Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"Our past is usable today."

Well, friends, as we move soon into the new fiscal year and the budget debate comes to a dismal end, I have to decide what to do with this blog.  It's been a great 'vent' for me and a way to connect with folks feeling as morally outraged as I am by the corporate, rightist, takeover of our state government.  I can't keep up this pace, but I welcome any thoughts about whether or how to continue.

Meanwhile, I will post now and again some longer-range reflections on Wisconsin and our predicament. The headline is a quote from one of the Upper Midwest's finest writers, Meridel Le Sueur, in her marvelous book, North Star Country. Just finished it and highly recommend it. As insightfully as any Midwest writer I have read, she captures something of the long history of the pioneers, the Indian massacres, the rape and pillage of the land, the horrible exploitation of immigrants and workers by corporate bosses over generations, the struggle for the dignity of workers, the bloody costs of fighting for the right to form unions - the right to not be savagely exploited, manipulated, robbed, and abused.

The struggle has been a  long one, and as I learned from a recent exchange with someone in my family, we forget or neglect these roots at our peril.

From Le Sueur's book:
The growth of corporations and absentee ownership of natural resources brought a change in human relationships, shifts of group allegiances, a new pattern. Pioneer days were marked by thrift, economy, and simplicity. But now mutual co-operative aid and the simple relationships of an expanding democracy were shattered. A new pattern was forged, a separation of interests; groups fell into those who possessed natural resources and tools of production, and those who, on the other hand, sold their labor.

"The pattern sharpened by the further impoverishment of the land, depletion of forests, erosion, and destruction, so that the land also began to fall into the hands of financiers; there was the vanishing of old ways to make a living, marked by ghosts towns, dead areas, loss of farms, migration of whole sections and there was even a partial exhaustion of high-grade ores. The development of aluminum alloys, the refinement of steel, sharpened the conflict of the big dinosaurs.

That was written just after World War II. Could it be more relevant today! The roots of the struggle between the corporate big bosses and the workers, farmers, and middle class, is as old as the struggle to define what it is to be 'American.' We have arrived at another of those defining moments when we must determine who will decide what our future looks like, what kind of world we want this one to be.

What kind of Wisconsin...

Then this final thought from Meridal Le Sueur:

The North Star Country's long cradling of democratic institutions, the peculiar largeness and boldness of its structure has always demanded new techniques and laws of common and individual rights, suggesting always the necessity of broader forms of democracy.

"Our future stands in real and sunlit shapes in all the gloom...

To truly understand what is going on in our state right now, it helps to know its cultural roots, and thus today's headline. Those roots are deep and abiding, they are tangled and source of great conflicts of interests and values. It will not help to sling insults at one another, but rather to understand this history and to begin coming together around some common purpose and vision for a future threatened on many fronts by the power of capital, the destruction of our natural environment, the individualistic lifestyles that have fragmented us, and the moral righteousness that has come to pervade so much of politics, culture, and religion.

To move forward, we must try to peer into the future to see the 'real and sunlit shapes.' We must pull those shapes out of the gloom that surrounds us now and begin to make them real, and, by necessity, through 'broader forms of democracy.'


To order North Star Country from, click on this link.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Giving power to reshape Medicaid to a guy who disdains Medicaid

The front page article says what is true, of course. Our rightist anti-poor legislature (you know, as Paul Ryan has said, giving people access to government assistance makes them indolent and lazy, something that echoes in our state legislature and the gov's office) has handed Walker the power to reshape Medicaid without the involvement of the legislature, not even hearings to probe the impacts of his changes.

This is the kind of government these people want. There is something abhorrent to me about rich and powerful people reshaping programs that serve the poorest and most vulnerable among us. The outcome is usually not so good - for the poorest and most vulnerable among us.

Which is why so much this administration has in mind is gaining increasingly vocal concern and opposition from churches and other faith-based communities. From the article:

"We don't know exactly what will be coming down the pike," said Bob Jacobson, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families. "And we don't know how we can have a voice in those decisions when the Legislature has been taken out of the picture."

But that's the point, of course, to take the legislature, the bodies most representative of the people, out of the picture. It is yet another anti-democracy move on the part of our one-party state government - which is trying to remove access to its most controversial decisions from the people whom they most impact and hand them to our autocratic governor.

Walker does not like the messiness of democratic governance.  Ryan, Ron Johnson, and their ilk are the same - followers of Ayn Rand who believe in rule by the elite over the ignorant masses. What has happened to the old GOP is really quite sad. That was the party of the family in which I grew up, and while I left those tendencies behind long ago, I know the party of Ike and Goldwater and Nixon would look with disdain on the corporate rightist ideologues who now rule it.

This is a vent this morning, pure and simple. I wish it was also hyperbole. Sadly, it is not.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Tough morning

Well, friends of Wisconsin, I know we're all feeling pretty down this morning - and undoubtedly frightened about our future here. Discouraged, sad, angry - all that. It is a helpless feeling to see authoritarians make off with one's democracy and feel like there is nothing you can do to stop this steamroller.

It has to play itself out. It will.  It will be ugly.  It will not be permanent.

But we do need to learn some lessons - urgently. One is that we must promise never again to become complacent about staying engaged with the democratic process. I worked on Central America human rights issues for more than 25 years in Washingon DC and it was always moving to tears to see poor people claiming their rights, organizing, forming political organizations, voting, when any of those things could get you killed (or worse, like tortured first). Voter turnout was always in the 80-90% range.

We are a complacent, spoiled people in many ways. We don't remember what it cost people over generations to win the rights we take for granted. I live in the Bay View neighborhood of Milwaukee and I am reminded every time I drive to the Hoan Bridge what that cost was in the lives of people who carved the path for us - the memorial to workers massacred by state militia, under a governor's orders, while holding a peaceful march to demand an 8-hour work day.

Or the police dogs and hoses in Birmingham.

Now most of us don't even bother to vote, much less engage the process in between elections, until one day we find our rights are threatened, and then suppressed - then we get all upset.

Lately I find myself pondering daily about how my state is the home of Fighting Bob La Follette and Joe McCarthy, the birthplace of AFSCME and of the Republican Party. I recall that that Republican Party was founded as an anti-slavery party and that now, in my state and others, it is trying to suppress the vote of African-Americans and is fueled by resentment that a black man is our president. I reflect on my own family roots - pro-union Democrats (except for my father, Republican but also a union member) harboring deep racist attitudes.

In the birthplace of collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, we have just busted their collective bargaining rights - which is the whole point of having a union.

This is my bipolar state, and the rightist Repubs now in power are using their authoritarian bent to drive a wedge right through that divide. I have it in my own family, as does just about everyone I know, growing lists of things we can no longer talk about because disagreement now is not the beginning of conversation or even argument, but of no discussion at all.

It hasn't yet, but it's a nice thought.
We will have to pull out of this not by turning to old ways of thinking and organizing and running organizations and institutions; those old 'paradigms' failed to anticipate fully what was coming or to mobilize a broad and effective solidarity - not because they are bad but because the world has changed and is changing all around us rapidly. I think we fail to understand what this power grab is really about and what these people have in mind for our nation.

It is not time to regroup, it is time to reinvent. So while many are out in districts working on the recall elections, they and all of us need to take time to read, learn, discuss, and think again about how one builds a movement appropriate and relevant to the real shift in power that has taken place in this state, and which is proceeding across the nation.

This will be a time of great demoralization or it will become a time of great creativity. And that choice is completely up to us.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

When corporate money owns the government

This is what comes of electing judges rather than appointing them, running them through a vigorous confirmation process that examines who they are, their record, their potential conflicts of interests, etc.  They end up serving the same interests as elected politicians, but with more at stake.

If it is true, and this stands, that a majority of Wisconsin Supreme Court justices do not have judicial authority to hold the actions of the legislature to constitional tests, then we really are moving towards one-party rule in this state.  And that party has been bought by the rightist money that is trying to do the same throughout the country.

From Karl Rove and his American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS (those groups funded by a handful of millioniaires), to the Koch brothers -funded Americans for Prosperity and Club for Growth, to direct compaign donations flowing into the coffers of the Repub's most rightist politicians, we are seeing a kind of power grab that spells real trouble for the people of this state and this country.

Why do we hate the very unions who brought us a worker rights laws, decent wages (which tended to raise wages for everyone, not only union members), and some organized defense against the overwhelming power of corporations? The US Chambers of Commerce is incredibley organized and their members are now spending huge millions of dollars to lobby for business interests - but unions are losing their collective bargaining rights in state after state. First private sector unions were gutted as business threatened time and again to leave states in which workers did not agree to tear up contracts and accept their new terms.

Now the State of Wisconsin has devastated those rights in the public worker sector.

Scott Walker's Wisconsin is 'open for business' and closed to the well-being of its citizens and our precious environment.

But let's be clear about what the corporate right has been able to take advantage of - the apathy and disinterest of the citzenry, the lack of interest in government, understanding how it works (more than a third of people polled do not know the three branches of government and even fewer know what their responsibilities are - like checking the power of the legislature when it acts unconstitutionally), and being incredibly susceptible to manipulation by those interests who use God and guns and abortion and gay rights to mobilize people to support their corporate right agenda.

Watch wages fall.  Watch the downward trend in the quality of life for more and more people in this state, many of whom really believe that somehow this is a gleeful moment - "Yea, we've undermined the power of unions!"

What in the world is wrong with us?

This will have to play itself out. And what I can say about it this morning is that we are moving into unprecedented times. And if what folks try to do is recover what has been lost, try to move back in time to an old framework now being dstroyed, we will not get through this. These other guys have recognized better than most of us that times have changed, the global economy has changed, power bases are shifting, the old political divides don't describe anything real anymore, they just serve the interests of the conquer-and-divide rightists whose tactics have worked so well.

If times are unprecedented then the response must also be unprecedented. First is understanding how power is shifting in response to a new phase of global capital, one that is fiercely anti-democratic and anti-popular, and beginning to operate out of a narrative that does not describe what has been lost so much as how to move forward in that reality.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The week that will change Wisconsin

Debate on the budget begins this morning and by the end of the week Wisconsin becomes, well, something else. Using their 'tyranny of the majority' powers, their anti-democratic maneuvers (because they know what they are doing is fiercely unpopular), and intransigence and stubbornness which they think virtuous, the state Repubs are about to implement blow after blow to Wisconsin's citizens as they pass the biennium budget.

We are not being governed; we are being ruled by Scott Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers and, folks, there is nothing at all democratic about that. This is a handful of rightist politicians who are trying to gleefully rule the state for the benefit of a narrow constituency of affluent white business types who want to open my state even more than it already is to their narrow interests. They and their followers are social conservatives for whom it is not enough to hold socially conservative beliefs but who believe that government's role is to empower social conservative 'values' while closing democratic spaces and political rights for those who disagree with them.

What will happen this week: voting rights will be narrowed and made difficult for the poor, elderly, students; social safety net programs will be slashed and thousands of people left unserved and vulnerable; lower taxes will be replaced by higher fees (which sounds like raising taxes to me, whatever you call them); university tuition will be raised putting higher education even more out of reach for poor and working families than it already is; more public money will be transferred into the hands of corporations; government will become less transparent as legislators try to hide some of the business connections that affect how they vote; public education will take extreme hits lowering the quality of the classroom experience for our kids; good paying public sector jobs will become less so as these white business guys (Ron Johnson, too, and Paul Ryan) commit to gutting this source of middle class stability as their business guys have already done in the private sector, destroying unions, ripping up contracts, driving down wages and benefits.

Oh, and, watch for it: using an unprecedented 'extraordinary session' to pass a budget (see yesterday's post), look to see the gutting of collective bargaining rights language restored to the bill at the last minute. They are not waiting for the Supreme Court to decide on something of such high priority in their rightist agenda.

And the protests - fervent, passionate, an awakening much needed in this state - will not affect the outcome.

The week that will change Wisconsin.  We are losing a lot. Adding to the loss is that these guys, not just here but all around the country, use divisive, polarizing language and strategies to try to render us even less effective in struggling for our rights. By intention, they raise the emotion in the divide and hope like crazy that we will not be able to talk to each other, to reach across the divide to reclaim a political culture of democracy. That is in their interest, too.

The week that will change Wisconsin.

But - and it is a big 'but' - sometime movements are built on what is lost. Sometimes they are built on what brings people together. What the protests have done - not only in Madison, but all across the state - is wake up my people, or at least more of us. The US is sadly known for the extent of political disengagement of its citizens, low participation in democracy, which has opened a space ripe for the Karl Rove big money types to move in and take it over.

This week will change Wisconsin not only because of what Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers are imposing on this state, but because of what happened in the streets in response, a popular democracy resurgence that could, if nurtured right, become a real force for progressive politics in this state.

That is where we need to rest our hopes. But this also depends on what we have insisted on here over and over again - a movement that is not about different sectors trying to protect their own rights and way of life, but about a solidarity that is broad and deep - public sector workers with private sector workers, threatened middle class folks with the poor of our cities, African-Americans especially loathed by these guys with, well, all the rest of us, immigrants doing our hard labor with, again, the rest of us, suburban social progressives with urban communities struggling for survival.

If that is born out of this political debacle, then what these rightist people are doing will be painful but short-lived. The best payback will not be screaming in their faces or going home demoralized after the losses we are about to endure, but defeating them by way of democracy, over the long haul. The best payback would be a rejuvenated citizenry reclaiming its place in democratic governance.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Autocratic Repubs ready to ram through budget

The anti-democratic bent of the Repubs in the state legislature gets clearer and clearer.  They got elected, right, but not to do what they're doing - to gut government in a way that benefits corporate interests but undermines the well-being of kids, the elderly, the poor, workers, the unemployed...

They hate democracy.  They believe it stops at the ballot box, even when they did not make their intentions clear to voters, many of whom did not know what they were voting for. But, hey, we got their vote, now it's time for citizens to stay home and just shut up.

But Wisconsinites love their messy democracy, and this has been a messy year indeed. Much of what the Repubs intend to do with this budget is deeply unpopular and the pushback has been very strong, with record throngs in the streets even through cold, snow, wind, and rain, and now camped out in tents in Madison's new 'Walkerville.' The protests have shown how deep the divisions are among us, the extent of the competing visions for the State of Wisconsin.

