Friday, February 18, 2011

Of Monarchies, Unions And Plunder


I was in London for New Years Eve and Buckingham Palace was between our hotel and the Tate Gallery and its Francis Bacon collection, our destination one day. We decided to walk the 2-3 miles to the Tate but the Palace area was packed, thousands of people who wanted to get a glimpse of Queen Elizabeth II say a few words about the New Year or the old year or whatever she was going to say. We had no intention of hearing it. And neither did any Englishmen. There was virtually no one there except Russian and French tourists. Knowing how anti-royalist I am, Roland said, "See, the royal family is good for tourism." It was then that I realized the tourists came from the two countries wise enough to have done away, respectively in 1793 (Louis XVI) and 1918 (Nicholas II)-- albeit rather violently (since "royal" families rarely give up their prerogatives peacefully)-- with their own "royal" families.

I don't think the tyrannical monarchy/kleptocracy in Bahrain, a brutal sectarian one, is especially good for tourism. As you can see from Nick Kristof's tweets, King Hamid's actions aren't doing anything for tourism in his country today.

And yet for conservatives, this is the natural state of man... to live under an authoritarian, "benevolent" ruler or strongman imbued with powers through Divine Right. To challenge the right of a king, no matter what he does, is to challenge God. Americans rejected this concept early on, although conservatives in America fought hard to keep the king and thousands of them fled to England, Canada and the West Indies when the American Revolution was successful. Conservatives have been fighting to bring back the same rotten premise of governance ever since, even if by other names. Today at Salon Stephanie Taylor outlines what an authoritarian, anti-liberté/égalité/fraternité governor in Wisconsin is doing to strike a blow against democracy.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has declared war on state workers, almost literally.

First, he proposed a state budget that would cut retirement and healthcare for workers like teachers and nurses, and strip away nearly all of their collective bargaining rights. But even more significantly, he announced last Friday that he had alerted the National Guard to be ready for state workers to strike or protest, an unprecedented step in modern times.

This would be the first time in nearly 80 years that the National Guard would be used to break a strike by Wisconsin workers, and the first time in over 40 years that the National Guard would be used against public workers anywhere in the country. The last time was the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968, just before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

...During the late 1800s and early 1900s, governors often mobilized the National Guard during strikes.  Sometimes the Guard was genuinely neutral, assigned to buffer the dangerous zone between strikers and their employers. Other times, the Guard was explicitly charged with breaking the strike. During these instances, violence often erupted between strikers and soldiers with terrible, bloody results.

...The use of the National Guard against workers is supposed to be a relic of the past, nearly unimaginable to us. That's because of an uneasy understanding, evolved over time, between citizens and the state over the use of state force against civilians. In her excellent book Army Surveillance in America, 1775-1980, historian Joan Jensen argued that this understanding "maintained restraint, sometimes precariously, in using the army to defend the government from the domestic population."

In other words, Jensen argues that the concept of voluntary restraint by the executive branch-- as opposed to codified legal restraint-- is still largely the governing principle at work when deciding whether to mobilize a domestic military force. So Gov. Walker's action is significant because it is an expanded interpretation of the power of the executive office. This would introduce once again the idea that a governor could use the military to impose his personal, political will on a state.

The cultural and historical significance of Gov. Walker's action can't be ignored. When he proposes using the National Guard to break a strike, he conjures a period of American history in which labor and capital were locked in violent, terrible struggle, when income inequality had reached epic heights, and workers had to bleed to organize. This is a step backward, not forward, in the march of American progress.

Up top there's a matter of fact CNN clip you should take a look at, airheads-- rattling off statistics about the biggest gap between rich and poor since statistics were kept and about more people living in poverty here in America since 1948-- interviewing the Senate's most dedicated tribune of working families, Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Let's stop for a minute so you can watch it if you missed it when you started reading about royal families. OK, now, with Bernie in mind, let's look at a report this morning from economist Dean Baker, director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research:
You have to give Gov. Walker and his wealthy patrons credit. Here we have a situation where Wall Street fat cats wrecked the economy-- people like Richard Fuld, Robert Rubin, and Angelo Mozilo-- and they've somehow managed to blame schoolteachers and the highway patrol. 

Now we have a situation where the villains are sitting on their hundreds of millions of dollars, while tough guys like Gov. Walker are beating up school teachers to take away their $2,000 a month pension. And, the best part of the story is the Walkers are being heralded as statesmen for their efforts. 

