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“A Cancer Growing On Our Society”: Progressives Must Stand Up Against The Right Wing War On Public Employees

For many years the American Right — and many of the most powerful elements of corporate and Wall Street elite — have conducted a war on public employees.

Their campaign has taken many forms. They have tried to slash the number of public sector jobs, cut the pay and benefits of public sector workers, and do away with public employee rights to collective bargaining. They have discredited the value of the work performed by public employees — like teachers, police and firefighters — going so far as to argue that “real jobs” are created only by the private sector.

Last week a conservative court ruled that by going through bankruptcy the city of Detroit could rid itself of its obligation under the state constitution to make good on its pension commitments to its retirees.

It should surprise no one that the Republican Chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, is demanding that a budget deal with the Democrats include a 350 percent increase in pension contribution by all civilian federal employees. That would effectively mean a pay cut of about 2 percent for every federal worker. And that cut would come after a three-year pay freeze and multiple furloughs caused by the Republican “sequester.”

Unbelievably, in Illinois the right wing Chicago Tribune and the state’s corporate elite snookered the Democratic-controlled legislature into passing changes in that state’s pension laws that slashed the pensions of its public employees. The changes affected all state employees and many of Illinois’ teachers. All of them had faithfully made their required contributions to the state’s pension funds for years, even though the legislature regularly failed to make its required payments so it could avoid raising taxes on the state’s wealthiest citizens.

Illinois cut teacher pensions, even though many do not participate in the Social Security system and the state pension is their only source of retirement income.

All of these attacks on public employees — and cuts in public sector expenditures in general — are premised on two myths that are simply untrue.

Myth number one. The Right claims we live in a period of scarcity that requires extreme public sector austerity. They claim “we just can’t afford” to pay people like teachers the pensions that we had agreed to in the past, because “America is broke.”

This, of course, is simply wrong. In spite of the hardships brought on by the Great Recession that resulted from the reckless speculation of Wall Street banks — and even though George Bush thrust our country into an unnecessary war that cost our economy a trillion plus dollars — America is wealthier today than ever before in its history.

Per capita income in America is at an all-time high because productivity per person has gone up 80 percent since 1979.

Of course the Right is able to make the case that “we can’t afford” to pay our teachers as much as we once did, because everyday Americans feel like they have been losing ground – which of course they have. That’s because virtually every dime of that increase in our per capita national income went to the top 1 percent.

The solution to this problem is, of course, to change the rules of the game that have been rigged over the last three decades to bring about this result. By cutting the incomes, pensions and collective bargaining rights of middle class public employees rather than raising taxes on the wealthy, we make the problem worse.

But from the standpoint of the corporate Wall Street elite, that is precisely the idea. They want to continue to siphon off more and more of America’s bounty. And they want to shrink the public sector, because they don’t want to pay taxes at rates like they did back in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s when the American middle class was born and the portion of our national income going to the top 1 percent actually dropped.

That gets us to myth number two.

Myth number two. The right wing is doing its best to convince ordinary voters that the only way to make our economy grow and create “real jobs” is to cut public sector spending and allow big corporations and Wall Street to control a bigger and bigger portion of the country’s wealth.

Unfortunately, even the most basic understanding of economic history — or a shred of common sense — make clear that this is categorically untrue.

Historically, spending by government has been a critical engine for long-term economic growth.

America’s investment in universal public education has provided the indisputable foundation for our economic expansion.

The public infrastructure of roads, airports, and public transportation are essential to all economic activity. Rural electrification, our system of farm to market roads, the agricultural extension service — and a whole system of federal programs to stabilize the agricultural economy — have made possible the most productive food production system in the history of humanity.

The Internet was invented by the American government. GPS navigation that is essential to modern commerce, was developed by our government, and depends on a system of government-run navigation satellites.

Anyone who has ever been to a third world country that is ravaged by starvation and disease understands that the nutrition and health of a population is a prerequisite to vibrant economic activity. People can’t work hard if they are hungry or sick. Government provides the public health infrastructure that gives us sanitary water, picks up our garbage, disposes of our wastes, protects the quality of the air we breath and invests in the research that underlies most new medicines. And the government food stamp program is intended to prevent a significant number of our people from going hungry.

And just try to engage in productive economic activity in a society where there is no physical security, where there is no functioning police or fire protection, or that is constantly threatened by war or conquest or civil strife.

People who argue that investments by government do nothing to create economic growth — or that the only “productive” economic investments are made by a bunch of investors on Wall Street, many of whom are nothing more than professional gamblers — are just plain nuts.

