Friday, February 18, 2011

The Battle for Wisconsin: What's happening and why

The working people of Wisconsin are under attack. The hand-picked corporate stooge that is now Governor of the state has decided to risk his entire political career and the well-being of the people of Wisconsin (admittedly the latter mean little, if anything, to him) to destroy unions, to hurt the opposing political party, and to strip away one of the very few protections left to working people. I intended to blog about what is happening in Wisconsin and what it means, but Mother Jones has already written exactly what I wanted to say! Here is what MJ says (I will add my own thoughts at the end):

What's Happening in Wisconsin: Explained

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 3:30 PM PST
Activists protesting new GOP Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union proposals have occupied the rotunda of the Wisconsin capitol building in Madison for the past week, but Walker is pressing ahead anyway.

If you need to know the basics of what's going on in Wisconsin, read on. If you're already up to speed, you can follow the action on Twitter or jump straight to today's updates from our reporter on the ground in Madison.

With additional reporting by Nick Baumannand Siddhartha Mahanta

The basics:

For days, demonstrators have been pouring into the streets of Madison, Wisconsin—and the halls of the state's Capitol building—to protest rookie Republican Governor Scott Walker's anti-union proposals. Big national unions, both major political parties, the Tea Party, and Andrew Breitbart are already involved. Democratic state senators have fled the state to prevent the legislature from voting on Walker's proposals. And the protests could soon spread to other states, including Ohio [....]

What's actually being proposed?

Walker says his legislation, which would strip most state employees of any meaningful collective bargaining rights, is necessary to close the state's $137 million budget gap. There are a number of problems with that argument, though. The unions are not to blame for the deficit, and stripping unionized workers of their collective bargaining rights won't in and of itself save any money. Walker says he needs to strip the unions of their rights to close the gap. But public safety officers' unions, which have members who are more likely to support Republicans and who also tend to have the highest salaries and benefits, are exempted from the new rules. Meanwhile, a series of tax breaks and other goodies that Walker and the Republican legislature passed just after his inauguration dramatically increased the deficit that Walker now says he's trying to close. And Wisconsin has closed a much larger budget gap in the past without scrapping worker organizing rights.

What's really going on, as Kevin Drum has explained, is pure partisan warfare: Walker is trying to de-fund the unions that form the backbone of the Democratic party. The unions and the Democrats are, of course, fighting back. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein drops some knowledge [emphasis added]:

The best way to understand Walker's proposal is as a multi-part attack on the state's labor unions. In part one, their ability to bargain benefits for their members is reduced. In part two, their ability to collect dues, and thus spend money organizing members or lobbying the legislature, is undercut. And in part three, workers have to vote the union back into existence every single year. Put it all together and it looks like this: Wisconsin's unions can't deliver value to their members, they're deprived of the resources to change the rules so they can start delivering value to their members again, and because of that, their members eventually give in to employer pressure and shut the union down in one of the annual certification elections.

You may think Walker's proposal is a good idea or a bad idea. But that's what it does. And it's telling that he's exempting the unions that supported him and is trying to obscure his plan's specifics behind misleading language about what unions can still bargain for and misleading rhetoric about the state's budget.

Walker's proposals do have important fiscal elements: they roughly double health care premiums for many state employees. But the heart of the proposals, and the controversy, are the provisions that will effectively destroy public-sector unions in the Badger State. As Matt Yglesias notes, this won't destroy the Democratic party. But it will force the party to seek funding from sources other than unions, and that usually means the same rich businessmen who are the main financial backers for the Republican party. Speaking of which....

Who is Scott Walker?

Walker was elected governor in the GOP landslide of 2010, when Republicans also gained control of the Wisconsin state senate and house of representatives. His political career has been bankrolled by Charles and David Koch, the very rich, very conservative, and very anti-union oil-and-gas magnates. Koch-backed groups like Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Reason Foundation have long taken a very antagonistic view toward public-sector unions. They've used their vast fortunes to fight key Obama initiatives on health care and the environment, while writing fat checks to Republican candidates across the country. Walker's take for the 2010 election: $43,000 from the Koch Industries PAC, his second highest intake from any one donor. But that's not all!:

The Koch's PAC also helped Walker via a familiar and much-used political maneuver designed to allow donors to skirt campaign finance limits. The PAC gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which in turn spent $65,000 on independent expenditures to support Walker. The RGA also spent a whopping $3.4 million on TV ads and mailers attacking Walker's opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Walker ended up beating Barrett by 5 points. The Koch money, no doubt, helped greatly.

