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#576 – Dick Bernard: Election 2012 #21. Post Mortem Wisconsin

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

I’m writing this post before the polls close in Wisconsin. I haven’t heard any predictions, or talk of the turnout, or any such thing. So the post-mortem won’t be in this post. There’ll be plenty of those without me….

Love it or not, Scott Walker is the face of the contemporary Republican Party in the United States. Reince Priebus of Wisconsin is Chair of the Republican National Committee. Rep. Paul Ryan is the darling of the House of Representatives and budget issues. Very deep, and in early in Wisconsin politics post 2010, are the Koch Brothers. This is THE place where outside money ran amuck; it’s just a preview of what’s ahead in the next few months.

Wisconsin is my neighbor state. It has a progressive tradition. It also had Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

My grandparents migrated to North Dakota from rural Wisconsin near Dubuque. Wednesday, I’ll be driving to the town of Hazel Green for a family funeral. It will be a long nice drive, lots of time in border area Wisconsin. Very, very nice people down there in the Dubuque area.

Likely we won’t talk politics at the funeral, neither place nor time.

But I do have personal feelings about all of this.

Scott Walker’s signature issue taking office was to do as much damage to public unions as possible. He succeeded.

Had a Republican Governor been elected in the State of Minnesota, my state, the results would have been the same here. Luckily for my own Republican local reps, they had a Democrat Governor to be a check and balance on their colleagues many ideas to slash and burn the public sector, especially teachers and public education, otherwise they’d be running in defense of what they did.

In Michigan, the situation is probably even worse, and Ohio had its flirtation.

Some might say “good”. I take it personally.

I spent most of my work career representing teachers in a union of public employees called MEA, Minnesota Education Association, and now Education Minnesota. The other nine years I taught public school. My parents were career school teachers.

Public Unions made a huge contribution to this country, along with private sector unions, but they, along with the middle class are in the Republican bullseye through the super-rich and the word I’m coming to despise – “business”.

During this scorched earth campaign I had one retired union member from another state, who is married to another retired union member, send me an anti-union – and false – “forward” about a supposedly bankrupt Wisconsin school district due to teacher union greed. And this person believed the tale, without any checking. I can only guess why he, whose success was made by being union, now despises unions.

With union members like these (and there are union members like these), unions don’t need enemies.

The good thing about the last year and a half in Wisconsin is that we’ve seen, up close and pretty personal, what the right wing agenda is, and it isn’t about fairness to the middle class.

The next five months we’ll see Wisconsin-look-a-likes all over the U.S. in the so-called “battleground” states – the places that are believed to be ‘in play’ by the master strategists.

Minnesota has been one of those battleground states, and it’s not pretty.

Maybe the 2012 experience will be bad enough that the geniuses in the U.S. Supreme Court will begin to take another look at what they’ve wrought but opening the floodgates to big money in elections, but I’m not holding my breath.

Maybe sufficient numbers of citizens will think a bit before casting their vote this fall, including actually showing up to vote.

It’ll be a long summer and fall.

Get informed and active.

And Vote in November.

YOU depend on it.

#357 – Dick Bernard: Lurching towards catastrophe

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

My opinion: some kind of agreement will be cobbled together to avoid a partial government shutdown tomorrow. That won’t solve the problem, only delay what seems inevitable: the gradual but inexorable slide of the U.S. to at minimum mediocrity. As a society we are “doing stupid”, as a Forrest Gump might say. You don’t translate coffee klatch conversations among people of like minds into good policy for a complex country. But that seems to be what we’re about.

Actually the game plan of the radicals who pretend to be Republicans is very, very simple. It plays out over and over and over again.

1. Refuse to compromise, and when you do compromise, deny that you compromised at all.

2. Substitute belief for reason, and wrap your belief in the label “truth”. Scoff at Science. (My favorite in this regard comes from my own Catholic Church which has devised something that they call “objective truth” which is truth so purified that there can be no legitimate alternative realities. “We have said it; thus it is so”. Of course, it is only the Church’s opinion about the “truth”, but nonetheless it is portrayed as the genuine, real truth.)

3. If something goes right, take credit for it, even if you had nothing to do with it; if it goes wrong, blame the opposition.

4. Demonize the opposition; canonize your heroes….

5. Never, never, never get off message.

And on and on and on. When it comes to propaganda, one only needs your own core principles and the gall to attempt to impose them ruthlessly. I have such a tip sheet, used against myself and my organization almost 40 years ago. It is a single typewritten sheet, one side, double space. You don’t need 300 pages of explanation to lie. You just need the gall.

