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Thoughts about the “First People”

19 Aug
First People-hurdlers

This blog has been inactive for quite some time. I’m going to try and bring it back.

 

Here goes:

 

With high sensitivity all around us, I worry about something I hope to do soon – or rather say.

 

I plan to use the term “First People” in conversation. As far as I know, almost no one makes reference to the “First People.” They generally don’t get acknowledged as such, and in the rare case they do, there is almost no acclaim, credit, respect, distinction or awe given to them for being first.

 

The “First People,” of course, are those of African descent.  Human beings, according to a widely held theory, originated in African, migrated out and gradually but surely populated the entire globe. They are said to have gone east first, through what is now the Middle East, then into Asia, then they turned back west and went into Europe, displacing and eliminating the Neanderthals, who were human-like but were not homo sapiens.

 

This is the Out of Africa theory, and the average person doesn’t hear much of it or talk much about it. Worse, perhaps, I’ve never heard an African-American boast about it.

 

I got the idea for using the term “First People” from watching the TV show “Game of Thrones.” In that show the original inhabitants of the north are called the “First Men.” They are spoken of with great reverence. While the ancestors of the First Men seem to be gone from the “Game of Thrones,” the ancestors of our First People remain with us, but they are un-honored.

 

I thought about them during the Olympics, where they dominated over later-coming peoples in nearly all the running events. Could having the blood of the “First People” provide some advantage over other races, or do they just try harder? If it’s the latter, why is that? Is it a holdover quality from the “First People,” who had to try damn hard to do what they ended up doing?

 

In America, with race being such an inflammatory issue and with the ancestors of the “First People” historically being treated as if they were not even people, it would seem impossible for the majority to outwardly recognize a superior strain of any kind in them. That’s sad.

 

Would the majority even be willing to call them the “First People?” Probably not. But I hope the “First People” somehow start calling themselves that. It’s a distinction much worthy of note.

 

Lanny Morgnanesi

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What do these two photos have in common? My closet!

27 Jun

Lysistrata-LannyVietnam execution

On a Sunday when the grass had been cut and there were no great demands on my time, I organized the treasures and junk in my archive closet. There were depths to plunge, but I mostly skimmed. Still, the experience was like reliving an almost forgotten life.

There I was, in costume, in an old college photo. It was taken back stage after a performance of the bawdy Greek comedy “Lysistrata.” The play by Aristophanes is set during the Peloponnesian war. It has the women of all the city-states withholding sex from all the men until they make peace. In the photo I wore a tunic. My skin was bronzed with theatrical makeup called Texas Mud.

I had only a small part but on the last night of the run I got the biggest laugh of my life. Without meaning to or even knowing it, I had successfully improvised. And it worked.

In the scene, a group of horny Greek solders (me included) were on the ground as teasing women danced around them. As per our director’s order, we were to cover the lower portions of our body with our shields. In the center of those shields, facing outward, were tubular objects that resembled what was under the shield and under the tunic.

When one of the actresses danced over me, my recumbent body began to vibrate feverishly. I wasn’t aware of what was going on but when the auditorium erupted in laughter I knew I had done something very convincing and very funny.

Later, someone in the audience said it looked as if I had experienced an orgasm.

On this high note, I ended my show business career and never played again.

Back in the archive closet, in one of many boxes, was an orange folder containing yellow pages of text that had come from a dot matrix printer. It was a novel I started years ago and recently took up again (after devising what I hope is a slightly better plot.)

I began reading and realized the opening of the old version was much better than the opening of the new version. How disappointing! I thought time had made me better. I won’t share the new opening but just for fun here is the old:

“The hall was dirty, as was her dress. And it was dim, like her future.”

The problem is that after that, there wasn’t much worth reading.

So I went to another box.

My attention went to a curling letter from the Detroit News dated Nov. 10, 1989. It appeared to be an answer to an inquiry I had made about a women named Jeanne, a journalist from Detroit whom I met when we both worked in China. That was during the mid-80s, and Jeanne had returned later during the Tiananmen Massacre. At the time of the letter, she was sort of missing.

The letter reminded me how exciting things could be in my former profession, and how we never quite recognized danger. Danger was for the people we covered, not for us.

The letter said:

“Pat talked to Jeanne and her husband (a Chinese national) the other day. The good news is that neither of them has been arrested, although Jeanne was in some trouble for the stories she filed for the Free Press and her husband, as I told you, was in trouble for helping ABC’s news crew. The bad news is that officials won’t let them leave China. Her husband, who got a master’s at Harvard, has been accepted into a doctoral program there with a full scholarship. Someone said officials won’t make a decision because they fear that whatever they do will be perceived to be the wrong thing by the higher ups.”

Jeanne was one of the most interesting people I have ever known. She was, and I’m sure still is, a great storyteller. Her life, on its own, was a great story. It even started out interesting.

Her father was a diplomat and she was raised in Vietnam during the early stages of the war. Her family was especially good friends with Ngo Dinh Diem, then the president of South Vietnam. Jeanne’s family often had him over for dinner.

Naturally, she was shocked and horrified when Deim, on the order of President Kennedy, was assassinated. Can you image how a little girl, unschooled in politics, might feel knowing the leader of her own country had killed a family friend?

The date was Nov. 2, 1963.

Three weeks later, when JFK himself was assassinated, young Jeanne felt justice had been served and a fair punishment issued.

That’s one of her best stories. But it doesn’t top her account of the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. She was on the front lines with the protesting students when soldiers started firing. The only thing that protected her from the bullets were the dead bodies that had fallen on top of her.

When I finally got in touch with her and she told me this, I should have felt sympathy, sorrow and concern. Instead, I was jealous. Jeanne, damn her, would have yet another good story to tell.

How great to be part of history. I’m thankful that at least a small part of it is in my closet.

There is even more history in that closet. When I took an editor’s job at the Florida Times Union in 1986, I opened the draw of my desk and found an assortment of Associated Press Photos – actual photos, not newspaper clips – from a number of world events.

Columbia take over

And there they were now in my closet:

  • A captured member of the Viet Cong being executed with a bullet to the head.
  • Heavily armed black students proudly leaving the president’s office at Columbia University.
  • Reporters standing around watching men on the ground being run through with bayonets. (This might have been Indonesia)
  • President Kennedy walking idyllically at Camp David with former President Eisenhower.

. . . and more

Bayonet killingsAll of it in my closet.

There were some newer things in there as well, like the canvas bag filled with personal files dating to 2008.

They were from my last newspaper job as an executive editor, which I lost during the Great Recession when that paper combined with two others. I had left the files behind but a colleague brought them to me.

For almost seven years, there was no need or inclination to look inside the bag.

Now, I dumped out the contents to inspect them. Nothing too interesting. A few memories. Certificates of completion from a score of ridiculous management seminars. A letter from a reader who complained, “There is no excuse for bad English in a newspaper,” citing an article with the headline, “Imagine there’s no secrets.” It was about John Lennon and his battle with the FBI. The writer noted that it should have been “there are” no secrets.

Shuffling through the files, I noticed an unopened greeting card in a bright yellow envelope. I opened it. It was from the colleague who had brought me the files. There was a cute card with Snoopy on it wishing me good luck and happiness. There also was a letter. Seeing it, and being touched by it without having even read it, I felt great regret at never having acknowledged it. Once I read it, I felt that perhaps my years as an editor may have been worth something.

A person who leads never really knows if he’s a bastard, a prick, a woefully unfair tyrant, an anti-visionary who lacks talent and relevance. One can only hope he or she is respected and followed and right for the time. People can let you believe the latter even when it is not true.

Without going into detail, I will say that from the single perspective of the letter writer, I received confirmation that I had performed my job properly.

I will continue to keep and treasure this letter.

But there was something else about this letter that woke me to a situation I may have naively overlooked: discrimination against women in journalism.

Nothing in the letter directly spoke to this. It was the tone and sincerity of the “thanks” that suggested it.

While in newspapers, I always focused on the job of producing good stories. And it was always my belief that men and women were equally capable of doing this. In some cases, a woman would be better than a man. In others, a man might be better than a woman. The essence of it was that good was good and it could come from anywhere. The only thing I looked for was good.

The letter writer, a woman, had moved up through the ranks during my tenure. She began as a temp reporter and ended up being metro editor. There was one point where our managing editor – a woman – retired and I made this person acting managing editor while I searched for a replacement.