Cutting back on the public sector — and demonizing public employees — has nothing whatsoever to do with economic necessity — or with “redirecting” our resources into “more productive” uses. In fact, just the opposite.

The greatest threat to our economy is the shrinking buying power of everyday Americans and the growing concentration of wealth in the 1 percent. Economic inequality is a cancer growing on our society.

Fact is that if ordinary people don’t get a proportionate share of the income from increased economic productivity, it stands to reason that they won’t have the money to buy the products the economy produces. That leads to economic stagnation and recession, it’s that simple.

Every economic and political decision we make should be viewed through the lens of whether it reduces or increases that economic inequality. When it comes to public employee pensions and wages, the corporate elite tries to convince ordinary people that the choice is between “lavish” benefits to public employees or education for our kids. They play upon the resentment that most ordinary people feel that their incomes have been stagnant for three decades to pit them against middle class public employees.

Of course the real choice is not whether ordinary people must fight over the crumbs, while the Wall Street’s “masters of the universe” jet off to gamble in Monaco on their private jets. It is whether to further reduce the share of income going to middle class teachers, fire fighters and police officers or to increase taxes on millionaires.

It’s time for Progressives — and Americans of all stripes — to wake up and smell the coffee. Without a robust, efficient, well functioning public sector, our economy will fall behind in the world and our standard of living will drop.

Government is the name we give to the things we choose to do together.

We have to attract the best and the brightest to staff our government. That requires that the teaches, firefighters, police officers, maintenance people, researchers, clerks, constituent service workers, programmers, air traffic controllers, managers, construction workers, corrections officers, policy analysts, and everyone else who works for our governments must be respected, well compensated, and have the right to collectively bargain over the wages and working conditions.

It’s time for us all to stand up against the Right Wing war on public sector employees.

 

By: Robert Creamer, The Blog, The Huffington Post, December 9, 2013

December 10, 2013 Posted by | Collective Bargaining, Economic Inequality, Public Employees | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“An Undead Policy Idea”: Rand Paul Pulls Out His Dog-Eared Playbook

Sen. Rand Paul decamped in Detroit today to open a new GOP office (good luck with that), and while he was at it, pulled out his thin, dog-eared playbook of conservative urban policy ideas, as reported by Slate‘s Emma Roller:

Paul’s real mission in Detroit is his new plan to stimulate the bankrupt city’s economy. In a call with reporters Thursday, Paul announced a bill that he insists is not a stimulus. The gist: radically lower taxes for areas that have 1.5 times the national unemployment rate, or roughly 11 percent. As of August, unemployment in Wayne County was at 11.1 percent, and 17.7 percent in Detroit proper.

Yes, it’s “enterprise zones,” the crown jewel of 1980s-style Republican expressions of concern for urban areas, associated especially with HUD secretary and conservative warhorse Jack Kemp. As Roller notes, it hasn’t been a particularly successful idea:

Would insanely low corporate taxes convince Jeff Bezos to build Amazon’s next warehouse in some long-abandoned Detroit building? Would they even convince business owners in adjacent Macomb County—which has an only 9.5 percent unemployment rate—to venture into the city? Critics (as they are wont to be) are skeptical:

“Enterprise zones are not especially effective at increasing overall economic activity or raising incomes for the poor,” said Len Burman, director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and a former Clinton administration official. “They just seem to move the locus of activity across the zone’s boundary — reducing activity outside the zone and increasing it inside.”

Burman might well know, because probably the most extensive application of the enterprise zone concept was actually as a small element of the Clinton administration’s “empowerment zone” initiative, which packaged federal grants with tax concessions in urban areas agreeing to undertake a comprehensive strategy for self-improvement. This was not one of my favorite Clinton policies (as I expressed once in a magazine op-ed that enraged the initiative’s majordomo, a guy named Andrew Cuomo), but it was a lot better than the original GOP model.

But here it is again, a truly undead policy idea.

Once when I was involved in rural development efforts in Georgia I wrote (for the private amusement of my colleagues at the state agency where I worked) a savage parody of enterprise zones by “proposing” that we offer poor counties the opportunity to legalize every kind of income-producing vice: prostitution, gambling, drugs, you name it. They’d be called “erogenous zones.” A quarter century later, enterprise zones haven’t become any less worthy of ridicule.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, December 5, 2013

December 7, 2013 Posted by | Rand Paul | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Great Detroit Betrayal”: The Residents, Employees And Retirees Are Not The Tragic Heroes Who Brought The City Down

Detroit has filed for bankruptcy. Most of the spot-news coverage has focused on the immediate fiscal crisis of the city, but the immediate fiscal crisis really isn’t what got the city into such deep trouble. Certainly, Detroit’s contracts with its employees and its debts to its retirees don’t explain anything about how and why this once-great city has come to such grief. Those contracts and retirement benefits are par for the course for major American cities—certainly, no more generous than those in cities of comparable size.

Any remotely accurate autopsy of the city will find the cancer that killed Detroit was the decline of the American auto industry. The failure of U.S. automakers in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s to make better cars at a time when foreign-made autos were beginning to enter the U.S. market was surely one factor. Another was the trade deals that made it easy for Detroit automakers to relocate to cheaper climes—most particularly, NAFTA, which boosted maquiladoras while shuttering auto plants in the United States, disproportionately, in Greater Detroit. Taken in aggregate, the U.S. trade deals of the past half-century have benefited finance while crippling manufacturing, and Detroit—along with swaths of Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and other industrial cities—paid the price.

A second factor is the racial polarization that Detroit has never managed to overcome. As far back as the 1920s, the Detroit factories attracted workers who didn’t always get along. In particular, it drew hundreds of thousands of workers from the African American South and white Appalachia. Since its formation in the 1930s, the United Auto Workers has spent much time and energy trying to combat white racism, and to keep tensions between these two groups from erupting in violence. The union didn’t always succeed. While it generally managed to get both its white and black members voting for liberal Democrats for state and national office, it seldom managed, even during the height of its strength in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, to get its white members to vote for its endorsed candidates for Detroit city office. Why the difference? Because city officials, unlike state and national ones, set Detroit’s policing and housing policies, and many white Detroiters, including auto workers, wanted to preserve racially segregated housing and a brutal, racist police force.

As mass suburban development came to Detroit in the decades following World War II, the city became prey to epochal white flight. By the late ’80s, when pollster Stan Greenberg conducted his now famous study of Macomb County—a white, working-class suburb adjoining Detroit, which had voted overwhelmingly for John Kennedy in 1960 and just as overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan in 1984—he discovered a white electorate convinced that Democrats had created a government that benefited only blacks. Any notion of regional cooperation between increasingly black Detroit and its white suburbs was a non-starter.

As the auto plants closed and the whites fled, Detroit hollowed out. In time, as jobs and services vanished, blacks fled as well. In 1950, the city was home to 2 million people. Today, it is home to 700,000. Its unemployment rate, at 18.6 percent, is the highest of the 50 largest American cities. Its tax revenues, not surprisingly, can’t support adequate city services. And today’s bankruptcy filing is likely to reduce those services still further, while likely reducing the monthly pension checks of its retirees, though they and their unions have a strong moral claim to most favored creditor status. Moral claims often don’t amount to much, however, in bankruptcy proceedings.

Is it right to call what has happened to Detroit a tragedy? Not, surely, in a strictly Greek sense. There was hubris aplenty, but it was the hubris of auto executives who certainly don’t live within the city limits and won’t suffer the bankruptcy’s consequences. As for those who will suffer them—the residents, employees and retirees of Detroit—they’re not the tragic heroes who brought the city down. They’re the tragic victims.

 

By: Harold Meyerson, The American Prospect, July 19, 2013

July 21, 2013 Posted by | Auto Industry | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Hell Isle”: A Commonwealth Of The United States Where “Funny Talkers” Need Not Apply

Check out what the loopy Ayn Randroids are up to now. In long-suffering Detroit, a libertarian real estate developer wants to buy a civic crown jewel, Belle Isle, the 982-acre park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead—think the Motor City’s Central Park—and turn it into an independent nation, selling citizenships at $300,000 per. Not, mind you, out of any mercenary motives, says would-be founder Rodney Lockwood—but just “to provide an economic and social laboratory for a society which effectively addresses some of the most important problems of American, and the western world.” (Sic.)

Address how? Well, let’s say I’ve never seen a document that better reveals the extent to which, for libertarians, “liberty” means the opposite of liberty—at least since Rick Santorum held up the company town in which his grandpa was entombed as a beacon of freedom.