Just today came two items, separately, which seem to fit this conversation. An e-mail came from a retired friend who lives in Madison WI and has been involved in the protests there. I knew she lived there, but not that she’d been involved in the demonstrations.

An hour or two earlier, in today’s U.S. mail, came five pages from William L. Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” captioned “THE SERFDOM OF LABOR”. (See it here: Shirer 3rd Reich001 ) The person who sent this to me is a retired teacher who grew up in Nazi Germany (born 1926), lived through the war in Germany, and came to the U.S. in 1947. She says this section of Shirer’s book perfectly describes what happened in the pre-War Nazi Germany she lived in, and she sees the same happening here with the assorted moves to kill union influence through assorted means.

Of course, the “rule”, now, is to never ever compare what is happening here to what happened in Nazi Germany. Take it from our German friend. Take what is happening here very, very seriously. It can indeed happen here. It is only a slight modification of the modus operandi that kept the Nazis in power till their country was destroyed.

There is a famous descriptor of we rubes which goes: “There is a sucker born every minute“. Too often, in this media age, this is true. We are so easily manipulated in working against our own interests.

We are in control of our own destiny only if we do the requisite hard workl.

And where we start is to begin to question the politicians who we freely elect, particularly those who represent us in Congress and State Legislatures – they are the ones closest to us.

#344 – Dick Bernard: Part 14. We’re witnessing a deadly game in which we’re the ultimate victims.

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

The bizarre drama that is Wisconsin continues to play itself out.

It is a very high stakes and scary game, where an ideological fringe has, for the moment, managed to seize control of the government and is asserting its will. In the end the ultimate victims of this power play, the working middle class, will be the ones relied on to drive a stake through their own heart by allowing a highly financed, amoral and truly vicious political machine to demolish workers rights in favor of big business and the very wealthy.

Wisconsin is the test for all the rest of us.

I believe Wisconsin’s – and our – democracy is still strong enough to self-correct over time. But Wisconsin will be a very major test of the foolishness of our tendency as Americans to make our politics simply a spectator sport or, far worse, make politics into something that is beneath us, mostly because we do not wish to become engaged at any level.

Sometimes I wonder if we are our own worst enemies…that we loathe ourselves…that we don’t deserve fair treatment and good wages and working conditions. We seem to be easily taught to be passive.

There are far more than enough members of the working middle class to turn the tables on the big and very selfish Power interests, but will they? That is an open question. (The poor are unlikely to engage for good reason: their struggle is simply to survive. Their ranks are rapidly increasing.)

Today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune carried an excellent Los Angeles Times column which does a good job of defining some of the issues.

Locally, Steve Berg in the on-line newspaper MinnPost had an equally excellent commentary.

But opinions are just opinions, and in the end analysis it has to be the people – every one of us – who will collectively decide whether they deserve better or worse. We can collectively engage, or choose to stay unengaged, saying “it’s their problem”, etc.

I get the notion that our entire society is victimized by its tendency to engage in what I might call “half thinking”; we are a society which has no vision beyond our own vision for our own moment in time. Cartoonists regularly describe us as Ma and Pa in our easy chairs watching TV and spouting off to each other…. The cartoonists have us nailed.

Watch the debate – or more, the lack of debate. Those of us who are doing okay cannot conceive of the possibility that things will not be okay. We think that somebody else’s government benefit, including his or her employment, is wasteful and should be eliminated; while forgetting that someone else thinks the same about our own benefits, regardless of where those benefits originate. We think things half-way through, or less.

I am constantly amazed at the short-sighted big business attitude, basically dictated by Wall Street these days, which focuses on making the quarterly (three months) “numbers”. Corporate leaders should not only know better, but they have huge organizations where there should be “vision” people who can identify long-term consequences of short term profit oriented benefits. Squeezing profits out of working people’s wages and benefits in the short term inevitably cuts into the corporations profits long term, and there are no alternative markets equal to even come close to the old United States consumer spending engine.

At this writing, it appears that the Republican majority in Wisconsin will “succeed” in the short term, but it will be a Pyrrhic victory for them, even if they stave off recall or election challenges. But everyone will suffer. It is risky business to begin a downward spiral, and that is what is now happening.

Caveat emptor. Get off the couch that is your comfort zone and get engaged.