What are the Democrats and the unions doing to respond?

Well, they're protesting, obviously—filling the halls of the Capitol and the streets of Madison with bodies and signs. They're calling their representatives and talking about recalling Walker (who cannot be recalled until next January) or any of eight GOP state senators who are eligible for recall right now. Meanwhile, all of the Democratic state senators have left the state in an attempt to deny Republicans the quorum they need to vote on Walker's proposals, but if just one of them returns (or is hauled back by state troopers), the GOP will have the quorum they need. (Interestingly, the head of the state patrol in the father of the Republican heads of the state senate and house of representatives, who are brothers.) Finally, Wisconsin public school teachers have been calling in sick, forcing schools to close while teachers in over a dozen other school districts picket the capitol, plan vigils, and set up phone banks to try to block Walker's effort.

How could this spread?

Other Republican-governed states are trying to mimic Walker's assault on public employee unions. The GOP won a resounding series of state-level victories in high-union-density states in November. Now they can use their newly-won power to crack down on one of the Democrats' biggest sources of funds, volunteers, and political power. Plans are already under consideration in places like Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan.

Speaking of Ohio:

As Suzy Khimm outlined on Friday, an estimated 3,800-5,000 protestors came out in full fury in Columbus, Ohio, to vent their anger over a similar anti-union bill that would limit workers' rights to bargain for health insurance, end automatic pay increases, and infringe upon teachers' rights to pick their classes and schools. As in Wisconsin, both the Ohio state house and governor's mansion flipped from blue to red last year. "This has little to do with balancing this year's budget," former Governor Ted Strickland told the AP. "I think it's a power grab. It's an attempt to diminish the rights of working people. I think it's an assault of the middle class of this state and it's so unfair and out of balance."

How are conservatives working to support Walker?:

It was only a matter of time till the Tea Party got in on the action. Stephanie Mencimerreports that activists are bussing into Madison, and are "promising a massive counter-demonstration." The push is being led by American Majority, a conservative activist group that trains impressionable young foot soldiers to become state-level candidates (check out their ""I Stand With Scott Walker Rally" Facebook page). Founded by Republican operatives, the well-funded group (which, according to tax fillings, had a budget of nearly $2 million in 2009) gets much of its money from a group with ties to those adorable Koch brothers. Conservative media baron Andrew Breitbart will be leading the rally, and will be joined by presidential candidate Herman Cain and maybe—if we're lucky—Joe "The Plumber" Wurtzelbacher. Expect fireworks.

I wish to add to Mother Jone's analysis only this: The rights of workers in this country are under serious assault. This is an absolutely historical moment. If we fail, if Walker successfully destroys the unions in Wisconsin, we are headed back to the age of robber barons and unaccountable corporate power. We have already taken too many steps in that harmful and unjust direction. Not only must we stop walking toward such an abyss, it is time - NO LONG PAST TIME! - that we turned around and walked the other direction.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

St. Valentine's Day: Celebrate love and justice

A standard joke on American sitcoms is a single person, lonely on Valentine's Day, who says that the day is "nothing more than a bogus holiday dreamed up by corporate interests to sell greeting cards, candy and flowers." In fact, I once held this view myself (both when I was single and when I was in a relationship).

Obviously there is truth in this view of the holiday. Mass produced and overly sentimental "love" is largely what Valentine's day is in our commercialized culture. But - and I freely concede that being happily married to a wonderful woman has affected me here - I've come to see meaning and purpose in this holiday.

If we step back and think of this day as a day to set aside for the celebration of love, we shall see that it is well worth the observing. And I mean ALL LOVE. We love our family and friends, our lovers, and to some degree - when we are at our best - all of our fellow human beings. Having a day to recognize this love is important. Of course, the day loses meaning if we don't love the whole year around, but holidays serve as symbolic reminders that bring such truths to our consciousness.

