National Urban League President Hugh B. Price discusses American society.
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GUEST: Hugh B. Price
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And over the years I’ve sort of tracked and certainly very much admired the career path forged by my guest today. Graduating from Yale Law School in 1966, Hugh Price began his professional life as a Connecticut legal services lawyer representing low income clients, and eventually becoming
New Haven’s Human Resources Administrator.
Most of us, of course, came to know my guest best when he joined the Editorial Board of The New York Times … and later when he served as Senior Vice President of Channel 13 in New York and as director of its national production division.
Still later, Hugh Price became Vice President of the Rockefeller Foundation … and then, just before he joined me here on The Open Mind ten years ago, was named President of the prestigious National Urban League.
Now my guest is Senior Advisor and Co-Chair of the Nonprofit and Philanthropy Practice Group of DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary here in New York.
And I’m interested that though while here on The Open Mind in 1995 Hugh Price seemed most concerned that in America our traditional “social compact” had broken down on both sides … that of individuals and that of society … in a recent article he argues most vehemently for what he calls “A Social Compact for Working People.”
And I would like to start today by asking my guest whether that means that they – once again – are America’s “forgotten” men and women? Is that what you were thinking?
PRICE: Yeah. I think this country was built on the premise that working people have a chance to rise, to enjoy comfortable living, to become part of the economic and social mainstream of our society.
And I worry that we’ve lost sight of that. When you look at the erosion of pensions. When you look at the increased health care burdens that people are carrying. When you look at the soaring costs of so-called “affordable” housing. When you look at the tuition pressure that’s on the children of low-income and working families.
If you look beyond one individual issue to the constellation of pressures that they’re under and couple that with the growing economic insecurity that many working people have, folks may have jobs, but they are strange kinds of jobs with terms limits and no benefits, etc., I think the social compact is breaking down and I think that’s a very dangerous trend for this country and one that we better try to reverse.
HEFFNER: But you know, it’s so interesting to me … you say we’ve sort of lost sight of the way we began. Do you think we’ve lost sight, or rather deliberately as we go to the polls, opt for these changes?
PRICE: Well, I think that there’s been a sort of subtle transformation from the notion of America as an opportunity society to the notion of America as an ownership society. And that’s fine. And people should own assets and build assets. But the subtext of the ownership notion is that, if you have a problem, you own it. If you’re poor and you can’t send you child to college, you own that problem. If you don’t have enough pensions and if you don’t, you know have health insurance, you own that problem. There’s a diminished sense that we’re in this together.
And that’s, I think, the essence of the great debate over Social Security. Social Security was created as a mechanism to provide a minimum floor of income so that poor people … so that people who have worked all their lives to build this country’s economy and sustain the economy would never be poor. It was shared obligation.
Now we’re saying, “Well, you can take a piece of this and you own it and we’re going to reduce our shared sense of responsibility for your economic security.” So it’s an ominous trend. And I think it’s one that we really need to try to reverse.
HEFFNER: But the question that I’m really asking you …
HEFFNER: Do you think we understand that that is what is happening? I think it’s a pretty darn good description of what’s happening.
PRICE: Right. There’s increasing coverage of the fact that it’s happening. I think the fact that there’s been such a resistance to the plan to partially privatize Social Security is a sign that we’re beginning to understand it. Certainly the AARP and others have led the charge there and the fact that that plan seems to be stalled out is an indication that we, we finally “get it”.
Ahem, the fact … just recently we read about a bi-partisan coalition of Conservatives and Centrists and Liberals who want to try to do something about the huge problem of the uninsured in the health care system indicates that we’re beginning to understand. So I think that it’s beginning to dawn on people.
The fact that United Airlines had to turn back it’s pension program and a lot of retirees are going to lose pension benefits … if that happens a few more times, we’ll understand it. So, I think it’s a shame that it takes pain to drive the point home. But I think that that is becoming evident and people are beginning to ask the question again … “Don’t we have a shared stake in, in certain minimum decent living for everyone?”