I had forgotten this; had forgotten why I did it. But in the letter it was explained back to me:

“Thank you for giving me a chance to be an acting managing editor. I wasn’t ready to be managing editor, but I put my name forth anyway. What a classy, clever suggestion that I be acting managing editor to help bridge the gap. Thank you for the experience.”

In the letter, she thanked me for every promotion.

“No Dale Carnegie course could have ever shown me better how important it is for managers to set a tone of inclusiveness and optimism,” she wrote.

It dawned on me then that the more natural course could have been a slower ascent (or no ascent) because she is a woman. It had never crossed my mind before, but knowing it now carries value.

In just a short time, I learned a lot from that overstuffed closet, with all it frozen chunks of life. I’ll have to go back again later and learn more.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

The Black Death, a killer of 20 million, had its good points

7 Feb

black-death

Being the progeny of immigrants, I’m sympathetic to their cause. Still, I’m convinced large-scale, legal immigration has hastened the withering of the middle class.

There have been other causes, including changes in tax policy and the global economy. But I was surprised to learn recently how significant an impact immigration had on the downward spiral of wages.

With thousands and thousands of Baby Boomers leaving the work force for retirement, wages should be going up. That’s the simple law of supply and demand. Immigration, however, has provided a counter balance and prevented this. Indeed, opening the borders sometimes seems like a purposeful antidote designed to help labor-intensive corporations. This is mostly likely why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a strong advocate of robust immigration.

Congress, perhaps responding to appeals by business, has frequently and consistently raised the level of legal immigration. In 1965 it was at 290,000 annually. Today it is about 1.1 million. This is legal immigration, and it is four times higher than any other country.

how-many-is-too-manyPhilip Cafaro, author of “How Many Is Too Many? The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration Into the United States,” gives a thorough accounting of all this in a recent edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Cafaro sites studies by Harvard University economist George J. Borjas, a leading authority on the economic impact of immigration. Borjas found that in the 70s and 80s, a 10 percent increase in the number of workers in a given field decreased wages there by 3.5 percent. A more recent study showed that such an increase reduced wages of African-Americans by 4 percent, lowered their employment rate by 3.5 percent and increased their incarceration rate by almost one percent.

It’s good at least that today there is a great deal of talk about the withering middle class. Even Republicans now recognize it will be a critical issue in the 2016 presidential race. In an attempt to get in front of the issue, candidates like Jeb Bush are already saying they want to reverse the trend, although they provide few details.

If politics were not a factor, a solution could be easily found.

The strong post-war middle class in the U.S. was created primarily by tax policy. This policy was heavily graduated, meaning you paid a lot more if you made more a lot more. That policy no longer exists. Returning to it would easily restore the middle class, but it is unlikely the Republican Congress will choose this route.

Jeb-bushThere is, however, a consensus that a middle class, if one is desired, must be created, otherwise there will only be rich and poor. One was created in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. Unfortunately, the creative force was the Black Death — the bubonic plague that may have killed one out of every three Europeans (about 20 million). With the labor force devastated, there was upward pressure on wages and the ability of farmers to earn a much better living. Some reports say farm income increased by 50 percent.

In addition to creating the middle class, the plague often is credited with spawning the cultural rebirth known as the Renaissance.

The Black Death is a high price to pay for a middle class, even if it is accompanied by a renaissance. Changes in the tax and immigration policies might be a better way. But because government move in micro increments, this is unlikely. Any significant change probably will have to come through some unseen, forced hand.

If this is true, let’s hope it’s a kind one.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

I am an Etruscan!

14 Dec

Etruscans_couch

In the year 800 BC, you could earn a king’s fortune by making something good, perhaps with new materials or a new technique, putting it on a ship, sailing it around the Mediterranean, the Adriatic and the Black Sea, and either trading it or selling it.

Most of us don’t think of inter-cultural commerce when we think of 800 BC. It’s more likely we think of benighted barbarians. Of course, we’d be wrong.

In the 4.5 billion year history of the world, 800 BC is like yesterday. Much of what was done then is still being done today. (Look at the button on your shirt. It’s 5,000 years old.) What is sad is that we don’t know as much about that time as we should.

Etruscan_Map01_fullThere was an early civilization back then that excelled at trading, culture, technology and wealth accumulation. Comparatively little is know of them. They were the Etruscans, and I’m one of them.

