Sunday, February 20, 2011

Wisconsin: What's Wrong with This Picture?

From ABC's This Week with Christiana Amanpour:

Let's go through some of the points raised in this roundtable:
  • George Will complains about Obama increasing the budget deficit. But the US is still in the Great Recession and the standard cure is to replace the missing private spending by public spending until the private sector recovers. If you fail to do this, if you decide you want to "balance the budget", you get the recession inside the Great Depression of 1937.

  • George Will complains bitterly about organized labour being "an appendage of Obama's party". Well, the Democrats should complain that the Wall Street banks, the big corporations, and the ultra-rich (those in the top 1% of the population) are an "appendage" of the Boenher/McConnell party. Is George will suggesting "surgery" to remove this vile and useless organ? If so, shall the people of the US use "surgery" to remove the vile and useless elites in the country? What is the point of George Will's language other than a propaganda move to denigrate the Democrats?

  • George Will is upset because the Democrats have an "exaggerated view of the scope and competence of government" with a "base in public employees" and makes the inflamatory claim that Obama is "sabotaging" Wisconsin's government. These are the words of a political provacateur. First, if Obama's base were in public employees, he wouldn't have won the election because they make up 6% of the electorate (7.6 million public sector union employees out of an employed labour workforce of 137.6 million). You don't win elections with a mandate from 6% of the people. Obama doesn't have an "exaggerated" view of government. He has a different ideology. The Republicans view "government is the problem" whereas Democrats see "government as a tool to assist people in attaining a better life". Why this difference? If you are a fat cat with your billions, you hate taxes and don't want government because its goal is to give everybody opportunity and your goal is to sit on top of your billions like Scrooge McDuck and share none of it. The Democrats look at the ultra-rich and say "that's wonderful" but as a member of the large society you have a moral and political obligation to help the less fortunate. We will use taxes to assist you in helping your fellow citizens. Finally, Obama did nothing to "sabotage" Wisconsin's governor other than to ask him to sit down and negotiate. Maybe in George Will's world "negotiate" is synonymous with "sabotage" but in the other 99.99999% of the public it does not have this meaning.

  • Amanpour worries that Obama used the word "assault" which she worries is perhaps "too extreme". Hmm... Think about 30,000 people giving up their wages for six days to try and make a political plea to their leaders. That's giving up roughly $200/day in wages per person, or a total of $36 million in lost labour costs for these days of protest. That is food off the table for people. That is cutting them to the bone on trying to pay mortgages, feed and clothe, and get medical care for their families. People don't do that cavalierly. They are deeply, bitterly unhappy. They are out shouting in the street. I think the world "assault" is mild compared the the grievance which the Wisconsin governor has inflicted on these people.

  • Donna Brazile points out that the state budget cuts are "draconian". But nobody is asking the obvious question: why are the states being forced to have a "no budget deficit" budget? In a recession/depression, government has to step in and fill the hole that the missing private spending has created to bridge the past to the future without going through a "lost decade" like the 1930s. Saying that states "must balance their budgets" says you should never build a bridge, a road, a public building, a port, an airport, etc. without "saving up" for it because it is somehow immoral or wrong to use deficit spending to build now and pay later. To talk about "stealing from the children" to use use deficit budgets is wrong headed. Sure, if in good times you are a George Bush and complain that Clinton left too big a budget surplus so you needed to hand big tax cuts to the rich and start two wars to create a trillion dollar deficit in order to eliminate a nasty budget surplus that Alan Greenspan assured everybody would "wreck" the bond market, and the right wing ideologues didn't complain, then why complain if during a multi-trillion dollar meltdown you use government spending to bridge the gap in spending until the economy recovers? Only a right wing ideologue would insist on "no deficits" during a Great Recession but stay mum on a trillion dollar deficit when Bush went wild with tax cuts and an unnecessary war in Iraq!

  • The crux of the fight is brought up by Donna Brazile. The workers in Wisconsin said they are willing to negotiate cuts to help reduce the budget, but they refuse to let Governor Walker to remove their right to collective bargaining. Walker claims his maneuver is just about a "deficit in the budget" but when workers agree to talk about cuts, he says "no". That puts the lie to Walker's claims. He is purely an ideologue wanting to use a souped-up "budget crisis" to break the public unions.