HEFFNER: A share stake.
HEFFNER: That’s an interesting concept and what you say about the ownership society. I was fascinated … your “A Social Compact for Working People” … you’re right, the ownership society means that you own your problems.
PRICE: Yeah. It means you can grow your assets and you own those, too, and you want everybody to own a house if they’re so inclined, and etc. But it doesn’t mean that, that you forsake certain shared responsibilities. If for no other reason than you can be in the same boat at some point, too. Anyone of us can be in that boat. So a collective sense of, of responsibility in providing a floor below which we try not to let people fall I think is hugely important and, and that’s a question of appropriations; a question of programs; it’s a question of how you structure the tax code. The idea that we’d have massive tax cuts that would go largely to the wealthy and that would undermine the ability of government to provide the kind of floor we’re talking about … to provide affordable tuition for young people, is an indication of how the priorities I think have gotten off track and we’re going to have a big debate in this country about getting them on track again.
HEFFNER: Big debate. Do you think that’s forthcoming?
PRICE: I …
HEFFNER: Do you see that, really?
PRICE: I think the swift and robust push-back to the plans around Social Security are an indication that there’s a mobilization around these issues. And, you know, it’s got to hit the heartland, it’s got to hit the so-called “red” states, where people who work for these big companies and the pensions are in jeopardy and more of the health benefits are being foisted on workers. I think it’s … I think that point is being driven home.
HEFFNER: It … it’s …
PRICE: So, the optimist in me believes that there will be a serious debate about this.
HEFFNER: The … how about the realist?
PRICE: The realist … I mean … the, the … Social Security was a stalking horse for this conversation. That plan has not been adopted by Congress.
HEFFNER: And it has not yet been rejected, Hugh.
PRICE: No, I know. But it hasn’t been adopted yet. And already there’s talk about “Well, we didn’t mean to privatize it. And let’s look at some options.” So I, I think that the resistance is going to force a more pragmatic conversation about what’s right and what needs to be done in order to prop up working people.
HEFFNER: But in terms of what underlies this movement. I was fascinated, turning back to your old New York Times and to that editorial spread on the OpEd and the Editorial page … fascinated by David Brooks piece right at the beginning of June and then Tom Friedman’s piece the next day … both sort of saying the same thing, in different ways with a different amount of glee, I think, involved in the statement, that Europe … the old Europe …
HEFFNER: … can’t do what we seem to be wanting to do when you talk about … let’s say, if we talk about Liberal Americans.
PRICE: Right. Well, there are levels of benefits that may not be sustainable. And Europe is facing that now. They have vacation benefits, they have pension benefits, they have unemployment compensation benefits that may not be sustainable because of the burden that that places on employers, for example, but you, you … these are the kinds of questions that one has to debate.
I think that with the shrinkage in the size of the number of working people who can sustain folks who are retired under Social Security … I think there’s going to have to be a discussion about the size of the benefits. But that’s very different from saying we’re going to take a piece out if and privatize it and that this is no longer an economic insurance program, it’s a private pension. And that’s certainly where the discussion about reforming Social Security started. And I think we’ve pulled back from that.
I think what’s also interesting is that in one of his columns not long about before this famous centrist compromise over the filibusters, David Brooks also called out and said, “Will the Centrists please stand up and exert some leadership and help restore some sanity to this ideological divide that’s just out of control.” And they did, just about the next day … probably wasn’t in response to his column, but …
I think people are worrying about how ideologically charged policy-making has become and whether it’s in issues of economic society and the social compact … whether it’s this new bi-partisan effort, fledging effort to begin to try to make some sense of health care issue and the uninsured. Whether it’s going to be a discussion of what we do about global warming and whether we respect the evidence that’s … that the scientists provide.
I’m hopeful that they’ll be a gravitation back toward rational evidence driven conversation and, and not just pure ideological debate over these issue.
HEFFNER: Well, “I’m hopeful …” I think you’re being more than hopeful.
