Gephardt takes on the new world of work

March 13, 1997|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- A presidential candidate, like love, is more wonderful the second time around. Dick Gephardt, the House minority leader, 56 and contemplating a second try for his party's nomination, has something he seemed to lack in 1988 -- genuine passion about a broad agenda.

In this town, where the spoken word ''frankly'' is a leading indicator of insincerity, honest passion is as rare as in arranged marriages. But today Mr. Gephardt espouses, with heat, a recognizably liberal agenda for increasing equality, and not just measured materially. It also resuscitates a liberal aspiration associated with names like Louis Brandeis and Walter Reuther, the aspiration to increase the moral status of workers by democratizing the workplace.

The country, Mr. Gephardt says, has not come to terms with the huge change involved in ''everyone going to work.'' He considers the ''child-care deficit'' a primary producer of ''people who misbehave.'' He would address it with longer days in schools open all year, and with tax incentives for businesses to provide child care on site. He says productivity increases flow from allowing working mothers to eat lunch with their children.

''Many people at work are brain-dead -- they don't like their jobs or their bosses,'' he says. Hence the democratization of the workplace is a productivity program. Workers need to be ''incented'' with bonuses, stock options and dispersed decision-making because the key to a higher standard of living is workers motivated because they are informed and powerful.

If the congressman can articulate what has been called (by Harvard's Michael Sandel) a ''political economy of citizenship,'' stressing the moral and political dimensions of economic activity, he will have reconnected contemporary liberalism with a progressive impulse of 80 years ago. And he will have the beginnings of a liberal foreign policy.

While his party's leader is using the bully pulpit to exhort Americans to properly install their automobile child-safety seats, Gephardt is visiting hovels on the Mexican side of California's border. He indicts American policy -- less convincingly than passionately -- for some of the festering problems there.

The problem, he says, is NAFTA, which he, like a majority of congressional Democrats, opposed. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement, he says, the number of jobs along the border has doubled. In Mexico, a nation of 90 million people (a majority of them under age 25), the border is, he says, the only place where jobs are being created.

And because so many people are being drawn there from the country's interior, where wages are even worse, the average hourly wage at the border has fallen from $1 to 70 cents. Furthermore, the labor-turnover rate is more than 80 percent a year, because the conditions are harsh and employers pay a training wage of half the hourly wage.

At a Japanese-owned plant capable of making 3 million televisions a year, a worker wears a ''moon suit'' in a ''clean room'' handling microchips, then goes home to a tar-paper shack with no sewage or electricity service. Mr. Gephardt believes NAFTA should have required Mexican reforms, particularly those that would strengthen Mexican unions. He opposes the administration's goal of extending an unreformed NAFTA to Chile and perhaps other South American nations.

The world's Labor Department

Well. During the Cold War some liberals deplored the projection of American military power because America cannot be ''the world's policeman.'' Now some liberals think America can be the world's Labor Department -- and Department of Health and Human Services, too. Mr. Gephardt overestimates this country's power to compel reforms, and underestimates the capacity of NAFTA-driven economic dynamism to improve the lot of Mexican labor, albeit by a process as messy and painful as that which occurred when America industrialized.

However, his passions neatly complement his political calculations, and are not necessarily synthetic because they are useful in appealing to semi-protectionist organized labor. He also is courting liberals who hunger for something more noble than the Clinton administration's trade-is-everything foreign policy, and for a domestic theme with traditional liberal echoes.

Mr. Gephardt, stalking Vice President Gore, also needs the American Association of Retired Persons. Here, calculation is more difficult to relate to a lofty liberal theme. His candidacy may make the president, for the vice president's sake, block a recalculation of the Consumer Price Index that would lower the estimation of inflation and hence cost-of-living increases for Social Security. Congressman Gephardt might -- be listening for the word ''frankly'' -- become passionately convinced of the perfection of the CPI as currently calculated. Campaign 2000 is under way, and affecting governance.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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