Friday, March 11, 2011

It ain't over 'til it's over, Part Two

News coverage surrounding this whole issue has been poor. For an obvious example, reports on the bill's "passage" referred to the GOPpers "breaking the stalemate," to Walkalloveryou's "victory," to, in a particularly hyperventilating description, labor's "epic defeat." Overwhelmingly, mass media treated it as if the issue was now concluded and all that was worth discussing related to it was future election campaigns. It was hard to find a single reference to the potential court challenge or to the movement for recalls. (This is one of the few I found and that covered each issue in one sentence in the 10th graph). References to the possibility of a public worker strike or even a more general strike were rarer than reporters at press conferences calling the governor a liar.

An equally grave failing on the part of the media was allowing the reactionaries and their allies to frame the debate as "a battle over the pay and benefits of government workers compared with those in industry." Which, of course, is exactly the ground the rightwingers wanted to fight on. They knew stripping away rights was unpopular, so their only option was to demonize public workers by trying to sow jealousy among members of the general public, which they set about doing. Even worse, the media often assisted them to that end, quoting the claim that public workers make higher pay while generally ignoring all the necessary caveats about qualifications and responsibilities.

Even when they did address some of those qualifiers, they screwed it up because of their underlying assumptions. Case in point is a New York Times sidebar titled "Are State and Local Government Employees Paid Too Much?" The answer it gives, in short, is "it depends." Depends, that is, on just what comparisons you make, what the basis of comparison is.

Yeah, fine, whatever. "It depends." It reminds me of the old joke about narrowing all the world's wisdom into a single word, which turned out to be "maybe." What really got me about the whole exercise, though, what really brought the failings into focus, was the section titled "Public workers quit less often and are fired less often," which contained this paragraph:
But there are other issues. The rate at which state and local workers voluntarily quit is very low. Some economists argue that this confirms that they are overpaid and that private workers leave for better pay.
Note first that that is the entire discussion of that particular point. Then leave aside - no, really, just put it down and step away - the typical, squishy, "some say" argument. Note, rather, how the conclusion, the only conclusion offered, does not follow from the evidence. Public workers staying at their jobs longer "confirms" that they are overpaid? What the hell? That same fact could be taken as "confirming" that public employees are dedicated to their jobs and feel what they do is important. It could also be taken as explaining at least some of the supposedly better pay and benefits public employees get: By staying in their jobs longer, they accrue more seniority and seniority tends to result in improved pay and bennies.

But here's the kicker: It "confirms" that public workers are "overpaid?" Why in the goddam flaming hell doesn't it instead prove that private industry workers are underpaid? I refer back to the quote from David Sirota I cited about two weeks ago. He said, comparing the demonization of public employees to the failed attempt to limit CEO pay as part of the bailout of the bankers, that in the corporatist-government view,
$500,000 isn't nearly enough taxpayer cash to retain government-funded bankers, but $48,000 ... is too much to pay educators.
Why, why why? Why is it that whenever the media talks about the rich, the powerful, the privileged, why is it that whenever the prerogatives of the plutocrats come up for discussion, attention revolves around "are they getting enough" but when it comes to the middle class, especially when it comes to unionized workers, and especially especially when it comes to the poor, it's always about "are they getting too much?" Why? Why is the question here "Are state employees getting paid too much?" rather than "Are private industry employees getting paid too little?" Why at a time when for those private industry workers pensions are disappearing, real pay is stagnating, benefits are declining, all as the rich are getting richer, why isn't "private industry workers are underpaid" the real story here?

Back during the Reagan years, when the reactionary calls for cutting taxes on the rich and cutting services for the poor and middle class were gaining traction, John Kenneth Galbraith sliced the logical pretenses of their program to shreds in one line: "Their argument," he said as nearly as I can quote from memory, "is that the poor don't work because they have too much and the rich don't work because they have too little."

It's still true. It's still true. That is exactly the argument being bandied about now, that is exactly what underlies the claims and charges, and it is exactly what underlies the New York Times' arguments about public employees. It is the filthy underbelly of the entire enterprise: The assumption, the unspoken conviction in the media, that whenever there is a difference between one part of the middle class and another part, even when those differences are utterly dwarfed by the difference between any of them and their economic overlords, just 400 of who have more wealth than not just half but 60% of US households combined, whenever such differences among the middle class are addressed, it is never because one of those middle-class parties has too little, it's always because the other has "too much." Is "overpaid." Is a "featherbedder." The people who try to teach your brats something worth knowing, the people who run into the burning buildings everyone else is running to get out of because some asshole was smoking in bed, the people who clean up the shit you throw out, all lazy bums who don't deserve whatever it is that they are getting.

Or so you are supposed to think. And to a very important degree, so the elite does think.

Which brings me to that final point and part three of this.

Footnote: The Galbraith quote always brings to mind another favorite quote whose author I do not recall: "The problem with welfare is not that welfare pays too much, it's that working pays too little."

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