Are we giving our state away to corporate interests for them to exploit for the enrichment of their companies, stockholders and CEOs, in the name of jobs - as if this is the only way to create work, by destroying our natural resources, gutting worker rights, easing pollution regulations, forcing lower wages without benefits in the private sector (think Harley Davidson, Mercury Marine, Kohler, etc. who forced new contracts on its employees with the threat of leaving the state altogether), and then easing the tax burden on these same special monied interests who are being handed the state's economy on a silver platter?

Or do we want a state which government has as its priority the health and well-being of all its citizens and the protection and defense of Wisconsin's many natural gifts, its beauty, the sheer pleasure of living here? Do we want a state whose quality of life is available to all, in which citizens care about each other and the state of the environment in which we all live?

In Madison right now, one vision is bent on crushing the other. And because of the outcry, because of the messiness of vocal opposition from citizens who feel empowered to express themselves as their world is being threatened, Repubs are trying to use autocratic measures in order to stifle that voice. They did it on the collective bargaining law, the one that remains in court but will likely become law no matter what the court decides because these guys will just pass it again, and they are doing it this week on the budget bill.

A friend emailed me this morning with info on just exactly how these Repubs intend to proceed.  Here's the message:
The Assembly Organization Committee has placed the state budget into an "Extraordinary Session" scheduled to begin 11 a.m. Tuesday June 14th.
Extraordinary Sessions are very rare and seldom used for the Budget. In an Extraordinary Session action can not be postponed, points of order are decided within one hour, the daily calendar is effective immediately upon posting and does not have to be distributed, motion to advance legislation and message it to the other house only required a majority vote of those present, the session can be expanded to include any other legislation, including new legislation (financial martial law?) and "No notice of hearing before a committee shall be required other than posting on the legislative bulletin board, and no bulletin of committee hearing shall be published.
Also, 300 additional police are being brought in to deal with protestors and it would not be at all surprising to find provocateurs in the crowd trying to stir things up.

Democracy, Repubs are not your friend.  But autocracy? oh yea, most definitely. One party rule? Absolutely!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Breaking the furniture - and the emergence of the psychopaths

In their hasty effort to do as much damage as possible before the end of the fiscal year, Repubs are really throwing stuff around, wreaking havoc, breaking all the furniture just in case anyone thought there was any part of our political culture and the state's well-being beyond their reach.

Really, I go away for a couple of days and look what happens.

The damage is mounting. Among my favorites: in yet another giveaway of public funds and employment to the private sector, the Repubs intend to ORDER, ORDER, mind you, counties and local governments to outsource road-building projects if they cost more than $100,000.

Good job, roadbuilders that contributed to Walker's campaign. You already got rid of high-speed rail, now you get this. Pretty good payback!!

These Repubs deceptively argue that they want to shrink government and save taxpayer money, but outsourcing schemes almost never do that. They end up costing us more because you hand what is public work without profit to companies only in existence to make profit - and they will drive up costs whenever they can get away with it, whereas public agencies will try to drive down costs to stay within budgets.

Get the difference?

Yea, and then the Repubs also voted to make government less transparent, creating new barriers to get access to financial disclosure forms of public officials, info that might indicate, among other things, conflicts of interest. If you just put these two things together - the outsourcing and the barriers on access to info - you could almost get the feeling that, as these guys hand out contracts, tax credits and subsidies to the private sector, there are things about these transactions that they don't want you to know.

Repub Robin Vos says he fears that he could suffer a disadvantage in his popcorn business if competitors had access to financial info. His popcorn business.  That's what he said. I wish I was making that up.

The Repubs are also going to void a program that allowed early release of prisoners based on good behavior or for health reasons. Dems passed it in 2009, but this kind of thing rankles the tough-on-crime crowd.  They want punishment, man, no matter what it costs. From the newspaper article:
Republicans say higher spending on prisons is justified, saying a prison building boom in Wisconsin in the 1990s has helped lower crime rates since then. Democrats counter that states with lower incarceration rates saw similar drops in crime rates.
Repubs love being tough on crime, even when their toughness doesn't actually have an impact on crime. For this, there's always money in the budget. Always funds in the budget to pay out private contractors to build more prisons. They'd like the private sector to staff them, too.

How 'bout this one: giving a $150,000 exemption from state sales tax for snow-making and grooming equipment for ski slopes and trails. How many jobs does this create? And who in the world lobbied for this?

But then there's my all-time favorite. I mean, from more than one person in recent weeks, I heard the comment, "What's next, child labor?"

Ha ha!! that's funny.