If your ancestors are from the Tuscany region of Italy, where the Etruscans lived, you might call yourself Italian. But I’m finding that more and more people in this category are starting to classify themselves as Etruscans – the civilization that pre-dated Rome and for a time coexisted with Rome; the civilization from which Rome borrowed and then moved ahead, absorbing and eliminating its once great rival.

Much of what we do know of the Etruscans comes from the ancient writings of Greeks and Romans, who had nothing good to say about them — a sure sign of envy and jealousy. The Greeks and Romans criticized the extravagant Etruscan lifestyle, the culture’s public display of affection between men and women, and a then unprecedented equality between the two sexes.

That’s quite a culture.

At a recent party I spoke to an Etruscan friend of mine, Franca. She was born in Florence, in the Tuscany region. In a heavy Italian accent, she started talking about her ancestors and how everything that made Rome great was taken or learned from the Etruscans.

She scoffed at the Roman warriors who battled in chariots.

“Chariots were designed by the Etruscans for women,” she said.

Franca is a rare human being who by chance became my friend. She’s a marvelous storyteller. She knew Pavarotti before he became famous. He used to cook for her in his tiny New York apartment. But that’s another story.

Etruscan sculptureWhile I had been aware that Franca was a fan of the ancients – she has a ring made from a coin that predates Christ — I didn’t know until this party that her son, a college president in Switzerland, spends every summer digging at an Etruscan excavation site. He is an expert on these people. I’m unsure if he taught Franca or if Franca taught him.

The discoveries at Etruscan sites come mainly from the findings within elaborate burial tombs of the rich. The Etruscan elite had the habit of building tombs that were detailed copies of their aboveground homes. The tombs were filled with domestic items of all kinds as well as great art objects and jewelry.

This provides a window into the culture, but it is heavily curtained.

The problem with unlocking all the mysteries of the Etruscans is that their writing did not survive. They had their own language and their own script, but they wrote on linen, which was easily ravaged by time. Some Etruscan writing had been found on metal and stone, but it just wasn’t enough.

Then came the mummy.

There often are quirks, mistakes and random or unusual acts that end up having a profound effect on history. This mummy is one of them.

I learned of it not from Franca but from a Time-Life book called, “Etruscans: Italy’s Lovers of Life.” The story, with many twists, begins in the late 1840s when a Croatian noble named Mihael de Barc visited Alexandria, Egypt. It was there that he bought himself a genuine mummy.

de Barc took his treasure to a home he had in Vienna, and put it on display. For some unknown reason, he found it necessary to slowly, over time, unwrap the mummy. By his death in 1859, he had completely unwrapped it.

Stay with me, please. I’m getting to the Etruscan part.

An executor put the exposed corpse and the bandages – which contained indecipherable writing — in separate cases and shipped them to the National Museum in Zagreb. In 1891, someone figured out that the unraveled linen actually was an Etruscan book.

The only way to explain this is to assume that an exiled Etruscan had once settled in Egypt and a mummy-maker grabbed one of his books to use on a client.

As mummification preserved the body, it also preserved the linen.

This chain of events, so far-fetched it could never pass for fiction, has given the world the only surviving Etruscan book. And still we don’t know enough.

Whenever I read more about these ancient yet modern people, my fasciation grows. The Etruscans called themselves by a name not used by others. To them, they were the Rasna or Rasemma. The Greeks called them Tyrrhenoi (from which we get the Tyrrhenian Sea). It was the Romans who called them Etrusci or Tusci (from which we get Tuscany).

They were great engineers, known for their roads and ambitious irrigation projects. Skeletal remains show they were exceptional dentists. (The design of the bridgework found in the mouths of tomb cadavers is still used today.) Their great wealth was the result of their talent at metalworking and the fact that they controlled vast deposits of copper, iron ore and tin, the largest in that area of the world. This was the stuff that went on their ships and gave them the foundation for one of the Western world’s greatest early civilization.

If only they had written on something more substantial than linen.

Anyway, I’m optimistic more information will be forthcoming. Franca’s son is sure to keep digging, so I may know more by the next party. But I doubt they will ever find another mummy that’s a book.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

In the Old West, without GPS, if they wanted you, they’d find you

16 Nov

Cormac McCarthy

Everyone knows we’re being tracked. You leave a trail with credit cards, cell phones, cookies and social media. Cameras take pictures at traffic lights.Auto dealers hide GPS devices on the cars they sell. Even U.S. passports have a chip embedded in them.

