Archive for February, 2011

On Wisconsin and America

By • on February 28, 2011 at 5:18 pm

We are now having a major dispute about what kind of society America should be.

Right now, the flashpoint in this controversy is Wisconsin, where tens of thousands of people are demonstrating every day in an effort to block Governor Scott Walker’s plan to all but end collective bargaining rights for public employees.

But the debate is a national one. The Wisconsin showdown is only the first in a whole series of pending state conflicts. And, over the next few weeks, a corporate-friendly Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives may decide to shut down the federal government.

The clashes in Wisconsin and other states, and in Washington, D.C., are dressed up in the language of budget debates. But these debates have nothing to do with “fiscal responsibility.” They are about what kind of society we want.

Do we want government to provide vital services, or exacerbate inequality? Should we have strong protections for health, safety, the environment and economic stability, or should giant corporations be free to impose their rules on the rest of us? Will we protect the right of workers to join together in unions, or will we permit private and public employers to drive down wages in the interest of generating more profits or lowering taxes for corporations and the wealthy?

Corporate Plutocracy or a Working Democracy?

The people in Wisconsin who are demonstrating to stop Governor Walker’s union-busting plans are acting not just to preserve Wisconsin’s democratic traditions, but to make the case for a better America for all of us.

The people in Wisconsin–including many Public Citizen members and friends–need our solidarity. Even more, they need us to join with them in fighting for the America we all want.

As we engage this contest for the future of America, it’s important to understand how we got into our current circumstance, and exactly what is at stake.

How Did We Get Here?

The Republican line on state and federal budgetary shortfalls, echoed by too many in the media, and by too many Democrats, is that we are spending beyond our means and “mortgaging our future.” This is not true.

States are not suddenly spending more than they were two, three or four years ago. (This is true for the federal government as well, with the caveat that there was an addition of federal stimulus spending, now winding down.) The reason states are facing acute budget crises is because revenues have declined. The reason revenues have declined is because the economy crashed. And the reason the economy crashed is because an unregulated Wall Street enabled a housing bubble, and then built a financial bubble on top of the housing bubble.

In other words, Republican governors are blaming state employees for the budget crisis, when the blame actually rests with Wall Street. Making things even more obscene, while state employees are seeing salaries and benefits slashed and jobs cut, the Wall Street titans are paying themselves outrageous bonuses. Wall Street paid out more than $20 billion in bonuses last year, while Wall Street profits totaled more than $27 billion, the second highest total on record.

This central point can’t be emphasized enough: The story of the current state and federal budget challenges is the diminished tax revenue that has followed from the Wall Street-induced recession.

Raising Revenues

OK, you might say. Maybe Wall Street deserves the blame, but what choice do governments have?

Well, the states are under an obligation to balance their budgets. The simple solution for this problem is for the federal government–which does not need to balance its budget–to give them grants. Unfortunately, that solution is not forthcoming.

Still, the states have options. Notably, they can raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy, as some are now preparing to do.

Amazingly, however, those most vociferously demanding state and federal budget cutbacks in the name of fiscal rectitude also support tax cuts for those most able to pay. In Wisconsin, Governor Walker–who took office just this January–has pushed through $127 million in tax cuts. Meanwhile, in D.C., last December’s tax deal between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans gives about $120 billion in benefits to the wealthy over the next two years.

Would it be unreasonable to ask for a rule that anyone supporting such tax breaks for the super-rich is prohibited from claiming they care about balancing budgets?

There are, of course, other ways to raise revenues. Cracking down on corporate welfare would be a good place to start. States have given away billions in corporate welfare deals, as Good Jobs First has documented. Walmart alone is grabbing $400 million a year in state and local tax breaks. At the federal level, there are tens of billions of dollars in corporate welfare giveaways that should be eliminated or reformed, involving everything from loan guarantees to nuclear power plants to export promotion schemes for big corporations.

The federal government has other ways to raise revenues that would be worth pursuing as good policy, in addition to their revenue implications. A very small tax on Wall Street trading, for example, could raise more than $100 billion a year. It would force Wall Street to offset some of the damage it has inflicted on the rest of the country. And it would slow the dangerous churning of stocks, bonds and derivatives.

The Role of Government

The Republicans’ insistence on cutting back government spending is ultimately a disguised way to advance their agenda of selectively limiting the role of government in society. (It is selective because they and their corporate backers do support an aggressive role for government when it comes to policies and activities that benefit big corporations.)