So, here's the most important furniture of all, our kids. The Repubs want to end a protection that prohibits kids under age 18 from working more than 40 hours or 6 days per week. Stunning. We're trying to keep kids in school, trying to keep their attention on learning, right? How in the world can a high school kid learn working 40 hours a week, and now these guys want to eliminate even that limit?

Okay, you know, the list is long, and a lot of this policy stuff got thrown in after the debates, after the committee work, sneaking stuff in at the last minute. We have learned that this is how these guys operate, not good for the prospects of our democracy.

So, what about those psychopaths in my headline? I didn't come up with that, a psychotherapist did. A friend sent me this article that appeared on CommonDreams, The Rise of the Second-String Psychopaths, by David Schwartz.  So, you know, tell me if it reminds you of anyone.

So expectations are that things will really heat up in Madison over the coming days. Lots of folks are pretty upset at what's happening to our state and are ready to make their voices heard as our legislature, now in the hands of the these psyh..., I mean, rightist Repubs prepare to put all this and more into effect, and let the chips fall where they may.  I think Schwartz got it exactly right.

From David Schwartz:
It is no secret that the Koch brothers and others of the super-rich seem to have undertaken a final push to consolidate control through the conversion of a marginally democratic to an essentially fascist state; extreme right-wing, authoritarian, and demagogic. This kind of government is ideal for control of a populace by the moneyed elite. To carry this out requires the employment of many ‘kept’ politicians to excite and misdirect scared and angry – and ignorant – voters. Lest the citizenry realize who stole their money and storm their castles with torches, the rapacious elite need politicians who will carry out the work of re-directing anger at teachers, or labor unions, or the poor.
 And this: 
They seem to be unaffected by the feelings of others, including feelings of distress caused by their actions. Straying from a decent way of treating people, or violating ethical codes causes no anxiety, the anxiety which is what causes the rest of us to moderate our more greedy impulses. If most children feel anxiety when they are pilfering the forbidden cookie jar, psychopaths feel just fine. They can devour the cookies, shatter the jar as evidence and stuff it in the trash can. When accused, they can argue with apparent sincerity that the cookie jar has been missing for at least a week. There suffer no remorse, no guilt, no shame. They are free to do anything, no matter how harmful.
 Yup, they can storm through the house and break all the furniture, and they could not care less.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Walker is tearing us apart

The political divide in this state grows wider. Seems our governor has taken a wedge, stuck it in the middle of the body politic, then grabbed a sledge hammer and slammed that baby right in two.

I used to chop wood, can you tell?

Scott Walker has become one of the most polarizing political figures in all the country, and is number one among state governors. Here's the data: Walker drives voters into split camps.  I won't repeat the numbers, but I will say this about them - this is tragic.

Friends, we have serious problems in this state, mirrored all around the country. The global economy is in a permanent restructuring - yes, I said permanent - and the old manufacturing, good paying union production jobs economy that created (temporarily as it turns out) a broad middle class is in decline.  It is simply not needed to generate wealth for the wealthy because the US consumer is being replaced by consumer demand in China, India, Brazil, and elsewhere.

And so wages and benefits are in decline, but global capitalists continue to enrich themselves. The loss in wages is manifested in lower tax revenues. Put that together with lower taxes for corporations and the rich, and you end up with budget problems. Politicians like Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers believe that you deal with that by taking more from the poor in social programs, tax credits, unemployment benefits, W-2, BadgerCare, and then giving more tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy with this false, deceptive mantra that somehow this will magically create jobs that will restore the middle class, restore home values, solve the deficit problems, and on and on.

But to keep this deceptive policy on course, they distract us with divisive politics, the kind that pit different groups against each other - private sector workers whose unions have already been rendered irrelevant against public sector unions who are now getting the same treatment from the Walker regime, the needs of inner city poor people against wealthy exurbanites who want lakefront property and places to park their boats, poor kids in public schools against property owners who want tax relief, and on and on.

Or getting us all hot under the collar about concealed carry, as if some great constitutional principle is at stake there rather than in new laws that threaten the broad human and political rights of our citizens.

Now just to reaffirm that character of the far right in our state politics, be sure to read Daniel Bice's 'No Quarter' column today. The rightists who fear voter backlash in upcoming recall elections are attempting to run fake Democrats against their opponents in order to create artificial primaries, force the Dems to spend more money, and give them another month to mount a defense of their woeful record - no doubt also to buy time to raise more money from the Karl Roves and others of their ilk.

This is becoming a very dirty game in this state. It is tragic because we have never needed more to come together. That kind of leadership, the kind that unites rather than divides, is woefully lacking right now, the kind of discourse that rejects the divide-and-conquer game, that rejects this nastiness and stubborn intransigence that is making it harder and harder for us to even talk to each other.

Beyond his politics of the corporate state and his rightist anti-democratic tendencies, his fear of his opponents, his lack of political acumen masked as standing up for the taxpayers of Wisconsin, the worst part of this Walker era is his seeming penchant for tearing us apart and then trying to get his way. He did this as Milwaukee County Executive and we are living with the results. There is a reason, state of Wisconsin, that Milwaukee voters did not vote for him last year. We knew.

