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Davis-Bacon: Racist Pork

The moderate wing of the liberal blogosphere is abuzz over President's Bush's suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act in the Katrina zone. In essence, Davis-Bacon requires federally subsidized construction contractors to pay union wages and follow union work rules. Some moderate Democrats, now represented by Mickey Kaus in the blogosphere, have opposed Davis-Bacon for years because it raises the costs of government construction while favoring established contractors and skilled union workers over their less-established competitors. Other Democrats, however, ably represented by Matt Yglesias, argue that Davis-Bacon helps unions, and unions help the Democrats and liberal causes more generally, so Davis-Bacon is a good thing, even if it's a wasteful law.

I've written a fair amount about Davis-Bacon, and especially its blatantly racist origins. My first paper on the subject, published by the Cato Institute way back in 1993, can be found here. More comprehensive research resulted in chapter 3 of my book, Only One Place of Redress: African Americans, Labor Regulations and the Courts from Reconstruction to the New Deal, which I've temporarily put online here. I doubt any objective observer could read this chapter and believe labor union denials (expressed in a paper, apparently not available online, entitled "The Davis-Bacon Act: A Response to the CATO Institute's Attack," by the AFL-CIO, Building and Construction Trades Department), that Davis-Bacon was motivated in significant part by the desire to exclude African Americans from federal construction jobs.

Last week, someone from the New York Times asked me to write a short piece arguing that Davis-Bacon should be repealed. The Times ultimately declined to run the piece, but I reprint it, in a slightly longer version below.

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Related Posts (on one page):

  1. "When Affirmative Action was White":
  2. Davis-Bacon: Racist Pork
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Comments
"When Affirmative Action was White":

Ira Katznelson had a piece in the Washington Post yesterday discussing the discriminatory effects of New Deal and Fair Deal economic legislation. As previously noted by Jacob Levy in the comments section of the VC last week, Katznelson's book on the subject seems to complement my own discussion of the discriminatory effects of New Deal labor policies in Only One Place of Redress.

When I was on the teaching market, I made the mistake (as a professor here at University of Michigan mused to me over lunch recently, "never do your job talk on race or rape") of basing my job talk on themes related to Only One Place of Redress. Given that the paper was purely historical, I thought it odd that professors at a couple of schools drew the conclusion that the point of my paper was to somehow undermine affirmative action. Quite the contrary, I protested; while New Deal labor policies tend to give some credence to public choice theory's general skeptical outlook on government, and while I was not attempting to address any current political issues at all,* the public policy conclusion that readers were mostly likely to draw from my work (especially if they happened to be liberal law professors) was that if government policies in the past were partly responsible for creating the black underclass, it is the government's obligation to enact policies to try to undo that damage.

I haven't seen Katznelson's book yet, but his op-ed makes the point explicitly: past federal policies were "affirmative action for whites," and the current response should be massive federal aid for African Americans.

*Given that African Americans are now protected by the Votings Rights Act, my thesis that their interests were ignored during the New Deal period because they mostly lacked voting rights and thus political power was not especially "relevant."

UPDATE: John Rosenberg points me to an interesting review of Katznelson's book by Jonathan Yardley, plus Rosenberg's own comments.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. "When Affirmative Action was White":
  2. Davis-Bacon: Racist Pork