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Digital Discrimination

Digital Discrimination

November 15, 2023  |  542 words  |  Politics, Economics

In a recent editorial the Wall Street Journal takes issue with a new rule the Federal Communication Commission is considering to prevent what is referred to as “digital discrimination.”  This proposed action is a by-product of the 2021 infrastructure bill that included a directive for the FCC to monitor disparities in broadband access “based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin.”

The esteemed WSJ sees such a statute as a simple case of “identity politics” run amok.  Especially since by its own admission the FCC has found “little or no evidence” indicating “intentional discrimination by industry participants.”  But to my way of thinking that is hardly the point, as the agency now seeks to hold broadband providers liable for any actions or “omissions” – intended or not – that result in a disparate impact.

As we all know, high-speed internet access has become a pre-requisite to full participation in the life of the nation, just as access to basic electrical service was in a previous generation.  The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 addressed a glaring omission at the time:  Americans who lived in outlying areas had limited access to electricity because private utility companies claimed it was not economically feasible to run power lines out to them.  Back then those providers worried about recouping the upfront costs of installing the elaborate infrastructure needed to get things up and running.

Sound familiar?  It is amusing (and more than a little annoying) to read the WSJ register the following objection to the FCC’s new rule:  “Wireless carriers might also be prohibited from building out 5G networks in suburbs and city downtowns before inner cities and rural areas.”  Yes, that is correct, Mr. Editorial Writer.  The federal government is trying to prevent inner cities and rural areas from being left behind when it comes to something as vital as broadband access.

The short, punchy piece then gives readers a concise example of what I like to think of as WSJ-style unintended humor, by way of a primer on how the free market operates to elegantly solve all of society’s problems:

Companies don’t have unlimited capital so they typically prioritize network upgrades in areas where they can earn a higher return on the investment, which they then use to finance improvements in lower-income and rural areas.”

Ah, if only the latter part of that statement were true, what a wonderful world this would be!  The FCC would have no reason to draft a new policy rectifying disparate impacts, since the citizenry would already be enjoying “digital equity” from sea to shining sea.  

But of course that is not the world we live in.  Our world requires a regulatory body like the FCC to provide oversight of a burgeoning industry, so the vagaries of the for-profit marketplace do not inadvertently leave certain underrepresented and disadvantaged populations out of the digital mix.

Which, if you think about it, should not really bother the folks over at the WSJ.  Since this proposed rule will merely codify what their editorial board believes is the established and oh-so socially-conscious standard operational procedure of the nation’s kindhearted broadband providers. 

Even if some of the statutory language being employed by the FCC strikes the WSJ as identity politics run amok.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Is the Pope Catholic?

Is the Pope Catholic?

September 12, 2023 | 1,624 words | Religion, Politics, Economics

Asking whether the Pope is Catholic used to be one of those funny rhetorical question that do not require an answer.  Like asking does a bird fly, or if a bear defecates in the forest.  But these days that first question is not so funny to some people, and not so rhetorical.

In the decade since Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected/elevated to the papacy as Pope Francis, the complaints levied against him by conservative critics, especially conservatives here in the United States, have grown more pronounced with each passing year.  What started as semi-polite sniping over his so-called fuzzy pastoral emphasis has evolved into almost open warfare over much more serious issues.  He is now routinely accused of undermining the faith, and teaching error.  “Schism” is a word his critics are referencing quite a bit lately, when discussing the current pontiff and what lies ahead.

After ten years of this persistent opposition, Francis is now starting to return fire.  At age 86, and with his health having started to fail, he might be sensing the impending end of his run, as older people frequently do.  Last month he described the loudest conservative voices in American Catholicism as backward-looking moralists (“indietristi”) who are disconnected from the roots of the Catholic tradition and its history.  That tradition and history, as Francis understands it, is about the ongoing discernment needed to help live the Gospel message in current realities.

So who is right?  We are each expected to choose a side in this raging controversy, to either condemn Francis and champion his critics, or vice versa.  But my mind does not work that way.  I see merit on both sides.  The concept of unchanging truths the conservatives rally behind resonates with me.  On the other hand, I also think knowing the mind of Christ is no easy task, and is always a work in progress.  With Pope Francis being rather conspicuous in making a case for the latter approach.

