Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy as New Dealer?

Filed under: economics,literature — louisproyect @ 2:34 pm

From an editorial in today’s Washington Post:

TED KENNEDY once said that his own legislative record was one he’d love to run against. A number of people tried, of course, and lost. But then, they weren’t Ted Kennedy. Mr. Kennedy spent 46 years in the Senate hewing pretty steadily to his course while others trimmed or just plain bailed out.

He remained committed to a brand of New Deal and postwar liberalism that, even when it had lost some of its luster and had run up against a conservative tide in politics, still had much to offer the country.

From the Wiki article on the New Deal:

Roosevelt formed what he called the Brain Trust, a group of academic advisers to assist in his recovery efforts. Their solutions to the economic crisis called for more extensive government regulation of the economy. Donald Richberg, the second head of the NRA, said “A nationally planned economy is the only salvation of our present situation and the only hope for the future.”

From Ted Kennedy speech to the 1980 Democratic Party convention:

The task of leadership in 1980 is not to parade scapegoats or to seek refuge in reaction, but to match our power to the possibilities of progress. While others talked of free enterprise, it was the Democratic Party that acted and we ended excessive regulation in the airline and trucking industry, and we restored competition to the marketplace. And I take some satisfaction that this deregulation legislation that I sponsored and passed in the Congress of the United States.

American Truckers: Sweatshops on Wheels, Adrift In a Tumultuous Sea

This must be the week to write about truckers, with Stephen Labaton’s article in the NY Times last Tuesday and now Steve Franklin and Darnell Little’s article in the Chicago Tribune yesterday.

Labaton focused primarily on the regulatory cave-in by the Bush administration, which has resisted efforts to reduce the number of hours that truckers spend on the road and working. In fact, Labaton writes, the Bush administration has actually expanded the number of hours truckers can spend driving. His article failed, however, to delve into the deeper structural issues in the industry that are driving truckers to cheat, lie, take drugs and speed.

Franklin, on the other hand, goes more into some of the root causes of truckers’ problems than Labaton’s article last week — particularly the fact that most truckers are now paid by the trip instead of a regular salary, making time spend waiting to be loaded or unloaded, or time doing maintenance unpaid. The pace means that counting all their time on the job, some earn as little as $8 an hour. And the fatigue and stress are not only unhealthy for the drivers, but makes the roads more hazardous for everyone. Every year, more than 5,000 people die and 116,000 are injured in truck-related accidents, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

So what’s going on?

When did the dream of being a trucker turn sour?

It began after the government deregulated the industry in 1980, says Mike Belzer, a one-time Chicago trucker and now a Wayne State University professor and trucking industry expert. Ever since, he says, it has been a “race to the bottom.”

Before 1980, nearly 9 out of 10 over-the-road drivers were union members, he says. Today, 1 out of 10 carry a union card. That shift ushered in lower pay, fewer benefits and tougher working conditions.

It also made the highways far more dangerous as inexperienced and lower-paid drivers push themselves to earn more, Belzer adds. “You get what you pay for,” Belzer explains. It is a matter of choosing between a “skilled professional” and someone “from the soup line,” he says.


By the late 1990s much of the industry was transformed into a “sweatshop on wheels,” Belzer claims. Truckers’ income, when adjusted for inflation, dropped steadily as the market was flooded with new companies, new drivers, and pressures from shippers and manufacturers to keep freight costs down.

Figures from the American Trucking Association show that between 1980 and 2005, the number of interstate trucking companies soared from 20,000 to 564,000. But nearly 90 percent operate six trucks or less, according to the industry group.

The result is a highly fragmented industry with “low profit margins,” according to an association study.

Out of an estimated 3.3 million truckers, about 1.3 million haul freight. Of these, about 350,000 are independent drivers. Most own their trucks but lease them to companies. Or,… they work for whoever has goods for them to carry.

And for all of the literally back-breaking work, here’s what one trucker, Roger Kobernick, ends up with:

Because he cannot afford health care, he relies on state-sponsored coverage for himself and his family. They are qualified to receive food stamps, but pride stops them from doing so. In his best year he earned $40,000, but last year he made only $9,000.

