Who will bear the burden — millionaires or labor unions?
As the state and federal governments continue to drown in a sea of red ink, we are reminded of Johnny Carson’s old edict, “Buy the premise, buy the bit.” There is no doubt that from Wisconsin to New York to Massachusetts, the premise is that we are broke. The narrative continues that we have spent too much on our schools, our hospitals and our bureaucrats. As a result, things are getting ugly and they will get uglier. We are beginning to see scenes reminiscent of Egypt, with civil servants gathering in large numbers in peaceful protest.
When our children are assigned to classes of fifty kids, there will be hell to pay among parents, especially in the case of a child who needs a little extra help. When people start dying because of understaffed emergency rooms, there will be hell to pay. People will realize just what they are being cheated of.
But back to Johnny Carson. The premise is that services must be cut but taxes cannot be raised. We can’t ask people to pay more in taxes, the narrative continues, because in doing that we are actually cutting down on jobs. Wherever he is, Ronald Reagan must be proud. The former president and one-time organized labor leader is given a lot of credit for his theory, which some called “trickle down economics.” Reagan contended that if the rich are allowed to go unfettered, they will spend enough money getting even richer so that the rest of the population will benefit indirectly. No lesser person than his one-time vice president and successor, George H. W. Bush (George the First) called it “voodoo economics.”
We know this won’t work because the people who control so much of the country’s resources will take their money and either put it in their pocket or invest it in multi-national corporations. Places like India and China will get the jobs because they pay their workers so little. In the meantime, Barack Obama, seeking to preserve his political life (wouldn’t you?), has bought into the Carson-like premise-bit full circle by preaching the doctrine of “jobs” around the country. Hey, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Meanwhile, the country is waking up. We can’t have fifty kids in a classroom. The hospitals, the ones that make it, will soon beginning to do the same thing. We can’t have people dying in emergency rooms.
That leaves the civil servants-bureaucratic class who were caught unaware but who now understand that they are about to be devoured. Their excesses have become fodder for the right wing tabloids. A grotesque labor leader treating colleagues to a huge meal to the tune of thousands of dollars becomes legend. In some little towns in Massachusetts where I live, elected officials get health care for themselves and their spouses for life. We see that pensions are unfunded in many states and towns. The civil servants and the elected folks who have been negotiating bigger and bigger packages for themselves (wouldn’t you?) see themselves as scapegoats. To some degree they are. Just look at Wisconsin, which wants to take negotiating rights away from them. In labor heavy New York, politicians are clamoring to throw out the “Triborough Amendment” to the Taylor Law which says that old labor agreements continue in force until new ones are agreed to. This is a tremendous bargaining chip for unions.
Up to now, the unions had so much political power that no self-respecting politician on any level would mess with them, but those days appear to be behind us. Andrew Cuomo in New York sees the red ink on the wall and has traded his usual union allies for the likes of the right wing Rupert Murdoch. So far, this has proven a brilliant strategy. Everyone seems to be buying the bit but there is another possibility — that those who own almost all of America pay a little bit more in taxes. The few who have suggested that have been hooted down as dopes, fools and clowns. But sooner of later, when the schools are in great crisis and the emergency rooms and hospitals are crumbling, someone will emerge a great hero for insisting that those who make a million bucks a year pony up just a little more. The unions will pull back and fast. We’ll just go back to the future and America will wake up from the nightmare.
Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/1/11