Locked Into The Wrong Debate


We are so easily played.

For two weeks, we’ve gleefully sunk into a relatively petty debate about pension contribution percentages, health care benefits, and wages for middle class Americans. Often, this argument has devolved into simple jealousies, of one middle class worker upset that another has, thanks to a strong union, better wages and benefits than they have. It often sounds unsettlingly childish: “I don’t have that so you shouldn’t.”

There are certainly details in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill worthy of discussion and argument, but his bill is not being proposed in a vacuum. That is where we fall into the trap that takes us to the wrong debate.

I can’t compartmentalize what’s happening in Madison, can’t plug it into a simple debate about whether the benefit packages of public workers are too generous or their wages too high. Or even about whether their unions should be weakened or busted.

In a vacuum, I would agree that contributions to health insurance and benefit plans should rise, but I’m not living in that vacuum that Mr. Walker, Mr. Obama, and most of Washington and Madison want us to move into. I won’t be sucked into it, no matter how strong the pull of the powers that be – Democrats, Republicans, Wall Street or Big Ag, Obama or Bush or Clinton.

It wasn’t our public workers who sunk the economy, sucking tax revenue from state budgets and dollars from pension funds and 401ks. Teachers didn’t deregulate Wall Street or push home ownership policy for those who had no chance of affording it. Social workers didn’t deregulate pharmaceutical companies so that they could use direct-to-consumer marketing to promote unnecessary or copycat prescription drugs to increase profits. Park rangers didn’t drive up health care costs, making benefit packages far more costly for government than when they were originally negotiated.

Yet we are eating this up. We are, again, allowing large corporate interests to bait us into middle class jealousies and petty arguments as they scrape more profits off the backs of the public.

Somehow, the conversation has been skewed to the point that we accept a man arguing that a slight raise in taxes for corporations and the wealthy is unconscionable – that those at the top of the ladder have our best interests in mind – and that they need to have more cash on hand to make the decisions to get us out of this mess.

The way to balance the budget, they say, is to cut back on pay, benefits, and bargaining power for middle-income earners.

Why is it that any mention of taxing the wealthiest Americans is shouted down as class warfare, but cutting wages and benefits of middle-class Americans working in public service is not?

These public sector workers are the ones holding us back? Yes, those people who teach our kids, who plow our roads, who administer our increasingly complex local government operations. Yes, it is they who are tearing our country apart. These services, we are told, should be shuffled to the private sector.

We’ve privatized much of our military engagement in Iraq. The results have not been pretty and military leaders say the lack of accountability for our hired mercenaries endangers the safety of the soldiers who signed up for our armed forces. Should we privatize law enforcement here at home? Should we privatize education? What company, with a pure profit motive, will choose to educate the poor, the kids with bad parents, with disabilities, the kids who will pull down the school’s test scores and make the school less attractive to investors and wealthy families?

If we privatize education, how long do you think it will be until corporate education interests demand government subsidies to educate the poor and handicapped? Do we not believe that they will demand subsidies that will drive up their profits, just as big agriculture, big pharma, defense contractors, and for-profit colleges do?

We’ve been cutting taxes on the wealthy, and cutting taxes for corporations, for the last 30 years. The Government Accountability Office reports that 72 percent of all foreign corporations and about 57 percent of U.S. companies doing business in the United States paid no federal income taxes for at least one year between 1998 and 2005.

I’ve heard too often the empty mantra that “we all have to sacrifice” in tough economic times. I’ve heard for a decade that we must lower taxes on the wealthy and on corporations so that they can spend and hire – so their dollars can trickle down upon us all to rescue us.

I have trouble buying this line that the rich must hold onto their money so they can spend it, while at the same time, our middle class earners should be accepting wage cuts, contribute more to their pensions, and pay more of their health insurance like good American patriots. We’re told this even though it’s painfully obvious that when middle class Americans get their hands on a few extra dollars, they put it right back into the economy to buy goods and services, while the wealthy are more likely to stock much of it away.

How has that trickled down? It’s trickled down in big business cutting jobs, mechanizing labor, and sending factories overseas. It has trickled down…to the executive suites, where compensation for those at the top of the ladder is higher than ever.

It has trickled down to Wall Street, where bonuses are calculated on whatever scheme one can concoct to create profits this year, regardless of how the scheme will affect the financial firm next year or what it will do to the larger economy or their low-level investors.

In my 32 years, we’ve faced six periods of financial crisis. That trend will not subside as long as we’re focused on borrowing against the future to fix this year’s economy, as long as Wall Street rewards itself for profits today regardless of what mess it creates tomorrow.

The men and women at the head of the big banks that led us into this mess walked away with tens of millions of dollars. They walked away with severance packages and the promise of another executive payday for another company down the road, because the system will not change. Because we will not stop rewarding those who game the system. Because in our system, demonstrating your ability to flaunt the rules for tremendous profit is essentially a successful job interview.

This argument over bargaining rights and pension contributions and wages for teachers takes our eyes and anger off the powerful places where the real money goes. The billions upon billions that go to defense contractors for weapons that do us precious little good when fighting guerrilla wars in the hills of Afghanistan or the streets of Iraq. Off the subsidies sent to Lockheed Martin, Halliburton, and Blackwater (now Xe), where employees are counted as private sector employees, as testaments to the power of capitalism. But those companies are propped up by Uncle Sam’s defense spending, and by Uncle Sam’s foreign policy.

But few are suggesting we cut those subsidies to balance the budget. There was precious little done to change the way Wall Street operates after the collapse. When we shuffled them billions to encourage lending, they did little lending, instead using it for acquisitions and to bolster their bottom lines.

If I sound a little angry, it’s because I am. I am angry that we are so easily manipulated into fighting against each other while others drink from the government trough, our trough, with impunity. I am angry that after each gulp, they can throw a bone into our yard – watch us scratch and claw each other’s eyes out over it, teacher against carpenter, town clerk against restaurant owner, social worker against banker – while they point and laugh, plotting their next move.

I am angry, because I am watching good people, good citizens, become willing pawns.