Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Economic Justice and Caging

Our friend Oxymoronic Philosopher has a very nice meditation on an editorial by Beth Shulman -- well worth the read. It was in thinking about a point made in Shulman's wonderful book, The Betrayal of Work, that I first realized the rhetorical trick I have come to call "caging."

Caging is a way to defeat policy proposals on a set of related issues by designing public discourse in a way that makes sure that those issues never get raised. This is the rhetorical version of an intentional walk in baseball -- you don't deal with the next batter in the order, you decide who you want to pitch to. You take a whole segment of the political discussion and put it in a cage, letting out only that single issue you want in front of the public. As long as the chosen topic has an air of contention and you can spark passionate debate around it (the louder, the better), the single issue will draw all the attention and no one will notice everything you've artfully kept off the table.

We discussed a couple of examples a few weeks ago (see the link for the difference between caging and framing). On the morally wrong side of the civil rights movement? No problem, just make sure that the only discussion around race and justice that you let out of the cage is affirmative action. That will be enough to use up all the activist oxygen in the room and the rest of the concerns just disappear. Getting your moral butt kicked over questions of gender fairness and women's rights? Just take all of it and put it in a cage, only letting out abortion. In order to defend abortion, women's organizations and advocates will devote all their time and effort to that fight and not push forward on other fronts. In fact, within the abortion debate itself, we've seen caging. Don't discuss all of abortion, the only procedure worth talking about is D&C that is done in the last trimester. Reduce the whole reduced matter even further. How low will you go? Seen as bad guys for preferring corporate profits at the expense of God's green Earth? No biggie -- just put all ecological issues in a cage and only let out National Parks and drilling in ANWR. All those green groups will have their focus pulled off of the other nasty things the contributor to your campaign are doing to save a piece of land in nowhere Alaska.

What Shulman points out in The Betrayal of Work is the caging that we see around questions of economic justice. She begins by pointing out that we have a whole slew of underpaid positions where people work hard for long hours and still are unable to achieve a humane standard of living. In the Clinton welfare reform mania, the argument peddled was Reagan's updated version of the Protestant work ethic -- all people who could work should work because working was the honorable way to feed one's family. Employment in the larger market economy was seen as a moral imperative. Any able bodied person who was not contributing to the marketplace, by virtue of not contributing to the overall financial structure of our nation, is a despicable person not deserving of concern or help regardless of personal circumstances. Using phrases like "family values," raising one's children was not seen as legitimate work because you were not punching a time clock and selling your labor to someone who could profit from it.

Now, those people who insist that all people work jobs -- any jobs -- in order to support their families, must surely also argue that anyone who follows their advice and works full time in a position in the marketplace should be able to feed his or, more often, her family, right? I mean if you are arguing that working any job is imperative for living a decent life, then one ought to be able to live a decent life while working any job. It seems logically and ethically necessary for those who championed welfare reform to also stand strongly in favor of a mandatory livable would seem that way wouldn't it...

But those folks, in fact, are by in large not in favor of progressively dealing with these questions and oppose remedies for purely financial reasons (follow the money...follow the political contributions...(cough)Chamber of Commerce(cough)morally bankrupt?(cough)...). How should we deal with this moral hotspot?

Why, cage it, of course.

The only issue we will allow on the floor is worker retraining. If people are in dead end low paying jobs, we'll talk about nothing other than how to get them more education so they can get better jobs. This seems caring, this seems compassionate. We are giving them a hand to reach the ladder so they can climb up the social hierarchy by themselves. We are teaching them to fish. What could be nicer?

But notice what is left in the cage... Let's set aside all of the problems of child care, how they can afford to go without a paycheck while training, their anxiety towards schooling in the first place,..., and say for the sake of argument that these job training programs are successful for many of these workers and they do leave to become data entry folks or nursing assistants and get slightly higher pay. Do the dead end jobs they left suddenly vanish like Siegfried and Roy's scantily dressed assistant?

Of course not, they are filled by someone else who is now caught in the horrible situation of the working poor. There will always be people in these jobs. Training some people to do other jobs is a red herring that takes our eyes off of the questions about how to humanely treat those who fill these jobs. Those poorly paid jobs, many with no benefits, will always have people in them and instead of asking the hard question about economic justice, we are led to questions of job training and whether it ought to be church-based groups that offer it, tax credits,... Et voila, POOF, what happened to the discussions of minimum wage increases, about mandatory livable wages, about guaranteed health insurance,...? Where are they? You'll find them, of course, in the cage, right where they know you won't look.