But in the Old West, in the days of the horse and buggy – mainly because of the horse and buggy – it also was easy to track people. People back then left tracks, the old-fashion kind.

Blood MeridianI point this out after reading Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel, “Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West.” In it, a band of characters travels endlessly across vast expanses of plains, desserts and mountains. They always seem to find each other. Their enemies always seem to find them, and they their enemies.

There are some major skills involved here, as Cormac suggests. But the basics are hard to miss. In today’s times, we forget about giveaways like smoke from a cook fire, dung and urine from animals and humans, the simple imprint of foot, hoof and wheel. Either way, it’s pretty much a sure thing that after crossing the dessert everyone is going to end up at the well or creek. A great place to wait for your prey.

While it is frightening to think that today’s phones reveal where we are and where we went, it’s also a scary thought that you could ride or walk for days and nights, in the heat and cold, possibly without water and food or even clothes, across the harshest terrain, and the person trailing you will find you and kill you in the most brutal fashion.

This lesson, among others, I learned from Cormac McCarthy and the book they call his masterpiece.

No country posterIf you don’t know McCarthy from his many novels – almost all of them filled with horrific violence – then you might know him from the films made from his books. Perhaps the most famous is “No Country for Old Men,” which in 2007 won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Some see McCarthy as the equal or near equal of Faulkner. While I was amazed by “No Country for Old Men,” I’m embarrassed to say I had overlooked McCarthy, then and even after. I only came to know him after briefly watching a so-so TV movie with an unfamiliar name – one I don’t even remember — and hearing several pieces of brilliant dialogue.

I admire a good sentence and these were unlike anything I’ve heard on TV – with the possible exception of “True Detective.” They came from deep within some dark, mysterious, knowing soul.

I checked and found they came from Cormac McCarthy. And so I went on to read “Blood Meridian.”

If you read it, or even just look at it, you’ll notice some things right off. First, there are no quotation marks (even when there are quotes). Cute, but only idiosyncratic. Next, there are all these words you won’t understand because they are archaic and rarely appear anywhere. Doubly troubling are the passages in un-translated Spanish – the common tongue of Cormac’s characters, who are American, Mexican and Native American.

But the most obvious and disturbing thing about McCarthy is the violence. Nearly every page is covered in blood. I recall thinking that while the writing was terrific, the plot line had to come from a thoroughly sick and disturbed mind.

Glanton gang
Then I began to listen closer to the tone, attitude and motif phraseology of his characters. I came to realize this was not made up. This was all true. It was history, and the writer must have relied heavily on journals and first-hand accounts.

While McCarthy is not in the habit of discussing his work, I searched for confirmation of my theory and found it on good old Wikipedia:

The majority of the narrative follows a teenager referred to only as “the kid,” with the bulk of the text devoted to his experiences with the Glanton gang, a historical group of scalp hunters who massacred Native Americans and others in the United States–Mexico borderlands from 1849 to 1850 for bounty, pleasure, and eventually out of sheer compulsion . . . .

 

. . . McCarthy conducted considerable research to write the book. Critics have repeatedly demonstrated that even brief and seemingly inconsequential passages of Blood Meridian rely on historical evidence. The Glanton gang segments are based on Samuel Chamberlain‘s account of the group in his memoir My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue, which he wrote during the latter part of his life. Chamberlain rode with John Joel Glanton and his company between 1849 and 1850.

 

Unlike many people, I try not to look for meaning in creative work. Beauty alone is enough for me, and “Blood Meridian” is beautiful. The best art is an open presentation of depth that allows the consumer to add the meaning. It really doesn’t come with it.

Still, my favorite parts of the book are the philosophical pronouncements of the character known as “the judge.” I sense he sounds a lot like Cormac McCarthy at a cocktail party. The judge accepts violence. In total, what the book does for me is calm my frustration at man’s inhumanity, convincing me – if only for a short time – that violence is NOT inhuman, but rather perfectly and intrinsically human.

I’ll end with a passage and invite comment.