PRICE: Well, I don’t know what the alternative is. I don’t know where the alternative leads one. I mean … if, if you’re hopeful, you … you weigh in as best you can. You contribute as best you can to driving the conversation in that direction. The alternative is just to throw up your hands and head off into the sunset, or …
HEFFNER: No. The other alternative is real action, stronger action, not an assumption that somehow or other wisdom will prevail.
PRICE: Well wisdom has to be supported by strong action. I don’t think it’s just going to be dawning, an awakening, an enlightenment, I think it’s going to be a realization that that’s where the debate has to be framed and then supported by the exercise of power and leverage.
HEFFNER: Then the question is, “What’s wrong with Texas? Ah, with Kansas. I know what’s wrong with Texas. What’s wrong with Kansas, what’s happened to us in not recognizing so many of the things that you’re saying … in voting against our interests?
PRICE: Well, there’s a lot about the world that is turbulent and confusing and upsetting. And people haven’t seen policy makers deal with the kinds of issues that worry them.
Folks who are involved in the faith community and in the religious community have become ever more aggressive and sophisticated in reaching out to people who don’t feel that their concerns about life are being responded to by policy-makers.
And this is happening not only among White evangelicals, it’s happening in the Black church as well. The churches, some of the most successful religious movements are being led by master organizers.
These are not just people who get up on the pulpit and, and preach …they’re back-stopped by very sophisticated communications apparatus, selling of videotapes and the books and the lectures, masterful grassroots organizing around the kitchen table. Many of the organizers have taken a page out of the text of Sol Welinsky, the great organizer.
So, I think we’re seeing that, that there’s a genius in the faith community in reaching out to and trying to respond to the felt needs who are obviously stepping up. And you go to some of the African American churches in South Central LA and you know, they’re running two and three worship services every Sunday with five and six … ten thousand people showing up. It’s astonishing.
HEFFNER: Is there a political aspect to that?
PRICE: No, but there’s an anti-political aspect which is the church is responding to felt needs of people who don’t feel that secular society is addressing sufficiently. And they also are brilliant in attending to people’s tax needs, they have centers to help people start businesses. I mean it’s quite the … it’s extraordinarily sophisticated. So you’ve got the combination of the sophistication, the organizing prowess, the extraordinary amounts of money.
I remember reading in a book called “The Road to Dominion” which is about the strategic and ideological evolution of the Far Right that some of the evangelical television programs that we see that, you know, raise lots of money through pledging … may be raising a half a billion dollars … half a “billion” dollars a year to finance some of this work. So, I think … I think we’ve been insufficiently attentive to that, number one.
Number two … I think, frankly, there’s a very well organized apparatus to try to move people to the Right. I once drove from … where was it … drove to Columbus, Ohio from Pittsburgh, about a five hour drive on the Interstate. And I listened to “talk radio”. It was virulent and relentless, I almost couldn’t find a channel that didn’t have this stuff. Poisonous rhetoric. But if … there’s enough of it and if we assume that people have short attention spans and we assume that perhaps the schools aren’t teaching the skills of critical thinking as much as they should and folks don’t read and all the information comes unfiltered through news, you know, news entities like Fox, for example.
I’m a lifelong Democrat, Liberal … Fox … the notion that it’s fair and balanced is kind of laughable. I used to go on there. I had a lot of fun debating, you know, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity … that’s a real world. But, you know, you can tell the tilt there, it’s very clear. The tilt on radio is very clear.
And now, of course, we have Liberal “talk radio” and soon … we’ll have Liberal television and, as far as I’m concerned, a pox on all their houses, because the more critical thinking that’s required, where you weigh evidence, is, is a rarer commodity now.
HEFFNER: Well I’ve done a lot of listening too, to radio.
HEFFNER: And I’ve been absolutely astonished …
HEFFNER: … at, at what I hear. But, at the end of the day, or at the end of the month of listening, I don’t find it in my heart and soul to be as optimistic as you are because I think there’s a lot of power there that we still haven’t quite correctly estimated.
