News of the First Shot Fired

Often there seems no point in discussing breaking news – there are transitory events that seem a big deal, but a week later whatever it was doesn’t seem a big deal at all. Entertainment stories are like that. In a few weeks Charlie Sheen will be as important as Eddie Fisher. Who? And on the political front we all remember the earth-shattering day we learned that Fred Thompson would run for president. Yes, where were you when you heard the news? Over time much of what was so important turns out to have been not important at all. Sure, you can be hair-on-fire outraged at something that just happened, but it’s not recommended. Wait. Let things settle. After all, perpetual outrage will kill you – high blood pressure and that sort of thing.

And there are sleeper stories. A Navy destroyer might have been attacked by one or two small gunships in the Gulf of Tonkin – it was never that clear – but somehow that led to full war in Vietnam, and for the first time we lost that one, after Korea had pretty much been a draw. America wasn’t always a winner. That was hard for the nation to assimilate. Many don’t accept that now. But the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, that somehow later justified Lyndon Johnson sending in a half a million troops all of a sudden, weren’t much of a story at the time – and the second and most important of these attacks probably never happened anyway. Five or ten or twenty years later an editor might say damn, we should have covered that better. But who knew?

There are obvious exceptions to this – unambiguous Big News – Pearl Harbor, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 9/11 attacks, the recent revolution in Egypt that removed Mubarak and changed everything in the region, and the attempt at the same sort of thing in Libya that now looks as if it will turn into a long and quite awful civil war. But on the other hand there are still sleeper stories – a skinny young senator from Illinois gives an amazing speech at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston and four years later he’s elected president – our first black president – and right off those folks in Norway or Sweden or wherever hand him the Nobel Peace Prize. Anyone who said at the time that’s our next president was amazingly insightful – or got lucky. Some of us just said it’s possible, and it would be wonderful – but it was unlikely of course. Oops.

You just never know. And now there’s Wisconsin and the breaking news of Wednesday, March 9:

The bitter political standoff in Wisconsin over Gov. Scott Walker’s bid to sharply curtail collective bargaining for public-sector workers ended abruptly Wednesday night as Republican colleagues in the State Senate successfully maneuvered to adopt a bill doing just that.

After a three-week stalemate, Republican senators pushed the measure through in less than half an hour even as the Senate’s Democrats remained many miles away, trying to block the vote. Democrats in the State Assembly complained bitterly, and protesters, who had spent many days at the Capitol, continued their chants and jeers.

That’s Monica Davey reporting in the New York Times, on a minor matter in one state legislature. Is that big news? Maybe it is, as a model, a taste of things to come:

The Republicans control the Senate but had been blocked from voting on the issue after Senate Democrats left the state last month to prevent a quorum. But the Republicans used a procedural maneuver Wednesday to force the collective bargaining measure through: they removed elements of Governor Walker’s bill that were technically related to appropriating funds, thus lifting a requirement that 20 senators be present for a vote. In the end, the Senate’s 19 Republicans approved the measure, 18 to 1, without any debate on the floor or a single Democrat in the room.

The governor said public workers had to give up their rights – it was the only way to balance the budget – and the only way to pass this was to say collective bargaining for public-sector employees didn’t have a damned thing to do with the budget at all, so it wasn’t necessary to have the usual quorum at all, or even any Democrats near the statehouse. Cool. The tactic is more interesting than the issue. The assumption is that the public will be impressed with the ingenuity and daring of the Republicans, and admire them intensely. This is the state where Favre won more than a few games for the Green Bay Packers with an amazing new clever play or an impossible Hail Mary pass in the final seconds. People love that sort of thing. And the Republicans in Washington, on the national level, seem to think the same way. So the news was it works.

Of course the governor issued a statement that this was wonderful – this will improve what he calls the business climate. His thinking is that if corporations see that Wisconsin is a place that systematically takes away workers rights, starting with the public sector employees, they’ll come running and set up shop all over the place – no pesky demands for higher wages or better working conditions will be allowed. Wisconsin will be a place where you can make a bundle, and no be bothered by the losers you have to hire to do the work. He said to expect a quarter million new jobs now. So, as news, this is a test of that theory.

Of course Democrats condemned this surprise parliamentary sleight of hand as a nasty attack on working families, and, by the way, a violation of open meetings requirements. The Republicans shrugged. So what? It’s done. And in a way, all this is big news, as a predictive model.

But Jeff Mayers at Reuters reports this with a different emphasis:

The move added to the already bitter political atmosphere in Wisconsin over the fight, and dozens of protesters flooded the Capitol in the evening following the vote, ignoring announcements from police that the building was closed. The ground floor and first floor appeared nearly as full as they were during the first days of the demonstrations more than three weeks ago, and protesters stayed in the Capitol defiantly chanting “recall” and “Whose house? Our house!”

Outside the Assembly chamber, House Minority Leader Peter Barca allowed protesters to fill out forms listing themselves as witnesses to a violation of the state’s open meetings laws stemming from the Republicans’ earlier conference committee meeting. The move by the Wisconsin Senate will increase the anxiety of union workers nationwide, who face similar efforts to roll back public employee power in a number of other states.

So maybe this wasn’t the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it was the fall of something, and folks aren’t happy.

The measure has prompted massive demonstrations in the state capital by the bill’s opponents and triggered a wave of recall campaigns targeting both the governor’s supporters and opponents in the legislature. What began a month ago as a Republican effort in one small U.S. state to balance the budget has now turned into a confrontation with unions that could be the biggest since then President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers nearly 30 years ago.

If the plan is approved as expected in Wisconsin, a number of other states where Republicans swept to victory in the 2010 elections could follow. Legislatures including those in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Idaho, Tennessee, and Kansas have already been working on union curbs of their own.

The stakes are high for labor because more than a third of U.S. public employees such as teachers, police and civil service workers belong to unions while only 6.9 percent of private sector workers are unionized. Unions are the biggest single source of funding for the Democratic Party.

And that’s the nub of it – the Republican State Senate Majority Leader just came out and said it – this is a key step in defeating Obama, and it’s really nothing more than that – and he said it in Fox News of course. Yes, Governor Walker never mentioned the proposal on his official campaign website or debated it during his two-year campaign, and it reverses long-standing policy in Wisconsin, and Wisconsin was one of the first states to give public employees union rights – but everyone is in awe of bold people.

But see Greg Sargent:

Here’s what Wisconsin Republicans accomplished tonight: In a situation where they had repeated opportunities to resolve this standoff and plausibly declare victory for themselves, they have now ensured that this battle is only going to escalate.

It’s like that start of a war, and kind of a Gulf of Tonkin thing:

A lawyer told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the move appeared to violate the state’s open meetings law. One assumes that this is headed for court, but let’s just presume for the moment that the move will stand.

There’s no quibbling with the fact that if it does stand, Walker and Republicans will have gotten their way in the short term fight. But let’s recall an important fact: Republicans control the governorship and state legislature. The fact that they were forced to resort to this trick is itself a concession that they had lost the battle as they themselves had previously defined it. And in so doing, they were forced to pull a maneuver that will only lend even more energy to the drive to recall them.

This kind of conduct is exactly what recalls are for.

And there’s the record:

This latest move is in direct contradiction of a recent pledge by the head of Wisconsin senate Republicans not to pass the bill without Democrats present. By treating the collective bargaining piece as a non-fiscal provision, Republicans have also revealed that Walker’s repeated claims that the anti-union push was all about the budget to be a complete falsehood.

But it goes far beyond this. Despite Walker’s repeated claims to the contrary, it has been well-documented that during his campaign he never revealed he’d pursue the radical push to roll back bargaining rights that he sprung on unsuspecting Wisconsinites. What’s more, Wisconsin unions agreed early on to the fiscal concessions Walker demanded, on the condition that he preserve their bargaining rights. He refused, on the grounds that the rollback was a fiscal issue – which has today been revealed to be bogus. And then there’s the prank Koch call, where he repeatedly laughed along as someone he took to be a major donor talked about planting troublemakers among protestors and suggested bringing a bat to his next meeting with Dems. The record here is really striking in its misconduct.

So if this is the start of a new political war, we know how it will be fought:

What’s amazing about this latest turn of events is that Walker could have reached a deal with unions and very plausibly declared victory. He could have rightly argued that his tough stance on bargaining rights forced major fiscal concessions. Instead, he dug in, and now Republicans blindly following him have pulled a stunt that will only exacerbate grassroots anger in Wisconsin and leave national unions and liberal groups no alternative but to pour everything they have into recall drives. National Republicans can’t be happy about this overreach: It has galvanized the labor movement, allowed it to restate its case to the public, given Obama an easy way to mend fences with unions, and complicated GOP outreach to blue collar whites in key swing states and districts heading into 2012.

Well, yes, it is hard to call blue-collar workers, and really most of the middle class, lazy and useless scum – greedy bastards and welfare queens out to ruin America – and then ask for their votes. But the battle lines are drawn. Don’t whine and don’t punish the successful, and shut up and vote for us. It has worked before.

But look at these charts or read this summary:

According to the most recent information, the Forbes 400 now have a greater net worth than the bottom 50% of U.S. households combined. In 2009, the total net worth of the Forbes 400 was $1.27 trillion. The best information now available shows that in 2009 the bottom 60% (yes, now it’s 60%, not 50%) of U.S. households owned only 2.3% of total U.S. wealth.

Total U.S. household net worth – rich, middle class and poor combined – at the time the Forbes list came out was $53.15 trillion. So the bottom 60% of households possessed just $1.22 trillion of that $53.15 trillion, less than the Forbes 400. Thus the Forbes 400 unquestionably have more wealth than the bottom 50%.

By contrast, in 2007 the bottom 50% of U.S. households owned slightly more wealth than the Forbes 400; the economic meltdown has hurt the bottom more than the top. (And in fact, in 2010 the net worth of the Forbes 400 jumped to $1.37 trillion.)

The middle has been hollowed out, and that leads Andrew Sullivan to say this:

It’s a subject that lies behind many of my readers’ dissents from my small government, flat, simple taxation kind of conservatism. In Wisconsin, for example, it is impossible, I think, to separate the issues of public sector collective bargaining rights … and the broader context of a country polarized into two camps: the very, very rich, and everyone else. This is especially true after the bank bailouts. There is a strong argument that bailing out the banks was the right, if distasteful, thing to do because of the threat their collapse would have had on the entire economy. But watching Wall Street rack up bonuses and carry on as normal, while teachers are being asked to take big benefit cuts … well, it’s understandable why even level-headed Wisconsinites look a little Jacobin these days.

To many on the right, this inequality is a non-issue, and in an abstract sense, I agree. Penalizing people for their success does not help the less successful. But at a time of real sacrifice, it does seem to me important for conservatives not to ignore the dangers of growing and vast inequality – for political, not economic, reasons. And by political, I don’t mean partisan. I mean a genuine concern for the effects of an increasingly unequal society. Last night, we watched “Winter’s Bone” about meth-fueled social collapse in the heartland and then clicked over to watch “The Real Housewives of Orange County.” It was a bracing summary of where America increasingly finds itself.

You just don’t want to lose the middle:

The loss of it has destabilizing political consequences. Now, some of this may be unavoidable, given a globalized and increasingly automated economy. But it increasingly seems wrong to me to exempt the very wealthy from sacrifice, in the context of their gains in the last three decades, if we are to ask it of everyone else.

It’s not about fairness. It isn’t even really about redistribution, as we once understood that from the hard left. It’s about political stability and cohesion and coherence. Without a large and strong middle class, we can easily become more divided, more bitter and more unstable. Concern about that is a legitimate conservative issue. And if someone on the right does not find a way to address it, someone on the left may well be empowered to over-reach.

Yes, there’s war brewing, and one of Sullivan’s readers adds more:

“To many on the right, this inequality is a non-issue, and in an abstract sense, I agree. Penalizing people for their success does not help the less successful.”

