COME ON, JUST THE TIP

Posted in Rants on December 12th, 2012 by Ed

As many of you are no doubt well aware, this tends to be a forum for relentless negativity in terms of politics. The reasons are many, none more important than the fact that small, incremental victories mean little to me in the context of the long, steady, thirty-plus year downward slide toward a lower standard of living that has defined post-1980 America. There are things to celebrate here and there, but there is no momentum behind the positives. All of the momentum is in the opposite direction; every year we get a little poorer, the schools get a little more defunded, the textbooks get a little more revisionist history and industry-sponsored "science", the corporations get a little more human in court, the jobs with benefits become a little rarer, the playing field gets a bit less level, and the feeling that things have changed for the worse in a very fundamental way nags a bit more insistently.

There has been a surprising (which is to say, nonzero) amount of coverage of Michigan's passage of a "Right to Work" law earlier this week. Given that Michigan is a traditionally union-heavy northern state and RTW laws tend to proliferate in cesspits like Mississippi and Oklahoma, the media have responded predictably with feigned shock and plenty of What This Means commentary letting us know that Reasonable People now recognize that unionization is a thing of the past. It's all part of our great evolution into a completely postindustrial economy, and now we can look back on pensions, decent wages, and benefits with the same nostalgia we currently reserve for railroads and the Victrola.

This happens the same way "austerity" has happened and will continue to happen: in a slow, steady process of downwardly revised expectations, stern lectures about your moral failings (Live within your means! Work harder! Shop more!), and Tough Choices that screw you continuously but incrementally. Michigan voters elect the kind of people who will pass RTW legislation for the same reason that we've been shooting ourselves in the foot for decades now – the combined illusion and lie that if we make just one more sacrifice that lowers our standard of living while allowing the already wealthy to amass even more money, things will turn around for the rest of us. Just give up defined benefit pensions for the stock market roulette of 401(k) plans. Give up health insurance for Health Savings Accounts (or, you know, nothing). Accept some wage cuts to be more competitive with workers in Possum Junction, Alabama. Accept a few more to be competitive with workers in Mexico. Give up a few more of your rights to save the company money. Deregulate a few more industries – sure, some people will probably get sick or die, but we have to think about ways to cut overhead and be More Competitive.

Like any good con, it's always the next sacrifice that will be the one that does it, the magic bullet that finally solves the problem. And then when it doesn't, there will be just one more next year, and then maybe another one a few years from now, and then…ten or twenty years pass and we don't even remember what it was we were promised when we starting cutting flesh, and we're reduced to hoping that the next sacrifice will be enough to keep us from losing the house.

The first bite from the apple took place under Reagan, when we collectively agreed that the problem with the American economy is that rich people aren't rich enough; it has been all downhill from there. Now Congress is poised to take the first bite from another apple – the "entitlement reform" that will begin the process of eroding our ability to retire from our jobs that barely paid the bills for 40 years. Sure, just take a chunk out of Social Security and Medicare and then we'll be safe from the Fiscal Cliff and all other similar boogeymen. Then in 2016 there will be another Big Crisis demanding further cuts, as it turns out that those cuts that promised to Save Medicare did not work out as the Oracle had promised. Since we'll already have normalized the idea of sacrificing parts of SS and Medicare, the downward trajectory will already be mapped out and heavily greased. You don't need a time machine to recognize where this is headed once the cuts begin.

It's always "just one more." One more round of cuts. One more bout of austerity. One more tax cut for the rich. One more voluntary surrender of your rights. Like a gambler in over his head who believes that the next hand will bring salvation, we are all too eager to accept the argument that economic turnaround is so close that we can reach it with just one more big collective sacrifice by (98% of) all Americans. And then, lo and behold, it turns out that we did not sacrifice a large enough animal to appease God Market. Again.

It's difficult to get excited about taking a step forward when doing so is inevitably followed by three in reverse.