Saturday, February 28, 2009

Times Are Tough

It is hard to believe how things have crumbled so quickly: The economy, housing, banking, employment, the stock market, consumer confidence, and the list goes on. The fact that the GDP recently sunk 6.2% indicates that this current downturn may be more severe than most were anticipating. In downturns like this it is those individuals at the margins, the poor, the sick, those without adequate job skills or training, that are the most affected. When I hear bankers who receive government help complaining about their salary being capped at $500,000 I can't help but cringle. The people are increasingly being asked to support the poor business practices of these banks and other industries that were paying exhorbitant amounts for sub-par performance. These excesses were cheered by many during better times as proof of America's superiority. When CEOs are making 400 times the amount earned by the lowest paid workers in their company something is extremely wrong. For the last twenty to thirty years both the share of wages and actual wages have become increasingly concentrated at the very top.

This concentration of wages and wealth has led to an increasingly untenable situation. The rise of underemployment and poor quality work laid the groundwork for the current depth and breadth of the current downturn. After peaking at nearly 30% in 1979, the unionization rate of the U.S. has steadily fallen by half to less than 15%. While the U.S. has always had among the lowest unionization rates, the steady decline has been coupled with an increase of part-time and full-time work without benefits or worker protections. Combined with a culture that pushes consumption over conscience, it is not difficult to imagine how so many Americans were in a precarious situation even before the downturn. Even as the downturn was in its earliest stages, many dual-earner families were increasingly having to add additional part-time work to cover the increased costs of gasoline and other consumer goods. Others were taking part-time jobs in fear that their main source of income may not be as reliable as they had believed. 

Americans must come to see that working together in solidarity and demanding adequate treatment as workers only serves to strengthen our position, not weaken it. The pittance that is paid in union dues serves not only to increase your power over your work, but increases the standards across whatever industry you are a part of. The greatest gains of non-unionized workers in the twentieth century have been as a result not of employer benevolence, but as a result of workers organizing in other places, but in the same industry. The employers knew that once these non-unionized workers saw the disparities, they would also begin to organize. This led many companies to improve their conditions if only to delay unionization at their own plants.

While unionization is only one piece of the larger picture, it remains one of the best tools workers have to increase the accountability of companies to workers and to society more broadly. The fact that the car companies are blaming their union contracts for their economic woes only shows how inadequate their business model had become, all while paying their CEOs and other top-level managers ridiculously high wages. Luckily, Obama is much more aware of the value of labor than most presidents in recent memory. Giving American workers a say in their workplaces can only improve the economy, their work, and, most importantly, their lives. 

Fast Forward

I don't know whether it is having a new job, living in a new city, or having no end point in site; but my life seems to be moving faster than ever. I have a hard time believing I have been working at GAO for 3 months now and have been in DC for over 5 months. I am amazed at how fast the weeks go by and also how much we do in them. The last couple of weeks Heather and I were fortunate enough to have guests come to town. It was really nice to be able to show people around and take them to our favorite restaurants, bookstores, and sights. The nice thing about D.C. is that you never run out of things to do. Even better is that nearly all of the really cool things to do are free. One of the really fun things about guests is that you always end up going someplace new or getting more familiar with a part of town you don't often go to.

With the weather starting to warm up (supposedly...) there are more classes and tour groups in the areas around where I work and on the Mall. Many locals resent these people and express disdain for the annoyances they cause. For me, it is exciting to live in a place where people are always visiting and there is always something new going on. I don't ever want to be the type of person that yells at someone on the Metro escalator because they are standing on the left and not on the right. Though unabashed annoyance seems to be hip these days, I would rather help give directions (which, for some reason, people always ask Heather and I for) and make peoples' stay here a little more enjoyable. We have all been to places where we were confused or unfamiliar, spending thirty seconds helping someone in that situation is the very least I could do.

My three month review (more of an informal review) went unbelievably well and I really feel like I am fitting in well and impressing my supervisors with my work. I still look forward to going to work each day, and some of the more stressful things we do, like interviewing people in very high up government positions, is becoming comfortable. It is nice to be appreciated for doing good work and also not being micromanaged. GAO definitely seems like a great fit for me, and the same could be said for our home. I like working only a few blocks from both the Capitol and the White House. I still was awe-struck as we were walking back from one of the interviews yesterday when we walked across the Mall near the Capital. Seeing all the amazing buildings and imagining the power and the history enshrined there I couldn't help but feel extremely fortunate considering how hard times really are.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

What A Difference A Week Makes

The National Policy Health Conference went really well and I am really glad that I was able to go. My background is more in the social determinants of health and national level health policy. It was nice to have the opportunity to go to a conference that focused on the politics and service side of the health care debate. I am really pleased with all of the sessions that I attended and thought it was really cool to hear first hand from some of the people that will be playing a huge role in health care reform, including Jeanne Lambrew and Senator Max Baucus (D-MT). It was also nice getting to know a variety of people from a broad swath of areas within health and health care. People from nearly ever state and many universities were in attendance and it led to interesting and diverse discussion. There was also an energy and optimism in the crowd. Many of these people will be guiding and influencing the reform debate and they seemed excited about the opportunity for change.

It was particularly neat to have a chance to hear Max Baucus in-person; as growing up in Montana, he was one of my Senators since birth. He seemed hopeful and optimistic about the likelihood of reform and predicted that much would be done this year on it. He noted that due to the lame duck last year of President Bush, there was a lot of opportunity to lay the foundation for reforms this year by holding hearings on key health issues.

One particularly funny session had Congressional staffers from both the House and Senate and from both the Democrat and Republican party. Their banter was fun to watch and they did a good job indentifying many of the key concerns that both parties have as reform goes forward. However, their demeanor clearly indicated that the call for bipartisanship doesn't pervade all levels. Many of the assertions from staffers from both parties echoed more party taking points than an actual engagement with policy issues.

One thing that is much different about GAO than any other places I have worked is how quickly time moves. These two months have gone extremely fast and the pace continues to quicken, this past week was over before I realized it. I am still really loving my career and have yet to find anything to complain about. I am also really excited to be a part of the analyst's union at GAO, I have always been intrigued by unions and their positive effects on both unionized as well as non-unionized workers in any given field. I look forward to playing a substantial role as I continue in GAO.

Wait... So These People Are The Threat?

"Fidelity": Don't Divorce... from Courage Campaign on Vimeo.

Anyone who voted for or supported Proposition 8 should be ashamed. How could the love and cheer expressed by these families be a threat to anything except intolerance and bigotry? I, for one, believe that justice must not be denied. People should have the right to live a life they have reason to value, free from violence and hatred. Like all policies based on hate and ignorance, Prop 8 will eventually be overturned and will fall into memory. Don't believe you have all the answers. Don't be on the wrong side of history. Denying rights to a group based on outdated biases never remains unchallenged. Respect the rights of others to live a life that challenges yours, its the only way the world ever changes for the better.