That the real issue is the role of government itself is underscored by congressional Republican budget proposals. As Congress debates a short-term government funding bill, not only are the Republicans proposing to slash vital programs, they are seeking to block, stop or undermine government restraints on Big Business–an array of rules, regulations, programs and enforcement schemes that have little or no budgetary impact, but are hugely important for protecting the public and the environment from predatory corporations.

Among many, many other troubling measures, the House Republican proposals would:

• Eliminate funding for a new consumer product safety database. Removing its funding would deprive consumers of a critical tool–three years in the planning–to report and research safety incidents on toys and other products.

• Slash the budget for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission by roughly a third. Saving only $50 million, this measure would completely hamstring the agency charged with implementing some of the most important components of the Wall Street reform law.

• Eliminate the presidential public financing system.

• Stop the Environmental Protection Agency from listing coal ash as hazardous waste, enforcing rules that would curtail mountaintop-removal coal mining, issuing new rules that would protect rivers from coal waste, or improving air quality standards.

It’s important to emphasize in this discussion that the Obama administration budget proposals, while far superior to the Republican alternative, accept many of the Republican premises–including the most important one, that the government should be reducing spending.

At a time when one in six people who would like a full-time job are unable to find one, the government should be spending more money to put people back to work, get the economy moving and prevent the waste of letting workers and plants remain idle. Instead, the Obama administration has essentially conceded the need for austerity.

Adopting the false politics of scarcity, the president needlessly proposes to shortchange vital public programs. A distressing example is his proposal to slash $3 billion from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides cash assistance to poor people to help them pay their utility bills.

One can go program by program, or rider by rider, and explain how misguided are proposals from both the Republicans and the administration. But even more important is to insist on what we want our government to do. We need a strong government. There are of course government programs that should be eliminated or improved. But we do need a government that is able to educate our children, ensure access to health care for all, move us to a clean energy future, keep the economy working, provide a social safety net, and protect us from corporate predations. We need a government that takes seriously its duty to advance the General Welfare.

The Role of Unions

At this point, the debate in Wisconsin is no longer about obtaining givebacks from teachers, nurses and other public employees. The public employee unions have agreed to the governor’s economic demands.

What is now in dispute is whether public employees will maintain the right to be represented by unions.

What a sad state of affairs.

The right of workers to join together into a union to bargain collectively with their employer is a basic First Amendment right and a fundamental right of workers everywhere. Unions enable workers to band together to offset the otherwise overwhelming bargaining power of employers, and make the economy and workplace a fairer and more just place.

We all benefit from a strong union movement, whether or not we are union members. Because they organize workers to act together, unions are–by far–the most important countervailing force to concentrated corporate power.

It’s not just a matter of unions supporting particular policies. By their very existence, unions change the political terrain, making it more possible to advance justice, fairness and equality.

The severe decline of unions over the past 40 years is a crucial contributing factor in explaining why inequality has risen so dramatically and why corporations have been able to increase their political influence.

The remaining union stronghold in the U.S. economy is the public sector. If Wisconsin, followed by other states, manages to undermine unionization in the public sector, it’s not just public sector workers who will be worse off. We all will be.

It is now incumbent on all of us to make Wisconsin just the beginning of something much bigger.

–Robert Weissman is president of Public Citizen (www.citizen.org).

No CommentsContinue»

More Articles

Cookie math

By • on February 28, 2011 at 4:38 am

There’s a joke I’ve seen going around among friends on Facebook that goes like this: “A unionized public employee, a teabagger, and a CEO are sitting at a table. In the middle of the table is a plate with a dozen cookies on it. The CEO reaches across and takes 11 cookies, looks at the teabagger and says, ‘Watch out for that union guy. He wants a piece of your cookie.’”

This is such a clear illustration of what’s going on in our country right now, I hope the joke goes viral. I’ve seen it start a few good conversations, the kind of conversations we need more of right now.

This joke prompted me to do some cookie math of my own, based on my own inquiries into wealth distribution in America (seen here), as well as some excellent infographics just published by Mother Jones (seen here).

Let’s say you have 100 people lined up for 100 cookies. The very first guy (definitely a guy) takes 35 of the cookies for himself. By the time the first 10 people have passed by the cookie plate, 73 of the cookies are gone, leaving 27 cookies to divide among the remaining 90 people. By the time the next 10 people pass the cookie plate, there are only 15 cookies to divide among the remaining 80 people. And so on, until you have about 50 people forced to divide up the very last cookie.