“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

Lanny Morgnanesi

Two quotes, one old, one new, about something that existed then and continues to exist now

12 Jul

Caradoc in Rome

 

The first speaker is Caratacus, the British tribal leader who resisted the Roman invasion in 43 AD. He eventually became a prisoner of the Romans. After a convincing speech prior to his scheduled execution, his life was spared. Caratacus was so impressed by the city of Rome that, in amazement, he said this to his captors, who conquered and occupied Britain:

 

“And can you, then, who have got such possessions and so many of them, covet our poor tents?”

 

Goldman-Sachs-CEOThis second quote was said by Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, a man whose job it is to make abnormal amounts of money in any and all ways possible and some that are not possible:

 

“Too much of the GDP over the last generation has gone to too few of the people… . It’s a very big issue and something that has to be dealt with.”

 

In both cases, the powerful have taken and then tried to exercise at least modest restraint to make things a little better. And so it continues.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

How long before the great income grab is reversed? Not long.

9 Mar

cbpp income inequality 2011

The first real understanding of my value as a worker came during a company Christmas party.

I was a young reporter for a family-owned media company. My fellow employees and I had already received the gift of a free turkey, and now there was this party, grand and lavish.

It was a time when newspaper margins were around 40 percent. Printing a newspaper was like printing money.

The party was held in a big banquet hall. Hundreds attended. There was a generous buffet, music, dancing and an open bar for the entire evening.

In general, the company did well by its employees. The founder was a tough, bull-headed union-buster, but when I worked there raises were given four times a year, the food in the cafeteria was subsidized and supervisors were honored at an annual dinner.

Upon the death of the old man, his four grown children took over. By chance, I was sitting with one at the Christmas party. She was somewhat shy but sincere when she said to our table, “All of you are responsible for making this company what it is. It would be nothing without you. My family owes everything to you. Our success is your success.”

Prior to that, I had seen myself as an expendable, replaceable cog.

But this co-owner, this daughter of an entrepreneurial risk-taker, was shifting my view. I hadn’t recognized it yet, but she knew that without workers a hundred printing presses could not produce a single paper.

Still, she was neither ready nor willing to change the rules and divide the profits among workers. That’s a different ideology, one totally alien to our system, one that threatens and offends.

Then I went to New York City and found out it wasn’t.

I was still learning the way of the world and on this visit to see friends I discovered how lawyers became partners.

My friends were a former reporter and her boyfriend lawyer. He didn’t go to dinner with us that Saturday night because he was working on an investment banking deal. He was trying to make partner.

When we met up later at a bar, he was in good spirits and had no complaints. As an explanation for missing dinner, he told me a joke: “Why do investment bankers love Friday? Because it is only two more work days until Monday.”

I envied his chance to become a partner. Now that I think of it, he probably was the first person I knew who was capable of using hard work to earn equity ownership in a company.

Why was law different from other professions? To begin with, there is no huge investment needed to start up, nothing like a printing press. Also, lawyers tend to see themselves as professional equals. And there probably is some precedent, a near-ancient tradition, of taking on partners rather than employees.

What’s more, it is easy for the good ones – those who bring in big clients — to leave and hang up their own shingles.

A factory worker doesn’t have that kind of leverage.

But if there exists a universal law of fairness, a standard morality for the value and worth of labor, then leverage shouldn’t be a factor.

Of course, there is no morality in the marketplace. If people will work for substandard wages, that is what you pay them. And so unions came to be.

Unions got their start in ancient Rome

Unions got their start in ancient Rome

We think of unions as a modern concept but the idea and practice go way back. The founders of Rome, in 753 B.C., may be partially to blame. As Rome grew and incorporated other provinces, the new citizens didn’t integrate. They stayed in their towns, kept their habits and traditions and failed to adopt a Roman identify. So an edict was issued requiring people to relocate to districts organized around trades. If you were a carpenter, you lived among all carpenters.

Ethnic differences faded.

Naturally, trade associations formed. It was a new unifier.

In time, these associations became quite powerful.

Even the kings of France had to contend with them. In an age when candles were the chief source of lighting and a significant expense in a large palace, money could be saved by letting them burn to the end.  Practical, but the guild in charge of candles wouldn’t allow it. It required that candles be replaced when half burned.

Unions in the modern era continue to be associated with self-serving, costly inefficiencies. Unlike the lawyers who must enrich their firms in order to become partners, unions too often weaken their companies, making workers liabilities rather than assets.