PRICE: Oh, I … I … I’m, by being hopeful I’m not underestimating the power. Please don’t construe that. I mean I’ve, I’ve done some very useful reading on the, on the powers and it’s eye-opening once you read the depth of it. And I, I had to deal with the manifestations of that power when I was head of the Urban League, I mean I’d go on shows and I’d debate … the, you know, folks who were writing the OpEd pages … I debated the people who were the hosts of the television shows. So I’m, I’m familiar with the power. I just think I see interesting signs of push-back … on all sides. And this is not just about the Right. It’s also about the Left.
I think that people are being to say … “Let’s …”, I hope … “Let’s move toward the center to have a conversation about what the facts are and what society’s needs are. And I just see glimmers of it, that’s all I’m saying.
You know if we’d had this conversation six months ago, I might have been utterly despairing. But the push-back on Social Security, the bi-partisan effort to begin a conversation, which involves the Heritage Foundation, and folks, you know up and down the ideological spectrum want to have a conversation about what to do with the uninsured in our health care system. Big issues.
HEFFNER: Hugh, do you think if we were to talk to John Smith on the street …
PRICE: Which street? What part of the country?
HEFFNER: Okay …
HEFFNER: Fair. Fair question. I don’t mean Wall Street.
HEFFNER: I do mean most streets that reflect people who are not down at the absolute bottom or way, way up at the top. Do you think this concept of a Social Compact or a Social Contract …
PRICE: Does it resonate?
PRICE: Ahem, that verbiage probably doesn’t.
HEFFNER: But you could interpret it, you believe?
PRICE: Yeah. If you talk to people about the increasing strain of … talk to working people and poor people about the increasing pressure on them, try to figure how to send their children to public colleges and universities … they get it. If you talk to them about the difficulty getting health insurance, affording health insurance … they get it.
I was in Houston, Texas not long ago talking to a woman who’s on the county commission there. She told me that of all the employers in the county who have 50 or fewer employees, 75% of those employees do not have health insurance.
PRICE: So they “get” it. If you talk to people about the strain …
HEFFNER: Excuse me.
HEFFNER: How did they vote? Do you think …
PRICE: I didn’t … I didn’t ask her that question …
HEFFNER: How do you think they voted?
PRICE: I’m not sure how many of them have the right to vote. I mean it may be a very large immigrant population there that’s undocumented.
PRICE: In that employer base. If you talk to people about, you know, United Airlines having to turn its pension over to the government and if that happens a few more times, I think it will trigger … What we don’t know, is the extent to which these concerns are sort of reverberating around the country in ways that we’re not even aware of. I do find that the push-back on the Social Security reforms is a, is a leading indicator that perhaps there’s more discontent around these issues than we realized.
And it did not express itself in the election, but it sure seems to have reared its head pretty quickly afterward.
HEFFNER: Oh, in fact, in the election it moved in the other direction.
PRICE: Right. Right.
HEFFNER: There was quite a substantial …
HEFFNER: … spread between the two major candidates.
PRICE: Right. Right.
HEFFNER: And you can’t say that John Edwards and John Kerry didn’t try to address these issues. Now maybe in the face of terrorism and 9/11 they just couldn’t do it sufficiently.
PRICE: I think there were issues … I think there were issues with the way in which they conducted the campaign, number one. I think the message was a bit muddier, number two. And number three, getting back to a prior discussion about the church … there’s a machine … if you looked at the comparative prowess of the political machinery on the ground … Republicans have called and raised the Democrats in the … just the vote pulling and the connectivity with their constituent base. And the sophistication of working that base, keeping it loyal, etc.
Ahmm, so I, I think that not only do we have to worry about message and, and who’s running for office, but the, the apparatus has got to be re-built. It’s got to be … you can’t just … the fascinating thing about reading this book called “The Road to Dominion” by Sara Diamond is that the Right didn’t just focus on winning the White House. They set about fifty years ago to try to take over the country school district by school district … council district by council district and they’d get to the White House in due course.
