traditional way we use the word–well, let’s go back a bit. BABONES: Sure. JAY: When you grow up, what’s the kind of politics your household? BABONES: My mother is a Christian conservative high school math teacher. My father was a Teamster. JAY: And his politics? BABONES: I’d never asked them growing up what their politics were. I know that my mother’s certainly been on the right of American politics for a long time. My father passed away in 1983, but he was a warehouse man, ran a small business, was not the sort of person who was out marching for civil rights or a progressive agenda. JAY: And you mentioned you’ve never marched. You’re not an activist. BABONES: I’ve never been an activist. JAY: But do you grow up imbued with your mother’s ideals? I mean, do you grow up yourself, at some point, as a Christian conservative? I mean, do you internalize this? BABONES: I come from a Christian heritage. And that’s why in the book, I think, there are several quotes from the Bible interspersed around the book, which I think the publishers questioned a little. And I said, look, America is historically a Christian country, and we need to embrace Christian values in a progressive agenda. I have nothing against that. I just have a very different view from most people, I think, of what Christian values are. JAY: But it sounds like a different view than your mother. BABONES: Well, I don’t–I love my mother very much, and she’s read the book, and she said she can live with it. So that’s all I’m asking her for. JAY: No, what I’m trying to get at is not so much–I’m not trying to create a fissure with your mother, just that if you grew up surrounded by her views, I assume if you mean–well, what do you mean by the far right of American politics? BABONES: Look, I don’t want to spend the whole interview talking about my mother. I have a very good relationship with my mother. But I grew up in a conservative working-class family that embraced very solid values like hard work. My grandfather was a factory worker. My other grandfather worked in small business. You know, my family is a family of hard-working working-class people who’ve made their way in America and who go to church and who value bedrock principles of being patriotic Americans. There’s nothing in the book and nothing in my family background that’s not bedrock solid patriotic Americanism. I mean, I’m sorry if that’s unsatisfactory answer, but that’s–. JAY: No, it’s not about being unsatisfactory. And now I’m not sure which one to explore first. We’ll get to the patriotic Americanism in a second, but what I’m trying to get at is that the policies in this book do not represent the right wing of American politics [crosstalk] BABONES: They do not. They do not. JAY: So what I’m trying to get at is when do you–what brings you to those conclusions if you grew up in a household where in all likelihood many of these policies would be considered unacceptable or not agreeable? BABONES: Because this book, Sixteen for ’16, is not based on my preferences or my family’s history. The book is based on solid social science. I mean, I am a social statistician. I in my previous books have titles like Latent Variables and Factor Analysis. You know, I am not someone who is out in the streets marching for rights. Now, I fully respect the people who are putting their lives and their bodies on the line marching for their rights. You know, I think that is in the 200 and the 300 year American tradition to be out there fighting for your rights. But frankly, that’s simply not my background. I’m a scientist who woke up one day and said, what happened to America? Why are we pursuing policies that we as social scientists know are bad policies? Why aren’t we pursuing policies that we know will give people human dignity, that will give people the opportunity to flourish? Those policies are out there. We simply choose not to pursue them. JAY: And was this at all a personal catharsis for you? This is what I’m trying to get at, ’cause in your household, these policies would not be considered, I would assume, would not be so supported. So in terms of your own personal arc of your own thinking, was this a kind of big moment for you to start looking at these kinds of policies as solutions? BABONES: Oh, certainly. I taught at the University of Pittsburgh for five years and I taught a class called Societies. It was a comparative class comparing societies around the world with American society. And, of course, I taught my students about universal health care in Europe. I taught them about German codetermination, where workers have a say in how businesses are run. I told them about jobs for life in Japan. I taught them about all sorts of good policies around the world. One of my students actually came up to me at the end of class and said, Salvatore, I don’t mean any disrespect by this, but have you ever considered moving to another country? Because you make them sound so great. And as it happens, at that moment I had just accepted a job offer at the University of Sydney, and I told her, well, actually, I’m moving next week to Sydney, Australia. But it has been really eye-opening, teaching students about how things work in other countries. And now, for myself, living