A Race to the Bottom

The conversation in this country is, whatever your politics, sad. We are battling over crumbs, cutting our way to becoming a second class country, an impoverished people, a failed state.

As E.J. Dionne pointed out yesterday, the tea partyers have won the argument because the argument we’re having is how far should we lower our standard of living. No one is talking about finding a way to preserve our way of life.

While corporate profits are sky high, union membership is at its lowest in 60 years, and today, there are five times more public union members than private ones. Having been successful in destroying private sector unions, Republicans now wants to eviscerate public unions.

Everyone is jumping on board, including the normally progressive columnist Richard Cohen, who apparently has decided now that private employees aren’t protected from exploitation, we, the taxpayers, are now proud to exploitive. No one is talking about how we elevate the middle class that has seen its standard of living stagnate over the past 30 years. We’re looking to see how we can diminish all but the most powerful.

The argument is that public employees must “contribute” to the cutting that must be done. No one, but no one, is talking about raising taxes, which, coincidentally, are also at their lowest in 60 years.

It’s not as if public sector unions have committed any crime. The charge against them is that they are paid more than private sector workers. Charts like this give that impression, but such data simply compares all workers. When you look at similar jobs, it’s a different story. With comparable jobs, public sector employees, like those in Wisconsin, are actually undercompensated.

What has happened over the years is that state politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, have negotiated deals with public employees that states, counties and cities can no longer afford. Some, like Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, have raided the state pension funds, and the Great Recession has depleted pension funds.  That’s not the fault of public employees. That’s the fault of politicians who didn’t regulated Wall St. and encouraged home ownership for those who couldn’t afford it.

Let’s assume that we can’t raise taxes as much as is needed to preserve our standard of living. Public employees, who maybe 15 to 20 years made the decision to work in the public sector for less pay and benefits that at the time were about the same or just a little better than in the private sector, are now told that they must pay the price of others’ incompetence and political cowardice. Even if they must “contribute,” why not do what Virginia has done: cut the pay and benefits of new employees?

Of course, in the end, cutting isn’t going to help anything, except bring us all down.