An aspiring Ayn Rand himself, Lockwood has set out his vision in a “novel,” poetically titled Belle Isle: Detroit’s Game Changer. Although he’s actually done the master one better, by imagining he can get his utopia built. Last week he presented the plan, alongside a retired Chrysler executive, a charter school entrepreneur (who apparently enjoys a cameo in the novel running one of the island’s two K-12 schools) and a senior economist at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, to what The Detroit News called “a select group of movers and shakers at the tony Detroit Athletic Club,” who included the president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Never let it be said Rod Lockwood (perfect pornstar name? You be the judge) hasn’t thought this thing through. The plan is foolproof: “Belle Isle is sold by the City of Detroit to a group of investors for $1 billion. The island is then developed into a city-state of 35,000 people, with its own laws, customs and currency, under United States supervision as a Commonwealth.” Relations with neighboring, impoverished Detroit will be naught but copacetic, and not exploitative at all: “Plants will be built across the Detroit River…. with the engineering and management functions on Belle Isle. Companies from all over the world will locate on Belle Isle, bringing in massive amounts of capital and GDP.” (Because, you know, tax-dodging international financiers of the sort a scheme like this attracts are just desperate to open and operate factories.) Government will be limited to ten percent or less of GDP, “by constitutional dictate. The social safety net is operated charities, which are highly encouraged and supported by the government.”

Although, on Belle Isle, “the word ‘Government’ is discouraged and replaced with the word ‘Service’ in the name of buildings.” Note the verb-tense slippage between present and future throughout. Lockwood is a realist.

He says what he imagines is a “Midwest Tiger”—helpfully explaining that his self-bestowed nickname is “a play on the label given Singapore as the ‘Asian Tiger.’ Singapore, in recent decades, has transformed itself into the most dynamic economy in the world, through low regulation, low taxes and business-friendly practices.”

Singapore. You know: that libertarian paradise where chewing gum is banned; thousands of people each year are sentenced to whippings with rattan canes for such offenses as overstaying visas and spray-painting buildings; the punishment for littering can be $1,000, a term of forced labor and being required to wear a sign reading “I am a litter lout”; and where pornography, criticizing religion, connecting to an unsecured Wi-Fi hotspot and (yes!) over-exuberant hugging are all banned. Freedom!

What are the Commonwealth’s other inspirations, you ask? “The country of Liechtenstein, which, although a monarchy, has a very effective government.”

And indeed, just like little Liechtenstein, Belle Islanders will enjoy protection from America’s security umbrella: “As a Commonwealth of the United States…Belle Isle pays its share of the U.S. defense budget, based on its population. It amounts to about $2,000 per person per year.” In fact Belle Islanders can expect nothing but fiscal gratitude from citizens of the United States. Yes, “a citizen who lives on Belle Isle who operates an investment fund with world-wide customers will pay no income taxes” to the United States. “Won’t the US lose a lot of tax revenue?” Oh, ye of little libertarian faith. “It will probably gain revenue…. Entrepreneurs from around the world will locate on Belle Isle and headquarter there, but often have their plant operations in the US because the island is so small. Businesses producing products in the U.S. will still be taxed at US corporate rates…. the influx of capital and jobs will be staggering…. Detroiters will see this vision as the answer to their prayers, and how could the federal government deny Detroit a chance to turn itself around, accelerate its re-birth, all at no cost to the taxpayer? How could they deny this long standing population of over 700,000 their first real shot at the American dream.” (Sic.)

Want in? Three requirements. First, of course, you need to come up with $300,000. “Will the citizenship fee pay for the purchase of any land for homes or businesses on Belle Isle?” “No—that will be an additional cost.” But look what that $300,000 buys you: “One of the core values” of the new nation, Lockwood writes, “is respect for all its citizens, no matter their station in life.”

Second: approval by the “citizenship board.” (Freedom!) Third step: “a command of English.” Because nothing says “respect for all its citizens” like “funny-talkers need not apply.”

And yes, it’s true, Lockwood proposes the “Rand” as the name of Belle Isle’s currency. But I’m sure he means Rand as in “Ayn Rand,” not, you know, Rand as in “South Africa,” the former home of a social system that functioned by surrounding minority enclaves of affluent whites with a reserve army of impoverished and disenfranchised blacks. Not like that at all.

What could go wrong? What’s the downside? After all, writes Lockwood in the section of his FAQ asking, ‘What is Bell Isle used for currently?”, “It is uninhabited and functions as a public park.” Just like that dead zone between 59th and 110th Streets in Manhattan.

You can sign up for updates on the project here. Although, take note, in order do so you have to give the organizers your phone number. Because, you know… freedom.

