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Wisconsin & The GOP's War On The Middle Class

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In a post about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's bid to strip public employee unions of collective bargaining — the most important and effective tool for protecting workers — Van Jones wrote:

If a foreign power conspired to inflict this much damage on America's first responders and essential infrastructure, we would see it as an act of war.

It is an act of war, a now all-but-openly-declared war — and not just against unions, but against American workers and against the middle class.

Americans are accustomed to denying even the existence of classes, let alone class conflict. This week America's ongoing class war arrived on our doorstep with the subtlety of a daisy cutter — in the form of Walker's union-busting politics, and the massive protests in Madison and beyond.

Now that the battle is joined, the big questions are what the outcome will be, and whether Democrats will take the opportunity to tell American workers unequivocally whose side they are on.

What we are seeing in Wisconsin is job killing in action, with the goal of eliminating or permanently weakening the middle class. Conservative policies were responsible for the death of American manufacturing and the loss of "good jobs"jobs with decent wages and benefits that aided the growth of the middle class from the working class.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research defines a "good job" as one with health insurance, a pension plan and earnings of at least $17 per hour. That works out to about $34,000 a year, the inflation-adjusted median income for men in 1979, when U.S. manufacturing jobs numbered 19.6 million, an all-time high.

Since then, however, the economy has lost nearly 6 million manufacturing jobs — 52,000 in February alone. Among them were many of the 3.5 million "good jobs" lost from 2000 to 2006, according to John Schmitt, a senior economist at CEPR.

As those jobs disappeared, many blue-collar workers were forced to take jobs with far less pay and benefit security.

... Helping fuel the loss of good jobs has been a decline in union membership, industry deregulation, increased outsourcing of state and government services and economic policies that focus more on containing inflation than on maintaining full employment, Schmitt said. (Emphasis mine.)

What Conservatives Really Want

Now conservatives have turned their eliminating  what may be the last "good jobs" left in America, in terms of benefits. It's not just public employees and public employee unions conservatives have in their sights, but the very concepts of a common good and a public interest. George Lakoff explained in "What Conservatives Want," a post dedicated to the protesters in Wisconsin (emphasis mine):

Conservatives really want to change the basis of American life, to make America run according to the conservative moral worldview in all areas of life.

…The way to understand the conservative moral system is to consider a strict father family. The father is The Decider, the ultimate moral authority in the family. His authority must not be challenged. His job is to protect the family, to support the family (by winning competitions in the marketplace), and to teach his kids right from wrong by disciplining them physically when they do wrong. The use of force is necessary and required. Only then will children develop the internal discipline to become moral beings. And only with such discipline will they be able to prosper. And what of people who are not prosperous? They don't have discipline, and without discipline they cannot be moral, so they deserve their poverty. The good people are hence the prosperous people. Helping others takes away their discipline, and hence makes them both unable to prosper on their own and function morally.

The market itself is seen in this way. The slogan, "Let the market decide" assumes the market itself is The Decider. The market is seen as both natural (since it is assumed that people naturally seek their self-interest) and moral (if everyone seeks their own profit, the profit of all will be maximized by the invisible hand). As the ultimate moral authority, there should be no power higher than the market that might go against market values. Thus the government can spend money to protect the market and promote market values, but should not rule over it either through (1) regulation, (2) taxation, (3) unions and worker rights, (4) environmental protection or food safety laws, and (5) tort cases. Moreover, government should not do public service. The market has service industries for that.

Thus, it would be wrong for the government to provide health care, education, public broadcasting, public parks and so on. The very idea of these things is at odds with the conservative moral system. No one should be paying for anyone else. It is individual responsibility in all arenas. Taxation is thus seen as taking money away from those who have earned it and giving it to people who don't deserve it. Taxation cannot be seen as providing the necessities of life for a civilized society, and, as necessary, for business to prosper.

The public workers targeted in Wisconsin and others are the same people who make middle-class life and security in America possible. They are the people who ensure our safety, who safeguard our health, and facilitate us getting where we want to go, among other things. They are the police who responded within minutes after our house alarm was set off by a strong wind that blew open a door that lacked a deadbolt lock; the teachers and school staff that helped our son when he needed it; the paramedics who responded quickly when a neighbor's child had trouble breathing; the firefighters who responded when a neighbor detected a gas leak; the bus driver that gets our son to school safely each day; the public transportation workers who get me to work and back home safely each day. The list goes on and on.

When abstract budget cuts translate into fewer teachers, police officers, health workers, firefighters, etc. in our communities, we begin to realize that such cuts hurt rather than heal.