I guess I have not been able to muster the same level of outrage toward Francis that his harshest critics exhibit on a regular basis.  Is encouraging priests to welcome and minister to people who are gay, divorced and remarried, as Francis does, a blatant violation of established doctrine?  Instead of dismissing the effort out of hand, as conservatives are wont to do, maybe we should be having an intelligent discussion about what the word “welcome” means in this context.

And why are we arguing about who is more Pro-Life?  Pope Francis has always upheld church teaching on abortion, and has been unequivocal in his defense of the innocent unborn.  Why do conservatives find fault  when he adds: “equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned.”  The latter concern does not undermine the integrity of the former position.

That Catholics of goodwill are so contentious, with the opposing camp picking apart every utterance and perceived mis-step the current pontiff makes, is a sign of the times.  The relentless partisanship of our politics has spilled over into every other aspect of our lives.  Another factor contributing to the alarm some folks are feeling is how different Francis is, stylistically and in doctrinal emphasis, from his two immediate predecessors, John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-2013).

Both those men participated in and were products of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the big worldwide conclave in which the Catholic Church finally set aside its long-running objections to the American Experiment, and signaled that liberal democracy based on pluralism could be a legitimate form of social organization.  A little late to the party, you might say.  But better late than never, right?

These two helped craft the famous “liberating” documents that came out of that Council’s deliberations, yet as pope each went on to steer the U.S. hierarchy in a decidedly conservative theological direction.  As if to counterbalance what they still considered to be a very real problem, namely, the overwhelmingly secular influence of American culture.  

It has been clear from the start of his papacy that Pope Francis does not see this course-correction project as his top priority.  He is more interested in other things, like promoting from-the-ground-up collaboration within the church, which may lead to including lay people and even women in decision-making roles.  This is a hot-button issue for conservatives, who think such collaboration is opening a Pandora’s box that will result in confusion and error, and possibly even schism.

Hence all the talk of Francis “flipping the script” in a big, dramatic way.  But I find that to be largely a matter of interpretation.  He is, in fact, repeating many of the same themes his immediate predecessors stressed.  JPII and Benedict XVI did more than just push a conservative theological line, after all.  They also spoke and wrote extensively about the much broader mosaic of Catholic teaching around protecting life and promoting human flourishing.  Just as Francis does.

It is certainly true Francis does not mince words when speaking extemporaneously, especially when it comes to the economic stuff.  JPII and Benedict XVI were erudite and maintained proper decorum in their public statements, and this made it possible for conservatives to truncate the elaborate economic teaching they put down on paper, and frame it in a very limited way that flatters their preferred agenda.

Francis may be a little salty at times when responding to journalists, but in his plain-spoken way he is merely reiterating long-held church teaching on economic/social justice and care for the less-advantaged.  And he has made it impossible for conservatives to misconstrue his meaning on that score.

Conservatives really liked the staunchness and fidelity the last two popes displayed on certain theological subjects, and continue to cite those men wistfully.  But only because they conveniently overlook everything else those popes had to say that they do not much care for.

This current pope says quite a lot conservatives don’t much care for, and he seems to draw more than a few moral equivalencies they take issue with.  Such as tying together violations of pelvic theology conservatives consider to be doctrinally pre-eminent, with lying and cheating at the office to advance one’s career.  It seems Francis never tires of calling out those who are pre-occupied with sins below the waist but don’t lose any sleep over the exploitation of workers.  

There’s the rub, as far as I am concerned.  Conservatives can tell themselves their argument with Francis is over sexual morality or worship styles or climate change or a myriad of other things.  But what really sticks in their crawl is the way this pope openly challenges a revered concept like enlightened self-interest, and in the process comes across as anti-American or even worse, anti-capitalist.

In this regard Francis is not flipping the script at all.  Quite the contrary.  He is working from a very old and familiar one, at least in its broad outline.  A script used by every Catholic pope since our nation’s founding, each of whom have regarded the American Experiment with suspicion.

Over the last couple of centuries, a steady stream of pontiffs has issued periodic warnings about “Americanism” and “modernist” trends.  True, in the early days Catholic objections were centered on the separation of church and state, originally feared to be a danger to both individual souls and the state at large.

But Catholic tradition and history is about learning how to live out the Gospel message in current realities.  And so we find the nature of Rome’s complaint about the United States may have changed in some of the particulars, but remains in essence what it has always been:  It is our celebration of the individual, at the expense of concern for the common good, that has come under constant scrutiny.

