Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Politics of Envy

What happened in Wisconsin on Tuesday?

Walker defeated Barrett by seven percentage points — it wasn't even close.  While it is true that Walker supporters, including most of the same out-of-state multimillionaires funding Republican superPACs, outspent Barrett supporters by more than three-to-one, I'm not sure that the relentless barrage of television commercials was entirely responsible for the outcome.

To the average private sector worker, it looks like public employees have it good — and they are not wrong about that.  Teachers, police, firefighters, etc. have benefit packages and pension plans, by and large, far superior to anything even unionized private sector workers have been able to achieve.  There are reasons for that, of course.  State and local leaders, in the past, were willing to promise benefits in lieu of salary increases — it helped them keep current taxes low, and passed on the costs to future politicians, long after the original negotiators had left office. The public employee unions sacrificed salaries for benefits, and properly believe they now deserve the benefits they were promised.  In the intervening years, though, state and local governments were either underfunding or outright looting public employee pension funds so they could pretend their budgets were "balanced."

Meanwhile, back in the private sector, workers were being royally screwed.  They lost both salary (adjusted for inflation) and benefits over the past thirty or so years, thanks to the intensely pro-corporate environment created by the Reagan-Thatcher revolution.  They look at public sector workers and, predictably, feel envy.  It was that envy that was exploited (partly through TV commercials) to bring Walker his victory — albeit the exploitation was paid for by the very same plutocrats who had created the situation in the first place by suppressing unionization, off-shoring jobs, and recreating what Mark Twain once called "the best Congress money can buy."

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