Postnote: A couple of days ago a very level headed person I’m getting to know, an engineer by training, career corporate employee, quite well known and very actively engaged politically, sent me a note, as follows. In this case we were discussing public education, and he was talking about a report that was issued by a reform-minded special interest group 28 years ago. What he says applies to everything in our public sphere today:

As you said, the intentions have been hijacked by groups who have a different agenda. Only a few people recognize the marketing, the propaganda and the massive attack on public awareness is an intentional strategy developed and funded by incredibly well-organized behind-the-scenes groups. Some of these initiative groups have no personal animosity to the people they damage, but they have no respect for humans either. I read an excellent blog post today. It covers Vallay Varro, the new director of MinnCAN, another shadow group. I agree with him, she has been bought.

We have been conditioned when to pay attention, and when to ignore. How else can we justify, based on a lie, invading a country [Iraq] uninvolved in 9/11, bombing their infrastructure back to the ’50’s and killing more than 100,000 of their innocent citizens? Then we go the church!

Most recently I happened onto the BBC documentary “The Century of the Self”.

I am [getting on in years], and this documentary opened my eyes to things that I suspected and feared, but never thought so true. We in America have been so distracted that our society depends on others making the important evaluations and decisions for us. Watch the video as soon as you can, maybe even twice (as I am doing) and extrapolate it to other mass manipulations done to us, known and unknown.”

NOTE: Part 1 of this uninterrupted series began with a post on February 17, 2011. While the issue is extremely important, other topics will become a more regular feature. Future posts on the topic of Wisconsin and public employment specifically will be labeled Part 15, etc.

#338 – Dick Bernard: Part 8. Public Servants bearing the burden….

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Before the 2011 MN Legislature had convened, and the new MN Governor sworn in, the news concerned the burden of a $6 billion deficit in the MN state budget.

At the time I did some simple arithmetic, dividing $6 Billion by 5 Million residents of the State of Minnesota. The result was $1,200 deficit per person: large, but by no means insurmountable. The $6B was an artificial mountain constructed to get Minnesotans in an almost desperate budget cutting mood.

Like people in most states, Minnesota’s residents have collectively huge personal savings accounts and we could easily balance the books with a one time very small additional tax sacrifice. But government itself is under attack by elements who have nearly taken over that very government. The desired remedy is shrinking, not restoration, of the role of government in our society. Or if not that, transfer of the burden of paying for government from those who can easily afford the bill, to those who are struggling….

Not long thereafter came Wisconsin. As the information flow has fleshed out the facts in Wisconsin, it appears that an average teacher, just for example, will have to give up about 10% of his/ her previously negotiated pension benefit – a benefit negotiated in lieu of wages – to “help” Wisconsin. A reasonable average take back from the public employee appears to be roughly $5,000. There is no comparable giveback expected of others in Wisconsin, a state roughly the population of its next door neighbor Minnesota, but with a smaller deficit. The take back will be permanent; future ability to bargain severely restricted at best.

Only time will tell how this Wisconsin conflict will be resolved.

As the Issue came to be clear – Pensions for Public Workers – I got to thinking about an advertisement that I had been seeing on television during, it seemed, the entire month of February, long before Wisconsin erupted onto the national or even state screen.

The ad was one placed by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).

It was a simple ad, showing an abandoned chicken coop, with the narrator stating that the founder of AARP, Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, had founded the organization after finding a retired teacher living in a converted chicken coop.

The AARP website was not helpful in filling in the blanks about the ad. Wikipedia was a bit more helpful with an entry about Dr. Andrus.

Dr. Andrus founded her group, initially called the National Retired Teachers Association, in 1947. It seemed that she perhaps discovered that poor teacher around that time somewhere in either California or Illinois. Such was how it all began for AARP which, since its naming in 1958, has since become an immense insurance business in itself. I haven’t seen the ad the last few days. Perhaps the term of the buy has ended; or, perhaps, the ad was pulled…it wasn’t helpful to the anti-teacher mood in Wisconsin.

Until relatively recent history, the public was not kind to public employees. In tough times public employees were first to suffer; In good times, last to benefit.

In the old days, teachers, just for a single example, got a small wage and nothing else.

They were called “public servants” (see February 17 and 18) with scant more legal status than migrant workers.

Basically teaching was ‘women’s work’. Then the teacher married some man who provided decent income and status for the former school marm.