The very necessities that support the existence of a middle class are threatened. They will not be replaced if conservatives are successful in eliminating them. They will not be affordable if privatized. The reason that there are public services supported by public workers is that there are things we believe need doing and should be done even if they're not profitable. Where there is not enough of a profit margin for private industry to see a benefit, and too great a need for charitable entities to meet entirely, it becomes a question of the public interest, requiring a public solution. We are faced with a conservative movement that not only doesn't believe in a public good but sees it at the biggest of our problems.
Ideology vs. Reality: Something Has To Give

Wisconsin and other states are where the irresistible force of ideology meets the immovable object of reality. While many Americans support the idea of "tough" budget cuts, most Americans want the painful cuts made somewhere else — someplace where they won't feel it. Like the Johnny Mercer lyric that says, "something's gotta give." It will either be the will of the people or the ideological move to increase economic pain and inequality.

As America looked on with the rest of the world at the amazing, dictator-toppling protests in Egypt, we heard reports of how Egypt's economic inequality catalyzed a citizens' movement. And we learned that economic inequality is worse here than in Egypt.

It's no coincidence that even conservatives see the parallels between Cairo and Madison. The connection between the uprisings in Cairo and Madison aren't lost on the participants in both. Facilitated by the internet, protesters in Cairo and Madison have exchanged statements of solidarity.Technology may have partly bridged that gap, but what brings the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere closer to home is not so much the technology as the understanding that passes along it, through barriers of culture, language, religion, etc. What does it mean when Americans in Madison, Wis., see themselves in the same boat at protesters in Egypt? It means that our domestic economic policies have mirrored our economically driven foreign policy, with consequences as devastating to working and middle-class Americans as those our decades-long support of Mubarak's regime was to Egyptians. A New York Times article recently stated, "Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt has long functioned as a state where wealth bought political power and political power bought great wealth." The same can be accurately said of the U.S. in the past 30 years. In Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer--and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson explain what's happened in the last 30 years.

That shift occurred in the 1970s because businesses and the super-rich began a process of political organization in the early 1970s that enabled them to pool their wealth and contacts to achieve dominant political influence (described in Chapter 5). To take one of the many statistics they provide, the number of companies with registered lobbyists in Washington grew from 175 in 1971 to nearly 2,500 in 1982 (p. 118). Money pouring into lobbying firms, political campaigns, and ideological think tanks created the organizational muscle that gave the Republicans a formidable institutional advantage by the 1980s. The Democrats have only reduced that advantage in the past two decades by becoming more like Republicans–more business-friendly, more anti-tax, and more dependent on money from the super-rich. And that dependency has severely limited both their ability and their desire to fight back on behalf of the middle class (let alone the poor), which has few defenders in Washington.

Americans are fast approaching a crossroads where the abstract budget cuts run headlong into reality of the pain those cuts will inflict on our families and communities. And in the communities where Americans live and work, the abstract notion of budget cuts translates into real economic pain. It translates into states taking action to increase economic pain while at the same time undercutting their ability to relieve the worst of it.

A Lost Middle Class, Unbridled Corporate Power

The war against public employees is also a war on the many things government does that support the middle class. That Republicans have not offered alternatives to these supports either reflect their lack of concern about the American middle class, or their confidence that the private sector will eventually supply alternative supports.

Either way, we're probably facing a "lost decade" in which middle and working-class Americans suffer the loss of these supports, facing stagnation at best and downward mobility at worst. For younger generations, this will come a crucial time developmentally, during which they would otherwise acquire or inherit advantages they could then pass on to their children, thus perpetuating the  middle class.

This is an attack on the middle class, both directly and indirectly; even on those of us who have fallen for the right's "politics of envy" and thus focus our ire on public employees rather than at those further up the economic ladder who are, still, feeling no pain in this recession. Instead too many of us look at public employee unions and ask "Hey, why should they have it so good?," instead of asking "Hey, how come we don't have it that good?" (Perhaps because only 6.9% of private employees are unionized now, due in no small part to Republican efforts to aid corporate union-busting.)

As Kevin Drum notes, killing off unions removes the only remaining counterbalance to corporate power.

... Of course unions have pathologies. Every big human institution does. And anyone who thinks they're on the wrong side of an issue should fight it out with them. But unions are also the only large-scale movement left in America that persistently acts as a countervailing power against corporate power. They're the only large-scale movement left that persistently acts in the economic interests of the middle class.

So sure: go ahead and fight the teachers unions on charter schools. Go ahead and insist that public sector unions in Wisconsin need to take pay and benefit cuts if that's what you believe. Go ahead and rail against Davis-Bacon. It's a free country.

