by Jim Miller
These are grim times. The worst are full of passionate intensity and the best lack all conviction. The Democrats at the state and national levels seem ready to embrace economic scarcity and budget cutting as the “new normal” while the right smells blood in the water and is going in for the kill on collective bargaining rights, women’s rights, environmental regulations, funding for education, and long untouchable social programs. While the Democrats play prevent defense, the corporate-funded right is going for it all, working to change the rules of the game permanently, short-term costs be damned.
According to many pundits, the lesson of Wisconsin is that the right-wing over-reached by going for the total elimination of unions rather than taking the sizable concessions they got from labor to the bank. Now, many progressives hope, the fury unleashed in the badger state, Ohio, Indiana, and many other key electoral battlegrounds will bring a political reversal in 2012 (or earlier in recall elections). But if we take right-wing overreach as the only lesson of Wisconsin we are making a big mistake.
What Wisconsin showed us was that the populist anger brewed in the catalyst of the Great Recession and hijacked by the Astroturf Tea Party Movement can be directed left as well as right despite Obama’s and the Democrats’ seeming inability to seize the moment. Thus, what progressives need to demand is not just a rollback of reactionary attacks on unions and public service, but a counterattack on the rich and the corporate elite who are driving this country steadily toward plutocracy.
In California, Jerry Brown’s reaction to the breakdown of state budget negotiations has been to go on the road to promote his proposal to extend a series of current taxes for five years to help avoid doubling down on the nearly $12 billion dollars of cuts already approved by the legislature. If this fails, the cuts will be catastrophic for education and vital pubic services.
For example, the community college system will take $800 million in cuts and 400,000 students will be kept out of college. Here in the San Diego Community College District, where I teach, we will have to cut over 1000 classes and shut out 27,000 students. In the San Diego Unified School District, where my son is in first grade, the cuts will be even more devastating with big layoffs, the elimination of crucial programs, and the gutting of our children’s futures. Add to these education cuts, devastating blows to essential services for the elderly, disabled, and sick as well as the closing of state parks, and the total elimination of many other valuable programs.
This is all happening in a state where the richest 1% of Californians is doing fantastically well while the rest of us continue to suffer. Specifically, in the Golden State, the top 1% of earners walked away with over 40% of the Obama extension of the Bush tax cuts. In contrast, the bottom 20% of earners (those who make $14,000 and under) will take home about 3% of the share. Thus, at a time when the California state budget deficit is over $20 billion, the top 1% of earners in California will take home an additional $9-14 billion depending on who is doing the estimate.
This cowardice on the part of Obama and the Democrats helped continue the transfer of billions of dollars to the wealthiest Americans and the most powerful corporations at a time when the gap between the rich and the poor is at historic levels and American corporations just experienced their best quarter on record.
So much for a New Deal for the new century.
In this context, if rage cannot be directed at the top (where all of the resources are going) the blame needs to be channeled elsewhere. Thus, with larger budget deficits at the federal and state levels, the right has skillfully created a new privileged class—public sector employees. Hence, all the talk of late in the national media has moved away from Wall Street and the economic elite who, by the numbers, are the folks who benefited from the economic crisis while most of us saw our standard of living decline.
Now, according to the current wisdom, public sector workers are the folks who “have it all” while those in the private sector scrape by with less. Why worry about entrenched plutocracy when you can take it out on kindergarten teachers? Why rail against the power elite when you can bag on janitors and office workers? Who needs class resentment when you can drag your neighbor down in the hole you’re in? In sum, we have a 1930’s-like economic crisis with no New Deal populism. Not a pretty picture for unions, public sector workers or those who value public services.
All of this is inevitable, even in liberal California, we are told, because the people just won’t stand for new taxes? Or will they?
According to a recent poll done by Tulchin Research, Californians overwhelmingly support taxing the top 1% of earners to help fund education and vital public services. Specifically, 78% of Californians favor taxing the top one percent, with 53% strongly supporting the idea.
Think this is only true of our liberal neighbors to the north? Think again. 78% of San Diegans support taxing the top 1%. Even the conservative Central Valley supports the 1% tax on top 1% with 71% of those polled in favor of the proposal. Perhaps most surprising of all, 60% of Republicans statewide support taxing the rich. The idea polls well across racial and gender lines without a single demographic group opposing the notion.
And it’s not just taxing the top 1% that polled well. Tulchin Research found that 73% of those surveyed were in favored of closing corporate tax loopholes, 71% favored a 5% surcharge on individuals making over 1 million dollars a year, and 67% favored a 10% surcharge on millionaires. Even touching the third rail of California politics, Proposition 13, by reassessing commercial properties and taxing them at their current market value is favored by 66% of Californians. Rounding out the poll, Tulchin found that Californians also favor a 10% tax on oil extraction and raising the corporate tax to 10% by 64% and 51% respectively.
With these numbers, it is puzzling why Jerry Brown continues to promote a plan for extending largely regressive taxes that is polling lower than all of these far more progressive tax measures and would be far more likely to lose. What the Tulchin poll shows us is that the people of California are well aware that the folks at the top aren’t paying their fair share and are willing to take it out of their hides. We are in a rare moment of political clarity. California Democrats need to figure this out or they will waste a historic opportunity, and we’ll all be the worse for their mistake. Rather than hugging Republicans as the Governor recently advised us to do, we should be kicking them in the ass along with every elected Democrat who is too timid to fight.
As someone once said, what seems like a long time ago, this is our moment, this is our time.
Jim Miller, a professor at San Diego City College, is the co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See and Better to Reign in Hell, and author of the novel Drift. His most recent novel on the San Diego free speech fights and the IWW, Flash, is on AK Press.