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Take the country back - from bloated plutocrats

December 9, 2010

POLITICS AS USUAL (By Jim Baron)

In Rhode Island and all across the country, more people are becoming interested in and involved with politics and government.
That is a good thing. The Tea Party movement is a good thing.
In Rhode Island, RISC, the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition is a good thing.
These are citizens who want their nation, their state and their community to be better and they are doing that through the political process. Good for them.
But I am, I’m not exactly sure what I am — perplexed? dismayed? let’s go with unsettled for the time being — with the issues they and other folks not necessarily associated with any particular organization are choosing to fixate upon.
If you check out the blogs, if you listen to talk radio, if you read the reader responses to news stories on newspaper websites, just about anywhere you look, you see and hear people flipping out over two issues: illegal aliens and public employee unions.
Rhode Island has a lot of problems and state government has a lot of challenges facing it, but illegal aliens and public employee unions are not the biggest ones. They are not even near the top of the list. They just aren’t.
But to hear the new breed of political activists tell it, we have to send every illegal alien back where he or she came from and we have to bust every public sector workers union and teachers union — ooooh, especially those godawful teachers unions — before we can even start to make our state and country better.
The fixation on illegal aliens is largely a function of the failing economy. When the economy is faltering, when people are losing their jobs, we always look for someone to point a finger at. And the illegal alien makes an easy and convenient target. “You don’t belong here anyway. You’re taking our jobs, you’re clogging our hospital emergency rooms, your kids who don’t speak English are making our schools more expensive and less effective.”
It all sounds like it makes sense, but if every illegal alien were to be swept up by a UFO and taken away today, tomorrow we would still have high unemployment, crowded emergency rooms and expensive schools turning out students with substandard achievement.
The animus against the public employee unions, on the other hand, I believe is part of a phenomenon we are seeing more and more all over the country: Class warfare is becoming a civil war within the middle class.
Since the Reagan administration, Corporate America has been systematically squeezing the middle class in what we call the private sector. It has effectively all but eliminated the concept of pensions for its employees, kicking out one of the three legs of the stool that is supposed to keep them secure in their retirement: pensions, personal savings and Social Security. Paid health care as a fringe benefit is also dwindling for those working in the private sector, either being taken away altogether, or being diminished by co-pays and co-shares.
If for the 40 or 50 years after World War II, when America was making itself the envy of the world by supporting a comfortable and productive middle class with benefits like pensions and health insurance, why all of a sudden can we no longer do it? How have private sector companies convinced us that the only way they can survive is by beggaring their workers, especially in an era when the productivity of the average employee has shot through the roof?
For years, a monthly pension check is what has kept our senior citizens in decent financial shape once their working days are through. But pensions have all but gone away now, replaced by unreliable 401(k) plans that are fine if you retire in a year when the stock market has been going well, but if your retirement comes in a year — like 2007 or 2008, for instance — the amount you have to live on for the foreseeable future is sharply depleted. That’s one leg of the stool gone. That leaves savings and Social Security. Who can afford to put away substantial savings nowadays? Certainly not middle class families. So there goes the second leg of the stool. And now the government is coming to cut back Social Security. That special debt commission appointed by the president wants to raise the retirement age and cut future benefits for Social Security recipients. There goes the last leg of the stool.
So unless we do something and soon, people my age (53) and younger are going to spend our golden years eating dog food.
But instead of fighting back on these encroachments on financial security, factions of the middle class seem to want to fight each other.
Tea Partiers say they want to take their country back, but instead of taking it back from the plutocrats who are the ones who took it away, they are determined to go after pensions and benefits of workers on the public payroll. Instead of fighting back against the bosses to better their own lot, they are satisfied with bringing down the standard of living for others.
NO! We should all have good pensions and health benefits. It’s just plain jealousy and civil class war to say “I don’t get a pension, why should state workers?”
But even struggling middle class folks, even the Tea Parties who say the federal deficit and the federal debt are crippling us, seem to be in favor of increasing the deficit by $700 billion so millionaires and billionaires can get tax cuts of $100,000 a year and more. But damn the cop or the fireman or the schoolteacher who presumes to draw a pension.
We are still buying into that trickle-down nonsense that if we throw even more money at the very richest people, they are going to use it to create jobs for the rest of us. It has never worked that way and it is never going to. When are we going to get that through our thick skulls?
Not anytime soon, apparently. Just last month we voted in a Republican wave that won’t even extend unemployment benefits to people thrown out of work in the worst recession since the Great Depression, but are bound and determined to borrow $700 billion from the Chinese to give tax breaks to people who are at the tippity top of the income ladder, people who have spent the Great Recession eating caviar.
This just doesn’t make sense. We were told ad-freaking-nauseum during the last campaign for governor, Congress, the General Assembly and just about every other office how small business is the engine of our economy and it is small businesses that start up and create jobs. Well, guess what, millionaires and billionaires do not start small businesses. You don’t see millionaires opening dress stores or coffee shops or boutiques.
Middle class people do that. Middle class people who take what they have managed to save over the years, maybe borrow from their 401(k)s, and put it all on the line to start a new business, to become their own boss, to set their own course and, with a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, to perhaps become millionaires themselves someday, at which point it will be on them to pay a bit more in taxes to keep that circle of opportunity turning.
If we want to encourage that kind of job-creating entrepreneurship, we should be directing the tax breaks at the middle class, not the exceedingly wealthy.
The first rule of warfare is: know your enemy. We think we have met the enemy and he is us. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

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