And companies today are quick to get rid of liabilities.

What unions are good at, however, is their ability to show management the true value of labor. By unifying the powerless, power is created. In speaking with one voice – “no we won’t work for poverty wages” – unions effectively alter the marketplace. They grant the common folk a degree of dignity and allow them to pursue happiness.

But with global competition so fierce, it has become impractical and unwise for unions to advocate uncompetitive practices. What they should advocate is efficiency, innovation, profit and partnership – true equity partnership. Unions gave us the weekend but if the incentive of partnership is applied (making Friday two work days until Monday) companies could get them back.

Would companies actually make their worker’s partners? Under the current climate, no. Even discussing the idea seems ridiculous and beyond farfetched.

But why?

In the golden age of unions – after resistance that included shooting strikers — companies decided there was enough growth and profit to meet the demands of organized labor. With profit in mind, there was a willingness to share. Henry Ford would benefit if he could keep cars rolling off the assembly line and meet the heavy demand.

And besides, workers with money buy things – like cars.

Walter Reuther knew the middle class fueled the economy.

Walter Reuther knew the middle class fueled the economy.

(There’s a great story about Walter Reuther, leader of the United Auto Workers, being shown an automated assembly line.  In a competitive dig, Henry Ford II asked him, “How are you going to get those robots to pay union dues?” Reuther retorted, “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy cars?”)

For the most part, the willingness to share is gone.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and many other sources, a significant income gap between classes existed from the 1940s into the 1970s, but it did not grow. But after the early 70s and up to today, income concentration at the top increased dramatically. The last time the disparity was this great was prior to the Depression.

Various sources, including University of California at Santa Cruz Professor G. William Domhoff, in his blog “Who Rules America?,” report that in 2010 about 1percent of the U.S. population possessed 35 percent of the wealth. The top 20 percent had 89 percent, leaving the bottom 80 percent with 11 percent.

Also reported in various places, including the Los Angeles Times, is that from 1993 to 2012, income of the 1 percent rose 86.1 percent while income of the other 99 percent rose 6.6 percent.

As wealth became concentrated at the upper tier, billions in cash was stockpiled by American corporations.

In March, Forbes set the total at $1.45 trillion and listed the top 10 holders of cash, including:

Apple: $137 billion.

Microsoft: $68.3 billion.

Google $48.1 billion.

Pfizer $46.9 billion.

What changed?

For one, the labor market.

When Apple is ready to roll out a new iPhone, poor farmers in Katmandu drop their plows and fly to factories in Malaysia. This is not a rhetorical sentence.

Journalist Cam Simpson documents Apple’s labor supply chain in an incredible piece of investigative reporting for Bloomberg Businessweek.  His story tells how labor brokers fan out to the poor countries of Asia when Apple launches a new product. The people they find pay them for jobs and keep paying as the process continues. Often, they pay with borrowed money and go deeply in debt.

One was Bibek Dhong from Nepal. He paid a single broker the equivalent of six-months wages. The fee secured him a job in Malaysia with Flextronics, one of Apple’s chief suppliers. Before he could pay off his loans, production shifted to another country (better performance) and he lost his position.

His passport was held and he could not get home. He feared he would be arrested. Before he received help from Flextronics, he ran out of money and nearly starved.

Not exactly a union shop.

But as China has realized, when companies get richer, when commerce thrives, when corrupt leaders and their families amass great, visible wealth, expectations rise and workers lose their complacency. They demand more and often get it, until the factories move to a more accommodating country.

Sooner or later, corporations are going to run out of countries.

Sooner or later, a floor will form under the global labor market.  From there, workers will stand.

That’s when corporations are going to need a new plan.

And that’s why I’m suggesting one now.

In the U.S., people are finally waking up to the subtle yet systematic dismantling of the middle class, which has been occurring for decades. With less spending power, average families find it difficult or impossible to send their children to college – once the gateway to upward mobility. Those who do make it to college find it hard to get jobs when they graduate.

The bleakness and lack of opportunity, the malaise of our times, is truly settling in.

Books are being written with titles such as, “The War on the Middle Class,” “Screwed: The Undeclared War on the Middle Class,” and “The Betrayal of the American Dream.”

