Wisconsin of the West, Part 3

by on May 16, 2011 · 2 comments

in Economy, Labor, San Diego, Under the Perfect Sun

Photo courtesy breilly via flickr.com

In my last column, I ruefully noted that the thought of any revenue increase is verboten in Republican circles, but the same could be said for many Democrats driven by fear of being assailed as a “tax and spend” liberal.  Indeed as recent polling suggests, a majority of Californians think the state budget has gotten bigger when, in fact, the general fund spending has shrunk by over $20 billion as taxes on the rich and corporations have gone down.  Why the inaccurate public perception?  In the final part of “Indy by the Sea” I ask the question:

Where do people get the idea that they are overtaxed in a country where people pay fewer taxes than citizens of most other industrialized countries and have a much smaller “welfare state”?  Thank thirty years of relentless anti-government attacks from think tanks funded by corporate America.

Thank the knee jerk anti-tax populism that is the ideological stock-in-trade of the American right that has helped redistribute wealth from the working and middle classes to the wealthy dramatically over the last 30 years. Hence we have electoral campaigns dominated by big money where no one has the courage to state the obvious.  The more you “starve the beast,” the harder it is for any government service to perform adequately.  You get what you pay for—or don’t pay for.

Because the right has been much better funded and vastly more organized than the opposition for quite some time, Cokorinos observes that, “The relationships, organizational connections, individual histories, party ties, funding linkages, and policy networks that underlie this combined assault on the gains of the social justice movements in San Diego and elsewhere are often not well-understood by activists who are on the front lines or the people whose lives are the most directly affected.”

Perhaps this is why so many political observers have followed the “[Steve] Francis was the hard right, [Jerry] Sanders is a moderate” line [in the 2005 Mayoral race].  While [Carl] DeMaio may have fallen off the radar screen briefly when Francis lost out to Sanders, Target San Diego notes that after Frye was defeated, staving off a nightmare for San Diego’s right, DeMaio “has resurfaced” and “Sanders is said to be preparing a package of Norquist-type ballot measures for the 2006 ballot that seem to have DeMaio’s fingerprints all over them.”  Still, nobody on the San Diego “left” outside of a handful of people in labor circles seems to get it.

Of course, the managed competition measures made the ballot and passed, aided by local media coverage that presented them as “reform” rather than an interest driven assault on the public sector.  And now DeMaio is back, front and center, crusading for the gutting of public sector unions with local right wing talk jock Mike Slater of KFMB promising at the Republican unity rally to make AM 760 “the pension reform station.”  One can expect Bob Kittle’s KUSI-TV, the Union Tribune, and all the other usual suspects to jump on board as well.  And while it is true that the endless campaign against public sector unions and public worker pensions has created much resentment, much of that sentiment is based on current economic anxiety, not on the public’s full-throated endorsement of the Reason Foundation’s vision.  What has been effortlessly sold is resentment (an easy mark), not any grand love of the right-wing future.

Futilely I tried to make that case back in 2006:

But is Sanders answering the beck and call of “the people” or citing the jargon of right wing think tanks chapter and verse?  While Sanders may have angered some on the right by calling for a fee hike to upgrade water and sewer service, don’t expect him to stray much further from his “No Tax Pledge.”  All the talk of “managed competition,” “transparency,” “performance reviews,” and “re-engineering” is straight from the Reason Foundation and Performance Institute playbooks.

In a recent CityBeat interview, Sanders downplays what his “reforms” will mean for union workers, an astoundingly disingenuous comment given the fact that his plan to play the cops and firefighters against the municipal employees is straight out of the Claremont Institute’s dictum of “playing off one part of the welfare state against another.” Apparently, Sanders hoped that most readers would be unaware of the fact that his outsourcing plans are borrowed from the strategies of the most anti-union groups in the United States.

Finally, those who know the right should have seen a red flag when Sanders told CityBeat that his “ideas about privatization” and “the contracting out of city services” came from “Steve Goldsmith of Indianapolis.”  Goldsmith literally wrote the book on the hard right’s vision for America’s cities.  As Cokorinos writes:

The Reason Foundation is not just about introducing privatized toll roads, eliminating environmental regulations, or privatizing education  . . . conservatism is undergoing a transition from being an oppositional movement to a power structure with a governing philosophy.  Reason’s approach to this is the concept of “governing by network”—breaking open governing structures and inserting into them a dense complex of political and business relationships built up over the past two decades.  It is spelled out most concisely in a book released in November 2004 written by former Indianapolis mayor Steven Goldsmith and former Reason privatization director William Eggers.