That’s right: Half of all the people compete for just one out of 100 cookies, while just one guy makes off with over a third of all the cookies himself. Now you might ask: Who can even eat 35 cookies? Is that healthy? The answer is no. It’s sick. But that’s our country right now.

Of course it works out very nicely for those first few cookie hoarders if the majority of people focus their attention on fighting over remaining cookies rather than asking why so few cookies are left. And now those cookie hoarders are shamelessly demanding more cookies for themselves, and are using their cookie wealth to focus attention on the possibility that someone somewhere near the end of the line might get a crumb more than deserved, and other crumb-chasers should worry about that.

If we don’t pay close attention, the cookie monsters could succeed. They could get even more cookies for themselves and leave even fewer crumbs for the rest of us to fight over. But if we do pay close attention, and act accordingly, their shameless schemes could backfire. We could see a full-scale cookie rebellion.

Pass the chocolate chips, please.

3 Comments

It Sure Looks Like Osama bin Laden is Winning the Great War on Terror

By • on February 27, 2011 at 7:18 pm

From Washington, D.C., we hear brave talk about Uncle Sam leading the charge for democracy across the Arab world, and thus restoring himself to high esteem in Arab eyes as something other than the sponsor of tyranny and torture by neoliberalism, the electrode, and the waterboard. The only people fooled by this kind of talk [...]

No CommentsContinue»

Standing Against Republican Greed: Participate in the Step Forward

By • on February 26, 2011 at 2:08 pm

What if a quarter of the people who read this stood up today against Republican Greed? Today is one of those times when we could actually take a step forward. We’re not guaranteed that we’ll begin to shift America back politically if we join one of the rallies at pretty well every state capitol and [...]

3 CommentsContinue»

What do Egypt and Wisconsin have in common?

By • on February 26, 2011 at 6:36 am

A revealing essay by Abu Atris traces the impact of neoliberal economic policies — that is, the ideologically-driven policy conviction that markets should always reign supreme — on Egypt:

The only people for whom Egyptian neoliberalism worked “by the book” were the most vulnerable members of society, and their experience with neoliberalism was not a pretty picture. Organised labor was fiercely suppressed. The public education and the health care systems were gutted by a combination of neglect and privatization. Much of the population suffered stagnant or falling wages relative to inflation. Official unemployment was estimated at approximately 9.4% last year (and much higher for the youth who spearheaded the January 25th Revolution), and about 20% of the population is said to live below a poverty line defined as $2 per day per person.

For the wealthy, the rules were very different. Egypt did not so much shrink its public sector, as neoliberal doctrine would have it, as it reallocated public resources for the benefit of a small and already affluent elite. Privatization provided windfalls for politically well-connected individuals who could purchase state-owned assets for much less than their market value, or monopolise rents from such diverse sources as tourism and foreign aid. Huge proportions of the profits made by companies that supplied basic construction materials like steel and cement came from government contracts, a proportion of which in turn were related to aid from foreign governments.

Most importantly, the very limited function for the state recommended by neoliberal doctrine in the abstract was turned on its head in reality. In Mubarak’s Egypt business and government were so tightly intertwined that it was often difficult for an outside observer to tease them apart…

Sound familiar? I thought so, too. And sure enough, later in the essay Atris makes the connection, to not just other “underdeveloped countries” like Chile or Indonesia but to the US itself, whence many of these policies originated:

The story should sound familiar to Americans as well. For example, the vast fortunes of Bush era cabinet members Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, through their involvement with companies like Halliburton and Gilead Sciences, are the product of a political system that allows them — more or less legally — to have one foot planted in “business” and another in “government” to the point that the distinction between them becomes blurred. Politicians move from the office to the boardroom to the lobbying organization and back again.

As neoliberal dogma disallows any legitimate role for government other than guarding the sanctity of free markets, recent American history has been marked by the steady privatization of services and resources formerly supplied or controlled by the government. But it is inevitably those with closest access to the government who are best positioned to profit from government campaigns to sell off the functions it formerly performed. It is not just Republicans who are implicated in this systemic corruption. Clinton-era Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin’s involvement with Citigroup does not bear close scrutiny. Lawrence Summers gave crucial support for the deregulation of financial derivatives contracts while Secretary of Treasury under Clinton, and profited handsomely from companies involved in the same practices while working for Obama (and of course deregulated derivatives were a key element in the financial crisis that led to a massive Federal bailout of the entire banking industry).