But there are only so many eligible bachelors wandering around to marry poor public workers, etc., and as time went on teachers got a bit uppity, and school boards in various places began to see – not always the result of pressure – that their professional employees deserved more than just minimal wages and annual uncertainty about jobs. Salary schedules were established unilaterally by management, and state’s implemented and then improved pension plans for their teachers and others, to keep them out of the chicken coop on retirement.

It is the old “public servant” attitude – to keep public employees in their proper subservient place – that makes it possible for Gov. Scott Walker and his abundant ilk to act dismissively towards these employees who are really essential to the American “good life”.

There is something even more offensive about today’s “public employees”. They are unusually strongly unionized, a direct outgrowth of yesterday’s oppression. As Henrik Hertzberg so well describes in a March 7, 2011, New Yorker piece, public employees are the last bastion of a declining organized labor movement. Their destruction or at minimum gross diminishment is a goal of the oligarchs who now control the Republican party and the American media conversation.

This is a case where, hopefully, “success” in beating down the public employees will truly be a failure…for everyone who works for a living.

The last chapter has not been written.

Part 1 in this series is found here, with the remaining posts subsequent. There will be further posts.

#337 – Dick Bernard: Part 7. Misinformation and sloppy citizenship: An invitation to commit national suicide

Saturday, February 26th, 2011

An unplanned trip took me out of town most of the last three days. I had planned to write this post about how money ends up in collective bargaining agreements; specifically about supposedly “free” money for Pensions given for Public Workers (a false charge).

I don’t have to write that commentary. David Cay Johnson of Tax.com has “hit the home run” on the issue. You can read it here. I hope you do. Last night after returning home Pat Kessler of WCCO-TV in Minneapolis also did a pretty good job in a minute or two to summarize out this issue as well. But is anyone listening?

In our contemporary society, we seem to prefer opinions over facts. Facts can be troublesome, so if the “wrong” facts surface, the volume of background noise is simply turned up, or the hearing aid is turned off…. In the process we’re killing ourselves as a society. We don’t want to hear the bad news; and the bad news is NOT public unions and collective bargaining agreements or deficits. We are being taught to hate the very entities, unions, which made American prosperity possible. If the contemporary version of the Republican party succeeds in its quest (likely) we will rue the day. There will remain unions, but these unions will have no teeth – they’re called “company unions” – and they’ll be blamed for being weak and ineffective. As I say, “we will rue the day”.

On return home last night I chose to take down from my bookshelf “A Man’s Reach”, the autobiography of my deceased friend Elmer L. Andersen. Elmer was the wealthiest man I personally ever knew. He was life-long Republican, served in the Minnesota Legislature from 1949-58, was Minnesota Governor 1961-63, and afterwards was a philanthropist and outstanding public citizen for the rest of his life. Public buildings are named after him. We learned of each other in 1992, and were good friends until he died in 2004. I have written of Elmer Andersen several times in these pages.

“A Man’s Reach” is still available in libraries and I would not diminish it by attempting a long review. It can and should be read.

The book talks about how politics was back in the day of Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower (contemporaries of Elmer L. Andersen).

Then as now politics was a competitive business, but there was recognition by most in all parties that a winner take all philosophy was not in anyone’s short or long term best interest. Andersen had no problems with unions – he worked with rather than against organized workers, including in his own companies. They were more partners than enemies, and everyone prospered.

I specifically took down the book last evening to see if I could find one particular passage to quote. For now I’ve failed, but I know it is in there, since I read it there some years ago.

Andersen was talking about how lawmakers went about making important decisions back then, and in essence said this: lawmakers in both partisan and non-partisan settings would first determine what good public policy was – what was needed by the citizens of the state. Then, and only then, they would determine how to pay for that policy through taxes or other fees.

Today the philosophy seems completely opposite: decide what we’ll pay, and that and only that drives the policy.

Andersen’s position in government came coincident with the the greatest surge of prosperity ever in our state and nation.

I think there was a “chicken-egg” relationship between that prosperity and the governing philosophy of Republicans and Democrats like Elmer L. Andersen.

We desperately need a rebirth….

Elmer L. Andersen Oct. 12, 1995. Photo by Dick Bernard at Mr. Andersen's home

NOTE: What’s behind, and ahead. I began this series on February 17 with no idea that it would continue as it has. Quite by accident, it was preceded by another five-part series February 6-11 before I had any notion of troubles in Wisconsin. (Part 5 of that series remains incomplete. I’m still considering exactly what I want to say.) Part 7 of this series is doubtless not the last. This issue is far too important to forget about. Keep checking from time to time. Thank you.