Class Matters

Class warfare is alive and well in Washington, DC.

Last summer, after Al Gore delivered his populist-lite acceptance speech at the Democratic convention -- in which he pledged to combat powerful interests on behalf of common folk -- Republicans and much of the chattering class hooted him for resorting to old-fashioned get-the-rich classism and proclaimed that his desperate tactics would be soundly rejected by The People. After the election was finally resolved, New Democrats -- those bankrolled by corporate lobbyists -- attributed Gore's defeat to his down-beat populism (as diluted and last-minute as it was) and they echoed the conventional wisdom that us-against-them rhetoric is a thing of the past and does not reflect the realities of the New Economy.

All these predictions and analyses, though, were undermined by the numbers, for Gore did draw more popular votes than George W. Bush. And had the Supreme Court not intervened in the fiasco in Florida, Gore probably would have pulled ahead in the statewide recount ordered by the state supreme court. Consequently, it's hard to argue his line of attack was an obvious mistake. Nevertheless, his loss has not side-lined class warfare -- just open talk of it, for the Republicans have been advancing their silent form of class conflict on various fronts.

Battle one -- the Bush tax cut. After Bush made nice-nice with the Democrats -- and suckered them into seconding his empty rhetoric about bipartisanship -- his Republican allies in the House rolled the Democrats on legislation encompassing the central provision of the Bush tax cut.

There is no denying that Bush and the House GOPers rushed through a measure that by lowering tax brackets sends far more "relief" to higher-income Americans than lower-income-Americans. The top 1 percent would get about 44 percent of the Bush tax give-back, according to Citizens for tax Justice. The GOPers argue this is only natural since the rich pay more in taxes. But by one estimate, the 1-percenters pay 39 percent. Thus, even by Bushian standards, they will pocket more than their fair share. (When Bush's Treasury Department released figures on the distributional impact of the President's proposed tax cut, it conveniently left out the calculation for the top 1 percent, which previous administrations customarily included.)

There's no compelling need to structure a tax cut in favor of the wealthy. If the goal is to send $2 trillion back to people to spark the sluggish economy, why not zap it all to middle- and low-income citizens? Is it better that a boost in consumer spending be Lexus-driven rather than Taurus-driven?

This was how Republicans and the corporate lobby tried to demonstrate the Bush tax cut is good for working Americans: the National Association of Manufacturers sent out a memo to business groups that urged lobbyists to show up at a Capitol Hill tax cut rally wearing hard hats and non-business attire. "WE DO NEED BODIES -- they must be DRESSED DOWN, [to] appear to be REAL WORKER types, etc," said the note, which was obtained by The Washington Post. Camouflage -- just like in real warfare -- to hide the truth.

Under the House measure, the top 1 percent would see their after-tax income go up 3.8 percent, the bottom 20 percent, 0.6 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Why shouldn't those numbers be flipped?

Millions of low-income Americans who pay little, if any, income taxes but who are socked by Social Security taxes would realize no relief under this plan. And the Bush/GOP tax cuts are based on iffy surplus projections, so there's a possibility that down the road the tax cuts will have to be paid for by reductions in social spending or a raid on the Social Security surplus -- either of which would likely hurt the poor more than the affluent.

In order to beat back the Bush offensive, the Democrats will have to persuade Americans the tax cut of this charming and friendly fella is unfair, and that means they have to spell out who wins and who loses. ("Our strategy at the moment," quips one congressional Democratic aide, "is to wait for Strom Thurmond to die.") If the Democrats don't want to acknowledge they are in the middle of class warfare, perhaps they can refer to it as a "policy dispute involving population strata distributional benefits." Still, they are going to have to ask people, which side -- or strata -- are you on?

Battle two -- the ergonomics rules. In response to one of the most intense corporate lobby blitzes in years, the Republicans in the House and Senate -- aided by several conservative Democratic senators -- voted to deep-six the ergonomics standards issued last November by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The rules -- ten years in the making -- were wiped out with little debate.

he standards, designed to reduce repetitive stress injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace, covered nearly 102 million workers. A 1999 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that more than 600,000 workers suffered such injuries. A National Academy of Sciences report released in January estimated that there are one million musculoskeletal work-related disorders each year and that these injuries cost the economy $50 billion. OSHA put the pricetag of the regulations at $4.8 billion a year. Some industry sources claimed it would be over $100 billion and maybe up to $1 trillion a year.

Millions of Americans toil in jobs that require repetitive motion that results in pain and ailments: key-stroking, food processing, dock loading. We're not talking about signing thank-you letters to political contributors. The losses suffered by these workers (in time off, in physical discomfort, in medical bills, in shortened work-life) are subsidies for businesses. They are hidden costs that do not appear on the balance sheet. By keeping these costs out of the picture, corporations enhance profits. The prices of their goods do not have to reflect the true costs. The bottom-line: owners and consumers benefit at the expense of certain workers.

Could it be any more obvious? This is class conflict. And when the corporate lobby convinces congressional Republicans to kill with haste standards that were devised to help these workers and that were the result of nine weeks of public hearings involving over 1000 witnesses, it's war.

Perhaps the government cost estimates were low-balled. But industry always shouts the sky is falling when confronted with new regulations. A 1995 Office of Technology Assessment report found that industry -- and OSHA -- usually overestimated expected costs. (If cost is indeed a problem, why not take a chunk of the $800 billion in coming surpluses Bush devotes to tax-cuts for the super-rich and use it to cover the cost of the ergonomics rules?)

Maybe the regulations contained problems or were a bit more onerous than required. But the gleeful and quick manner in which the Republicans and the lobbyists slaughtered these rules indicated that what was at stake was a fundamental principle -- industry over labor -- not a disagreement over the best means of reaching a common goal.

If the Republicans want to protect workers without imposing any more of a burden on industry than absolutely necessary, why not hold extensive hearings on the issue first and develop a persuasive public record? Instead, they rammed through the legislation and held out Labor Secretary Elaine Chao's vague promise that she would review the issue. It would have been reassuring if House Majority Whip Tom DeLay had spent a week of double-shifts in a chicken-processing plant, where each day he had to swing a cleaver the same exact way tens of thousands of times, before he led the assault on these standards. Why do most congressional fact-finding missions entail overseas travel to fancy hotels?

"There is no doubt that musculoskeletal disorders of the low back and upper extremities are an important and costly national health problem," the NAS report found. That is, only a problem for some people -- not those who earn their keep by legislating or lobbying on Congress.

Gore was right; there are powerful interests that use the political system to thwart the public interest. With his record, though, he was ill-suited to make that case. Yet his defeat does not mean class warfare is off the Washington agenda. It's merely being waged rather than discussed.

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