John Edwards for Labor Secretary

Dec 25, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

Hear me out: this is an argument as much about the place of workers' issues in the future Administration, as it is an argument for making John Edwards the next Labor Secretary.

When it comes to tackling the economic crisis, the president-elect has been pre-occupied, personnel-wise, with the question of who will be Treasury Secretary and Commerce Secretary. I'm not going to argue that those positions aren't important. We are, obviously, in a severe economic crisis: the credit crisis is real and financial institutions are dragging the rest of the economy down. But, traditionally, Treasury and Commerce have been outposts for advocates for capital, not for labor. And looking at the crisis through the lens of Treasury and Commerce misses the problem by a mile.

Our crisis, as I have argued, is a long-term crisis generated largely because of a decades-long wage depression and assault on basic living standards that lead people to prop up their incomes by sinking deeply into debt. If wages had tracked productivity from the mid-1970s to now, the minimum wage would be over $19-an-hour, not the current $6.55 an hour. President-elect Obama's campaign promise to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011 will still leave that wage at a poverty level, not a living wage.

Without any real increase in wages, consumers in the past 20 years have piled up debt upon debt. According to Demos, a non-partisan organization, Americans overall credit card debt grew from $211 billion to $876 billion between 1989 and 2006. When credit cards were maxed out, they turned to their sole remaining economic lifeline: home equity. Demos estimates that homeowners sucked out $1.2 trillion in home equity, not for mansions and yachts, but for basic living expenses.

So, with credit virtually dried up, how will future consumer spending -- which accounts for 70 percent of the economy -- be financed? We are now facing perhaps several years, or maybe a decade, in which consumers will have to go through a painful unwinding of the debt morass they have sunken into -- not because they were profligate but because they had no choice. Paychecks have been inadequate to cover the basic costs of life and, now, people simply have no money left -- as the recent steep decline in consumer spending proves.

The point is: To fix that crisis, we need to, if I may use a word in vogue, "change" the system. Changing the system means understanding that the so-called "free market" and so-called "free trade" are not simply things that need tinkering and more regulation. They are the problem. We have a wage depression because, for three decades, we've allowed the "free market" and "free trade" to rule. Neither of these concepts actually exist. They are simply marketing phrases that have masked the building of a world with one fundamental dynamic: wages must be pushed down, even if you work your ass off and become more productive. We need a strong advocate for workers who can have as big a voice as the banks and business, who seem to be, thank you very much, well-represented in the emerging Obama Administration.

Which brings me to the Labor Department. Certainly, this agency has been a backwater, considered a second-level cabinet position and lacking the stature of national security and foreign policy. And, on economic issues, the tragedy is that it has less juice on economic matters than the Treasury and Commerce Departments. Right now, the DOL is run by a political hack: Elaine Chao, who is the wife of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. Talk about a tragedy and farce.

But, take a quick look at the Labor Department: its mandate includes job training, safety and health, enforcement of wage laws, mine safety and international issues -- the whole panoply of issues that are at the heart of constructing a decent economic future for working people. If we want a country where people have some measure of economic security, peoples' wages have to be protected (meaning, you need a Labor Department that stops the widespread practice of violating basic wage-and-hour laws), they have to work in a place that is not dangerous, and they need trade policies -- which a powerful Labor Secretary can have a voice in shaping -- that do not reinforce a low-wage spiral.

Which brings me to John Edwards. I'm not going to argue that he was the perfect candidate on policy (but, admittedly, I'm demanding: if you're not Paul Wellstone, you don't make the cut). But, Edwards dictated the Democratic Party debate, as even the business press acknowledged. It is almost a certainty he would have been in the Obama Administration but for one lapse (we'll come to that in a moment). Let me remind us why:

Edwards decided to make poverty the central element of his run for president. You had to be crazy to do that -- every political expert, pundit and operative would tell you that "ending poverty" would be a no-win plank because the poor don't vote. Poverty -- the reality that millions of Americans cannot afford to put food on the table or clothe their families or send their kids to college and that we live with the scandal of a poverty-level minimum wage -- is a stain on our country.

But, Edwards considered it the cause of his life. You can take a cynical view, as some have, and say it was all made up and he didn't really believe it. But, facts are facts: Edwards staked his political future on the issue.

Since Edwards left the race, how many times have we heard the word "poverty" uttered, much less had a national debate about poverty? Once we get out of the immediate crisis, someone needs to be pounding the table with a fist, reminding us how millions of Americans live every day. I believe Edwards would do so.

When he was running, Edwards would talk about unions all the time. He understood that, without unions, America cannot have a middle class, nor can it be a democratic society because if you have no power and rights at work, you basically give up democratic rights for half your waking life. Unlike the rest of the major candidates, he talked regularly, unprompted, about unions in front of non-labor audiences. You can say: he made it up. But, facts are facts: he said the word "union" in places where he wasn't looking just for a labor endorsement.

Edwards was the first to have a clear, universal health care plan. I actually wished he had been better on the topic, embracing a single-payer plan, which I think is the only plan that will work. But, his plan set the bar for the other major candidates.

