There was a time in recent memory when expanding the middle class was considered such a good thing it was the underlying theme of almost all things political. Candidates and elected officials of all stripes promised, or at least discussed, improvements in public education, assistance for small business owners, protecting retirement programs, new technologies and job growth. In fact, we heard some of those very discussions during the 2010 campaigns.
The campaigns are now over and reality has come calling. Our newly elected leaders and their supporters have almost no interest in protecting or expanding the middle class. Quite the contrary. We are now witnessing a full-blown assault on the middle class.
The peripheral skirmishes have been under way for decades with more and more money and power being filtered into the hands of fewer and fewer corporations and individuals. The companions to this transfer have been ever-increasing attacks on working men and women, especially those working in the public sector.
It didnt start that way. Ronald Reagan was fond of saying government wasnt the solution, it was the problem. We all understood he was talking about that amorphous, unresponsive, bloated, overspending thing we call The Government. That has slowly but surely morphed into attacks on something much more specific government workers. And not just those at or near the top of the bureaucratic food chain, but all government workers at every level. Especially if they are in a union.
In Washington and in statehouses throughout the country, public sector employees are now being demonized as the source of our budget woes. Seriously. The problem here, according to newly-elected politicians and those trying to catch the wave of anger sweeping the country, isnt mathematically challenged politicians or greedy corporations or even incompetent bureaucrats.
The villains are now teachers, janitors, bus drivers, police officers, fire fighters, snowplow drivers and all manner of other public employees who try to help us every day. You see, they have those damned contracts that actually pay many of them a livable wage, provide some benefits and oh my God include a retirement program. Can you imagine such a thing? Healthcare and a pension. Apparently, its an outrage.
Working for the government used to be considered an honorable road to the middle class. Economists thought that was a very good thing since the middle class buys more stuff and pays more taxes than any other economic demographic. Their success provided economic stability and a consistent revenue stream to municipal, state and federal programs.
Not anymore. With new leadership in statehouses and in Washington there is a new reality. It is now clear theyve decided its easier to destroy the middle class than it is to expand it.
These New Republicans are not the compassionate conservatives of George Bush the Lesser or the traditional conservatives of Ronald Reagan and Bush the Elder. This is a new breed altogether that serves only to tear down that which so many have worked so hard for so long to build up.
Michigan is a case in point. We have about a $1.6 billion deficit out of a $45.9 billion total budget. Thats about 3.5%. Not good but certainly not a disaster indicating a failure of the budget and tax systems as Governor Snyder claims. Imagine you have $100 but owe bills in the amount of $103.50. Whats your first move? You could cut your expenses or try to increase your income or some combination of both. Most of us would find a way.
What we would not do is immediately decrease our income by nearly 4% as Snyder did with his $1.8 billion in corporate tax breaks. To be sure, Michigans corporate/business tax system is way out of whack and needs reform. Our new governor campaigned on fixing that bizarre state tax code and balancing the budget. Fair enough. But decreasing state revenues by nearly $2 billion when were already $1.6 billion in the red is a peculiar way to balance the budget. The concept that those tax breaks will ultimately trickle down from corporate headquarters to the rest of us in the form of business expansion and job growth is unproven at best and just flat untrue at worst. An uncertain solution in an uncertain economy.
What is certain is how the various states are going to pay for reduced corporate taxes were going to pay for them.
Here in Michigan, if Governor Snyder and his allies have their way, our kids in public schools will pay with reduced funding and seniors will pay with increased taxes. Public employees, the new villains of the New Right, will pay the most having committed the suddenly unforgivable sins of negotiating a middle class wage with decent benefits and something for retirement. Those salaries, benefits and pensions are now at risk all over the country in what appears to be a nationwide effort to balance budgets by punishing working men and women. In Wisconsin, theyve taken the extra step of trying to kill public employee unions once and for all by eliminating collective bargaining.
Most of us understand we need to share in the sacrifices being made during this recession. Nearly all public employee unions have made salary and benefit concessions or have said they are willing to do so. But a nearly $2 billion tax break for corporations in Michigan isnt sharing the sacrifice, its sacrificing our share.
The New Right, fresh from electoral victories, is going to war against the government and the people who work for it. It is unclear who the victors will be. It is painfully clear, however, who the casualties will be whats left of the middle class.