In some respects Ronald Reagan was ahead of plan. Bush was on plan. The apparatus was in place at that juncture. It’s an apparatus that involves, you know, door to door organizing. Organizing around kitchen tables. Really, you know, straight, old-fashioned, old fashioned organizing.
HEFFNER: Listen, I remember …how many years ago it was that Richard Viguerie used to sit here with me …
HEFFNER: … and, I went back … if I were to go back to those transcripts, I’m sure I’d find him saying the very things that …
HEFFNER: … you’re saying … or giving us clues.
PRICE: From the perspective of … if one were a political scientist … and you read the story of how the Right has evolved as a political force, you can only be awe struck in admiring … substance aside … the strategic and tactical odyssey has been something to behold. And the irony is that they, they went to school on the Left. They went to school on the Civil Rights Movement. And then they “called and raised”.
HEFFNER: I like that concept of “called and raised”. Except that it has done us in. And you think we’ll, in turn, do them in.
PRICE: Well, I don’t know if that’s the word. I think, I think we’ll redress the balance. I think these things do go in cycles, I think people overreach, they get carried away and overreach. And, and at some juncture people start to ask harder questions about what has this wrought and, and is the debate over Terry Schiavo … are some of these other debates today …what do they have to do with my own well-being. I, I think that … people come to terms with that.
HEFFNER: You said it ten years ago …
HEFFNER: … when you came here last. And you said it all through your Urban League involvement. Your emphasis upon matters economic.
PRICE: Economic and education. They’re intertwined. I, I have spent a lot of time thinking about sort of “where’s the country, where’s the African-American community?”. And I have been working on a book, which is not even close to being published. But, thinking, you know, in the, in the 19th century the thrusts of the whole Abolitionist push to eradicate slavery was essentially to establish freedom for African Americans. And so, simplistic me, I’ve sort of called it the Freedom Revolution.
The whole thrust of the 20th century and the Civil Rights Movement was to establish equality under law. Get rid of lynching. But the core thrust of that was to establish equal status under law for African Americans. Again a simplistic label … The Equality Revolution.
I think the revolution in the 21st century is what I would call The Development Revolution. And the phrase “development”, if you look in Roget’s or Webster’s or whatever, is the notion of a, “A blossoming. Fuller cultivation and flowering of possibility. Reaching for fuller potential.”
And that’s got to be the work now. Lots of folks, thanks to the first two revolutions have made it into the American mainstream; it’s been one of the great stories in the history of humankind. But we know that vast, vast number, for example, in the African American community are still stuck on the outside of the mainstream looking in. Children in families stuck in poverty, stuck in low income status, etc. And that work has not been be attended to by the Equality Revolution.
And that has led me to say, “A focus on development in the 21st century means that we’ve got to be obsessed with education. Got to be sure our children know how to read, think, compute, function in a contemporary economy.” We’ve got to be obsessed with economic power. Not just getting a job. Not just getting a job that pays well. But building assets, starting businesses.
We’ve got to be obsessed with, frankly, our own wellness, because if you don’t attend to health, it can really get in the way of everything else in a big way. So there’s got to be a lot of attention to that. And, and taking greater control of our own health. And frankly, I think that whatever healthcare reform measures emerge from the chaos we have now, we’re going to put more responsibility on individuals, they’re going to “incent” and “disincent” individual behavior because of the correlations between certain kinds of prevention and, and good health.
I think an increased emphasis on amassing political power and political leverage, and then the end game, as, as I think I mentioned … is economic.
So I think that the focus in the 21st century, when you look at the reality of where the government is, the fact that … thanks to the tax cuts, the government’s virtually broke … so you can’t count on it being an active partner. A development agenda focuses on, you know, preparation.
It focuses on economic … the building of economic assets. It focuses on getting one’s “head straight”, so that you’ve got a development orientation. And it focuses on amassing leverage so that you can change that conversation about policy in this country.
HEFFNER: That’s quite a prescription for what we need and must do for the 21st century. Hugh Price, thank you so much for joining me …
PRICE: A pleasure. Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.