When most non-Montanans think of Montana, they think of "A River Runs Through It" -- they don't think of the central front in the war on anything (except, maybe trout, if you consider fly fishermen "warriors"). But for the last week, this sparsely populated state has been the central front in the war on the middle class, and the onslaught Big Sky country experienced shows that this fight could be coming to a town near you.
Our story begins in the Montana legislature, though it could be anywhere, as this lawmaking body is a microcosm of America's ideological divides. Democrats pushed to boost education spending and give each resident homeowner a $400 property tax rebate. To fund the plan, they proposed closing tax loopholes and strengthening tax enforcement in a state where roughly half of all Fortune 500 companies doing business get away with paying less than $500 a year in taxes.
But such a move offends conservative politicians and the corporate lobbyists who crowd the hallways of state capitols like the one in Helena -- and these types don't take lightly to being offended.
The GOP-controlled Montana House pressed a tax cut for corporations financed by spending cuts, including one eliminating all public-health programs. When last week it came time to negotiate a compromise, Republican class warriors dug in further, offering amendments to kill Democrats' proposal to beef up corporate tax enforcement.
The result? The legislature ended without a budget, and Montana is now on the brink of its own version of the 1996 Gingrich-Clinton government shutdown. It is a troubling situation for middle-class Montanans, but for anti-government Republican politicians and lobbyists, it is a big victory in their war on the middle class.
Days later, Montana's U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat, joined Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in headlining an economic-development summit in Butte, a devastated city that is one of America's all-too-common casualties in this economic war. Once the bustling capital of the copper industry, Butte today is known for its salt-of-the-earth inhabitants and for its canyon-like Superfund site known as the Berkeley Pit -- a defunct open-pit mine that the Anaconda Company abandoned with a pool of deadly chemicals at the bottom.
The captains of global finance attending this summit no doubt saw Butte's boarded-up brick buildings and rusting mine shaft skeletons from the windows of their private jets that crowded the town's airport. Yet, they delivered speeches as if they were attending an executive conference at a Caribbean resort.
Corporate leaders looked out over Butte's wreckage and not only trumpeted the supposedly booming economy, but then berated worker protection laws and lavished praise on the "benefits" of free-trade policies -- policies that have decimated wages and job security by forcing American workers, farmers and small businesses to compete in a global race to the bottom.
Executive Dan Rice of Printing for Less criticized Montana for being "an employee-slanted state;" for considering a bill asking businesses to take into account the environmental and community impact of their decisions; and, thus, for being hostile to job growth. He didn't explain why, if this was true, Montana has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation.
Similarly, the $20-million-a-year CEO of McGraw-Hill, Harold McGraw III, claimed America's trade policies have "had a net positive impact on U.S. manufacturing jobs." This, despite 3 million manufacturing jobs lost since the China free-trade pact was signed in 2000.
That so many major players trekked to Montana to read the same script proved this event wasn't about local economic development -- it was about making sure Baucus remains a reliable Washington ally in the war on the middle class. The Senate Finance Committee he chairs oversees America's economic and trade policies, and Baucus has been feeling pressure to stand up for his middle-class constituents after the Montana state Senate passed a resolution demanding he oppose more free-trade deals. Such volleys rarely go unanswered by Corporate America in this war, and so the big guns came to Butte to tell the locals to back off.
At a time of growing job insecurity, stagnating wages and Great Depression-level economic inequality, the 2006 election gave us reason to hope for change. But as events in Montana show, change will not come with one election, nor will it come easy. If the war on the middle class can make its wrath felt in a small state's part-time legislature or cheerily propagandize at a decimated town's economic-development meeting, you can bet it can -- and will -- come anywhere.
David Sirota worked for Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer's 2004 gubernatorial campaign. He lives in Helena, Mont.
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle