From Korea to Wisconsin (With Love)

Madison Capitol Occupied by Union Activists. Huzzah! All Power to the Unions!

Of course I leave for South Korea right before things start to get interesting in my home country. A broad consensus seems to be developing among working- and middle-class folks in Wisconsin that busting unions isn’t the way to solve the state’s budget crisis, and they’re willing to stand up and fight–thousands, maybe tens of thousands, have already engaged in occupations in the capitol and elsewhere. And people from other states are beginning to flood in to assist in the protest actions. Solidarity protests are also being held in most other states.

This is all really good news, because what’s happening in Wisconsin is a taste of what’s to come from the Republican Party, and until the contest in Madison, the Democrats seemed totally unwilling to actually support their constituents. Right now it’s just the unions who have stepped up to challenge the Republicans offensive. I’ve seen and heard precious little from the White House, and this is just another example of Obama’s complete unwillingness to stand up for all the things he was so outspoken about when he was just a candidate. So the Republicans are trying to crush the working-class, and the Democrats can’t really seem to find the will to say, much less do, anything about it. Granted, at least the Democrats in Wisconsin fled the state to try and prevent the vote, but this falls into the category of “the least they could do” and not “bold leadership”–and anyway, it didn’t work! The Republicans voted anyway!

This fight is about a lot more than just the rights of public-sector workers–though that’s no trite topic. I was completely stunned that FOX News commentators were complaining that teachers in Wisconsin make 51,000 a year. As if that’s some astronomical figure! How much do FOX News commentators make? 51,000 a week? It’s absolutely ridiculous that people who are pulling down 6 or 7 figures are lambasting teachers just because they want to keep making as much money as they made last year. Oh–and the teachers have the gall to insist on having health insurance!

I doubt many people reading this will need any reminders of the complete bat-shit-insanity of FOX News, but there’s a broader narrative here. And FOX News’ bat-shit-insanity is,  I think, clearly an act, a smokescreen to keep people from talking about the real issues. And the real issue here is that, yes, there is a budget crisis in the US–but taking money from working people isn’t the only solution to this problem! Why isn’t raising taxes on the rich being proposed? Because “raising taxes” has become synonymous with “destroying the economy (you commie bastards!)” even though there’s precious little evidence that high taxes actually cause any serious economic constriction. From that article at the Baseline Scenario:

It is true that tax increases would have a modest first-order negative impact on economic growth. But that impact will be small (per dollar of net fiscal impact) for exactly the same reasons that tax cuts are a poor stimulus. The multiplier for tax cuts is far lower than the multipliers for virtually every other type of government spending, especially aid to state and local governments. In particular, the economic impact of tax increases is smaller when they go to the rich rather than the middle class, because the rich consume a smaller portion of their marginal income. In addition, letting the tax cuts expire would have positive second-order effects because it would improve the government’s fiscal balance, which is widely (though perhaps incorrectly) perceived as a source of risk to the economy.

It’s also worth pointing out that the tax rate on wealthy Americans was much higher in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s–precisely the period of greatest economic growth in the US. But conservatives know that by claiming that policies that help the rich actually help everyone, they can vilify any criticisms of those policies. And Democrats have aided and abetted them by refusing to actually debate the core issue: who has a right to the fruits of our economy? Those with power and privilege, or those who actually produce the goods and services? The Democrats’ failure, or refusal, to take up this central issue (which is not ignored in most other developed countries’ political debates) is central proof that the Democrats aren’t a left-wing party at all, but rather a center-right or centrist party at best.

Income distribution in the US, 2007

The real question now is: do we balance the budget on the backs of working people, or do we finally start demanding that the rich pay something closer to their fair share of taxes? Now, conservatives love to point out that the richest people pay a huge share of taxes already. However, they neglect to mention that the richest one percent of Americans receive 1/3 of all income in the US! Stop and think about that for a second.

No, seriously, stop and think about that. 1% of the country receives 33% of the income generated in the country. Does anyone actually think they do 33% of the work in this country? That they contribute that much more than the rest of us? Especially in light of the behavior of many of those folks in the 2007 financial collapse, do we think these people are generally adding value to the economy? Or are they spending their time warping the system to generate profit while destroying our actual productive capacity? And then consider that the bottom half of the country only earns 2.5% of the income. Again! Think! About! This! Half of our country is getting by on about 1/50th of all income generated. And it’s these very folks whom Republicans are calling on to sacrifice! Why not ask the richest 1% to sacrifice a bit, for a change? And lest anyone think I’ve pulled these numbers from some Marxist site, it’s called Business Insider. And if you google “income distribution US” or “income inequality US” you’ll find comparable numbers. And that one article has 16 other graphs and charts discussing the falling real wages American workers face, among other things. Go check it out.

So we have, broadly, two choices. Try to squeeze blood from a turnip, demanding that working people give up their already tiny incomes to balance state budgets. Or, we raise taxes on the richest Americans, whose income has been increasing at astounding rates over the last two decades. The choice cuts deep: do we want to live in highly stratified banana republic? Or do we actually believe in democracy as something other than an excuse to fight wars? If you choose that second option (and I sure hope you do!) just remember that the Democrats aren’t going to back you up. You’re going to have to get out there and fight the thugs yourselves. In Madison, in Washington, in New York, in Richmond. Of course, that’s easy for me to say, sitting here in South Korea. Rest assured I’ll be sending money to folks who need it for travel expenses and even bail money, if it comes to that. The reality is, we fight this now or we’re sunk.

(YouTube won’t let this song embed, as it’s copyrighted by Sony, so just click the video to watch it directly at YouTube.)


Update 1: A short but well-linked discussion over at The Nation of the growing momentum for a general strike in Madison or even across Wisconsin is well worth reading


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