Much has gone wrong for him in the last few years, and he partly blames it on freight rates that have barely gone up while fuel and other costs have soared and eaten away at his profits.

He also has made some financial missteps, among them expecting tax write-offs for his rig to help his bottom line. Instead, he owes $15,000 in state and federal taxes.

And 25 years behind the wheel have taken a toll. Last summer, barely able to bend his back, he had surgery. One doctor had turned him away, saying surgery would be foolish since he would return to truck driving.

The surgery put him out of work for four months. Without savings, he took out a home equity loan to pay bills, then sold his truck’s trailer and bought a less costly model.

He also has decided to sell his 2-year-old $140,000 truck because the $2,000 monthly payments are killing him. To attract potential buyers Kobernick has had to steadily lower the asking price.


“I haven’t had a vacation in 12 years. I have no dental. No pension. No savings,” he says as the sun’s dying rays filter through pine trees in South Carolina. “Hopefully, I’ll catch up one day here down the line. But right now that isn’t going to happen any time soon.”

The grueling schedule and financial problems also take a toll on truckers mental and physical health, according to John Siebert, an official with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association:

Several years ago, when glancing through members’ obituaries, Siebert discovered that their average age at death was 55. In his research, he also found a higher-than-average suicide rate for members and turned his findings over to NIOSH, which has been examining truckers’ health for the last few years.

Siebert says he believes such problems are linked to difficult lives and financial stress. He lists organization surveys showing that nearly 9 out of 10 of its members are obese or overweight and nearly two-thirds expect to rely solely upon Social Security when they retire.

He especially worries about produce haulers like Kobernick who have highly unpredictable work schedules. If anything goes wrong, or their schedule is too tight, they lose out financially, and their health often is neglected as they push to work longer hours.

“These guys are working 100 to 120 hours a week, and their sleep patterns are all over the clock,” he says.

I wrote quite a bit more in my review of Labaton’s article about the structural problems in the trucking industry that lead to these unsafe conditions. Put all of these articles together and you get a pretty frightening picture of America’s highways. What are the solutions? An improved regulatory structure to start with, but until the root causes are addressed — deregulation and the sharp drop in unionized drivers — we’re not going to get very far just attacking the symptoms.

From my article on airline deregulation written about a decade ago:

We should finally say a word or two about safety. One would suspect that the pressures of the marketplace might lead to shortcuts that affect the reliability of air transportation. There is immense pressure to keep pilots flying as many hours as possible. To maximize profits, one would expect the schedule of maintenance to be lengthened and mechanics to receive less expensive training. When you add the heavy traffic in and out of hubs, the prospects are less than optimum.

While accidents have generally been on the decrease as airplanes themselves are better engineered, there are undeniably some fatal mishaps that can be attributed to conditions produced by deregulation.

On May 11, 1996, a Valujet airplane caught fire and crashed into the Florida Everglades killing all 100 people on board. The fire was nourished by oxygen generators that were not identified or packed properly. Valujet was a typical “no frills” airline spawned by deregulation.

The NY Times reported on August 20, 1997:

“Most of the technicians who first mishandled the generators, as they were removed from other planes, were not Valujet employees or even employees of Sabretech; they were contractors hired by Sabretech. Two-thirds of them were unlicensed.

“Valujet had only one employee to check the work of the technicians, so it hired two other individuals on temporary contracts to help monitor the technicians. A more well-established airline, board experts said, would have had three company employees monitoring each shift.”

“A single licensed Sabretech mechanic, who probably worked not much more than eight hours a day, signed off on the work of 72 people who worked around the clock, the board’s investigators said. One board member suggested that it was not possible for one mechanic to have overseen all such work.”

On January 31, 2000, an Alaskan Airlines jet crashed, killing all 88 people on board. The airline culture was hostile to “interference” from the beginning but its standards dropped even lower when deregulation set in. Its in-house newsletter touted an executive who ordered 25 bottles of vodka in Siberia to de-ice a plane’s wings – something the Federal Aviation Administration would never approve.