This situation speaks to the incredible corruption of U.S. politics. There have been numerous studies done by serious economists that all show the same thing, public sector employees are not paid on average more than their private sector counterparts.

The right has been very effective in highlighting the few cases of overpaid workers or excessive pensions and convincing large sectors of the public that their problems are due to overpaid government employees. Of course it helps to have a news media that show about as much independence as Pravda did back in the days of the Soviet Union.

The reality that no honest person can dispute is that state budget crises are almost entirely due to the economic downturn, not out of control spending. This in turn was the result of Wall Street fraud and greed and the incredible incompetence of people like Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, who failed to rein in the housing bubble before it grew to such dangerous levels. 

However, politicians like Gov. Walker have managed to instead focus public anger on public sector employees who have the audacity to want to maintain a middle class life style. It would be great if the events in Wisconsin can be a turning point. If our economy was being managed by competent people we would have no problem assuring the whole population of the same sort of pension and health care benefits that most workers used to have and public employees still enjoy. We just have to stop handing over all of our money to Wall Street.

How much different from Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake" remark, was John Boehner's retort about hundreds of thousands of American's losing their jobs because of the Republican Party's selfish, conservative agenda, "So be it?" They are pretty much meant to convey the same heartless disregard and disinterest in the problems of ordinary people-- the only difference being that Marie Antoinette probably never even said the statement attributed to her, while Boehner...

The most important question anyone asked this week was Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone: Why isn't Wall Street in jail?. Add the politicians who conspired with them-- like Boehner-- to defraud the world out of billions of dollars and you get an even more poignant one. Robert Reich wasn't advocating throwing anyone in prison this week but he was pumping for some distinctly anti-royalist notions: raising taxes on the super rich and lowering them for the middle class.
Would a Democratic president be insane to propose such a thing? Not at all. In fact, polls show an increasing portion of the electorate angry with an insider “establishment”-- on Wall Street, in corporate suites, and in Washington-- that’s been feathering its nest at the public’s expense. The Tea Party is but one manifestation of a widening perception that the game is rigged in favor of the rich and powerful.

More importantly, it will soon become evident to most Americans that the only way to reduce the budget deficit, preserve programs deemed essential by the middle class, and not raise taxes on the middle, is to tax the top.

In fact, a Democratic president should propose a major permanent tax reduction on the middle class and working class. I suspect most of the public would find this attractive. But here again, the only way to accomplish this without busting the bank is to raise taxes on the rich.

Republicans have done a masterful job over the last thirty years convincing the public that any tax increase on the top is equivalent to a tax increase on everyone-- selling the snake oil of “trickle down economics” and the patent lie that most middle-class people will eventually become millionaires. A Democratic president would do well to rebut these falsehoods by proposing a truly progressive tax.

Will the rich avoid it? Other critics of my proposal say there’s no way to have a truly progressive tax because the rich will always find ways to avoid it by means of clever accountants and tax attorneys. But this argument proves too much. Regardless of where the highest marginal tax rate is set, the rich will always manage to reduce what they owe. During the 1950s, when it was 91 percent, they exploited loopholes and deductions that as a practical matter reduced the effective top rate 50 to 60 percent. Yet that’s still substantial by today’s standards. The lesson is government should aim high, expecting that well-paid accountants will reduce whatever the rich owe.

Besides, the argument that the nation shouldn’t impose an obligation on the rich because they can wiggle out of it is an odd one. Taken to its logical extreme it would suggest we allow them to do whatever antisocial act they wish-- grand larceny, homicide, or plunder-- because they can always manage to avoid responsibility for it.

Some critics worry that if the marginal tax is raised too high, the very rich will simply take their money to a more hospitable jurisdiction. That’s surely possible. Some already do. But paying taxes is a central obligation of citizenship. Those who take their money abroad in an effort to avoid paying American taxes should lose their American citizenship.

Finally, there are some who say my proposal doesn’t stand a chance because the rich have too much political power. It’s true that as income and wealth have moved to the top, political clout has risen to the top as well.

But to succumb to cynicism about the possibility of progressive change because of the power of those at the top is to give up the battle before it’s even started. Haven’t we had enough of that?

And enough of right-wing ideologues like Scott Walker, John Kassich and Rick Scott, who are no better than Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Bahrain's Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa... or, for that matter, Louis XVI or Nicholas II; all enemies of ordinary working families.

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