On the front lines against the U.S.'s cozy relationship with one of the worst governments in the world.
Another day in the life of a conservative pundit in Washington, D.C.: Leaving the air-conditioned confines of your think tank, you push through a crowd of day laborers looking for work on the corner outside the TV studio, chat with the makeup artist who, while putting on your lipstick, mentions she can’t afford health insurance and owes tens of thousands of dollars for a recent emergency surgery. Finally, you go on the air and argue that we must wean Americans from the “nanny state.”
“Only a liberal would argue that the government should pay for people’s health care and retirement,” one such pundit told me pointedly. Sticking to the script, she added that we must cut taxes on high earners (now at their lowest rate in eighty years) and took a jab at teachers’ unions, arguing that private school vouchers should replace the public schools.
Perhaps people have grown numb to these arguments in Washington, where white privilege regularly brushes past black and brown poverty, the crumbling infrastructure is notorious, and the stark separation of our society into the haves and have-nots has been visible for some time.
But visiting D.C. from Wisconsin, I’m stunned by how Republicans can keep selling trickle-down economics and privatizing public services, even as the jobs picture darkens, the stock market does the loop-de-loop, the middle class shrinks, and the United States looks more like the Third World every day.
It’s pretty clear by now where we are going.
Not that Wisconsin is blameless. In fact, the Dairy State is directly responsible for emboldening the right. Representative Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, made it safe to talk about balancing the budget by cutting Social Security and Medicare while keeping taxes very, very low for the rich and corporations (the “job creators”).
Add to that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s pitch to non-union, private sector workers (like that makeup artist) that if they don’t have benefits, teachers and public sector workers shouldn’t have them, either. Now we have a race to the bottom that won’t end until the country has no safety net, no public sphere, and no more middle class—just the super-rich and the desperately poor.
In times like these, it’s a relief to hear outspoken progressive Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois, defend an alternative vision.
Schakowsky has been in Congress since 1998, where she distinguished herself for her opposition to President Bush’s misguided policies, including the grossly inequitable tax structure and his invasion of Iraq.
More recently, she crossed the border from Illinois to Wisconsin to help the recall campaigns against Republican state senators who sided with Walker, and to defend state Democrats who faced Republican-led recalls.
I caught up with her in Kenosha, where she came to the local union hall to pump up volunteers for Bob Wirch, one of the Democrats who fled to Illinois to slow down Walker’s effort to take away bargaining rights from public sector unions. Paul Ryan was in town, too—at a nearby country club, raising money for Wirch’s opponent. A few days later, Wirch won his seat back, and the Democrats gained two more seats in the state Senate—incremental progress in the fight-back over the rightwing takeover of our once-progressive state.
“I was so inspired to see ordinary, working people pushing back,” Schakowsky said, by way of explaining all the time she had been spending in Wisconsin lately. “I see a lot of despair,” she added. At the foreclosure workshops she co-sponsors for her constituents, she said, “People feel the American Dream slipping through their fingers.”
“The American people are beginning to understand that they’re being sold snake oil,” said Schakowsky. “They don’t support the direction that Paul Ryan wants to take the country.”
She took aim at Ryan’s plan to trash Medicare.
“He can call it sortacare or maybecare or I-don’t-care, but it’s not Medicare,” she said. “The guarantee of Medicare is gone for seniors and the disabled and they are thrown on the not so tender mercies of the insurance companies. That’s who the Republicans are representing—corporations, the wealthiest Americans, Wall Street, the insurance companies—those are their constituents. Ours are the disappearing middle class.”
Rummaging in her purse, Schakowsky pulled out a chart she said she carries everywhere. Holding it up, she pointed to a bar graph of increasing income for different brackets since 1970. The line for the top 1 percent of earners ran off the top of the page, while low and moderate earners’ wages were stagnant.
The decline of private sector unions has everything to do with that inequity, she pointed out to a crowd of nodding heads—mostly retirees in union T-shirts—at the union hall.
“That’s why they’re going after public sector unions now. And I thank you, Wisconsin, for putting a face on union workers,” Schakowsky said.
Schakowsky herself taught in the public schools and has a degree in elementary education. Recently, she introduced a jobs bill that takes an opposite approach from Ryan’s corporate tax breaks for so-called job creators.
“It’s based on a simple idea: if we want to create jobs, let’s create them,” she said. The plan aims to create about 2.2 million jobs through programs like a School Improvement Corps for construction and maintenance jobs, a Parks Improvement Corps for sixteen-to twenty-five-year-olds, and a Neighborhood Heroes Corps for teachers, police, and firefighters.
“It’s not the whole solution,” she says, “but it’s a significant and important start. And it’s saying we’re not helpless. There are answers. If it’s about jobs, let’s go directly at it. What businesses need now are customers, not tax breaks. Let’s put money in people’s pockets by putting them to work.”
As for the Ryan/Walker claim that cutting taxes on the very rich is the path to job creation—Schakowsky has heard it all before.
“The very idea of calling the rich and corporations ‘job creators’ is ridiculous,” she says. “During the Bush Administration, there were exactly zero jobs created in the private sector during the time that we had historic tax cuts for the rich. There’s not a shred of evidence supporting the idea that the Paul Ryan, trickle-down approach works.”
Even when she served on the business-friendly National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, chaired by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, she points out, there was a consensus that “we should not cut until we are out of a recession.”
“Asking senior citizens to contribute to debt reduction is not only immoral, it makes no economic sense,” says Schakowsky.
Winding up a passionate speech, she told her audience in Kenosha, “This is my fight, too. This is America’s fight. This is the American middle class we’re fighting for. This is for seniors. This is for families.”
In fact, the fight is for everyone who lives in the real world. Everyone, that is, but a tiny elite and the corporate-financed shills, who are paid to ignore the effects of their theories on the people around them.