  • I laugh at the sanctimonious talk about being "bound to a balanced budget" requirement. If that were literally true, then no state, county, or municipality could ever issue a bond. That is debt to be paid back in the future. They do it all the time. But the Florida Republican congressman who wants to treat "balanced budgets" as sacred and wants to extend to the federal level. So... on Dec 7 1941 when Japan attacked the US and -- suppose for the moment that the US was bound by a balanced budget requirement -- the attempt to re-arm, to launch liberty ships, to close down civilian production and turn it to war production, to put 6 million men under arms would have been stymied because Southerland believes in the "sanctity" of balanced budgets! What hogwash! Governments are the will of the people on the larger scale of city, county, state, and nation. They have almost unlimited power because they sometimes have to react to almost incredible events that nobody can predict and that can't be handled by fighting by the Marquess of Queensbury rules. Hollywood makes fun of these "rules" all the time when it shows that in a real life & death struggle you don't play by silly "rules" that restrict your ability to survive. You go all out. A recession/depression is a life & death struggle. Balanced budgets are great for normal times, but not during an emergency. Congressman Southerland is either a fool or lying through his teeth to say that he places "balanced budgets" on that kind of pedestal. Do you really think that if somebody kidnapped his wife for a big ransom his answer to the kidnappers would be "I would like to pay your demands, but personally I'm against going into debt, so if you can wait for 20 years while I work hard and save every penny, I will scrape together the money and pay you your demand once I have built up that pile of money"?

  • Southerland plays a hypocritical and intellectually dishonest card when he says "the American family must do more with less, and the same expectation is fair with the federal government". Families and government are not the same kind of thing. The role of government is to organize activities on a scale no available to a family. A recession is exactly the time when a government is meant to leap into action. Sure, a family must tighten budgets in a recession. It is that fall in private spending that creates the recession. But to counteract it, governments have to step in and fill the void with public spending. That is why "make work" projects are needed. To keep the economy from crashing and prolonging the bad times. Southerland is showing that he is a complete idiot about economics and should be disqualified from representing people because he doesn't understand the basics of the economy.

  • When George Will blandly justifies Walker's actions by saying "Governor Walked was elected to do what he said he would do". That means that George Will would sit on this same panel in 1933 and say "Herr Hitler was elected on the basis of his political actions spelled out in Mein Kampf, so Germans should simply sit back and let Herr Hitler execute his political program." No! Just because you get elected doesn't mean you have the moral right and not even the political right to carry through a political program that will gut the rights of Americans. The very fact that Americans revolted under King George III shows that they will not passively sit back and let governments run rough shod over them. During the Revolutionary War, Gadsden's flag for South Carolina has the slogan "Don't Tread on Me!" as did Virginia's Culpepper Minutemen as does the US Navy's first Navy Jack. Having authority figures run roughshod over you may be George Will's pleasure, but it is not a typical American trait.

  • When George Will sights hoary old political figures such as FDR and LaGuardia for their view that public sector unions should have no rights, he is making a non-argument. George Will might as well look Donna Brazile in the eye and announce a list of early 19th century Senators, Congressmen, and Presidents who make grand declarations about the "institution" of slavery. Time passes. Things change. Citing the past to justify the present is a favourite hobby of conservatives, but reality changes and the past should not and cannot rule the future.

  • When Christiane Amanpour posed a question about Walker when he was Milwaukee County Executive and the cuts he did. George Will puffs up and says "and he got re-elected!". What George Will doesn't point out is that this supposed "slash & burn" executive actually increased the county's spending by 35% under his term (see Wikipedia). George Will does what a lot of progandists do, he carefully picks his "facts" to build his case and dishonestly ignores others. Walker was wildly popular because he was honest. He replaced a previous executive whose crimes forced him to resign. He didc cut waste. But he also increased spending. This isn't the simple-minded "he came in and cracked heads with the unions because that's what he was elected to do". Elections aren't black-or-white. George Will wants to pretend they are, but they are much more complex events than that. And a political mandate can evaporate in a second despite winning "the last election".

  • I found this bit funny. Congressman Southerland jumps in with his "mandate" to make tax cuts and his laudatory claims about "small business". He wants to present small business as "heroes" but his facts get in the way. He says that 40% of the job losses came from small businesses which make up 85% of the economy. Wait a second! If that is true, then small businesses avoided the pain that the rest of the economy experienced. Relatively speaking that big part of the economy had very few job cuts.I don't think that was the "message" Southerland wanted to give, but that's what his "facts" say. I don't believe his facts. I think the pain has been shared by the whole economy. If small business makes up 85% of the economy, then I expect 85% of the job losses came from small business, not 40%.