We Americans have always taken issue with this Catholic critique of our way of life.  We do not appreciate being lectured on the common good.  And we certainly don’t appreciate having this same, tired lecture delivered by an aging pontiff from a backward Third World country who lacks a proper understanding of our singular achievement, a robust engine of economic growth predicated on small government and limited taxation.

Today’s conservatives continue to miss the larger message Rome has been trying to send them for centuries, and are pre-occupied instead by the new emphasis Francis is placing on being more pastoral toward those who have fallen short of their baptismal promise, and more inclusive toward those outside the mainstream.  Or how he consistently decries economic injustice and the treatment of migrants, while insisting on a universal right to health care, housing, and decent jobs.

Even though every pope in the modern era has talked and written at length about the very same things.  Including his two immediate predecessors.  

Accusing this pope of undermining the faith and teaching error is a very serious charge.  I have read the relevant papal documents promulgated over the last decade, the ones now being used as the basis for these mutinous claims.  And I just do not find the egregious violations of doctrine his detractors are coming up with.  If you are worried Pope Francis may be creating confusion and spreading doubt by unpacking the Gospel message and applying it to current realities, as some of his critics most assuredly are, the solution to that problem is to be a better teacher, not to skimp on the teaching.  

Shouldn’t we be trying to educate people in the fullness of the faith?  That is how I see Francis, that is how I experience his pontificate.  His critics strike me as wanting to “keep it simple, stupid” out of fear the rank and file may be too cognitively-limited to grasp the whole truth in all its splendor.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Pro-Trump, or anti-Democrat?

Pro-Trump, or anti-Democrat?

August 28, 2023  |  762 words  |  Politics, Philosophy, Economics

There are now four big legal cases pending against former President Donald Trump. He is facing dozens of criminal charges and will go on trial several times in the next 18 months, as he campaigns to become president again in the 2024 election.

None of these embarrassing entanglements has made a dent in Mr. Trump’s popularity among the Republican faithful, a fact that baffles many interested observers, including me.

What is the source of this man’s enduring appeal? Those who are experiencing hard times have looked past his days as a ruthless, publicity-hungry real estate speculator, and bought into his newly-minted man-of-the-people schtick. They are inexplicably filled with hope as he riffs off-handedly about reviving manufacturing, bringing back jobs, limiting immigration, etc. They are sympathetic when he rails against “media elites” who persecute him at every turn.

Others of a religious bent are captivated by his role in the repeal of Roe v. Wade, and consider him as nothing less than having been ordained by God to restore the moral fiber of the nation. They will readily quote Bible passages in support of their far-fetched assertion. All this love and devotion, despite a documented history of fleecing the people in his employ and taking license with women of his acquaintance.

But lately it has occurred to me the real reason Mr. Trump sits atop the polls is a silent majority of sensible, often quite successful voters who are not so much smitten with him, as they are virulently anti-Democrat. The people I have in mind are frequently put off by Trump’s antics. But they stick with him because they really aren’t that fussy about who heads the Republican ticket. They just don’t want another four years of Joe Biden – or any other Democrat – in the White House.

This contingent will back Trump despite everything, until another legitimate contender emerges from the Republican field. Since he has captured the disgruntled white working class, along with white evangelicals and other conservative Christians, that might be a tough nut for a challenger to crack.

This calculus may not bother Democrats, who relish having Donald Trump as a foil. But it’s very bad news for the country as a whole.

Reflexively voting for your party’s presidential nominee while being less than thrilled with the actual candidate is nothing new. But in Mr. Trump’s case we have now reached a new low. Republican loyalists are being confronted with a meritless, emotionally-driven carnival barker in the mold of Lonesome Rhoads, the fictional character from that wonderful 1957 film, A Face in the Crowd.

Trump’s egregious behavior makes him patently unfit for high office, let alone re-election to the highest office in the land. Given his dubious track record, such hardcore Republican partisanship by otherwise level-headed voters can only be attributed to an unmitigated belief in the American Experiment, as spelled out in our founding documents.

According to those documents, freedom of opportunity – an “absence of obstacles,” as James Madison put it – is the most important ingredient in the pursuit of happiness.

This fancy talk translates into a maniacal insistence on lower taxes and smaller government. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez may epitomize what many of us would like to see in an elected official: yesterday’s humble waitress is today’s confident U.S. representative. But when she touts the Democrat party line on free healthcare, free college tuition, etc., many Americans write her off as just another purveyor of unwieldy and un-workable policies.