Okay, this sounds harsh, but this divisiveness is really getting out of hand. So I will end with this reflection from yesterday's paper, another Bice piece. Walker had a beautiful work of art removed from the governor's mansion - three children of different races dancing joyously down the street making bubbles. It was a commissioned work from artist David Lenz.

Joy. Togetherness. Community and neighborhood. Walker can't stand to look at it.

Know what we need to do in response? Create joy in our togetherness, renew and revitalize our communities and neighborhoods, and build a solidarity among us that is broad and deep.  Walker and the Fitzgeralds usually look so joyless. Doesn't mean we have to be.

[I won't post against until Thursday.]

Friday, June 3, 2011

Repubs continue war on the poor

Wisconsin Repubs continue their assault on the poor, assigning them more blame for their fate and more responsibility for carrying the burden of our fiscal challenges.

It fits very nicely with the Ayn Rand approach to life as exemplified by Paul Ryan - the superior shall rule over all others at their expense - or the crass power grab of those making off with our economy, the corporate state personified in people like the Koch brothers, the CEOs of big manufacturing firms (Bucyrus, Harley Davidson, Kohler, Mercury Marine, Georgia-Pacific, Harley-Davidson, etc.), and the bastions of the nation's ideological right, Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth, Karl Rove's American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, Murdoch and Fox faux-news, and then their minions that do their bidding.

Photo: Margaret Swedish
Of course, there is a lot of crossover among all these folks. Government is for the rich, or to free the rich to become richer. By their belief system, the poor are just slackers, laggards or lazy, responsible for their own fate. Of course, any black kid growing up in the inner city with lousy schools and fragile families torn apart by the daily struggle for survival facing racism all around and the expectation of failure should be able to be just as successful as the multi-billionaire Kochs, right?

Okay, once more we have news that reveals as clearly as ever the moral bankruptcy of this Repub class - the new GOP assault on the already woeful W-2 program. At a time of high unemployment, growing poverty, the demise of the middle class, slashing of wages and benefits even if you have a job - the Repubs are preparing to implement measures to shrink W-2 client roles.

Well, if you read this blog, you probably read the paper, so here's the story for all the gory details.

We are becoming a cruel society, cold, heartless. The worst in us is rising to the top now - all these latent attitudes of racism and derision towards those for whom life is a struggle. It is easier to defend your privilege if you demonize those who pay the price for it. Meanwhile, politicians representing your defense and your scapegoating make policy right out of those attitudes and make them popular on Fox or Charlie Sykes and Rush Limbaugh shows.  Feeding the worst in us, that's the politics of the right these days.

The big headline, of course, had to do with the expansion of the school voucher program: income level raised, vouchers that can be used to go anywhere, even if that means public money for religious education (good people disagree on that question, of course), even if that means tax-payer money to families that can afford to pay for private schools. Because the intention here is clear: step-by-step, the rightist Repubs are bent on undermining and eventually throwing public education under the bus (well, except that the buses won't be running in and out of poor neighborhoods anymore either).

Look, MPS is a mess, lacking vision and a clear sense of mission, lacking effective leadership, lacking the zeal required to address the poverty and racism, and the structural issues, that ensure that many Milwaukee kids get a mediocre-at-best education. And the whole national approach is a mess, focused as it is on standardized testing and competition and race to the top b.s. and preparing kids to compete in the global economy and blah, blah, blah... But abandoning public education as a basic right for all kids is not the path toward revolutionizing a woeful, failing system being strangled by bureaucracy and politicization, and collapsing under the weight of long-neglected realities of social injustice and economic disparities.

Here's a truth about capitalism, a sort of economics 101. Capitalism requires a poor class; it requires a certain level of unemployment. It is part of its unjust structural nature. This belief that everyone has a chance to succeed if they just work hard enough contradicts capitalism itself since, if everyone did that, it would be the end of the system. Can we all be Koch brothers or Scott Walker? Who then would do the dirty work in their factories, or cut Walker's lawn, or be the security people that have to sit outside his house all day keeping him safe? And who in the world would want to go into the office buildings overnight to clean the toilets of the CEOs and their staffs?

Because of this basic truth of the structural injustice in the system, different societies make different decisions about how to compensate - or not - for that injustice. We deride Western European countries for their broad, generous social safety nets, but you don't see more affluent people out in the streets about the high taxes they pay for their superior publicly financed health care systems or public schools or generous unemployment benefits - because they all know that these programs benefit everyone in the end in part by creating a certain stability in the society. Gaps between rich and poor may still be wide, but nothing like here where the gap is widening as the corporate right and their minions no longer want their lavish wealth to be taxed to ease the burdens of this great injustice.

