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% increase in pension contribution by all civilian federal employees. That would effectively mean a pay cut of about 2% 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% 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%.
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 40’s, 50’s and 60’s when the American middle class was born and the portion of our national income going to the top 1% 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%. 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.