If I were a high-priced political consultant I might see this as an open-and-shut case of the Democrats needing much better “messaging” around their core issues. But I’m not, so I find myself inclined instead to view this as a thorny problem for the other major party. It is Republicans who must admit their laissez-faire approach to economic life has left too many of their fellow citizens outside the “circle of exchange,” as a famous papal encyclical described the situation in 1991, after a decade of Reaganomics.

It is Republicans who need to show concern over our finding a political and economic system that organically breeds fairness. Since we already know how to deliver outsized prosperity to the clever and advantaged like clockwork.

These “freedom first” voters should really stop complaining about what they ominously describe as encroaching socialism, because such complaints are downright unseemly when issued by the well-off. Better they step back and take stock, and own up to the obvious excesses and blatant oversights of the political/economic system we have now. And maybe ask themselves: Can Donald Trump help me with that discernment?

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Capitalism Condones Bad Behavior

Capitalism Condones Bad Behavior

April 25, 2023 | 1,357 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy

My thesis this morning is how easily our version of capitalism condones behavior that is fundamentally inconsiderate of others.  And how this is not just a case of bad manners, but rises to the level of injustice.

We are all familiar with the many positive aspects of capitalism, how a free market unleashes creativity and innovation, generating an avalanche of economic activity that benefits everyone up and down the food chain.  It yields the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats.  Older readers may recall “trickle down economics,” a pithy catch phrase from the 1980s that perfectly captured the “you have nothing to worry about” spirit of those boom years.
Given all the glowing press capitalism has received since then, many of us have trouble addressing the obvious negative aspects of capitalism with a clear eye.  Any such discussion is immediately derailed by ad hoc arguments about socialism being an intolerable alternative.
We have even more trouble seeing economics as being tied in an inextricable way to moral behavior.  Or with admitting that when economics is untethered from morality it becomes a free for all that leaves the social fabric in taters, while the rich get richer.

Things in this realm have devolved to the point where we no longer recognize the central role morality was designed to play in modern-day economics, and argue instead over how much government intervention is needed to balance the scales and create a safety net for those hurt most by predatory practices.  Or whether the market should be free to operate apart from such intervention, in the expectation all social ills and inequities will eventually be ameliorated. 

This belies a basic reality: social justice hinges on the moral behavior of individual economic actors.  On doing right by people you don’t know but who are nonetheless affected by your economic behavior.  The countless others who are not part of your inner circle, that cadre of trusted lieutenants who execute a business strategy and help maximize profitability.
Conservatives continue to insist their favorite form of economic exchange is “inherently moral,” despite all evidence to the contrary.  This dubious claim picked up steam in the early 1980s and provided much-needed cover for the greed is good era of junk bond, private equity take-overs that began in the late 1980s, and has been with us ever since.

Much has been written on how our style of capitalism has failed to provide a living wage for so many Americans.  But none of that commentary seems to make a dent in the conservatives’ leave-it-alone view of economic life.  Nor do the boom-and-bust cycles we can’t seem to avoid.  Or the pillaging of so many industries by private equity firms who buy up companies only to slash jobs and siphon off assets, raising prices and negatively impacting customer service in the process.
And why isn’t there more hue and cry heard from the general public about all this economic mayhem?  Maybe because it is being drowned out by or diverted to noisy debates over cultural issues. Like how many types of assigned public restrooms we should provide.  Or what pronouns we should employ when addressing our fellow citizens.

Not that adequate bathroom facilities and proper forms of address are not important.  But in the hierarchy of societal needs I do wonder why the fourth estate seems so lax in its evaluation of economically immoral behavior on the part of the most privileged Americans, while choosing instead to direct the majority of its ire at what all enlightened souls now take to be the anti-woke contingent of “deplorables” in our culture wars.

We have hit a few snags on the way to achieving the informed electorate said to be a pre-requisite for democracy.  Our liberal media prides itself on defending “individual freedom.”  While our conservative media is committed to protecting “economic freedom.”  What is lost in this liberal/conservative obsession with “freedom” is any consideration of the common good. 

Which brings me back to economic behavior that is fundamentally inconsiderate of others, and how capitalism too easily condones such behavior.
In addition to the big, splashy examples of injustice that do sometimes make the headlines, there are other, less prominent indignities that plague our economic life here in what we proudly assert is the greatest country on earth.  I would like to offer one small example from my own experience.