Look what happened to the centrist Barack Obama when he dared to once use the phrase "spread the wealth." Accused of being a socialist (as if that is the worst thing you can call anyone), some of his right-wing evangelical opponents might take a moment to read the Gospel of Luke.

Photo: Margaret Swedish
We have arrived at the mean season, very, very mean. Nasty. Ugly. The rich are turning on the poor and selfish individualism is being made our state religion. Politics is now being dominated by those who don't think a society's people need care for one another, see the connections between one person's or one community's suffering and the enrichment of someone else - though these connections are obvious, and become more obvious with each measure passed in our state legislature this year.

What bothers me is that I just don't see any real effective pushback. I mean, a lot of angry people got arrested at the Capitol yesterday disrupting the vote on the voucher stuff, but where is the discourse that really speaks to the growing selfishness and isolation of the wealthy? Where is the discourse on the economy that puts what is happening in its real context? Where is the counter to this philosophy of rugged individualism that is pervasive and represents nothing real in this world?

Because none of us - not a single one of us - is an isolated individual, and everything we do has cause and effect. And right now, the things being done in Madison will certainly have effect - they will deepen the suffering all around us, further deteriorate the quality of life in our state, widen the chasms among us, and make for one difficult future in this beautiful state.

It's disheartening. To see politicians appealing to the worst in us, to see the ugly discourse rise to the surface like this - it's disheartening. Hard to win back what you lose. We have to start thinking about how we are going to live here in a fundamentally new way. Those of us who care about these things have got to come together in a broader and deeper solidarity with a different vision to guide us than the one guiding the Repubs in Madison right now.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ayn Rand, states rights, and Wisconsin politics

I just want to put a bit more context to what I wrote yesterday. While the struggle goes on over various specifics of the Walker regime's policies, and thousands begin to get focused on senate recall campaigns this summer, it is important for us to appreciate the context of this swift rightist turn in our state's politics.

While for many, the extremes of the Walker/Fitzgerald agenda has taken by surprise, what is going on here is part of a billionaire-funded, corporate right strategy underway for decades - since the civil rights era broadened voting rights, since a succession of federal governments broadened social programs and safety nets (very bipartisan, from FDR and LBJ to Eisenhower and Nixon, right up until it crashed into the rightist Reagan wall in the 80s), really heating up in 2008 when we had the temerity to elect an African-American president.

We have to keep insisting on this - many rightist billionaires and their minions do not think African-Americans equal to them, and additionally even those who do are happy to manipulate the nation's latent racism to get their people elected to office or sitting on state and federal courts. Things changed when Obama was elected - they changed a lot!

Billionaire funders through folks like the rightist true believer Karl Rove, with his enormously powerful Crossroads GPS funded by, you know, a handful of billionaires, are manipulating our political system beyond recognition in a very short time. Over the past couple of decades, corporate money has helped get people like Scott Walker or John Kasich (OH) elected into office not because of their smarts or because they represent a vast grassroots constituency, but by the power of their money, building campaign treasure troves, funding experts in messaging (you know, stuff like, "Wisconsin is open for business," or "we're broke," while you finance big tax giveaways to the corporate sector), buying controlling interests in cable news stations, investing enormous funds in TV and internet ads that pop into our attention spans on a daily basis.

And they have a philosophy of demonizing and bankrupting government, then steering newly freed up public funds to the corporate sector, as we have written repeatedly here. They scorn the 'masses' and think they should rule without the cumbersome workings of a democracy. They are states rights people bent on finally winning the Civil War 150 years after it began.

We have to know what motivates them, what they want, in order to know what we are up against. To understand Paul Ryan, and the lie he tells when he insists he cares about health care for the elderly, it is important to understand what motivates him, what philosophical beliefs shape his political career. If he says reading Ayn Rand inspired him to get into politics, and if he insists that all his staff read her stuff, then we best understand who she is and what she believes - and that should put a chill down the spines of all who care about the well-being of our families, communities, the state, and the nation.

So, here's some more reading for your reflection:

about the billionaires' class war against the rest of us, with reference to Ryan and Rand, from Robert Parry at Alternet, an excerpt:
The conflict is now over the Right’s determination to concentrate even more money and power in the hands of the rich by hobbling any government capability to protect the people’s general welfare.

If the Right wins, individual Americans will be left essentially defenseless in the face of unbridled corporate power...
Lately, Ryan has been trying to torture a connection between his philosophical beliefs and his Roman Catholic background. Whatever one thinks of the institution these days with all it scandals and such, it has a very progressive social teaching that contradicts much of what he proposes for the US budget. One ordained minister, Rev. Jennifer Butler, reflected on the Christian-Rand contradiction for Huffington Post. Read it here.