But the decline of unions over the past few decades has left corporations and the rich with essentially no powerful opposition. No matter what doubts you might have about unions and their role in the economy, never forget that destroying them destroys the only real organized check on the power of the business community in America. If the last 30 years haven't made that clear, I don't know what will.

Perhaps now more Americans know how high the stakes really are. Recent polls show that 65% of Wisconsin residents and 61% of Americans support the right of public employee unions to bargain collectively. (In Wisconsin, Walker is losing the support even among Republican senators.)

This attack on the middle class comes at a time when the middle class has already been weakened by the economic impact of conservative policies and politics. Wisconsin illustrates that conservative economic and fiscal policies create crises that Republicans then exploit to accomplish political ends -- weakening their opponents and rewarding their cronies along the way. Naked cronyism is employed in pursuit of what to conservatives is a higher goal: to "finish the job" of remaking our economy (to more closely resemble those of other countries also facing citizen revolts) through destroying regulation, consumer protection, collective bargaining, labor organizing, and thus ensuring continued growth of economic inequality.

Mother Jones magazine spelled it out in just eight charts.

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The importance of this end, the permanent diminishing of the middle class, to Republicans is evident in how far they are willing to go and how unswerving they are in the face of public opposition and the cognitive dissonance of reality.

So, the debt or the deficit is not the point in the first place—because the deficit is merely the symptom, not the disease. The disease is the conservative economics that have created the crisis. The crisis they have created is the point. Give conservatives this: They never let a crisis go to waste, in the way the Obama administration have done thus far.

Indeed, in his short time in office Walker has destroyed (and threatened to destroy more) jobs than his policies are likely to create, if previous applications of conservative policy are any indication. The $117 billion in tax breaks that Walker and the Republican legislature pushed through for GOP cronies basically created the very crisis he claims to address. That Walker refuses any compromise at all, even though the unions agreed to accept wage and benefit reductions as long as they keep the right to collective bargaining, shows that the budget isn't the point. Power is. That Walker doesn't have time to talk to the state's Senate Democrats, but does have time to take a call he thinks is from one of the Koch brothers, shows exactly whose side he's on.

If Walker accepts compromise, then unions survive to bargain another day. Meaning that the wage and benefit reductions are not guaranteed permanent. If Wisconsin's economy improves, the states public employee unions would be a position to bargain for a return to previous wage and benefit levels, based on the argument that their sacrifice should end with the state's budget crisis ends.

The Crossroads, In Washington And Beyond

We are approaching a crossroads. It happens that this time it's been reached in Wisconsin, and other states are approaching the same point. At some point, it becomes impossible to camouflage the blatant cronyism, inequality, and bald-faced contradictions in what conservatives promise and what their policies actually deliver. At that crossroads, things can go at least a couple of ways.

Either people resist, because they are still inspired by the possibility of change and believe in their ability to affect change with great effort, or they are successfully crushed by economic pain and effectively disenfranchised the point that not only do they no longer believe in the possibility of change, but they no longer bother with an effort because they believe "The government does what it wants to do. We can do nothing."

"The people united," goes the chant, "will never be defeated." The fate of that union, and the ability of united people to change the direction of government, is being decided in Madison, Wisconsin, today. And maybe in your state capitol tomorrow.

We will soon face a stalemate in the federal government similar to that in Wisconsin. Since congressional Democrats won't have the option of flight, they had better be ready to fight, and to make the case that Republicans have refused to bargain at all, let alone bargain in good faith. Democrats must make the case that they are working to prevent Republicans in Congress from doing to the rest of the country what Gov. Walker and Republican legislators are trying to do in Wisconsin and other states now.

What's happening in Wisconsin and across the country may be the beginning of Americans realizing the consequences of voting in Republicans whose policies don't reflect what Americans really want. It may be the beginning of the Republicans running smack into the reality that the midterm elections did not give them a mandate or confer a public stamp of approval on their agenda.

We can only hope it is the beginning of Americans turning back that agenda when it comes to their hometowns.

A popular business tip advises would-be business leaders to "Find a parade and get in front of it." The question is whether Democrats, having failed to start a parade after 2008 will have the sense to jump in front of the one that started in Wisconsin and, at long last, lead it.

Democrats' first step towards real leadership, from the president on down, should star with an unequivocal statement of support for public employees and public employee unions in Wisconsin and other states, support for the right to organize and bargain collectively, and ultimately support for the progressive values that are the foundation of all the above.

The conservative war against the working people, the middle class, and fundamental American values has burst out into the open. It's time now for the president and Democrats to speak up and stand up; to leave no doubt whose side they're on, by publicly joining the fight.