Which brings us to Wisconsin. And to Indiana, and Ohio, and rallies being held at all 50 state capitols (and many other cities besides) at noon local time today.

The only unique aspect of the American experience of relentless privatization and the corporate state is the enthusiastic ideological embrace of it by many of the people most badly victimized (think Tea Partiers), and the relative starting wealth of America, which simply means the middle and poorer classes have more to be looted and farther to fall. But there are still great big piles of middle-class loot to be had; if people can still afford to shop at Wal-Mart, there are still fortunes to be made stealing the money used for such frivolities. (Think Social Security, for starters.) And yes, it really is that blatant.

The pushback in Wisconsin and elsewhere against such policies won’t make them go away. That would take a lot more unity among the American people, because, as Atris notes, the problem is in both parties, not just one. Obama’s administration is now the one carrying the torch for Social Security privatization, for example, and many elected Democrats’ absence from supporting the public sector unions means exactly what it appears to mean. Democrats are happy to have unions turn out volunteers and votes during elections, but, if forced to choose between unions (or workers’ interests in general) and the corporate fortunes that now more than ever bankroll campaigns and enrich post-public-office fortunes, few Democratic leaders are choosing the workers.

The differences with Egypt, then? The scale of the theft, and the propagandized ignorance of many of its victims. Oh, and “free” elections, wherein we get to choose our favorite brand of oligarch. That’s about it.

1 Comment

February 24, 1966: Hell No!

By • on February 24, 2011 at 8:50 am

Along with growing protests against the Vietnam War, resistance to involuntary conscription for U.S. military service gradually became a hot topic nationwide as combat operations began to escalate in Southeast Asia in the mid-1960s. At first a brave few draft-age American males risked jail time and/or ostracism by openly refusing induction. By the end of [...]

No CommentsContinue»

The rest of Africa

By • on February 23, 2011 at 10:21 am

The desire for freedom from decades-old, kleptocratic tyrannies isn’t just spreading to other Arab countries. It’s also taking root in sub-Saharan Africa.

From the web site of the invaluable Al Jazeera English comes this important article on a story – or more accurately, multiple stories – Western media is completely ignoring during the conflagrations engulfing Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya (and a half-dozen other Middle Eastern countries):

Meanwhile, in ‘darkest Africa’, far away from the media cameras, reports surfaced of political unrest in a West African country called Gabon. With little geo-political importance, news organisations seem largely oblivious to the drama that began unfolding on January 29, when the opposition protested against Ali Bhongo Odhimba’s government, whom they accuse of hijacking recent elections. The demonstrators demanded free elections and the security forces duly stepped in to lay those ambitions to rest. The clashes between protesters and police that followed show few signs of relenting….

Elsewhere on the continent protests have broken out in Khartoum, Sudan where students held Egypt-inspired demonstrations against proposed cuts to subsidies on petroleum products and sugar….Ethiopian media have also reported that police there detained the well-known journalist Eskinder Nega for “attempts to incite” Egypt-style protests. In Cameroon, the Social Democratic Front Party has said that the country might experience an uprising similar to those in North Africa if the government does not slash food prices.

Djibouti, Ivory Coast, and other countries have also seen anti-government demonstrations. Which begs an obvious question: what impact does the international media’s coverage, or lack of coverage, of a prospective revolution have on that revolution?

Certainly it means there’s far less pressure on the patrons of these kleptocracies, usually European or American governments or corporations with financial interests, to disavow the governments and their often repressive responses. Certainly the protestors themselves feel more isolated and vulnerable without the sense that “the whole world is watching.” And without TV cameras present, rulers can get away with a whole lot more violence. Imagine how much greater the global uproar would have been if Egypt had started bombing protesters live on camera, as the Gaddafi government is now doing in Libya, and then multiply that by the several levels of benign neglect that apply to a sub-Saharan country that doesn’t supply two percent of the world’s oil, as Libya does.

Thing is, people want freedom; they don’t want to be told what they can and can’t do to control their own lives. That’s true in Egypt, in Palestine, in Cameroon, in Wisconsin. Freedom is a contagious thing. And African youth were as plugged in to the events in Tunisia and Egypt in, say, Addis Ababa, as they were in Tripoli. That doesn’t require Anderson Cooper’s presence.

