On Wisconsin

Everyone is saying the same thing about the stock market crash yesterday (Thursday, August 4): job creation, not deficit reduction, is what we need right now. So I won’t bother saying again, but will discuss something more important instead: the Wisconsin recall elections in six State Senate districts next Tuesday, August 9.

The recalls grew out of the storm of protest last winter against Republican Governor Scott Walker’s bill to strip state workers’ unions of collective bargaining power. As you probably remember, all the Democratic state senators left the state to prevent the bill from passing, but eventually it did. In the meantime, however,  there were massive protest demonstrations in Madison, in and around the state Capitol, for weeks.

The anger against Walker and the Wisconsin Republican party lead to campaigns to recall Republican state senators. In Wisconsin, you can only recall a political office-holder who has been in office for one year, so recall petitions were filed against all six Republicans who had been in the Senate for longer than that. The Republicans filed petitions against 3 Democratic senators, as well. The first won reelection in July, the other two will be coming up next week. Wisconsin recalls are basically a special election between the incumbent and the nominee of the other party. If 3 of the 6 Republicans are defeated on the 9th, and the 2 Democrats hold onto their seats, the Democrats will take control of the Senate, and be able to block the right-wing legislation that Walker and the Republicans have been pushing through. They won’t be able to repeal anything, but they will also build momentum toward the next election, and toward an anticipated campaign to recall Governor Walker next January.

Why is this so important? First, obviously, it will show that progressive forces can win, and perhaps suggest that the right-wing tide that rose with the Tea Party is now turning. That will not only change things in Wisconsin, but also give progressive politicians everywhere the courage to be more assertive in advancing their policies, rather than sticking to a defensive position.

But beyond that, it is about unions. Unions do far more than improving the lives of their members – although they certainly do that. They are also the most important institutional support for progressive politics. Unions have been declining in strength, and even in legal rights, for the last few decades, a trend that accelerated with the Reagan administration and has not slowed until very recently.

The Obama administration has begun to reverse some of the anti-labor policies of the past, and the Republicans are digging in to resist those reversals. That’s what the recent shutdown of the Federal Aeronautical Administration was all about: the board that regulates air unions had ruled during the Bush administration that unions would have to get a majority of all eligible voters, rather than a majority of those voting, in order to be designated to represent a bargaining unit. In other words, those who didn’t show up to vote would be counted as “no” votes. Obama’s appointees had reversed this decision, and the Republican House has been trying to reinstate it through legislation – and refusing to reauthorize the FAA unless the Senate would agree.

Walker’s bill was part of this general assault on labor rights. It not only took away the power of state workers’ unions to bargain over benefits, it also ended the collection of union dues through payroll deduction; union members now have to pay their dues directly to the union themselves. Obviously, Walker’s hope is that many workers simply won’t pay, depriving the unions of their participation and their money, and weakening them as a result.

The Citizens United case gave corporations the amount to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. Most of this money will be spent to further the cause that is dearest to the hearts of those who own the big corporations: increasing inequality. The rich want to get richer (quite naturally); and the only way that they can do that is to make the rest of us poorer. They’ve been doing pretty well at this, because most of the resources are on their side. Restoring the strength of labor unions can provide a powerful weapon to resist them, and to promote the cause of greater equality.

5 Things to Understand about the Budget Debate

This will be a quickie – I’m trying to get a book chapter written before leaving for spring break, but you faithful readers need something to tide you over. This will be it until mid-March.

As you follow the debate about the budget – federal, but the states are involved, too – just remember these five things:

1. It’s not about the deficit! Obama’s budget proposal has a deficit of over one trillion dollars. Let’s write it out, $1,000,000,000,000 – wow! Huge! No wonder the House Republicans are upset! So they are fighting hard for $60 billion in cuts, which would leave a deficit of only about one trillion dollars. Hmm . . .

2. It’s not about the deficit! Those most rabid about budget cutting now voted enthusiastically in December for a tax cut package of over $900 billion. (Well, not quite — the most rabid are GOP freshmen, who didn’t get to vote in December because they were not in office yet. Still, the Republican leadership was there, and voted for the tax cuts.) That $900 billion is spread over several years, so defeating the tax cut would not have wiped out the trillion-dollar deficit, but it would have mad a nice dent in it.

3. It’s not about the deficit! We’re fighting wars in Afghanistan (where helicopters just killed 9 boys gathering firewood) and (though our government pretends it’s over) in Iraq. As recent protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Oman, Iran, Morocco, Algeria, Iraq (yes, now that we’ve installed “democracy” there, pro-democracy protests have sprung up, and our “democratic” government is killing them!), and elsewhere have shown, foreign invasion is not the way to democratize a country. I hope they don’t do it in Libya. In any case, really ending these wars is absolutely necessary if we want to get rid of the deficit – yet very few of the deficit hawks are proposing that.

4. It’s not about the deficit! Social security does not contribute to the deficit, yet the majority of the deficit commission wants to cut it, and the Republicans are taking up the cry. (However, keep in mind that the deficit commission never agreed on a report, since there were not enough votes to approve one – so Boehner’s criticism that Obama didn’t follow his own deficit commission is bogus.) Social security does need some adjustment to keep it strong past the middle of the century (how about making the rich pay the tax on their whole income?), but it’s a separate fund. Unless the government diverts social security taxes to pay for other things, cutting social security benefits won’t do anything for the deficit.

5. It’s not about the deficit! Health care costs do contribute to the deficit, yet the deficit-conscious House of Representatives just voted to repeal the national health care law. The law has many flaws, and does not do nearly enough to control health care costs – but it does make a step, and repealing it would increase the deficit.

Conclusion: It’s not about the deficit! The budget cuts the Republicans in Congress are proposing are all based on undermining the ability of government to increase the quality of life for everybody. They will make it harder for anyone but the rich to get an education, eliminate jobs for working people, and make it almost impossible for regulatory agencies to enforce protective laws that are on the books. This is not deficit reduction, it’s class war, another attempt by the upper class to assure that the their profits, dividends, and bonuses are paid for by the rest of us. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker, backed by Republican majorities in the state legislature, is holding the state hostage until his budget bill passes, even though the unions he is trying to destroy have already agreed to all the economic concessions he proposed. The only issue at stake there is the destruction of the unions, part of the destruction of the power of the working class to defend itself. That’s what’s the federal budget battle is about, as well. We should forget about the deficit and pass a budget that creates jobs, lowers the cost of education, protects the environment, and moves us toward a better health care system.

The Crisis of American Politics

Here’s the question I’m working on right now: given the collapse of the US economy a couple of years ago, why aren’t masses of people coming to the obvious conclusion that the capitalist economic system is unsustainable? Instead, we get the Tea Party demanding that the state regulate capitalism even less.

Here are some possible answers:

1. People are coming to that conclusion, but the media aren’t telling us about it. (E.g., the Tea Party convention got tons of coverage, the US Social Forum gathering in Detroit, which was much bigger, got almost none).

2. The collapse of the Soviet bloc has made the Left stop talking about socialism; as a result, hardly anyone even knows what socialism is — so that, for example, the government bailout of the big banks is perceived by many (especially, again, the Tea Party) as a “socialist” measure — because it involved the government. If people understood socialism as control of the state by the working class, they would see that this is just the opposite — control by the biggest capitalists.

Probably there are other answers as well — I will be looking for them (and at them) in the book I am writing now, working title: Minor Parties and the Crisis of the American Party System.