He also had a much deeper critique of so-called "free trade". He wasn't just calling for "fixing" NAFTA (whew, thanks to the Democratic primary, we found out that NAFTA was a bad thing). He zeroed in on the much deeper flaws woven inside the so-called "free trade" deals, flaws that give powerful rights to corporations and investors. Those flaws cannot be fixed just by slapping on labor and environmental provisions.

Okay, so, let's talk about sex. My own opinion is that the only strike against Edwards serving in the new Administration is this: he lied about sex. Notice the emphasis: He lied. That he had an affair, from my point of view, is his private business. But, stupidly, he lied about it, not just to his wife, but to a network of his supporters, his campaign operatives and an entire nation. And, yes, that lie could have been very bad for his party had he become the nominee. But, he didn't and it wasn't. Get over it.

Politics, and moral choices, are always a debate about relativism. So, just briefly, let's examine the relative nature of Edwards' transgression. We seem willing, mostly, to overlook the presumptive future Secretary of State's vote for an illegal and immoral war -- the reasoning for which she has, at best, repeatedly obfuscated. Moral strength? Edwards voted for that same war and had the guts to say it was the worst vote of his life. Our future Secretary of State still cannot say her vote was wrong. Instead, she blames, depending on the day, either George Bush for actually going to war and/or a poorly-managed war.

Marc Rich's name has been resurrected in connection with the presumptive nominee for attorney general. That someone who broke the law by committing financial crimes was pardoned (by President Clinton, with Eric Holder as some sort of participant/bystander) hardly makes me blink. This is, after all, the United States of America where we allow CEOs to legally loot their companies, taking tens of millions of dollars in pay, benefits and stock options while their workers barely scrape by.

Far worse, and unforgivable, Marc Rich was a union-buster. Rich controlled a company, Ravenswood, which locked out 1,700 workers and permanently replaced them with scabs, tearing a part a small town in West Virginia. After a 20-month lockout, during which the workers' unemployment benefits ran out and they lived on donated food, Rich, pressured by an international campaign, struck a deal that was devastating to the workers -- but at least got their jobs back. I am more curious about whether Rich's union-busting -- which is never mentioned by the press -- was even raised by Holder.

Finally, we are, effectively, willing to look the other way, forgiving (by giving them billions of dollars in tax money), bankers, financiers, Robert Rubin, and a whole host of other people who obliterated trillions of dollars in wealth and consigned a lot of older Americans to a life of fear and poverty. We are not only not firing them, we are continuing to listen to them and we are giving them influential positions in our government and economy.

Personally, I'm more likely to forgive someone for admitting she or he was wrong, or that she or he had lied about a private matter, and feel comfortable about them as a public leader, before I feel disposed to give a second chance to someone unwilling to be straight about the horrible national, human and economic consequences of their vote for a war or another significant piece of policy. And, morally weak that I am (or perhaps French?), I care a lot less about a person's private liaisons than I care about whether she or he enriched themselves by selling us a phony bill of goods (see: Robert Rubin and the wonders of leverage and de-regulation)

By selecting Edwards, the president-elect will, in fact, be doing two things. First, he can say that "change" means putting a halt to the foolish spectacle of placing qualified and often outstanding public servants in the position that they lie to keep private what is a private matter. Maybe I've been around too long but I don't consider any leader a saint: they almost all lie or shade the truth or manipulate to get ahead. It is the nature of the game of politics. Lying to keep a sexual affair private from your family and friends seems to me to be the most mild form of lying by a political figure and a normal human instinct (who among us would want to be embarrassed in the public arena?).

And redemption is a powerful motivating force. Though I don't think Edwards has ever been a slouch when it comes to his work ethic, does anyone doubt that he would work harder than any other high-level Administration official if only because he would have the chance to change the lead sentence in his political biography?

Second, President-elect Obama has made, according to even conventional wisdom, some very safe and centrist choices. I'm not here to quibble with those choices. But, why not use some political capital and say: "During the campaign, John Edwards spoke eloquently about the challenges facing working Americans. By choosing John Edwards, I am making it clear, as I did in the campaign, that workers' voices will have the same standing in my Administration as those voices representing business. On any important economic decision, John Edwards will be at the table and have my ear. "

Some people will say, "you are right about needing a powerful, visible Labor Secretary but why not pick someone else?" Okay, fair enough. It is unlikely that the president-elect will take the gamble that choosing Edwards will entail. The rhetoric of "change" is one thing; giving up a news cycle or two to Fox News is much more important to the nation's future.

By all means, suggest your own person. While I think Edwards is a great choice, my main goal is this: We can't afford a Labor Secretary who is weak, a vision-less, conventional person whose resume fills some box that can be checked off and, then, he or she gets patted on the head and sent back to run a department that sinks into irrelevancy.

We need a Labor Secretary who is a national figure with a public voice, a person who has the president's ear and confidence, and someone who has the internal fortitude, knowledge and experience to fight the pitched battles with the Goldman Sachs acolytes who are streaming into the new Administration. We'd be well-served with the skills of a trial lawyer who can knock down, one by one, the phony arguments about "free markets" and "free trade".

John Edwards would do us proud.