If this sounds a little bit like bringing the K Street project, with its aim to privatize as much of the Federal Government as possible, to the municipal level, then you are on the right track.   Confessore observed in 2003, “Republicans [at the Federal level] are engineering a tectonic political shift in two phases.  First, move the party to K Street.  Then move the government there, too.”  The central truth of “The emerging GOP machine” is that it is “premised on a unity of interests between party and industry.”  When this kind of thought moves to the state and municipal level, you get government dominated by business interests to the point that the barriers begin to break down.   Welcome to Indy by the Sea.

And of course nobody called Sanders on this.  In the Midwest, more of those Indy-grown ideas recently made the Democrats in the Indiana legislature flee to another state and forced a show down over union busting and privatization zealotry there.  But, here in San Diego, many elected Democrats don’t seem to have the inclination to even blink in response. And what about pitting one part of the “welfare state” against another?  The proposed ballot measure goes after the firefighters and other public employees while protecting the cops—for now (an adjustment from Sanders’ original notion).  But don’t get too comfortable, officers. Still, you may ask, what’s the big deal?  If you’re not in a union or in a public sector job . . . who cares, right?

Back in 2006 I raised that question:

Why should you be worried about living in privatopia where the market takes care of all ills?  As Yale political scientist Jacob S. Hacker has noted, employers who once “championed private benefits as an alternative to overbearing public programs” have noticed that they don’t need to worry about big government or unions anymore.  Hence, companies like IBM, United, and Verizon have begun “a massive shift of risk from employers onto workers and their families.”

As for the much-vaunted 401Ks, far fewer than half of all Americans have saved enough to ensure security in their retirements.  And those that are saving in 401Ks are, despite the pro-market solution propaganda, getting worse returns than workers in the old school pension plans run by employers.  And it is not just good pensions that are disappearing.  In 1979 70% of Americans received heath insurance from their employer; now it is 50% and dropping fast.  For low-wage workers the percentage of those covered has fallen to just 26%.  This is what the free market utopians in the think tanks herald as THE solution–a social Darwinist social order where we’re all on our own in the race to the bottom.

It was the hard edges of an unregulated market that led to the great social reforms of the twentieth century and we are now living in a battleground city where the hard-right hopes to starve the public sector, privatize all they can, and push us back into the Golden era of the past before the New Deal or even the Progressive Era reforms.  Indeed, Karl Rove and Grover Norquist’s favorite president was William McKinley, who, as the darling of the Robber Barons, ushered in a period of government largely by and for industry.  Why can’t it happen here?   Oh Brave New World with such creatures in it!

And sadly, it is happening here.  Perhaps we won’t have any more public employees with gold-plated pensions to kick around, but most of us won’t have pensions either or adequate savings in our 401Ks or good health care or many rights on the job.

In the same Center for American Progress report I cited in my last column, “Unions Make the Middle Class,” the authors show that “the percentage of unionized workers tracks very closely with the share of the nation’s income going to the middle class.”  They continue, “Indeed it is hard to imagine a middle-class society without a strong union movement . . . The 10 states with the lowest percentage of workers in unions all have a relatively weak middle class, with the share of total state income going to households in the middle three-fifths of income earners in these states below the average for all states.”

They further note that:

[The] relationship between the decline in union density and stagnant wages can also be seen by looking across states. In states that have passed laws restricting workers’ ability to organize unions we see that workers’ wages are lower. State right-to-work laws severely restrict worker organizing by prohibiting collective bargaining agreements from requiring everyone who benefits from a union contract to pay their fair share of the costs of providing those benefits.  Studies consistently find that these laws are associated with decreases in per capita personal income, and decreases in wages and salaries.   Claims that right-to-work laws help spur employment growth are overblown. States with these laws have not experienced higher job growth than other states once other economic factors are considered.  Instead, these laws tend to boost incomes for those at the very top, while undercutting the middle class.”

Conversely, the report observes that a ten percentage increase in union density would increase the wages of all workers—5.3 percent for union workers and 1.2 percent for non-union workers.

Beyond the scope of income, the Center for American Progress report shows that unions increase the number of all workers with benefits, increase voter participation (particularly for people of color), and  “strong labor unions are closely associated with low levels of inequality and more generous social programs that benefit the middle class.”  The decline of unions, on the other hand, “explains one third of the growth in inequality—an effect equal to the growing stratification of earnings by education.”  Indeed, the report surprisingly reveals that union density is slightly more important to the strength of the middle class than education.

Thus the battle to save unions, nationally and here in San Diego, is really, at its heart, a battle to save the middle class.  If you side with Carl DeMaio and his ilk, you side with plutocracy, growing inequality, and a weaker middle class. As the old song says, “Whose side are you on,” San Diego?  Are you with fear and envy or hope and solidarity?

If the local right succeeds, San Diegans will have shown those greedy government workers what for!  We’ll have dragged them down in the hole we’re in so we can stop worrying about how to get out.

Or we could “decline to sign” and make San Diego a different kind of Wisconsin of the West.  Imagine that.

Photo courtesy breilly via flickr.com

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