Cleveland’s Race to the Bottom

Cleveland’s Race to the Bottom

By Randy Cunningham - 

The recent City Council activity on the "Raise Up Cleveland" proposal to increase the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour makes you wonder if our city council members have mind melded with Republicans in the State House who delight in tormenting widows and orphans. Showing that they have lost all ability to blush, they have voted down the proposal and even a compromise version of it while weeping crocodile tears for the poor and swearing that they are good Democrats and good friends of labor. So, what gives?

What gives is that the Cleveland City Council is defending the last thirty years of public policy. They are defending a philosophy of economic development that has governed not only Cleveland but the country and most of the world for almost four decades. 
There is a name for the philosophy they have sworn allegiance to and that name is neo-liberalism. It is the old time religion of classic capitalism. It assures us that all will be right just so long as we let capitalism be capitalism and do as it pleases. It may not be pretty in the short run, but in the sweet by and by greed, avarice and selfishness will produce the good society. The role of government is to clear the way of those who do not see the light, be ready to subsidize corporate pet projects and bail out capitalism when it gets drunk on self-interest and wraps itself around a bridge abutment.

Neo-liberalism is the repudiation of most notions of social solidarity or the notion that the public sector has any obligation to those who have been strangled by the invisible hand. It is a rejection of the very mild reformism of the New Deal and Great Society years. Its greatest triumph was during the Clinton years when the promises of the New Deal were retracted, and the era of big government – at least big government serving anyone but Wall Street – was ended. Tom Joad of the Grapes of Wrath was replaced by Lloyd Blankfein the CEO of Goldman Sachs as the mythic inspirational figure of the Democratic Party.

There are many things that neo-liberalism covets. It covets free trade agreements that allow corporations to ignore local and national laws and regulations protecting labor or the environment. It covets money being a form of free speech such as the infamous Citizens United decision. But one of its Holy of Hollies hearkens back to its roots in the good old days of rip-snorting capitalism. It covets cheap labor, and it is here where the rubber hits the road with the proposals of the "Raise Up Cleveland" campaign.

What is being defended by Cleveland City Council is an economic strategy based on cheap labor. Cheap labor is where Cleveland finds itself after fifty years of being beaten into submission by corporate power. The Great Fear at City Hall is that if they take any step away from the regime of cheap labor, that Cleveland’s Masters of the Universe will resume the beatings. 

The rationales for rejecting the proposed minimum wage hike are all the classic excuses that have been used throughout American history for fighting reforms. The reforms will drive away business. The reforms are too extreme. The reforms need to be studied further. The reforms will worsen the problems they are meant to address. The reforms will put the city, state or country at a disadvantage in the all versus all competitive jungle of the global economy. 

Yes, the defenders of low wages will say, while wringing their hands, we would love to set a minimum wage of $15 an hour, but we need to act on the state level to do so. But any child knows that the State of Ohio is even more committed to cheap labor than Cleveland, and if a measure would survive to a floor debate in Columbus we know what would be said. Ohio does not dare do this, or jobs will flee to neighboring states. Ok, let’s have national legislation. Here too, the same old arguments will be made. If we enact it for the US, the Chinese and Vietnamese will dance in the streets in gratitude. This is how "The Race to the Bottom" operates. 

Finally, the opponents of "Raise Up Cleveland" say “Not now.” Cleveland is finally showing some comeback. What do you want to do – strangle the baby in its crib? What they are saying is “Not now. Not tomorrow. Not ever.” 

When all else fails, they will bring out the last true refuge of scoundrels. They will say that the measure will hurt the poor. It is typical that when all else fails, for opponents of measures such as the wage hike to grab the nearest poor person, put a gun to their head and say, “All right!! One more step and the poor guy gets it!!!” These are moments to be savored because they are some of the few times that you will see anyone in a position of power give a damn about poor people. It only happens when it is to save their own asses.

Probably the one thing in the eyes of the opponents that is most unforgivable about the "Raise Up Cleveland" proposal is that it does not come from any of the in-house think tanks, foundations or elite non-profits that produce the usual stream of public policy initiatives. It is an initiative that comes from below – not above. It is an initiative that comes from a union, and few institutions can cause the neo-liberal nose to wrinkle in disgust as much as a union. It is an initiative that is championed by low-wage workers who are for the most part people of color, not the cultural creatives or heroic entrepreneurs who are the darlings of the neo-liberal chattering classes.

The final heresy of "Raise Up Cleveland" is that it demands that economic decisions be held to moral values when the only criteria that normally applies are whether or not an economic decision is profitable. "Raise Up Cleveland" demands of our decision makers that they answer a very simple question. Is it right that people should work full time to stay in poverty? Unfortunately, the Cleveland City Council has given its answer.

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