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Wit and Wisdom

Same Song, Different Words

Sitting in a former chapel of the National Labor College in Silver Spring, MD, recently, enthusiastically participating in the free-for-all opening night of the annual Great Labor Arts Exchange, singing along to stories of triumphant faith, feeling the fellowship of fellow activists--I was struck not for the first time, but more strongly, by how much we had in common with those we are supposed to be least like...and least like.

It was Friday night, not Sunday morning; the walls were bare of religious insignia; there was no (or only discrete) mention of God-- but there was no doubt we were in church.  We felt the warmth of the gathering, we contemplated a power greater than ourselves, we were inspired to believe and act in better ways.  I think an evangelical Christian would have immediately recognized the mood even if confused or offended by the message.

The goal should certainly be familiar: a happier world of justice and peace.  Differences only arise in identifying the obstacle to that worthy end.  Among politicized religious conservatives, it is big government and a bureaucratic culture that stands in the way of moral and economic progress. My fellow labor singers and I place the blame on big business and unfeeling, unrestrained capitalism.

In both cases, though, the cure concocted is the same:  educate, organize, mobilize.  I think the focus of the Tea Partiers and religious rightists is way off-target, and that many of them have nasty (racist, xenophobic, homophobic) agendas.  But many others, I’m convinced, are motivated by a sincere desire to do right, and to do it with others.  So they gather, and share, and sing.  Just like us.  And that gives me hope that one day we can all sing the same songs, together.

Sorry About That

Former governors Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney have both been thrown on the defensive in their bids for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination by progress they achieved in their home states: Pawlenty effectively tackled climate change in Minnesota, and Romney dramatically expanded health-care coverage in Massachusetts.  But opposition research has turned up troubling success stories lurking the in the past of other GOP hopefuls.

Rick Santorum today sheepishly admitted to helping seal an historic arms control treaty with Russia while serving in the U.S. Senate. Under the terms of the breakthrough deal,  the Russians disabled 2,000 long- and intermediate-range missiles aimed at the U.S. and Western Europe; in return, the Americans thanked them with unfeigned enthusiasm.  Santorum pleaded “an inside-the-beltway culture of rationally-determined success” for drawing him into the “insidious process” of making the world a safer place.

Entrepreneur Herman Cain angrily denied over the weekend that he had once saved two teenage employees from frozen suffocation by freeing them from the walk-in freezer at one of his pizzerias. The story circulating in the blogosphere had Cain conducting an impromptu late-night inspection of his restaurant in suburban Cleveland when he heard muffled voices emanating from the time-locked compartment.  Unable to disable the timing device, he pried the air-lock door open with his bare hands, then performed life-saving resuscitation on the nearly comatose employees.  “This story implies that workers have some government-granted right not to freeze to death in restaurant meat lockers,” Cain told a supportive crowd at a local fundraiser. “That’s not the America I want to live in,” he concluded to thunderous applause.

A spokesperson for Congressman Ron Paul, in response to a controversy that seemed unlikely to abate, today acknowledged that his boss had at one time in his life ascribed the source of a problem to some force or entity besides the Federal Reserve System. “When Dr. Paul was a very young man, a friend complained of wet socks on rainy days,” the tight-lipped spokesperson read from a prepared statement to a jostling crowd of reporters. “Dr. Paul said, without thinking, quote, maybe you have a hole in your shoe, unquote.  Now, of course, after a lifetime study of free-market economics, Dr. Paul realizes that wet socks are caused by the inflationary policies of central banks. We will not be taking questions.”

Political Mystery Tour

Hoping to regain some of the spotlight stolen by Sarah Palin’s secret bus tour--she refuses to tell reporters exactly where she’s going on her “One Nation” tour of the Northeast this week--other GOP presidential hopefuls have commenced their own mysterious travels.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty today launched a “One Transfer” public transportation tour of downtown Minneapolis, planning to hop from one city bus to another in a random pattern sure to leave even seasoned transit reporters scratching their heads.

Mitt Romney plans to rely on his personal wealth to criss-cross the country on a series of private jet rides, in the process buzzing beloved national sites like the Grand Canyon and the Alamo.  He threatens to instruct his pilots to “engage and destroy” any media aircraft that fly too close in pursuit.

Herman Cain will be touring Godfather Pizza franchises all week.  His campaign claims his goal is not to confuse the media as to his whereabouts, but no member of the working press could be found that knows the location of a Godfather’s Pizza.

Former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman will make history with an American political barnstorming tour conducted entirely on the territory of a foreign nation.  Huntsman, who is fluent in Chinese, invited reporters to follow him through the teeming streets of China’s booming cities, but warned them he’d maintain a strenuous pace and frequently backtrack through alleys and private gardens.

Rick Santorum, the conservative former Pennyslvania senator, will continue his stumping through Iowa and New Hampshire, but said he’d be playing late-night hide-and-go-seek at his overnight motel accommodations.  He challenged reporters to find him among the lightly-used exercise equipment in the fitness room or between the drink and candy machines just off the lobby.

