On this first Sunday of 2011, we can see the battles of 2011 shaping up. The Sunday papers are full of alarmist articles that light reader's hair on fire with dire projections/predictions and editorials that ponder solutions. Much of the focus is all about government, the proper role, cost and efficiencies thereof and how those can be melded into a return to prosperity. These are not new problems or new arguments. They portray Americans as pitted against one another, and that is the reality. The real question is: How do we get a collective "win" out of this confrontation?
What we're really seeing is an animalistic, epic battle for resources that all societies face when scarcity comes, and come it will in cyclical economies. A NY Times front page story http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01... is prototypical in what we should expect to see in 2011. It pits the "public employee" against the "working American" and ponders the resolution.
The Garden State (NJ) is accurately portrayed as the most severe example of the problems facing state governments across the country. The NYT article is well written, but it is written for the business reader and published in the Business section which begs a question. Does any newspaper have a "Labor" section? Naturally, the unions don't come off well in the story, nor do public employees or teachers. The reader's comments smoke the author out pretty well on these items.
The lead NYT editorial then discusses the unfelt economic recovery and how cuts on the state and local level will mitigate any real economic growth and/or reduction in unemlpoyment in 2011. True, bad news for Obama and bad news for America.
Montana's Lee newspapers are running a parallel piece by Charles Johnson that frames the debate in the upcoming legislature. The Helena Independent posted op-eds by MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver and GOP State Senator Ryan Zinke, both very decent people with the best interest of Montanans at heart. Those op-eds, while not diemetrically opposed, do represent different interests. "Smaller government" with a "structurally balanced budget" i.e. a much smaller budget across the board, cannot be consistent with the perceived necessary provision of government services to sustain our health, welfare and economy in the 21st century. Something has to give. So Montana is, indeed, a microcosm of the nation. Published salutes to Jim Peterson and Mike Milburn are also prominent in today's papers along with editorials hoping for collective, sound solutions. Wouldn't we all love that; optimism abounds at the beginning of the legislative session.
In framing the America vs America conflict, let's first consider the "public employee", painted as the poster-child of big-bad government by business and anti-labor interests. The fact is, as pointed out by Feaver and many in the the NY Times reader's comments, that most public employees are hard working middle class Americans. They live right next door, they pay the same taxes and have the same real-life problems as private sector employees. The agenda and rhetoric of anti-government, anti-labor conservative corporocrats provides the proof: Public employees are unionized by necessity as a means to defend themselves and protect their interests. From my "professional left" (and proud of it) perspective, the right to organize as a workforce is fundamental, and public employees are no exception. Of course, my corporocrat counterparts would disagree.
Now let's consider the private sector employee. Concomitant with their loss of labor-organization and collective representation, they have suffered declining wages and benefits for the last thirty years. This is largely the upshot of Reagan's 1980's new conservatism where the CEO is king, stock prices are THE barometer for success in business, and employees are chattel. The losses for defenseless private sector employees, as compared to the unionized public sector, have set the stage for the current middle class cannibalism that is a large part of America vs America.
Reagan's policies gutted labor law enforcement in favor of the Gilded Age ideology, but the anti-labor public relations victory from his bully pulpit did much more to lower the status of unions in the public eye. Unlike public employees, private sector employees largely lost the right to organize and collectively represent their interests. Make no mistake, poor leadership and corruption in organized labor have played right into the conservative game plan all along. But I would submit that pendulum is starting to swing back as Americans recognize the necessity for collective representation in the workplace and modern union leadership is vastly improved over the Hoffaesque versions of the past. The major challenge for modern labor leaders is to avoid the past affliction of promoting their union over the necessity of representing the best interests of their member-employees. Political bargains made by union leaders are often too compromising on that front.
So, the sectorized split of the American middle class among public and private sector employees, or unionized versus non-union employees, is a large part of today's America vs America battle. The other main component is provided by income disparity. Reagan and now Obama both make no apology for unfettered attainment of wealth, be it legitimate or otherwise. Witness the latest financial crash and TARP bailout. There is no doubt that the losses of the middle class have directly translated into gains for Reagan billionaires. This Ayn Rand ideology most certainly proves true in the New Gilded Age transfer of wealth between classes. So it should be according to our new conservatives and corporocrats.
Therein lies the class warfare, income disparity version of America vs Amercia. It recently played out in the federal lame duck session whereby conservatives and Obama cleverly linked unemployment benefits to tax cuts for the wealthy. That link had no legitimacy except to provide a false debate of one versus the other. New-Gilted-Age corporocrats, Republican and Democratic alike, got their uppper-income tax breaks while the perception of Obama's protecting the poor and unemployed played to gullible liberals (....er...excuse me "progressives").
The next act in that play comes this spring where "cutting the deficit" means open season on government benefits for poor and middle class Americans. Look for Obama and congressional leaders repeat the strategy of the lame duck session, were "compromise" nets out to more for the business class at the expense of the populace. And so the beat of modern corporatocracy goes on, further dividing America by income and class.
The bottom line here is that Americans cannot expect a government that is overwhelmingly influenced by the business class to fairly represent their interests as employees. They simply have to do that themselves. The first step is to deny any legitimacy to the notion that public employees are substantially different than those in private sector. Indeed, the private sector workforce needs to emulate the public sector by both defending and utilizing their right to organize and provide collective representation.
Moreover, I would submit that, done correctly, an organized workforce is a net positive for business and economic growth. Striking a proper balance of power in the workplace provides accountability for management, shared goals and ownership and ultimately a fairer means to spread the resulting economic benefits between economic strata. Once again the overriding principle applies that only education-training and organized collective representation in the workplace can protect wages and income for employees.
However, too narrow a focus on Montana and even the United States leads us to forget that we live in a global economy. The competing interests are not limited to our shores vis the flat, smaller world as the niche for resource competition. Global oil consumption is the best example. American consumption has actually declined in the last two years, but our domestic prices are rising because emerging nation (China and India) consumption has risen. America vs America does not serve us well if we're to compete in the global arena.
Ultimately the 21st century economy with its New Gilted Age onset represents our greatest challenge. America's test is to manage our intranational competition so that we can prevail in the international arena. That starts to play out in our 2011 legislature beginning this week. Will something emerge from the postulates of Zinke and Feaver that will ultimately prevail over the Dave Lewis agenda? Are the promises of the GOP leadership, namely Sen. Peterson and Rep. Milburn, valid in constructively working with Governor Schweitzer and even the minority Democrats? If so then we might expect that the session will result in sound, collective solutions from the 2011 session.
Results on the national level are a quantum step up from Montana. Will the populist Obama that we elected prevail over Obama the corporocrat who is now governing? Will sound, collective decisions from the federal government allow America to regain a balance between labor and management and between economic strata, that is so critical to the future of our nation? Conventional wisdom states that a stable, prosperous middle class is the base alloy of our democracy. Achieving that economic goal intranationally is the only means to competing internationally in both economic and social terms. Finding the line between healthy internal debate and a disparate ravaging for resources between sectors seems difficult.
Those questions, on the local, national and international levels define 2011 and the ongoing 21st century. The competition for resources tests our individual and collective ability to reason verus our animal nature to compete. Perhaps the first federalist paper states it best: "Whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind."
The author of that paper, Alexander Hamilton, and the other founding fathers saw that as specific to their era. Realistically, our very human nature dictates that we must face that test regularly, and 2011 is no exception.