But US media completely neglects even the biggest stories in Africa, south of the Arab world and north of South Africa — five million have died in the Congo in the last 15 years, in a multi-party war fueled largely by the greed of Western mineral interests, and how many Americans even know, let alone care? The biggest reason is, in the end, racism – the overarching narrative of “Africa” (meaning the black part) as a failed continent, tracing to the original post-colonial skepticism that “those people” could ever govern themselves. In the end, nothing there is news because “they’re always like that.”

That’s a much easier narrative than looking at the economic and cultural impact of centuries of European colonial oppression and divide & rule tactics, or the more modern usage of African countries as pawns in Cold War and resource extraction politics. But Africa is just as connected to the rest of the world as anywhere else, and Africa’s youth want freedom and economic opportunity just as much as anyone else. In the last two years, Americans have learned, via TV coverage of crisis, just how much like us other people are in places as seemingly alien as Tehran and Cairo. So, too, with sub-Saharan Africa. Surely that’s worth some screen time.

No Comments

The Tweet and Revolution

By • on February 20, 2011 at 6:52 pm

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton rushed to contrast the repressive brutality of the Iranian authorities with what they now seek to present as the bloodless, U.S.-managed triumph of pro-democracy forces in Egypt. By any measure this was brazen impudence, starting with the fact that across the past few weeks the 300 dead, slaughtered [...]

No CommentsContinue»

Today in class war politics

By • on February 18, 2011 at 12:51 pm

The public sector union protests in Madison have put a useful human face on the fact that when craven politicians of either party talk about eliminating government jobs, it’s not just eliminating “waste” – it’s also dumping more people into unemployment, during the worst job market in memory. Believe it or not, government jobs really are, you know, jobs, and pols can’t have it both ways: talking about creating jobs at the exact same time they eliminate them. That’s not just a union issue; it’s relevant to every state with a severe budget crunch (all of them, including Washington) that are looking at draconian budget cuts and their attendant layoffs.

The public’s frequent resentment of public sector unions and their “cushy” jobs, however, is a more interesting and telling phenomenon. In the ’60s and ’70s, when public sector unions were largely established, there was a lot of sympathy for them. Why? Because government pay and benefits usually lagged behind that of private sector jobs. Government workers were getting a raw deal, and people recognized it.

Now, government jobs are good jobs – in many ways, the best – but that’s not becuase they’ve changed. It’s because the private sector has failed American workers so completely. While public jobs have, with a few cutbacks, stayed relatively stable over the past four decades, private sector wages have declined, benefits have been slashed (or eliminated entirely, as companies go to part-time workers and “consultants”) and tens of millions of jobs have been shipped overseas, never to return.

In other words, the American wealthy have been waging a relentless class war, and by every imaginable metric, it’s been a rout. They’ve won. The one piece of the economy they haven’t been able to completely loot is the government itself: entitlement programs like Social Security (hence the relentless proposals to “save” Social Security by giving it all to Wall Street), and public sector jobs.

Now those jobs are under attack, not just in Wisconsin but everywhere. The attacks are justified by a classic divide and conquer strategy: telling working class folks, why should you pay for their good salaries, when you only have a crap job yourself? (The short answer is that you shouldn’t be paying for them – the wealthy should be, if they were taxed at anything resembling a fair rate – but that’s a separate issue.)

There is, of course, another way of looking at it. Government policies, at least in theory, are an expression of who we want to be as a society. As such, government jobs should be a model for how we want all employers to treat their workers.

Pick yourself up off the floor. Sure, that’s a funny idea – Health care benefits! Pensions! Secure jobs! Yeah, right. – but don’t spend too much time snickering. While you do so, or while you spend time fuming about those supposedly coddled government workers, your true masters are busy ripping off the last few pennies that remain of your net worth. At least workers in Wisconsin are finally fighting back. We all should.

1 Comment

Birk won’t be charged in Williams shooting

By • on February 16, 2011 at 11:26 am

There will be a civil suit. Count on it.

This was to be expected, because the standard for charging law enforcement with a crime in this situation is absurdly high. Prosecutors would have had to prove that Birk did not actually feel threatened, but acted with personal malice toward Williams. Which is almost impossible to prove even if one believes it’s true (which I don’t).

I just hope nobody claims that this “exonerates” Birk. Because it doesn’t. At all.

More importantly, I hope it doesn’t give SPD an excuse not to engage in a serious examination of its training procedures and culture. While Birk made a tragic mistake, the way SPD instinctively tried to cover for him (e.g., first claiming Williams “lunged” at him) and insisted that Birk followed his training, along with all the other recent incidents of police abuse (mostly against minorities), suggests a much more systemic problem.

No Comments