Waking Up in Wisconsin
Insignificant, backwater, third world banana republics like Tunisia and Egypt pioneering the way for the greatest superpower and richest country on the planet.
That’s not supposed to happen.
I mean, we pay for a military that costs as much as every other one in the world, combined, even though it can’t win endless wars against insignificant, backwater, third world banana republics. They can’t say that about their militaries! We’ve got annual deficits that are bigger than their entire economies. The size of our economy is half-again bigger than the number two in the world (with one-fourth the population), and we’ve managed to produce a health care system that ranks 39th globally. Who else can claim that badge of honor? No doubt that ranking partially explains why our life expectancy figures are lower than just about every country in the developed world. Our education system, once the envy of the world, is crumbling, along with the size of our college enrollments. Ditto our infrastructure, much of which hasn’t been maintained in decades. Who can touch that? We have the highest polarization of wealth in the entire developed world, and more than any country in the Arab world too. Sweet! Another cool thing is our incarceration rate. It’s 743 per hundred thousand people. The next highest country has less than half that figure. Our use of torture and rendition and the remote-controlled aerial bombings of civilians has earned us the scorn and hatred of the world, while our political leaders, unmatched in their capacity for hypocrisy and buffoonery, have made us a laughingstock that few puffy-chested, medal-covered third world dictators can match. You got Mugabe? We got Palin. You got Charles Taylor? We got George W. Bush, in a democracy no less.
So, with a record like that, who in the world are these punky backwater countries to teach high and mighty America anything about anything?!?!
Darned if it hasn’t happened, though. I mean, you can say it’s a coincidence if you want, and you may even be right. But I can’t help thinking that the people of Wisconsin have been inspired by the people of Egypt. Who were themselves inspired by the people of Tunisia. Both of whom have inspired the people of Bahrain, Jordan, Iran, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and beyond. Meanwhile, Wisconsin seems to be inspiring Americans in other states finally to fight back.
It would seem that people power is in the air in early 2011, and that it’s quite contagious.
Whatever is the explanation for the Cheesehead version of Tahrir Square, it is unbelievably welcome, and just barely in time.
It’s crucial to understand what the regressive initiative that our brothers and sisters in Wisconsin are right now fighting is really all about, and how that fits into the context of our era. This is just the latest, and nearly the last, in a succession of efforts in America over the last three decades to move money from the hands of non-elites to those of oligarchs. Make no mistake, that program constitutes essentially the sum total of American politics at its core over the last generation. All else is a sideshow or, more likely and more ominously, an intentional diversion, just as a skilled magician is careful to give your eye something else to focus on as he moves the ball from under the cup.
That money-shifting effort has been relentless, and it has been fantastically successful. We have witnessed the greatest transfer of wealth in human history over this period of time. More astonishing, here in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, is that it went the wrong way – from ordinary folk who need the money to wealthy elites, many of whom actually couldn’t even find ways to spend those enormous quantities flooding their accounts if they wanted to. Most astonishing of all is that this happened in a functioning democracy, where the votes of rip-offees vastly outnumber the votes of rip-offers. If anyone you meet ever doubts the capacity of human stupidity, tell them this tale. It’s an amazing story. It’s also the most significant single fact of American politics in our time. And we don’t even talk about it.
That’s because of the stunning success of the thieves in executing their heist. As oft-noted, the perfect crime is one that is not even detected. Welcome to America.
You gotta hand it to these guys. They have been smart, thorough, ruthless, tenacious, patient and ruthless. Did I mention ruthless? They have attacked New Deal America – the set of policies that created a vast middle class for the first time and dramatically improved people’s quality of life en masse – in every way possible, and have managed to beat it into near submission.
They’ve been very clever about it, too. They fabricated think tanks whose product at any other time would have seemed absurdly laughable. They created a whole new media for themselves, and intimidated the parts they didn’t outright own. They dumbed down education, making sure that any knowledge of history or civics or – god forbid – comparative politics was eliminated from the curriculum, thus producing nice, docile worker bees who know just enough to do their ill-paid jobs, but not enough to even know that they’re ill-paid. They allied with regressive forces like religious institutions, the military and the Republican Party. Then they bought the Democrats too, not least of which including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, whose economic policies are fundamentally indistinguishable from the GOP’s. They infiltrated the courts with corporate hacks so corrupt that they steal elections and sit on cases even when they’ve received contributions from litigants in the matter. They smashed labor unions at every opportunity. They drove the country deep into debt with the express purpose of making it then seem that any further social spending was no longer sustainable. They tore down even the thin veneer of campaign finance reform from the prior era. They shredded the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and have bullied any opponents with thuggish acts of verbal and other forms of personal assault. They made voting more difficult, wrongly purged masses of voters from the rolls, and used rigged machines to steal elections. They have poisoned the minds of Americans with diversionary bogeymen ranging from Saddam Hussein to marrying gays to the War on Christmas.