Income equality has become a topic in columns, blogs and editorial cartoons. The issue, once ignored, is now discussed by the president of the United States and the Pope. Billionaire Warren Buffett said that if class warfare truly exists, his class in winning. Even so, there are defections. One is global billionaire David Sainsbury, who calls for fairer wealth distribution through something called “progressive capitalism.”

To see inside this looming class crisis, look toward Seattle, the home of Boeing.

Timothy Egan, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and winner of the National Book Award, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times Nov. 14 called, “Under My Thumb.” The title refers to Seattle’s position vis-a-vis Boeing.

Like many big corporations, Boeing hold jobs hostage as it demands and gets hefty tax breaks. As Egan points out, when anyone or anything shows resistance, companies like Boeing threaten to leave town.

Boeing is seeking concessions in exchange for keeping assembly of the new 777X jet in Washington State. For its part, the state of Washington provided a incentive package that included an $8.7 billion tax break, which Egan called the largest single state-tax giveaway in the nation’s history.

But Boeing also requires that workers accept cuts in pensions and health care benefits.

Unlike Washington, the workers said no.

Refusing to allow the “Walmartization of aerospace,” the machinists who would build the 777X turned down the offer by a 2-1 vote.

“I’m tired of being slapped in the face,” said John Gilman, who has worked at Boeing for nearly 40 years. “Building airplanes — it takes years of training and skill. The people who run this company used to understand that.”

In reaction to Egan’s piece, one reader commented, “This is just the beginning before Americans ‘storm’ any number of figurative ‘Bastilles.’ ”

Jump now, if you will, to the town of Richmond, California.

In Richmond, like most of the U.S., people were talked into taking home mortgages they couldn’t afford. When the housing bubble burst, they ended up owing more on their mortgages than their homes were worth.

Nothing unusual there.

What is unusual is the protective reaction, possibly unprecedented, taken by the town fathers on behalf of residents. Basically, they told the banks holding the bad mortgages to renegotiate the terms or Richmond would confiscate the properties through eminent domain.

Under this plan, the banks would receive 80 percent of each home’s current worth – much less than the original purchase price –and the town would reform the mortgages so owners can afford them.

Meanwhile, all across the country fast food workers are trying to nearly double their hourly wage to $15.

Not too long ago, the Occupy movement surprised everyone when it surfaced to protest almost everything. It stayed around much longer than anyone expected and started widespread discussion of the 1 percent and vast income disparities.

What else is out there waiting to bubble up? I sense there is a lot.

Nature and the human spirit, in time, tend to correct imbalances. I believe this correction has begun. When there is too much of one thing, the other thing comes.

And when the other thing comes, I hope we are ready for it. We might prepare by realizing that we all have a stake in each other’s well being, that each plays a role in the ultimate success of our society and that respect and dignity should be afforded to all. We are a tribe – we humans — and members of a tribe should look out for each other.

Right now we don’t.

I say, let’s act more like partners. Let’s all rise together.

That means valuing each other properly and recognizing that all roles are important, that we’d be in big trouble if one day no one wanted to pick up the trash.

Providing an equity interest to all workers – even a thin, thin sliver – is progressive and revolutionary. It may even be moral, wise and an effective business strategy. But for it to happen, something cataclysmic must occur, or the vision of something cataclysmic must appear.

In the meantime, it is likely that agendas will slowly change (perhaps preventing any cataclysm). This fall, for example, Bill de Blasio was elected mayor of New York after saying he would trim the gap between rich and poor.

Other politicians, in a discovering of new voting blocs, may decide to do the same and relieve the working poor of its distress, better balance wealth and create a more secure, just and – I think – more prosperous society.

A person with disposable income, after all, fuels the economy and is less of a burden on government.

Tax policy, a major cause of the wealth shift, also will have to change. An almost whimsical proposal comes from Robert Shiller, who on Dec. 8 received the Nobel prize in economics. To stop inequality from rising, he suggests raising taxes on the rich whenever their share of income starts to grow.

Should any of this actually happen, it won’t come solely out of true enlightenment. As always, it will come mostly as a way to preserve and protect – through concessions – the self-interests of the powerful. This is OK. It will come through changing market forces resulting from a shift in culture, attitudes, expectations and action. Those forces, nearly invisible now, seem to be coalescing. I don’t think they can be stopped.

When there is too much of one thing, the other thing comes. That’s the natural law.

Lanny Morgnanesi

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