 

By: Rick Perlstein, The Nation, January 28, 2013

January 29, 2013 Posted by | Libertarians | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“No Time For Consequences”: Now Begins The Dirtiest Week In Politics

One week from today, voters across the country will head to the polls and elect a president and a Congress. Literally billions of dollars have been spent so far to influence the outcome, not to mention countless hours of personal sacrifice and effort. Alas, politics is a zero-sum game: there will be no return on investment for the losers. Even if a candidate wins by a single vote, his or her backers can be rewarded with extraordinary power, access and profit, while the very narrow loser gets nothing, and the supporters, less—just red ink on the ledger.

So in this last week of campaigning, all the stops come out. For too many political operatives that have long since discarded notions of professional ethics, the only question about a dirty tactic is: will it work? In July, the answer is likely to be “probably not,” because the trick can be discovered and the candidate branded as dirty, or a cheater.

But now, with so little time left—with no real time for tricks to be exposed nor for narratives about questionable tactics to shape up—dirty moves look pretty appealing. (It also helps that the national press, aside from being overwhelmed with the conclusion of so many important races, is also distracted by a historically catastrophic storm).

And so we’ve seen them. On the top line, this dynamic probably explains the Romney campaign’s decision to run a series of ads in Ohio claiming that, thanks to Obama’s auto bailout, Chrysler is going to move all Jeep production to China. This is not true in any possible interpretation of the facts, and I have to think that, despite his loose relationship with the truth, there’s no way Romney would go this far out on a limb in the summer time. (As John Nichols writes today, “Yes, Romney’s a Liar, but This Is Getting Ridiculous.”) The company itself has blasted this as “a leap that would be difficult even for professional circus acrobats,” while assuring panicked workers, and Vice President Biden has aggressively fought back, asking “Have they no shame?” Newspapers editorials across the state are blasting Romney’s lie.

Normally, this is the type of blowback that would really harm a candidate, but the Romney camp’s calculation is clearly that there just isn’t time for that—and meanwhile, many low-information voters can be scared into voting Romney. I’m not sure that’s the right calculation, but one they’ve made: after three days of pushback from the company and pretty much everyone else, Romney responded Tuesday afternoon by releasing a radio version of the ad that’s even more dishonest than the original spot.

But beneath headline-level antics like this, things are getting even dirtier. Scott Keyes at ThinkProgress reported today that the Romney campaign in Wisconsin is training volunteers to explicitly mislead voters:

Documents from a recent Romney poll watcher training obtained by ThinkProgress contain several misleading or untrue claims about the rights of Wisconsin voters… One blatant falsehood occurs on page 5 of the training packet, which informed poll watchers that any “person [who] has been convicted of treason, a felony, or bribery” isn’t eligible to vote. This is not true. Once a Wisconsin voter who has been convicted of a felony completes his or her sentence, that person is once again eligible to vote.

The poll workers are also being given incomplete information as to what can be used as identification to vote in Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, voters in Virginia—where both the presidential race and key Senate race are essentially tied—are receiving truly deceptive robocalls about President Obama’s relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

First, the phone rings and “William Kristol” comes up on caller ID. (Yes, that one). His group, the Emergency Committee for Israel, is paying for the call, which features random remarks from different Obama and Netanyahu speeches spliced together as if the two had a debate—and one in which Obama basically tells Netanyahu to get lost. Ron Kampeas at JTA has the transcript:

DEBATE ‘MODERATOR’: Welcome to the first debate between Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. President, we’ll start with you.

OBAMA: I’ve made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran and is not interfering with Iran’s affairs.

“MODERATOR”: Mr. President, thank you. Mr. Prime Minister, your response.

NETANYAHU: The Jewish state will not allow those who seek our destruction to possess the means to achieve that goal. A nuclear armed Iran must be stopped.

“MODERATOR”: Mr President, your rebuttal.

OBAMA: Obviously there are some differences between us.

ECI: Friends, Americans and Israel cannot afford four more years of Barack Obama. This call was paid for by the Emergency Committee for Israel because your vote will make the difference in this election.

I highly doubt Kristol would try this stunt in September. But in one week, there will be earth-shifting news about either the re-election of President Obama or the election of Mitt Romney. Nobody would care about a silly robocall in Virginia, despite the impact it may have had on voters in a critical state.

Look for more things like this in the week ahead—they are a virtual certainty. And if you get a weird robocall, or visit from a misleading activist, jot down the details and contact a friendly reporter. (My information is above, and local news reporters are likely to be interested as well).

 

By: George Zornick, The Nation, October 30, 2012

October 31, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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