in Australia for seven years has really taught me that we can do things better as a country. I mean, other countries are doing things better. Why can’t we? JAY: So when you say nothing in me or my family history in this book is not patriotic American, why do you use those kind of phrases, and what does that mean to you? BABONES: I use those kind of phrases because not only do I feel them deeply, but I think everybody I know feels been deeply. You know, I work at the Institute for–well, I work with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. It’s staffed by hugely dedicated people who are very patriotic, who sacrifice a lot of income in order to be able to work for causes they truly believe in, to make the country a better place not for themselves or their corporate sponsors, but a better place for everybody. And I think they take a lot of flak because people on the right wing and people who call themselves conservatives are always calling them un-American or unpatriotic. For example, I propose in the book that we should simply dismantle the NSA, the National Security Agency. I think that’s a very patriotic thing to do. I think it’s incredibly unpatriotic to spy on your fellow citizens. Right? Now, I think if it’s become patriotic to support the NSA and become unpatriotic to close it down, then I think we have a problem with the definition of patriotism, ’cause I think those of us who are on the side of privacy and personal liberty are the real patriots. JAY: The issue of sort of patriotism usually means sort of patriotic to your country. BABONES: Absolutely. JAY: But it often doesn’t mean allegiance to your people, in the sense that it’s about the national policy, it’s about the flag, it’s about a whole set of imagery. And I always wonder about using that kind of language, ’cause I know it’s almost like trying to reclaim the language, I suppose. But it also invokes this kind of chauvinism, American exceptionalism. A lot of patriotism at its heart is this American exceptionalism. BABONES: Right. I get in a lot of trouble for that. Believe me, living and teaching in Australia I get in a lot of trouble for being an American chauvinist. Let me simply apologize. You know, I am an American chauvinist. I think America has the capacity to do incredible things. I mean, let me take you back in time again to the 1960s. Right? I mean, we all remember the 1960s as an era of protest and an era of uproar in the United States. But look what happened in the 1960s. I mean, the United States fought a major successful war on poverty while dedicating something like 4 or 5 percent of national income to a space program to put a person on the moon, while fighting a tragic war in Southeast Asia. Right? JAY: How come you call the war on poverty successful? BABONES: Poverty rates in the 1960s went down from 25 percent to 10 percent. They’ve risen since. The war on poverty was successful in the 1960s, and then we gave up when Richard Nixon took office. It doesn’t mean the war on poverty was unsuccessful; it means we gave up. JAY: Well, it just–it wasn’t won. BABONES: Yeah. Oh, and it was successful. If we’d continued the policies that we had put in place in the 1960s, if we kept raising the minimum wage, if we kept increasing benefits under federal programs, if we kept the level of job creation we’d had in the 1960s, if we kept the increasing–the move towards federal medical care–remember, Medicare dates from the 1960s. It insured everybody over age 65. Well, what if we’d started bringing that down to everyone over age 60, everyone over age 55? If we had continued the trajectory we were on in the 1960s, today we would have an economy. JAY: Then why didn’t we? BABONES: Well, that’s a question to ask a political scientist or an historian. Right? I think it’s tragic that we didn’t follow those policies. But that’s a matter for history. We didn’t follow those policies. JAY: Well, it’s not just a matter for history in the sense that–and this is something I want to get at. Maybe now is as good a time as any to start getting at it. These things happen. And this is part of what I don’t think you address the book. You seem to think the system still has some rationality in it. And there’s a reason in the 1960s that you start having these kinds of accommodations, because you have a mass movement at enormous levels. You have a civil rights movement, an antiwar movement. You have workers on strike everywhere; there’s a peak in the workers movement. There was real demands on the system. And when that movement starts to subside, then–the name of this show’s Reality Asserts Itself. Well, the reality that capital wants to–you know, capital doesn’t want a reasonable return; capital wants a maximum return. BABONES: Sure it does. JAY: And if there’s room for it, it will intensify how it deals with labor and other such issues. And that’s kind of the main trend. BABONES: But I’d like to challenge your sense of reality. In some of my research, I put together income growth series for the United States going back to 1860. Between 1860 and 1970, average incomes, average wage incomes rose faster than inflation throughout that entire period. If you look at the graph, it rises in every decade between the 