Mitt Romney: Free Speech Is for Billionaires, Not School-Teachers

What does a plutocracy look like? How about a leveraged buy-out artist who used his family connections – and gamed the tax code – to amass a $378 million fortune, and whose campaign is almost entirely financed by deep-pocketed conservative sugar-daddies, saying that while money equals Constitutionally protected free speech for his own donors, there should be limits on political spending by teachers making $75,000 per year.

That's exactly what transpired on Tuesday at an education forum in New York. According to CBS, Romney said that "we simply can't have” elected officials who may receive contributions from teachers' unions negotiating with them. “I think it's a mistake,” Romney said. “I think we have to get the money out of the teachers unions going into campaigns.” CBS adds: “He suggested that money should somehow be diverted or cut off,” but -- as is typical with Romney -- “he did not offer details.”

One would be hard-pressed to come up with a better example of rank hypocrisy. The conservative view – now broadly accepted in our courts – has long been that money equals speech, that individuals and organization have a Constitutional right to donate to the politicians of their choosing. That was the rationale behind Citizens United – and a series of related cases – which allowed Romney to dominate the early fundraising race on the backs of a very small number of extremely wealthy donors.

And teachers' unions don't “sit across the table” from elected officials; they negotiate with appointed chancellors and career school administrators. Are school officials subject to the influence of elected officials? Yes, absolutely, but no more or less so than Defense Department or Department of Energy procurement officers are when they sit down and hammer out billion dollar contracts with companies that showered law-makers with lobbying dollars, and that happens every single day. But that, according to Romney, is not a problem. (As chair of the Salt Lake City Olympics and then later as Governor of Massachusetts, Romney himself had a penchant for steering tax dollars to firms in which he had an interest, and failing to disclose potential conflicts of interest.)

The larger argument here – that public employees' unions are somehow fundamentally different from private sector unions – is not new. It's based on the widely held but largely unexamined idea that they are somehow fundamentally different than private sector unions because they work for “the tax-payer.” The reality is that school-teachers work for the school system – it's an employer-employee relationship like any other, and one doesn't check one's rights at the door when one takes a public sector job.

There's also a pervasive myth that public employees' unions “force” their members to donate, through their dues, to politicians with whom they may not always see eye-to-eye. But as I've written in the past, no worker is forced to join a union against his or her wishes. No worker in the United States is required to give one red cent to support a political cause he or she doesn't agree with. Non-union workers in unionized workplaces can only be compelled to cover their fair share of the actual direct costs of negotiating on their behalf.

Ultimately, Romney calling for teachers' unions to be muzzled reflects a sense of elite entitlement that has become pervasive in our increasingly unequal society. In his world, it goes without saying that billionaires should be able to buy the government they want – with easy regulators and friendly procurement officers who will help them advance their narrow economic interests. But when a bunch of school-teachers making $75,000 do the same, then the question becomes: 'why won't anyone think of the children?!?'

As billionaire industrialist David Koch – who's bankrolled any number of union-busting politicians – recently said of campaign donations, "People can invest what they want.” What's clear is that – in the rarified world inhabited by the Koch brothers and the Romneys -- that's simply not the case for You People.

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