And so on. The complete list is extensive enough to fill the pages of this essay and several more. The upshot of the story is that there has been a concerted, multipronged attack on a system of political economy that was, when they began, already just about the least fair to working people of any in the developed world, but nevertheless a whole lot more fair than it ever had been previously. Or is now.
The purpose of all these efforts, however, was always the same, and typically had little to do with culture conflicts, endless Middle Eastern wars, or televised Hannity and Colmes style pissing matches. It was always about the money. Always. It remains about the money today.
That’s why the malignant disease better known as Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker is now doing what he is doing. He claims that the state is broke and that he has no choice but to roll back public sector salaries and benefits. Everything about that claim is a lie. The state is not nearly as far in the red as other states that are not doing what he is doing. The state could increase taxes if it wanted to solve its problem, rather than exploiting workers. In fact, the state just got done creating it’s the very deficit Walker claims to be the problem by slashing $177 million from its tax rolls. State employees are underpaid compared to equivalent private sector workers, not overpaid as he claims. And despite all this, the unions have nevertheless publicly agreed to negotiate givebacks with the Governor. And so on.
But, of course, the biggest lie of all is the biggest lie of all. That is that the premise for what he is doing is the pursuit of fiscal rectitude. Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that, nationally, the same party that claims to be the party of fiscal responsibility is precisely the gang of folks who got us into the mess we’re in. Of the fourteen trillion dollars or so of current national debt, almost all of it was created under Republican presidents, including the saintly Ronald of Nazareth, who tripled the national debt and started the process of dismantling America’s middle class (with a jaunty smile, of course, so it felt better and was less noticeable). It is true that borrowing has gone up under Barack Obama (who, anyhow, is one of them, not one of us), but how much would that have been the case had he not inherited Bush’s wars, Bush’s ‘defense’ budget, Bush’s non-defense discretionary spending increases, Bush’s unfunded prescription drug bill, Bush’s decimation of incoming federal revenue in the form of tax cuts for the wealthy, Bush’s TARP, and Bush’s recession, the biggest since the Great Depression and therefore requiring massive stimulus spending? To answer that question, just look at what spending looked like on the day Bush was inaugurated. In fact, he inherited the greatest budget surplus in all of history.
These are the folks who bill themselves as the grownups in the room, the ones who are being responsible, the ones who are slashing social spending because we absolutely have to do so, even while further fattening a military already bloated on useless spending, even while continuing completely unabated lavish corporate welfare programs for Big Oil, Big Ag, Big Pharma and the rest, and even while slashing taxes on the wealthy down to nearly zero, transferring those liabilities to the rest of us. That’s what the Scott Walkers of this country have been doing in Washington for three decades now.
But even if Governor Walker is not responsible for the lies and destruction of his party at the national level, he is practicing precisely the same behavior in Wisconsin (while, no doubt, licking his chops at his prospects for a subsequent presidential bid, based on making this name for himself at the state level). This is not about balancing the state budget, anymore than Republicans can be the party of fiscal responsibility anywhere other than in the Alice’s-Wonderland-on-steroid-laced-irradiated-hyper-concentrated-LSD that calls itself America. This is about completing the piracy mission, knocking down one of the last remaining barriers preventing the wholesale transfer of middle class wealth to the oligarchy. This initiative is entirely about breaking public sector unions.
You can tell that’s true because those provisions in the bill have absolutely zero impact on the state’s budget. Whether unions have to be recertified every year, whether their dues are collected from paychecks, and whether they can bargain over non-salary issues – none of these factors alter Wisconsin’s fiscal condition by a single penny. You can tell that’s true because the unions are willing to talk with the governor about givebacks – and thus address the problem he claims the legislation is meant to solve – if he’ll strip out the union-busting language. And you can tell that’s true because he’s not even slightly interested in their offer. By refusing to take yes for an answer from the unions on the question that he offers as a pretext for the legislation, he reveals the pretext to be just that. This is entirely about breaking public sector unions.