I own a contracting business that functions as part of the commercial construction industry.  By that I mean my company does work in office buildings and auditoriums and such.  Over the years the services we provide have morphed into a “sound proofing” specialty, primarily in the form of fabric-wrapped panels for walls and ceilings.  Though we’ve always been based in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, in the last decade much of our work has migrated to New York City, where our client list is a veritable who’s-who of Fortune 100 heavy-hitters.

When things started to take off for me back in the mid-1980s, I was working for developers who were creating some of the first suburban “office parks” outside of Philadelphia.  Those developers instructed us to invoice twice a month for work-in-place, and they would fund those invoices in 15 days, like clockwork.

Now, some 40 years later, we are forced to chase the large Construction Management firms we bill our work “through,” and navigate a labyrinth of paperwork to shake loose our payments.  The soonest we can expect to see any money is after our invoices have aged 90 days.  Though having to wait 120 or 150 days is also not uncommon.  The reply we frequently get when inquiring about payment is, “The client has not funded the invoice for that work yet.”

Which is to say, the Fortune 100 heavy-hitters who lease lavish space in some of the most exclusive office towers in North American have chosen not to pay their bills in a timely manner.  Why?  Because they don’t have to.  Somewhere along the line the movers and shakers realized they could drag out payment indefinitely and get away with it.  If you complain, they simply move on and hire a competitor, and force that company to wait for payment.

This is one of the sins of omission conservative academics and think-tank scholars never get around to talking about, when penning their hosannas to the free market.  The economic engine they celebrate is indeed a wonderful thing to behold.  But what is missing from the current formula is any sense of fair play.  Any sense of treating those who lack leverage as you would want to be treated, were you to find yourself without leverage.  Instead, the prevailing ethos has reverted back to “he who has the gold makes the rules.”

Private equity acquisitions siphon money from the bottom of the food chain.  The holding back of payment by the top of the food chain prevents that money from ever reaching the bottom to begin with.  It puts a crimp in the cash flow of the many different entities involved in the elaborate, multi-layered construction process.

This forces companies like mine to borrow money to cover payroll and pay suppliers.  It prevents us from adding staff to execute the work we have under contract more efficiently, or adding staff to possibly expand operations.  It also makes it difficult for us to increase the salaries of the over-worked people already in our employ. 

Competition, supply and demand, and self-interest can only bring an economic system so far, if the ultimate goal is social justice, rather just registering an uptick in the standard of living.  If you happen to be a big real estate developer erecting a skyscraper, or a major corporation building out a sleek office space in such a gleaming structure, you hold all the cards.  You can decide to pay the variety of contractors who bring your space to life as slowly as you want.

Because we in the construction industry are all scrambling for this elite work, we all want this prestige business.  Even though the terms we are forced to operate under have deteriorated dramatically over the course of the last 40 years.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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The Economics of Beauty

The Economics of Beauty

March 14, 2023 | 435 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy

Now here is an angle Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels probably did not cover in their famous 1848 treatise on economics, “The Communist Manifesto”…  Namely, the impact beauty has on an economic system.  But it turns out a gentleman by the name of Daniel S. Hamermesh has given it a lot of thought.

To be clear, we are not referring to Beauty in the transcendental sense, the virtue seen as complimenting Truth, and thought by philosophers and poets to be an expression of the Good.  No, what we are talking about here is good, old-fashioned physical attractiveness.  The kind of thing randomly bestowed on certain men and women through a favorable combination of parental genes, making them easy on the eyes.

Driving to work the other day I caught part of an entertaining radio interview Hamermesh was doing for the BBC, describing how better-looking people experience undeniable benefits like having an easier time finding employment, earning more than their average-looking counterparts, receiving promotions sooner, etc.

It was fascinating stuff, and instead of coming off like a stuffy academic he sounded like a wry, good-natured observer of human nature.  I looked him up the first chance I got, and learned Daniel S. Hamermesh (b. 1943) is a tenured professor of economics at the University of Texas, who since the mid-nineties has done a series of studies on the role appearance plays in the workplace.  

The thread that run through his work is simple enough:  Attractive workers make more money.  These amounts vary by gender, and looks are valued differently based on profession.  In a bold assertion that will surprise absolutely no one, Professor Hamermesh’s data clearly shows that “pulchritude” is valuable in nearly all professions, not just where good looks would seem to be an obvious asset.