1860s and the early 1970s. It rises faster than GDP growth. JAY: In the 1930s? BABONES: Even in the 1930s, wages rose. Between 1930 in 1940, wages rose. JAY: Well, more than–there was probably no inflation to speak of the 1930s. It was deflationary. BABONES: But if you look at the trend–and in the early 1930s, of course, there’s a massive drop due to the Great Depression, and then wages recover. Right? There is a trend wage growth of 2 percent per year real growth, adjusted for inflation, in wages between 1860 in 1970. And then nothing. JAY: Why? BABONES: Well, first I like to establish that the reality, the historical reality of America for all of history until 1970, was that things get better every year. Okay. Why did it change? We can have endless debates on that. My own theory is that it changed because of civil rights and women’s rights. That is, we were so successful in embracing democracy in America–everyone had the right to vote, everyone had the right to work–that the people who ran the country, frankly, people like you and me, the middle-aged, educated white men in the country, said enough is enough and they started embracing a movement to take back an America that they felt they had lost. But I think it’s really bizarre that the racist, sexist America of the 1950s and the 1960s put in place better policies than the less racist, less sexist, more democratic America that we’ve had since then. I can’t really explain that, but [crosstalk] amazing–. JAY: Well, you can explain it because of what I said, is that capital, whatever space that it can possibly use, will intensify. And the space that opened up was globalization. You could start using workers in other countries as a threat and a leverage against wages in the United States, which really starts to open up, which is why, as you say in your book, wages in the early ’70s, as compared to now, have barely moved at all. BABONES: But wages stagnated in America after 1972 or 1973. If they stagnated because of globalization, then why didn’t they stagnate in France, in Australia, in Sweden, and all of these other countries that were open to globalization? JAY: Well, to a large extent because the union movement’s so weak here and got even weaker. I mean, you had a situation in Europe, partly because there was still, at least perceptually, if not in reality, they were afraid of the Soviet Union and they had the whole history coming out of the Second World War of wanting to make sure that there was a social safety net in Europe so you couldn’t compare, look, people unemployed all over the streets of Europe, look over there at the Soviet Union. There was a political issue. BABONES: Yeah. JAY: And there was also an economic issue, which is the unions and the workers movement there was far, far stronger. You didn’t go through McCarthyism and House Un-American Activities Committee. This was not some wonderful era in the United States. This was an era of persecution of people for their political opinions. BABONES: Look, another world is possible. Look, I live in Australia. In Australia, the minimum wage in the fast food industry is over 18 Australian dollars an hour. At current exchange rates, that’s around $12 or $13 an hour. And that’s $12 or $13 an hour plus four weeks annual vacation, plus sick days, plus vacation days,– JAY: Well, we’re going to get into all this. I don’t disagree another world is possible. BABONES: –plus universal health care. And Australia was not threatened by the Soviet Union. I mean, look, you know, I’m a comparative social scientist. This is what I do for a living. I could argue this all day. What I’ve done in the book is I’ve given you a set of what I think are consensus social science policies that are fully backed by the social science. Other countries have implemented most of these policies. They’re existing and working in other places. We should be using them here. JAY: Okay. I just want to add one point to this. And we’ll see what happens with Australia. But as Europe lost, first of all, the geopolitical issue, which was Russia, capital is moving towards being more and more competitive in terms of the rate of profit. So Europe is moving towards the American model now. BABONES: Sure. JAY: They’re destroying Greece, destroying Spain and Portugal, Ireland. German wages are now–been stagnant for several years. BABONES: For ten years. Yeah. JAY: Yeah. BABONES: Ten, 12 years. JAY: Yeah. So I mean, we’ll get into it more in part two, but it’s not the proposals you’re making. I think the proposals make a lot of sense. The question is who’s going to bring them about. And we’re going to pick that up in the next segment of our interview. So please join us for the continuation of our Reality Asserts discussion with Salvatore Babones on The Real News Network.


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Dr.Salvatore Babones

Dr.Salvatore Babones is the author or editor of eight books and more than two dozen academic research articles. His academic research focuses on income inequality, economic development, and statistical methods for comparative social science research. He writes a weekly column for the website and contributes to progressive websites and newsletters across America.