It is, once again, clever in its staging. Having driven the American people to the wall through the use of job-exporting trade policy, unfair taxation policy, wage-undermining private sector union-busting, and budget-busting deficit spending, the Klepto-Plutocracy has now positioned itself quite handsomely for purposes of presenting the next and near-final act in its multi-decade play. First they put economic pressure on all Americans by shipping jobs overseas. Then they enact policies that bring on massive levels of state and federal debt. Then they give us a devastating recession to ratchet up economic insecurity. Then they make sure the Democratic alternative to the Republican recession-makers is in fact no alternative at all, bringing no relief to workers whatsoever. This then clears the way, a mere two years later, for a Lazarus-like resuscitation of the nearly-dead recession-creating Republican Party. But an even worse version this time, sending tea party social spending slasher freaks to Congress and producing aggressive predatory monsters like Chris Christie and Scott Walker at the state level. Then they argue to a bunch of politically illiterate American voters the all these fat gubmint workers have got it too goddam good, what with their wages that people can sorta actually live off of an’ all. Worse, these lazy bums are not only living high on the hog, but they’re living high on your nickel, Mr. Taxpayer Moron! As storms go, that recipe is good for producing a near perfect one in order to crush public sector unions.
We’ll see if it works. There are reasons not to be hopeful. Right now, as of this writing, success for the predators requires just one of fourteen Democrats in the state Senate to come in from hiding out-of-state, giving Republicans a quorum, and sealing the deal. Moreover, Wisconsin – a state that pioneered unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, the eight hour work week, the weekend, and other triumphs of actual humane treatment for humans, appears to have taken a big deep dive into Lake Stupidity of late. Once a bastion of progressivism, more lately a purple state, in 2010 it went overwhelmingly Republican, not least by producing the nation’s single most shameful act of that election cycle, the purging of Russ Feingold from the US Senate.
But there are also reasons to be hopeful, too. It seems that this may just be the Basta! moment for middle class Wisconsinites sick of being ground into poverty. Every day, the crowds of demonstrators grow larger, at last count up to 70,000. They seem really pissed off. When was the last time we saw this?
And maybe this is the Basta! moment for the country, too. Maybe people have finally had Enough! not just in Wisconsin, but elsewhere too. Already there are similar reactions in other states, as other Republicans attempt the same fiscal coup strategy.
Altogether, it may not be hyperbolic to say that Wisconsin’s fate is the country’s fate. If the thieves win, it will empower and encourage thieves nationally. If the people win, that victory may produce a Tunisia effect, getting folks to realize, as Egyptians did, that you’re really only captive to the power of thugs for precisely as long as you believe yourself to be captive to the power of thugs.
This could be the first step of an American awakening. But even if it does occur, it will only be the first step. There is so much more to be done. Most of the initial work is purely in the domain of framing. People need to understand what Warren Buffett understands, that there has been a class war going on for three decades now, and that his team is winning. People need to understand that all the other nonsense that forms the content of American politics is diversionary bullshit. People need to understand that, yes, American exceptionalism is alive and well in 2011, only it is alive and well in how poorly the country does on almost every measure of quality of life. Especially compared to those horrid socialists in Europe and elsewhere, who suffer every day under the crushing burdens of better health, longer life, higher quality education, more equal distribution of wealth, better working conditions, less crime, less stress, less war and more happiness.
From there, once the Zeitgeist is changed, the policy changes can fall like dominos. It’s not that hard to figure what to do. We had it mostly right before the Reagan Era began. 2011 is not 1981, so some things will have to change, but most will not. You either provide Social Security or you don’t. You either protect worker safety or you don’t. You either respect unions and the environment or not. You either protect people’s civil rights or you don’t.
Things can also get better than they were thirty years ago. We never had a national health care system, and we still don’t. The one we’re slated to get in 2014 is lame, brought to us by our fake-progressive DINO corporate shill of a president. We can do lots better. Ditto on taxation, spending, industrial policy, workers rights and benefits, foreign policy and so on. The great news about the multi-headed, cataclysmic, across-the-board disaster of policymaking in the United States today is that it leaves you plenty of room for improvement. It will be a long time before we run out of ideas for how to make things better here in Ronald Reagan’s America.
I don’t know if this is finally the moment when America wakes up and turns the corner to emerge from this long national nightmare. That’s probably too much to ask when tea party Republicans dominate the Congress, a faux Democratic president, just like the last one, does the bidding of the national oligarchy, and not a single prominent political figure is out there pitching the narrative that would help Americans to understand who their real enemies are.
On the other hand, who could have imagined a month or two ago that the thirty year-old Mubarak dictatorship would be swept away over the period of a couple of weeks, and with minimal bloodshed to boot?
If that can happen, anything can happen.
Wake up, America!