In one of his recent books, “Beauty Pays” (Princeton University Press, 2013), Hamermesh considers whether  extra pay for good-looking people represents discrimination, and whether government programs should aid the ugly.  

Oh, my.  In the quest for economic justice, I do believe government has a role to play in trying to balance the scales our free market often inadvertently leaves dangling precariously over a cliff.  But no, government aid for the less-than-good-looking is not an initiative we should be storming the castle over.  

To all the other obstacles we face in creating a world that provides fair treatment and equitable compensation in the work place, obstacles Marx and Engels and many others of varying political persuasions and religious convictions have tried to address over the years, Daniel Hamermesh’s work has added an unexpected twist: one’s relative lack of physical beauty.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Julia Reichert, R.I.P.

Julia Reichert, R.I.P.

March 6, 2023 | 691 words | Movies, Economics, Philosophy

When Julia Reichert died a few months ago at the age of 76, she was eulogized as a “Documentarian of the Working Class.”  I knew of her only through the 2019 Academy award-winning “American Factory,” about the Chinese take-over of a shuttered automobile plant in Dayton, Ohio, which she directed with her second husband, Steven Bognar.

By reading her obituary I learned about Ms. Reichert’s extensive career, as both a filmmaker and educator.  A longtime professor of motion pictures at Wright State University in Dayton, Ms. Reichert “was in the forefront of a new generation of social documentarians who came out of the New Left and feminist movements of the early 1970s with a belief in film as an organizing tool with a social mission.”

“Although Ms. Reichert addressed a variety of social issues in the documentaries she directed and produced, her enduring interests were labor history and the lives of working women.”

Reichert’s resume as a filmmaker starts in 1971.  As an undergraduate at Antioch College in Ohio she made a pioneering feminist documentary, “Growing Up Female,” with a male classmate by the name of James Klein, who became a frequent collaborator and her first husband.  In 2011 “Growing Up Female” was selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.  

Other stellar early works completed with Mr. Klein include “Union Maids” (1976), and “Seeing Red” (1983).  The critic Vincent Canby considered the latter “a fine, tough companion piece to ‘Union Maids.’”  Rather than trading in dogma, he told us, her subject was “American Idealism.”  

A few years ago the writer Barbara Ehrenreich (who herself died this past September) recalled how Ms. Reichert “defied every stereotype I’d had of independent filmmakers…  She wasn’t rich, and she wasn’t arrogant or egotistical.  The daughter of a butcher and a house cleaner turned registered nurse, she dressed and spoke plainly, usually beaming with enthusiasm, and never abandoned her Midwestern roots.”

It is her enthusiasm that really comes across in the interview she and Mr. Bognar did with Barack and Michelle Obama about the making of “American Factory.”  (Netflix released the film in conjunction with the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions.)  This interview is packaged as a companion piece to the film, both of which are available for streaming.

What makes “American Factory” so engaging is the way it is “suffused in ambivalence.”  The New York Times called it “complex, stirring, timely and beautifully shaped, spanning continents as it surveys the past, present, and possible future of American labor.”  It centers on a Chinese billionaire who purchases a shuttered GM truck factory, and re-opens it as an automobile glass factory.  He is welcomed by the Ohio community as a hero who promises to restore lost jobs, only to become a villain by “confounding American workers with a new set of attitudes.”  And by chopping their previous wage and benefit package by more than half. 

Surprisingly that billionaire, Cao Dewang, is not portrayed as a one-dimensional scoundrel straight out of central casting, as one might expect from a Documentarian of the Working Class.  In many ways he is actually the film’s protagonist.

Though everybody in this documentary eventually gets their say.  We hear from union people, anti-union people, and an array of workers.  Both the native Americans and the exuberant Chinese who are brought in to show the sometimes-recalcitrant locals how to be more efficient and productive.

“Hearing from” is an accurate description of how this and Reichert’s other films typically unfold.  She avoids voice-over narration in favor of interviews with her mostly rank-and-file subjects who are allowed to speak for themselves on camera.  This lets us make up our own minds about what we are watching.

The obituary closes by describing Julia Reichert as a committed artist who was more interested in people than in ideology.  She “wore her politics so lightly that almost no one seemed to notice when she concluded her Oscar acceptance speech for ‘American Factory’ by cheerfully citing the best-known phrase from Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels’s ‘Communist Manifesto.’”

“We believe that things will get better,” she said, “when the workers of the world unite.”  And so do I.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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