Active Thought

Surprise many commentators expressed at the forceful decision-making President Obama demonstrated in the killing of Osama bin Laden reveals how low our expectations for presidents have sunk.  Apparently, Obama’s thoughtful and thorough approach to policy-making had convinced some that he was incapable of quick and decisive action.  But in a good leader, far from being mutually exclusive, the two skills--careful analysis and effective action--are mutually reinforcing.

This would seem a commonplace observation, but eight years of George Bush’s swagger has evidently obscured the point.  By referring vital questions of policy to his “gut” and conducting international relations like schoolyard confrontation, Bush devalued intellectual inquiry and promoted ill-considered aggression as a form of statecraft.  Most Americans were not pleased with the result, but sadly came to conclude they had to choose between thought and activity.

We don’t.  President Obama is demonstrating the simple proposition that thinking things through leads to better outcomes.  Sometimes that analysis is long, sometimes short, depending on what the situation calls for and allows. We may not agree with the resulting action, but at least we can have confidence in the process that underlies it.

Other Thoughts on Osama

I was at an event on Monday at which a speaker commended to our thoughts the soul of Osama Bin Laden.  It was startling at first, but then comforting, in that it extended the continuum of response to the killing of the Al Qaeda leader in a direction it needed to go.

I was among those uncomfortable with the celebration of a violent death, no matter whose.  If Al Qaeda’s central data base had been irretrievably destroyed, if they had been permanently denied all their cell phone connections and Internet access, if somehow an absolute embargo on explosive materials could be enforced against them-- in other words, if the tools of their terror had been taken away, I would have been celebrating.  Or, if by some miracle the terrorists had seen the light and embraced nonviolent activism, I would have been cheering.  But I can’t cheer two shots to the forehead.

Of course, I didn’t have a loved one taken from me on September 11. And I haven’t yet been able to satisfactorily map in my own heart the moral territory that divides justice from retribution.   I just know I would feel more enriched, satisfied, humanized, strengthened by a nonviolent end to a violent era, a nonviolent end to violence.

The Last Taboo

Even purportedly friendly observers are cautioning President Obama not to be too hard on the rich in his policies and rhetoric. Those not offended by the unseemly nature of acknowledging differing obligations based on wealth are, on a practical level, worried that he’s risking the support of potentially big campaign donors.  He shouldn’t back down for either reason.

It’s often said that money is the last taboo in personal relations, and the same seems to be true in public debate.  The ability to silence any discussion of the programmatic and moral implications of America’s huge wealth disparity by declaring it “class warfare” is quite convenient for the well-to-do.  But that shouldn’t cow the President or anyone else from addressing this central issue of economic and political policy.  

Demanding more from those who have more is simple physics, like asking the strongest camper to carry the heaviest canoe.  Taxing wealthier people at higher rates is not “punishing success,” as the scolds peevishly describe it, but based on a recognition of the role of society and luck in the accumulation of riches. Lionizers of the wealthy as exclusively a class of rugged self-made entrepreneurs ignore the fact that a lot of fortunes are simply inherited.

Besides, there has always been a logical disconnect between the portrayal of rich people as, on the one hand, indefatigable world-beaters undeterred by obstacles and setbacks in their accumulation of wealth; and, on the other, fragile hothouse flowers who will get hurt feelings and stop investing (and politically donating) at the mere whisper of a tax hike.  

The correct assumption is that wealthy Americans know they are treated more gently here than in any other industrialized country and will continue to live and invest here even if called upon to do a little more to help the national finances.  And many of them—who care about social causes like choice and marriage equality, the environment, and, yes, even a better balanced economy—will continue to support President Obama, even if he calls on them for minor monetary sacrifices and from time to time calls them that filthy word: rich.

Walkover

If President Obama and the Democrats can’t win this budget debate, they can’t win any debate. Losing a pushover public policy battle like this one would prove that the decades-long conservative tactic of poisoning the well-- of so misinforming and discouraging the electorate, so lowering their expectations, so worrying them with vitriol and bombast that they can no longer recognize common sense when presented to them-- has worked.  The game will be up; all that will be left to do is watch while the nation dissolves further into a mass of angry twitching.

But the Democrats shouldn’t lose. How do you lose when you’re suggesting that we might want to ask billionaires to kick in a few more dollars before we start dumping our grandparents out nursing home windows? How do you lose when your idea is that the sprawling behemoth of a defense department might be harboring some savings worth investigating before kicking our children out of Head Start classes?  How do you lose when your argument is, “Let’s not eliminate Medicare”? How do you lose when poll after poll shows the public is already on your side: wanting the hyper rich to pay more in taxes, wanting cuts at the Pentagon, wanting to preserve services for the poor and middle class?

Of course, the Democrats-- the poor, bewildered, cringing Democrats-- can always find a way.  They’ve proved time and again they can not only snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but actually scramble down victory’s throat and extract defeat from its gullet.  President Obama began the process, in the worst part of a good speech that set the budget battle lines, when he said the final product would not look like his proposal.  Republicans never do that. Garage sale browsers trying to lowball the purchase of a commemorative plate never do that. That’s not how you negotiate.