Finally, we are approaching the edge of the states' rights precipice in our federal Supreme Court. The NY Times wrote about this most serious threat to our democracy a few days ago, and, trust me, this really is a more significant news story than Palin's self-promoting, self-aggrandizing bus tour or Rep. Weiner's, um, Twitter problem. Seems Chief Justice Roberts is prepared to rule that states have sovereign authority and are not subject to federal law.
The principle at stake dates back to a 1908 case, Ex parte Young, in which the Supreme Court held that federal courts have a paramount role in stopping a state from violating federal law. Despite the 11th Amendment’s protection of a state from being sued in federal court, all state officials must comply with federal law, which the Constitution calls “the supreme Law of the Land.” 

Think for a moment about what it would mean to live in this country if states could decide not to abide by environmental laws, or civil rights laws, or labor laws, or child protection laws, and on and on, without danger of federal enforcement.

So while Palin and Weiner absorb hours and hour of the air waves, we are being denied crucial information on who is taking control of our politics and for what reason. If Roberts gets his way, we won't recognize this nation a few years down the road.

I think we ought to make Wisconsin an example of how citizens come together to reclaim a democratic culture - broad and inclusive - and a mission for government that has to do with the defense and promotion of the well-being of all its citizens, the common good, and the good of the commons.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Take from the poor to give to the rich

Some days the headlines prove my point: we are in an era when it has become okay to take from the poor to give to the rich, to take from the vulnerable and struggling and enrich corporations further, to use government as a tool to accelerate the growing gap between rich and poor.

And so today. I pick up my morning paper and see this headline: "Panel votes for corporate tax break," and the sub-head below it, "But GOP-run committee further cuts credits for working poor."

Our fearless governor keeps telling us the state is broke. It ain't broke. But in these days of tighter budgets caused by the financial collapse of 2008, money is being moved around, that's for sure. The corporate right, which pays for campaigns like Scott Walker's, has an opportunity right now to convince the public that the poor simply must suffer more because of budget problems. Meanwhile, corporations and their CEOs are making enormous profits and executive payouts while tax policy and government subsidies are being increased for the corporate sector.

The mantra is that we must create jobs. And people fall for it - or at least many do.

The story in the paper describes how Repubs voted yesterday to further cut taxes for corporations and investors while slashing tax credits for the working poor. Very moral, these guys.  But poor people aren't able to contribute much to political campaigns.

Earlier in May I was struck by this headline: "State may lose food assistance funding; Federal officials cite privatization efforts."  You see, in this case, Walker & Co. want to hand over more of the administration of the FoodShare program, including the process of deciding who gets the assistance, to the private sector. The feds are saying, um no, not with federal money. If you go as far as you want to go, you will not only lose federal money, you will have to pay us back.

The feds have seen the results in states that have taken such steps, and it ain't a pretty picture.

But it reveals priorities, doesn't it? See, the thing about government is this - while it is fine to use some public funds to give businesses needed boosts, emphasis on the word needed, it is not the role of government to be at the service of corporations, to be a servant of them, to give them whatever they want to make a profit. The role of government is to represent the concerns of all its citizens, to defend political and civil rights, to promote justice and the Constitution equally for all, and to protect the most vulnerable among us.

Government is not a business and should not be run like one. It is at the service of the people to help promote the dignity and well-being of its citizens, and to protect the common good and the good of the commons.

Right now, these libertarian, Ayn Rand, types of very, very rich people (like the Koch brothers, Paul Ryan, or Rand Paul) who control the Repub party, especially in this state, are trying to force on us a very different idea of government - as an instrument for a survival of the fittest kind of economics. They do not see government as a service and look with scorn on those who need government services to get by in hard times.

Paul Ryan speaks often of people who don't want to work and how government programs promote laziness and indolence - and I wonder if he gets at all what it's like to be poor, and, in this city with deep-seated racism still at work, to be African-American, trying to survive these bad times, raise your kids, find a job in this time of high unemployment and lingering discrimination.

But it doesn't matter if he gets it, because he is a follower of Ayn Rand and the poor are just the social detritus, those left behind while the superior among us go off and run businesses and get wealthy, rising to the top, deserving because of their superiority. They want to rule the world.

This lack of compassion runs through many of these policies and, if we follow this path, our future will be grim indeed. As long as there is more emotion around concealed carry than programs that support poor communities and families trying to feed their kids or find a job, we are a morally and ethically impoverished, compromised society.  As long as we see struggling people, poor people, as other-than-us and deserving of their lot, instead of our sisters and brothers whose fate we share, we are on a road to moral bankruptcy as a society.

One more thing to share, this very good essay by NY Times Editorial Observer Eduardo Porter, A Budget Without Core Purposes, Taxation Without Compassion. He says it. He really lays it bare.
The budgetary policy of the United States has been the least generous in the industrial world for a very long time.
And that ought to make us embarrassed and very ashamed. I urge you to read the rest.