How could you write that with a straight face after a paragraph citing bank bailouts and mega-bonuses? I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but many of the über-successful got that way because the deck was stacked in their favor by the government they bought. Bailouts, tax-subsidies, toothless regulation, government engineered barriers to entry, and favorable legislation of every kind all operate to their benefit. If the playing field were really level, most of the “successful” who whine about their tax burden would be mediocrities at best.

I know, because I’m one of them. Were it not for helpful congresspersons, my stock options would have been worth squat. I worked hard, but not any harder than a schoolteacher and my net contribution to society was likely less. Penalize them by taking away the fix and then see how they do. If they still manage to make a bundle, I’ll cheerfully agree that they can keep 65% of it.

Another reader offers this:

“Penalizing people for their success does not help the less successful”? Of course it does. It provides the tax dollars from the rich that help the middle and lower classes with Pell Grants, or nutrition supplements for the poor, or hundreds of other programs that want to be cut by Tea Party radicals claiming “we’re broke.”

Those cuts will inflict long-term damage to the poor and less advantaged in American society. You should say instead, “Requiring the rich to give back a little more due to their success will help the less successful and even out the playing field of American society, providing a stable, equitable environment in which the truly talented will continue to get ahead.”

The war is on – and it’s class warfare. The Republicans said that opposing ending the tax cuts for the rich was class warfare – that was attacking the successful and demonizing them, and singling them out and penalizing them alone, and that would tear the country apart, as they’re just like everyone else, just regular Joe’s. And damn – people bought that. That sounded fair and reasonable. And now, in Wisconsin, they pulled off a sneak attack and dive-bombed the working class fools who thought they could argue for fair pay and better working conditions. But if you’re going to have a class war anyway, you do gain the advantage with an all-out preemptive surprise attack. That worked for the Japanese in World War II if you remember.

No it didn’t. And that may be the lesson here. And this may be big news after all.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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3 Responses to News of the First Shot Fired

  1. Rick says:

    This Wisconsin thing brings up a question nobody seems to be talking about — that our federal government, being charged by the preamble of the Constitution to “promote the general welfare,” thereby has a responsibility to make sure that rich people not be allowed to be “successful” at the expense of everyone else.

    It’s exactly what’s happening more and more, and it’s hurting the country, and I don’t think most people, whether liberal or conservative, realize it’s an issue worth discussing.

    Rick

  2. Caroline Fribance says:

    Nasty surprises in Wisconsin will generate even more opposition to Walker and lackeys. Surprise attacks may have made Favre popular, but they are not acceptable to Wisconsin citizens when they occur in their government. Watch the recalls!

    Why is it that no one mentions anymore that our system of government (even without corporations buying it) is what makes possible the success of the wealthy (whether inherited or “earned”), and that they therefore owe something to the country that has allowed them to prosper? They are successful, they would argue, in spite of the government. Ah, but the government could be socialist or communist or a dictatorship that would not have allowed their financial success. It is our capitalist-based government that is behind their success, and they should pay their fare share. Taxes are now lower than in the 1950s and lower than in most other countries. Guess the rich will starve if their taxes are raised….

  3. Vince says:

    I’m not sure the point hinges on the type of government controls the landscape. EVERY landscape is dominated by rich and powerful. That’s the simple fact of human history. The uniqueness of the U.S. has been – and I steal a great thought from an analyst looking at the vacuums that exist in Middle East upheavals… the creation and evolution of a solid Middle Class that has given the U.S. global strength – began when Geo Washington was (the only?) “revolutionized” leader to abdicate the throne thrust his direction – which allowed for the emergence of democracy. The rise of Middle Class America – of course – aligned with many factors along our history – equal parts Henry Ford and unions (as they emerged in context of those decades).
    But to Rick’s point – following the example of “The Greatest Generation” which came before us – who saved the Western & Pacific WORLDS at the time – and then came home to build the most robust, middle-class driven economic power in the history of the world… WE BABY BOOMERS can look to 2 Presidents in our historical legacy, but an overarching 40 or 50 year sea change in the methodical dissolution of America’s Middle Class. Our generation has basically looted the wealth created by our parents! And someday someone will write a major epic entitled “The Rise and Fall of Old Glory.”

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