But never mind.  This could be the tipping point. This could be the moment when the conservatives’ dark and chilly image of the future becomes sufficiently clear to the public that the Democrats can win just by showing up.  Let’s just make sure they show up.

Ignoring Half the Solution

In addressing national debt without considering taxes, American politicians are willfully and irrationally ignoring one of two levers that bring budgets back to balance.  They are not only making the problem twice as hard by rejecting half the solution, they are shifting all the pain of debt reduction onto those least able to bear it (recipients of government service) while holding harmless those best able to contribute: the super wealthy.

Reactionary conservatives try to have it both ways by scaring voters into believing that any proposed federal income tax increase would apply to a broad swathe of the middle class, while at the same time complaining that the majority of federal taxes are paid by a minority of citizens at the top of the income scale.  The reality is that federal income taxes (though not payroll taxes, state and local sales taxes, and other regressive levies) are predominately a burden of the relatively well-off...as they should be.  

Poorer people have a hard enough time just getting by (including paying all those regressive taxes); federal income taxes should be borne principally by those who have benefitted most from our national polity and culture.  The simple theory behind progressive taxation--that is, taxing richer people at higher rates--is that taxes come from surpluses: what’s left over after you’ve fed, clothed and housed yourself and your family.  Poorer people have very little or nothing left after meeting the bare necessities; richer people have a lot, so they should contribute more of it to the common good in the form of taxation.

And yet in the past 30 years, taxes on the wealthy and the kinds of income on which they chiefly rely (dividends and capital gains) have plummeted: the top tax rate is half what it was when Ronald Reagan took office, and unearned income--money that money makes--is now taxed at lower rates than working people’s paychecks.  

The inability of most voters to conceptualize the dizzying wealth of some of their fellow citizens aids the anti-tax zealots in making taxes politically toxic.  Hearing that taxes may go up on the wealthy, average Americans might picture the intended targets as people like their Uncle Harry, who owns a hardware store, two cars and a boat.  They don’t think about the hyper-rich: those with hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in assets, enjoying the annual income of small countries, who could easily pay much more without impinging in any way on their way of life or desire to invest in the economy.

Before we wrest one more dollar from Head Start and winter fuel subsidies, let’s cast our eyes to the other side of the ledger, bringing this whole budget-balancing exercise into rational balance by making higher taxes on the rich part of the equation. 

Union Forever

Union haters will often grudgingly admit that organized labor was a necessary antidote to economic exploitation in some distant past, but stoutly maintain that day is long gone.  Now they view union workers, to borrow the stunning phrase of Indiana Governor and potential Republican presidential candidate Mitch Daniels in describing unionized public employees, as the “privileged elite” of the American economy, unnecessarily interfering in the workings of the free market.

There are at least two things wrong with this point of view.  The first is that economic exploitation of the type revealed by the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of a century ago no longer exists in this country.  In point of fact, there are right now Carolina poultry plant workers losing fingers and slipping into vats of grease; California farm workers ingesting pesticides in the fields; and, closer to home for most people, hotel maids throwing out their backs trying to flip mattresses made every larger and heavier for guests’ comfort.  

The union busters will sometimes argue that government regulations and private lawsuits are alternative means of ensuring workplace safety and employee justice.  But of course the same people who want to destroy unions also try to stifle regulators and hamstring plaintiffs’ attorneys.

The second flaw in the anti-union argument is that relatively well-paid workers in generally non-hazardous jobs don’t need to be organized.  This position overlooks how the jobs became better paid and safer in the first place. Hint: it wasn’t out of the goodness of the employers’ hearts. And by extension, without the collective protection of strong unions, wage rates and safety levels will by the inextricable logic of the free market descend again to unacceptable levels.

Arguing against unions of the relatively well-treated is essentially criticizing organized labor for success.  It’s like cutting the vaccination budget as unnecessary because the disease hasn’t been seen much lately.  

Whether it’s teachers in Wisconsin, bus drivers in Ohio, or football players in the NFL (who are in hazardous jobs and trying to stave off a huge pay cut from their market-insulated bosses), American workers shouldn’t wait until they’re sufficiently abused to warrant the approval of union haters to get and stay organized.  As always, the time for justice is now.

Thank You, Wisconsin

Thank You, Wisconsin

Thank you, Wisconsin,
For restoring the collective among us.
For speaking to us, and speaking for us.
For bringing forward, for bringing forth
Springing emotion bound tight to an idea:
Our idea, the idea of us, the active we of us.

Thank you, Wisconsin,
For forming bright the target:
The what’s wrong, the wrong way, the way lost.
And swelling forward the new path,
Rejoining the old path, from the old past,
Now made fresh and clear.

Thank you, Wisconsin:
You found your way, then found us,
Feeling lost, and brought us all along.
Now we’re found and won’t forget.
We’ll collect ourselves, and,
Moving forward in our freedom, towards our freedom,
Force the Midwest spring.

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