  • What is the point of Southerland's argument that the public sector union's benefit packages are better than those of most small businesses. This is silly. Unless you compare apples-to-apples there is no point in making this claim. If I compare the benefit package of Congressmen to the cleaning staff at Holiday Inn I can honestly say that the pension amounts collected by Congressmen are astronomically huge, jaw-dropping big, compared to what a minimum wage cleaning person gets as a "pension" from Holiday Inn. (I really suspect the staff at Holiday Inn have no pension whatsover.) But it is unfair to make this comparison. The qualifications for the two jobs are different. The skills needed. The level of work done is different. Is Southerland suddenly announcing that he thinks the Congressmen and Senators should accept the same pension plans as Holiday Inn gives it cleaning staff? I hardly think so. The public sector workers get better pension than a large number of workers in private industry because there are more white collar workers in government than blue collar, while in private industry there are more blue collar workers than white collar. You need apple-to-apple comparisons if you want to be honest. Southerland is a politician and an ideologue. He isn't interested in the truth.

  • George Will jumps in to contradict what he said earlier. He is now saying that unionized public sector workers are a "tiny minority of a tiny minority". Funny, back at the beginning of this roundtable he was claiming that Obama was going to build an election victory on the back of this "union horde" which he was leading. He implied that it was the public sector unions that "elected" Obama. But how can a "tiny minority of a tiny minority" elect a president? George Will is not interested in the truth or an honest debate. He is an ideologue willing to twist any "fact" any way he pleases to score a debating point.

  • Donna Brazile raises the real question: why make workers cough up the big bucks to fill the deficit they didn't make. The ones who made it were the fraudulent Wall Street banks, the mortagage companies, the brokers, the credit rating agencies that built up a huge fraud, a kind of Ponzi scheme of puffed up securitized mortgages stuffed with NINJA loans that were going to explode. Those Wall Street bankers got even bigger bonuses in 2009 and yet bigger ones in 2010. They haven't paid a penny for the multi-trillion dollar meltdown they caused. Instead, governments want to cut wages to white collar and blue collar workers to fill the hole in the economy caused by fat cat Wall Street bankers. She doesn't point out that when Obama tried to end the Bush tax cuts for the millionaires and billionaires, the same right wingers who now say that people need to accept 8% and 9% wage cuts were screaming bloody murder that Obama would remove a "temporary" tax cut that Bush put in place. They assured everybody that removing those tax cuts would destroy the American economy. But making ordinary Americans take a 8% or 9% pay cut, they seem oblivious to any effects that might have on the economy!

  • When Christiana Amanpour looked Southerland in the eye and asked about using the current crisis to "bust unions", he replied that "he really didn't know about that". But in fact, he does know. A number of people on the right are dancing in the street and shouting to the rooftops that this is the happy day when they can bust unions. Governor Walker himself is quoted as saying: Walker defended his plan, saying the public employee union has “a stranglehold” on the state through tough negotiating that is “like a virus, eating up our budget.”
A civil society works only with the consent of the governed. When you have a hard line governor willing to run roughshod over the rights of the people, in this case public sector workers, you dissolve the bonds of civil society and invite in fanaticism, violence, and revolution. The voters in Wisconsin did not elect Walker with the expectation that 30,000+ demonstrators would be on the street. He needs to drop the right wing ideology, and sit down with the unions and negotiate. You don't get social cohesion and collaboration by issuing ultimatums of going after your "political enemies". To successfully govern you have to show yourself to be a moderate, willing to be pragmatic, willing to compromise, and to ask all citizens to share the pain.

Addendum:I'm afraid that people won't understand the argument against "no budget deficits". The world actually allows cities, counties, and states to have deficits. They are hidden under the issuing of bonds to cover one-time expenses for projects with a long life. For example, you don't tell a community "you can't build a school for your children until you've saved the money to pay for it". That is nonsense. The school buildling will last 50 years, 100 years, or more. To make one set of parents pay the full cost of the school building so their children can be educated is just plain stupid. So you have a vote on a bond issue. When it is approved, debt (a bond) is issued to cover the cost of building the school. That bond is paid off over 20 or 30 years. So parents from 20 or 30 generations of school children (and the rest of the community) pay for that school. It is part of the "social capital" of the society. The crazy idea that local governments can't have "deficits" is nutty. A depression is a once in 50 or 100 year event. It is wrong to make one generation pay the costs of that event. It should be borne over 50 or 100 years. So governments should go in debt in order to fill the void of missing private spending to bridge the economy from the good times before a depression and the good times after the depression. It makes no sense to cut government expense and worsen the depression because of a rule about "no deficits". Economically it is ridiculous. Morally it is ridiculous.

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