A July 15, 2000 Montreal Gazette article reported: ”They see themselves as being above any moral or ethical code. ‘And they’re used to making their own rules.” So stated Deby Bradford, a 10-year Alaska flight attendant who recently left to become an instructor pilot.

An FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board examined whether negligence by Alaska contributed to the crash of flight 261. They discovered, according to the Gazette report:

  • In an emergency nationwide inspection ordered by the FAA in February, Alaska turned up with the highest percentage by far of MD-80s flying with worn stabilizer jackscrews, the part suspected as a cause of the crash. Six of Alaska’s 34 planes failed the check (17.6 per cent), while only 16 of the other 1,073 inspected at 20 other carriers (1.5 per cent) failed.
  • In March, 64 Alaska mechanics delivered a letter to Chief Executive Officer John Kelly saying they had been ‘pressured, threatened and intimidated’ by a supervisor to cut corners on repairs.
  • In April, a veteran, respected Alaska pilot told a company vice president in a widely circulated letter that he was concerned about Alaska’s approach to safety and maintenance. ‘I feel that at some point our company needs to strive for a higher level than this,’ Capt. David Crawley wrote.

The total number of dead in these two crashes is 188, which begins to approach the kind of mass murder level of Timothy McVeigh who sits awaiting capital punishment. Of course, it is in the nature of American society not to punish corporate chieftains whose blood on their hands comes as a unintended byproduct of the pursuit of profit. Some day a different kind of society will sit in judgment on them and the punishment will fit the crime.


  1. Yup, Ted Kennedy was a scumbag. Just like Daley who sold our work to Bondra here in Chicago for $158 Million and tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. But, we’re picketing and suing the SOB.

    Comment by Alex — August 26, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

  2. Thanks Lou. Quite agree with you on this one;

    You also could have mentioned no child left behind. With a child set to enter public school, the prospect of 12 years spent doing busy work to prepare for high stakes testing fills me with despair.

    That’s another component of the grand Kennedy legacy.



    Comment by John Halle — August 26, 2009 @ 11:04 pm

  3. I mean, I’m sorry Kennedy died but I get tired of hearing people who should know better get all maudlin about Kennedy’s marvelous progressivism and how he just cared so much about the common man and stuff. He may have supported something close to single payer in the early 70’s but after that he evolved into an activist for corporate friendly health reform. He voted for NAFTA in 1993. He showed concern about US atrocities in Vietnam but was otherwise at the liberal end of US imperial ideology, supporting many military adventures, opposing some only on the ground that that they were tactical mistakes or whatever. I mean he may have usefully resisted some Reaganite de-regulation of some things and cuts in our meager social programs and he had a better record than the average Democratic politician. However No Child Left Behind has been crappy. I think the lauding of Kennedy by progressives is based much more on his aura and the pleasant progressive tone of his speeches over the years than his actual achievements.

    Comment by Chris Green — August 27, 2009 @ 1:05 am

  4. The Democrats have moved so far to the right (along with the rest of the ruling class) since the economic crisis of the middle 1970s, that Ted Kennedy looks like FDR compared to the blatent neo-liberalism of the rest of them. Of course, as Chris points out, when all was said and done he went along with most of their policies…and some of Reagan’s as well. However, the Kennedy mystique is one of the most valuable rotten idols that liberalism still has on offer to befuddle “progressives” with, so it’s important for them to keep it going. When Robert MacNamara died, next to no-one in the mainstream media mentioned that this Vietnam era war criminal took his orders from JFK. And not a few of the naive nitwits on WBAI who were all gaga over Obama compared their hero’s assuming the throne to the coming of JFK’s “Camelot.” Little did they know how accurate they were when it comes to comparing these two cold warriors and counter-revolutionaries…just replace Vietnam with Afghanistan.

    Comment by MN Roy — August 27, 2009 @ 2:28 am

  5. I still respect him for supporting Universal Health Care(I’d rather have a big pharma connected on than what Obama’s shooting for now) and denouncing the Iraq war in 2002.

    Comment by Jenny — August 27, 2009 @ 4:14 am

  6. But he didn’t support universal healthcare he may have called it universal but it’s not universal at all, as can be seen in Massachusetts’s “universal” health care program:



    Comment by Chris Green — August 27, 2009 @ 6:57 pm

  7. No doubt the liberals of yesteryear may look better than the neo-liberals of today. Only let’s not forget that it’s mainly due to the ruling class as a whole having shelved Keynes back in the mid-seventies in favor of austerity attacks on workers wages and living standards. Equally as importantly was (and still is) the lack of any militant response to this from the organized working class, due largely to the trade union bureaucracy’s support for the Democrats.

    Comment by MN Roy — August 27, 2009 @ 7:56 pm

  8. Thanks for reminding us that Ted Kennedy supported trucking industry deregulation, and how that deregulation wiped out good-paying union jobs, supplanting those jobs with poorly-paid self-employment and less safety on our roads.

    Comment by Walter Dufresne — August 27, 2009 @ 10:02 pm

  9. And now I remember: Bobby Kennedy fought bitterly with Jimmy Hoffa back in the 1950s. Maybe Teddy got his revenge at the expense of the rank-and-file.

    Comment by Walter Dufresne — August 27, 2009 @ 11:45 pm

  10. I’ve just read E.J. Dionne on “Ted Kennedy’s Humanity.” E.J. says his idol “suffered profoundly,” which made him “appreciate the quest for redemption.” There’s also some tear-jerking about Kennedy’s church-going. Redemption and religion are the two glaring beacons of American life. Philip Garrido just arrested in California was illuminated by both of them. In an interview with KCRA-NBC, he said he was not only hot for redemption but was founding his own church, “God’s Desire.” He also seemed to be pitching the script for his personal story as a kidnapper and sex criminal. I wonder if the movie will be out before the bio-pic on Ted Kennedy?

    Comment by Peter Byrne — August 28, 2009 @ 10:12 am

  11. The dictatorship of capital uses democracy as a tool to be put down when it is no longer useful in reaching its ends.

    The popular election of Jimmy Carter was dangerous and a threat to both the economic royalty and the Democratic Party oligarchy.

    Carter, like Obama today, was the result of a popular rejection of the previous overt conservatism of the Republican Party. The covert conservative party, the Democratic Party of Carter’s day, had allowed democracy to prevail over the interests of the Democratic Party oligarchy and this tool of democracy, useful for winning an election, nonetheless had to be put down.

    Beth Fallon of the New York Daily News put it: “We had overdosed on democracy.”

    James Reston of The New York Times put it: “The people have acquired the power to nominate presidents and even determine foreign policy they know little about.”

    The obstruction of the Carter administration by the Democratic Congress was completed with the coffin nail of Kennedy’s nomination challenge in 1980, thereby making the way clear for Reagan and the Reagan Democrats.

    One of the suppressed ‘excesses of the sixties’ for which Obama praises the transformative Reagan was the excess democratic fervor which was woven by Democrats into the welcome mat of apathy laid before the feet of the Reagan Revolution with the aid of Kennedy.

    The task at hand for Obama is the creation of a “New Apathy” without the surrender of political control to the Republicans. The Obama presidential campaign has raised the target of “Hope” only as a boil to be more easily lanced. Keep an eye on the boil as it shrinks before the electorate under the skillful hand of Obama. The dangerous tool of democracy is being put down.

    Comment by Glenn Fritz — August 28, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

  12. Kennedy’s smack-down of Robert Bork was a thing of beauty.

    The man could give a speech! He might have even written most of them!

    But he split the party in ’80 and virtually guaranteed the ascension of Raygun by his selfish, quixotic quest for the nomination.

    And the thing about the speeches was that, though they were admired, they were largely ignored, too.

    Comment by Woody — August 30, 2009 @ 9:14 pm

  13. Like the late, great, attorney William Kunstler said about the Kennedy brothers — “the world’s better off without them.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 1, 2009 @ 11:58 pm

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