Love is what is best about human beings. Yes, I know that we are also full of hypocrisy, hate, greed, and foolishness. And for this very reason it is all the more important that love be remembered, that love have the final say in our lives.

There are various legends and tales about a supposed St. Valentine. These tales come out of the later middle ages and the 19th century, and have nothing to do with any possible "Historical Valentine." Common to all the tales is the idea that either Valentine himself, or young people whom he as a priest married, were forbidden to love and wed by the forces of tyranny, oppression and empire. Valentine defies these powers and their laws, celebrating and sanctifying love. For his courage, Valentine is martyred.

The message in the tales of St. Valentine is that love liberates us. By loving each other we discover ourselves, and only then. This, in the legends of Valentine is why love is forbidden and why Valentine is proclaimed a hero for championing love against the power of empire.

Romantic love in particular is celebrated on this day. I used to hold that this was nothing more than a bias on our part. Privileging one kind of love over the others. Well, we do in fact misconceive and over sentimentalize romantic love (just as we do childhood). Nevertheless, romantic love unites two people like nothing else can.

Romantic love burns down the walls that separate us and compels us to grow, mature, and change in ways we never thought possible and never knew we could. I have come to see, however, that we cannot celebrate Romantic love, or even all love alone, we must also remember to celebrate justice.

The Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan has often written that love and justice require each other. In The Greatest Prayer, he writes that:
Think, then, of justice as the body of love and love as the soul of justice [....] Combined you have both; seperated you have neither. Justice without love or love without justice is a moral corpse. This is why justice without love becomes brutal and love without justice becomes banal.
In short, love by itself is not always just or world-transforming, and there is a real danger it will degrade it to an empty and sappy sentimentality; and justice without love shows no mercy, heeds no compassion: we must have both together. And what is justice? For this Crossan has an answer as well:
The biblical tradition insists that God is a God of "justice and righteousness," that is, of distributive justice and restorative righteousness. Think, for example, of this divine claim:
"I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord" (Jeremiah 9:24). Furthermore, rulers are expected to participate in that same divine character. "Thus says then Lord: act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place" (Jeremiah 22:3). The most serious and far-reaching misunderstanding of that biblical tradition is to interpret divine justice as retributive rather than distributive, as if it meant a proper punishment for some rather than a fair share for all [....]

The biblical tradition got that vision of God from the most obvious source imaginable, from growing up in a decent home and a well-run household. Most children either experienced that normalcy positively or recognized its absence negatively. The Bible simply took that expectation of a decent household and applied it to God as the Householder of the World-House. Given their world's patriarchal prejudices they spoke of God "as Father" but God "as Householder" is what that title meant.

Think, for a moment, about the first-century world of Jesus and especially of that prayer which begins with, "Our Father in Heaven." There is an especially striking irony when God-as-Householder is called God-as-Father by Jesus. Demographers of the Roman world agree that, owing to the late marriage-age of males, one third of young people would have been fatherless by the age of fifteen -- across all strata of society. Women married around 12 or 13, men married around twice that age, general life expectancy was under 30 years, so that a father as actual householder must have been mostly theory rather than practice and nostalgia rather than reality. In other words, in a first-century household across the Roman world, hear "father," think "mother," but understand "householder." And, as on earth, so also in heaven.

If, in that first-century world, you entered a small family farm and its courtyard house, how would you judge the householder? Are the fields well administered, the livestock well provisioned, the family members well-fed, well-clothed, well-sheltered?? Does a sick child get special care? Does a pregnant mother get special concern? Does everyone get a fair share? Does everyone get enough? You would judge the householder not by the criterion of egalitarianism but of enoughism. That is how -- then as now -- you would assess the householder of any home. Is there a fair distribution of goods and resources, of duties and obligations?

But what if some of the children were starving and others were over-fed? What if some received food while others did not? What would you think of that householder -- then or now? That is the mega-model or mega-metaphor underneath the biblical tradition's understanding of its God. That is why the biblical God can demand of the powers-that-be, the rulers of this world, that they,

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. (Psalm 82:3

So let us celebrate love today, let us celebrate each other. But let us celebrate justice as well, for we need to honor both, and the two must never be separated.

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