Thursday, February 24, 2011

Five things about Wisconsin

Everybody's talking about Wisconsin's Governor Scott Walker, his attempt to savage public-sector labor unions, multi-state copycat efforts, and the mass protests against these attacks in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio.

Rather than add to the cacophony, I'll do my part to amplify a few smart voices. Here are snippets from:

  1. the NY Times editorial board
  2. Nicholas Kristoff
  3. a couple of academics from Harvard and Duke Universities
  4. Mother Jones magazine reporter Andy Kroll
  5. Abraham Lincoln

Yesterday's New York Times editorial, "Spreading Anti-Union Agenda," laid out the partisan reality of the Greedy Overlords' Party's jihad on people's right to organize:

"Republican lawmakers also are trying to cripple the bargaining power of unions -- and ultimately realize a cherished partisan dream of eradicating them. In each case, Republican talk of balancing budgets is cover for the real purpose of gutting the political force of middle-class state workers, who are steady supporters of Democrats and pose a threat to a growing conservative agenda. [...] Some public sector unions have contracts and benefits that are too rich for these times, but even when they have made concessions, Republican officials have kept up the attack. The Republicans' claim to be acting on behalf of taxpayers is not believable."

Does anyone imagine that what's playing out in Wisconsin has nothing to do with class war? No? Then let's take a look at statistics about distribution of income in the United States, courtesy of Nicholas Kristoff in Our Banana Republic, published in the NY Times in November of last year:

"The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976. [...] C.E.O.’s of the largest American companies earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker in 1980, but 531 times as much in 2001. Perhaps the most astounding statistic is this: From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent."

From a forthcoming study, Building a Better America -- One Wealth Quintile at a Time, to be published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Michael I. Norton of Harvard's Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University conclude:

"Given the consensus among disparate groups on the gap between an ideal distribution of wealth and the actual level of wealth inequality, why don't more Americans -- especially those with low income -- advocate for greater redistribution of wealth? First, our results demonstrate that Americans appear to drastically underestimate the current level of wealth inequality, suggesting they may simply be unaware of the gap. Second, just as people have erroneous beliefs about the actual level of wealth inequality, they may also hold overly optimistic beliefs about opportunities for social mobility in the United States (Benabou & Ok, 2001; Charles & Hurst, 2003; Keister, 2005), beliefs which in turn may drive support for unequal distributions of wealth. Third, despite the fact that conservatives and liberals in our sample agree that the current level of inequality far from ideal, public disagreements about the causes of that inequality may drown out this consensus (Alesina & Angeletos, 2005; Piketty, 1995). Finally, and more broadly, Americans exhibit a general disconnect between their attitudes towards economic inequality and their self-interest and public policy preferences (Bartels, 2005; Fong, 2001), suggesting that even given increased awareness of the gap between ideal and actual wealth distributions, Americans may remain unlikely to advocate for policies that would narrow this gap."

Closing the loop on the class war question, in a Mother Jones magazine titled Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker: Funded by the Koch Bros., Andy Kroll wrote last Friday:

"Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker, whose bill to kill collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions has caused an uproar among state employees, might not be where he is today without the Koch brothers. Charles and David Koch are conservative titans of industry who have infamously used their vast wealth to undermine President Obama and fight legislation they detest [...] [O]ne prominent beneficiary of the Koch brothers' largess is Scott Walker. [...] Walker's plan to eviscerate collective bargaining rights for public employees is right out of the Koch brothers' playbook."

(The New York Times and Washington Post have since run stories linking these billionaire brothers to "the push to roll back public employee rights.")

In a diary posted yesterday on the Daily Kos, titled Union-busting: The War of Southern Aggression, a contributor who calls himself "modemocrat" quoted Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, from an address given to Congress on December 3, 1861:

"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital, producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of the community exists within that relation. [...] No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty -- none less inclined to take, or touch, aught that they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which, if surrendered, will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they, and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them, till all of liberty shall be lost .... "

What do you think? Too much verbiage? Too many links? Can't be bothered to figure out what it all means? Does the idea that a few very, very wealthy individuals are manipulating the government to your detriment give you a headache?

That's okay. Don't worry. Be happy. You can turn in all your uncomfortable opinions at the Downsizing Desk on your way out of the building. Going forward, corporate lobbyists will tell your government how best to facilitate their enrichment. You needn't bother yourself with the details.

As a convenience, you are welcome to leave your housekeys at the Downsizing Desk too ... might as well, since if your home hasn't been foreclosed already it will be soon after you lose your job and become part of the new permanent, unemployable underclass, as "abe57" unhappily described himself Tuesday.

(Alternatively you could take Abe Lincoln's advice and "beware of surrendering [your] political power." Act -- as GrumpyWarriorPoet describes the people on the streets of Madison are acting -- or be acted upon.)

Thanks to Botteville and Wikimedia Commons for the image of the Lincoln Memorial.


  1. Yesterday night I want to see Elizabeth Warren speak, followed by a Q and A - somebody asked her if there's a class war; she didn't really answer the question, but earlier she talked about how starting around 30 years ago (at around the time of deregulation) the middle class started to struggle more and more to keep up. She sited trends like two income families, higher family debt, etcetera - in her context she was talking about credit marketing practices, i.e. predatory lending, but maybe it's appropos, here. Very smart woman (admittedly, I have a nerd crush on her).

  2. @Steven -- People who might one day want to be POTUS tend to steer clear of talking 'class war' ... but it is what it is.

  3. I think it's really neat that people from around the country are calling a pizza parlor near the capitol in Madison and ordering delivery for the protesters.

  4. @Glenn -- That's definitely my favorite 'on the ground' detail of the protests in Madison.