Monday, March 21, 2011

Budget cuts and the reality of decline

Get used to a deteriorating quality of life in this state, and in my city - because it is becoming clearer and clearer what Scott Walker's budget proposals will mean if they become law.

Let me just put this comment in some perspective: in September 2008, the financial world collapsed on the cracked pillars of financial speculation by enormous banks and Wall Street investors involving our home mortgages, mounting consumer debt, and deceptive loans provided to people who didn't know what they were signing. Throw in a couple of wars which costs will be in the trillions. A recession had already begun, but it got going in earnest following the collapse. Unemployment rose to 9.4%, remains very high amid growing signs that those who have not worked over the last 1-2 years may have joined the rolls of the permanently unemployed.

Two years later, in Dec. 2010, President Obama agreed to a compromise that extended unemployment benefits but also extended the Bush tax cuts another 2 yrs - cuts that many economists consider one of the biggest drivers behind the US's mounting deficit problem.

Throw these dymanisms on the fuel of disruptive major changes in the global economy over the past 3 decades - production moving off-shore, unions losing their clout to defend the old social contract of well-paid labor with benefits, robotics and other technology replacing more and more workers, rising poverty, unemployment and lower wages for those still working, meaning lower tax collections for cities and states - while still more taxes on wealth and corporations were being cut...

Now add into this mix the rising demand for government services because of these economic drivers - unemployment insurance, rising Medicaid costs as workers lose health benefits from their lost jobs, rise in demand for food stamps and other poverty programs, greater stresses within inner cities that feel the brunt of these changes which get translated into greater needs for services, and on and on... you get the picture.

Then along comes Gov. Walker whom people elect in a 'throw the bums out' pique of discontent, a guy who when asked insists on describing himself as a 'budget cutter' with little regard for those who will be most impacted by the cuts - the same people already impacted by the lower revenues from the combination of a fractured middle class and rising poverty with more and more tax benefits for the wealthy and for corporations - and what do you have?

Yes, decline. Decline in our cities. Decline in our environment. Decline in quality of life. Decline in any sense of the common good.

Is this really the future we want?

Today's paper had a front page article on what the cuts will mean for counties, where so many of the services on which we rely originate - like fixing the growing potholes and the streets falling apart, or trash collection, or mental health services, or upkeep of our parks and summer swimming pools, etc.  'Local counties hit hard in Walker budget,' screams the headline. At least it screams to me. It screams decline, a deteriorating quality of life.

Appreciate, please, that I do mean quality of life, not 'standard of living.' I work on ecological issues, and it is clear that the US cannot sustain in any rational way the 'standard of living' to which we became accustomed in our consumer society. I mean quality - things like breathable air, clean water, good food, decent housing, availability of quality health services, efficient mass transit, roads that won't eat your tires, neighborhoods where people care about one another and it's safe to walk down the street or sit on your porches in the evenings visiting with neighbors and friends, decent work and wages that make it possible to raise a family with dignity.

These things depend upon a strong concern among a population for the well-being of all, for the common good, and the good of the commons - the goodness of what we share as residents of our community by the simple fact that we live here. It means a commitment to folks paying their fair share in taxes so that all of us can have quality of life. It means regulating corporate behavior to protect our environment, the commons we share, the general well-being.

These are not the things that are in Scott Walker's calculations, or the Fitzgerald brothers, or those who think cutting budgets is the singular way out of our economic problems.

I still insist on this - we do not have a deficit problem. What is creating the budget crunch is not on the deficit side. We have a revenue problem. And since, for whatever reason, we no longer think that a progressive tax system is the way to go, that system which - and please make note of this - was the basis on which a broad middle class was built, we are leaving ourselves with few options to reverse the decline. The biggest cut to revenue in my lifetime has been the lowering of tax rates on wealth from 90% in the 1950s to the current 35%. And it is one of the drivers that has accelerated the concentration of wealth to the point where 400 people hold more wealth and assets than half our population.
In the United States, wealth is highly concentrated in a relatively few hands. As of 2007, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 50.5%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 85%, leaving only 15% of the wealth for the bottom 80% (wage and salary workers). ~ Wealth, Income, and Power, G. William Domhoff, Univ. of California at Santa Cruz

But now we have workers and unemployed fighting against one another and voting for more budget cutters, while folks like the Koch brothers laugh all the way to the bank, getting tax breaks to cut down our trees and pollute our air and water to their benefit, or agribusiness folks and chem-lawn type companies who make their profits off the greatest threat to the water that comes out our taps - runoff pollution.

We read last week that Walker wants to repeal new regulations put in place to control runoff. Who benefits? You and me?

So when I speak of quality of life, I do not mean weed-free lawns, or the rights of industrial farms to avoid regulations on fertilizers and other pollutants; I mean the health and well-being of our people.

Wisconsin is seeing numerous issues now being thrust into the light of day. We have to keep shining more and more light on the hidden places - so that we can make the decisions we need to make before we find ourselves unable to make any effective decisions at all about the future of our communities and the kind of life we want for our families, neighbors, and friends.

Photos: Margaret Swedish

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