Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Fix is In

    Among the many people who were elected last year on both national and local levels are a number who would like to fix this country. They say that we're heading for destruction, or at least misery, if we don't start to put things back the way they were in some long-ago-and-far-away once-upon-a time. It's pretty much a time and place that never existed, but hey, it's worth a try.
   In nearly a dozen states, the governors and/or legislatures are trying to reduce or eliminate unions. They say that unions drive away jobs and confiscate money from people's paychecks to pay for political causes their members never approved. But unions work hard to keep corporations honest. They push for a reasonable share of the company's wealth for the workers, for safer working conditions and some level of job security. Many unions provide scholarships for workers' children and emergency relief funds for sick or injured workers. In many cases, unions provide job training for new members, continuing training for experienced workers and apprenticeship and journeyman programs. And yes, unions fund political causes to keep some semblance of balance in the political system. And yes, unions can be contentious at times, they have had corruption problems in the past--as well as mob problems--and nobody likes a strike, but without unions, wages and benefits are lower for everybody, not just union members. The cost of cheaper labor is a smaller paycheck. Before unions, bosses brought in the National Guard to shoot protesting workers at the Pullman plant, they hanged strikers in Haymarket Square and children worked long hours at dirty, dangerous jobs.
   Another fix that's being pushed is the privatization of Medicare and Medicaid. If you love your health insurance, you've never been sick. I won't even go into all the stuff about pre-existing conditions, doctor choice, etc. Employer provided insurance keeps premiums down, but the deductible and co-pays alone can be a major hardship for most people. For individuals paying their own way, premiums can cost more than a house payment and car payment combined. Insurance companies are in business to make a profit whatever it takes--your health is secondary. Privatizing Medicare and Medicaid won't lower the cost of health programs, it'll just shift the cost and add a little extra to please the shareholders. The worst part is, privatizing throws poor children and the elderly, the people of the least means, on the mercy of the free market system.
   Social Security is another target, although not as many politicians are as vocal about what they'd like to do to it. One proposal is to privatize it and shift the funds into Wall Street like a 401k. Instead of a guaranteed fixed income, retirees would at best have a set amount to ration for the rest of their lives, at worst, they'd be putting their money in a slot machine and hoping they didn't lose it all. Another proposal is to simply phase out Social Security and let everyone figure out their own retirement plan. That's how it used to be and young families ended up with the burden of elderly parents and grandparents. Nobody retired early, most people worked 'til they died and those too disabled to work could only hope someone else would provide for them.
   There are many calling to end, or at least limit, the Environmental Protection Agency. They say that too much regulation is a burden on industries and that the private sector is better at policing itself. Some even insist that God created the Earth to be self-healing and that the planet can absorb anything we throw at it, but it's easy to see that isn't true. Problems of air quality are obvious if you live in a large city where the haze reduces visibility even on good days. Lakes and streams are green and slimy with algae but the worst pollution is what we can't see. Mercury from coal-fired electric generation has reached such high levels in our waters that freshwater fish is no longer safe to eat. Lead, pesticides and industrial byproducts wash into streams (or are dumped) and aren't filtered out in the water treatment process. Groundwater is getting worse, polluted by mining, oil and gas drilling and agricultural runoff. The lack of efficacy of industry self-policing is evident everywhere in the invironment.
   Yet another pet fix being promoted among these newly elected crusaders is a massive tax cut for corporations and the wealthy. They insist that these cuts will actually increase tax revenue because, to quote Ronald Reagan, "every tax cut in history has resulted in an increase in revenue." They also claim that tax cuts will create jobs. Higher taxes, we're told, stifle job growth and discourage the rich from making more money because, why bother to earn more if you can't keep it all? The truth is, tax cuts don't increase revenues--never have, never will. And the periods of highest job growth and economic development have been during times when taxes have been much higher than now. In fact, higher taxes and tax revenues have historically led to very innovative partnerships between government and business which improved infrastructure, created jobs and made America the great country it has been.
    Unemployment is also in the cross-hairs of these fixers. The program which helps workers who lose their jobs to make mortgage payments and buy food for their families is being targeted for cutbacks and even elimination by a number of states. They claim that those who are laid off are less willing to take lower paid, less skilled jobs if they can sit home and collect a check every week. The truth is, even without unemployment benefits, those who lose their jobs will tend to spend their time trying to find jobs like the ones they've lost, jobs that fit their skills, education and training. Also overlooked in the criticism of the job-hunting habits of the unemployed is the tendency of employers to turn away those they consider "over-qualified." And, besides helping workers survive during periods of job search, unemployment checks help keep the economy going by keeping money circulating through communities.
   For most rational people, these fixes would seem counterintuitive, even absurd, but these newly elected leaders are determined to make them by hook or crook. America is a cracked vase and these people believe they can fix it with a hammer and chisel.
   On the other hand, Mexico doesn't have unions, Medicare or Medicaid, Social Security, environmental protection, reasonable taxes on the wealthy and corporations or unemployment benefits and they're doing just fine. Right?
--Stephen P.

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