February 25, 2011

Gov. Walker: About That National Guard Thing...

I was greatly jazzed to read the new statement from Iraq Veterans Against the War which declares: “We Are Public Workers Too!” and opens:

Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) calls on all U.S. military service members to refuse and resist any mobilization against workers organizing to protect their basic rights. IVAW stands in solidarity with the multitude gathered in Madison, Wisconsin and many other cities to defend their unions. IVAW members across the Midwest are mobilizing to take part in the mass demonstration in Madison on Saturday in defense of unions and the right of public sector workers to collective bargaining.
It is, of course, Governor Scott Walker’s threat to deploy the Wisconsin National Guard to quell the storm of protest against his union-busting drive that makes the IVAW stance so important.

Those who thought this was probably idle bluster are probably reconsidering in light of the declaration today by the head of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association that the union supports the demonstrators and opposes any attempt to clear the Capitol building of its peaceful occupiers. Union executive director Jim Palmer added a call to members to join the occupation:
Law enforcement officers know the difference between right and wrong, and Governor Walker’s attempt to eliminate the collective voice of Wisconsin’s devoted public employees is wrong. That is why we have stood with our fellow employees each day and why we will be sleeping among them tonight.
The Wisconsin National Guard has been mobilized for strikebreaking duty in the past, notably in the bitter 1934 strike at the Kohler Company, one of the state’s largest industrial firms. 400 gunthugs were hired to break an AFL strike for union recognition and when their initial attacks killed two workers and injured scores more, they were met by militant and sometimes armed self-defense. As a former governor of Wisconsin, company president Walter J. Kohler, Sr. had no trouble getting a National Guard company deployed to “restore order”--resulting in the strike’s defeat.

But, as a retired postal worker, let me counter that bit of history with a more recent clash that Walker should contemplate before he makes good on his threat.

In 1970, employees of the United States Post Office Department were among the country’s poorer workers, paid so little that in large cities postal workers with families often applied for, and got, welfare to survive. Their unions were little more than fraternal organizations, with no right to bargain collectively or sign contracts.

At 12:01 on March 19 of that year, members of the Letter Carriers, following a vote in their local which rolled over objections from the longtime leadership, set up picket lines at facilities in the Bronx and Manhattan. Within a couple of days the strike had spread to other crafts, notably the clerks and mailhandlers, and to other major hubs, especially in the Northeast. The nation’s postal system started to grind to a halt.

In those pre-Internet, pre-direct deposit days, this had a massive impact on the economy. President Nixon got on teevee and ordered the strikers back to work. Some obeyed. Others walked out for the first time.

On March 25, Nixon took to the airwaves again to announce that he was mobilizing 25,000 National Guard (and even some elements of the Army and Marine Corps) in Operation Graphic Hand to get the mail flowing again. This turned out to be a massive failure.

In NYC, the epicenter of the strike, young troops--many deeply opposed to the war and part of the ‘60s “youthquake” (as Fortune Magazine termed it)--did show up at the designated postal facilities. Some of those mobilized were postal workers themselves, and they told the strikers what was going on inside--almost nothing. Better yet, when some officer came around to try and squeeze some work out of the Guardsmen, a sack of mail destined for, say, Huntsville, Alabama, would get a Juneau, Alaska destination tag slipped in its metal clip and be sent on its merry way.

Within days, things were even more fucked up than before. The government caved, and the US Postal Service was set up under the Postal Reorganization Act which recognized postal unions and permitted collective bargaining about wages, benefits, working conditions, health and safety and so on.

These are different times than 1970, to be sure, but Governor Walker might do well to reflect on the old saying: Be careful what you wish for--you just might get it!

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February 17, 2011

Two, three, many Wisconsins

What a week it's been! And it's not even over. I've had people asking me whether I feel vindicated about my post of two weeks ago, where I said that the fight over public budgets was going to be the key front in the class struggle in the United States this year. I can't say that I feel especially insightful; it took no genius to see the significance of these fights. But I am pleased -- pleased, that is, to see that in this struggle, our side is now fighting back.

The mass action in Wisconsin has dealt a severe blow to Scott Walker's attempt to out-Christie Chris Christie. As of this writing, State Senate Democrats, responding as all wily bourgeois politicians are wont to do in the face of unexpected levels of mass pressure, are denying the Republicans a quorum by hiding out of state. All of this could change for the better or worse tomorrow. Everything depends on the ability of workers to maximize the disruption of business as usual in the state: keep the Capitol shut down, keep as many schools as possible closed and teachers and sympathetic students at the Capitol or in the streets, etc. The rest of the country is watching, and the activists among us are wondering if we'll be able to reproduce this level of constructive anger in response to the attacks that we face.

The fight is never identical from one place to the next, but the possibility of having a good example is encouraging for the rest of us. Why has Wisconsin risen up? I'm happy to report that they were able to start in a place where I suggested we not start: with a militant defense of the rights of public-sector workers. Economic hard times, I wrote, mean that this is a bad place to start, because so much of the public resents public-sector workers who have benefits that they do not have. Better to defend public-sector workers only in the context of a broader fight against service cuts, I said, and then we need to put the demand to make the rich pay at front-and-center, lest we lose too many people to capital's mystifications about taxes. I still think a lot of this holds true going forward, but I also think I underestimated the catalytic potential of public-sector workers. After all, their unions are still the big battalions of the fight to defend public services. And perhaps more crucially, no matter where you are, everyone knows a teacher. Everyone knows a city trash collector or state worker. Everyone knows a firefighter; they were exempt from Walker's direct attack, but they know the meaning of solidarity, and are aware that their own bargaining positions will be weakened if other unions are weakened, so they showed up at the Capitol in some strength. And yes, everyone knows a cop: they were also exempt from Walker's attacks, but reports indicate that plenty of them showed up to support the other unions as well -- out of uniform, of course, but thereby marking the first time you were ever grateful to see a plainclothes policeman at a demonstration. (If you're having a hard time dealing with contradictions, you're going to have to get used to it.)

So part of the explanation for why Wisconsin has exploded is that Walker miscalculated: he assaulted the unions frontally in an aggressive manner, and as the South Africans said in another context, he struck a rock. When the public-sector workers moved, others began to move as well, including the University of Wisconsin students, and the fight has at least partially taken on the character of a fight to defend services, even if the immediate issue of public-sector workers' rights is still at the center.

But if a belligerent attack on public-sector workers is the explanation, why isn't John Kasich getting the Scott Walker treatment? Today's union-led gathering in Columbus, Ohio, did have an affect at the capitol, but was much smaller than what Wisconsin was able to pull off: 1,800 people by some reports, or maybe 2,000, and they all had to face off against the teabaggers. And Columbus, like Madison, also has a large state university. OSU is no UW-Madison, but still . . .

Some may put the Wisconsin successes down to the relaxed atmosphere of Madison itself. There is something to this. Over the years I've talked to people who attended demonstrations in Madison after having been activists in other parts of the country, and they bewilder the Madisonians by expressing shock at protest tactics that would get people arrested just about anywhere else; in Madison, though, you will see police blocking traffic to let unpermitted marches to pass through the streets. But let's be clear: these are cosmetic differences, and they don't explain anything. Our job is to reproduce the successes of Wisconsin everywhere else, in our own conditions.

So I would submit that plenty of people are watching to see if this thing actually succeeds. Then, and only then, will it look like a viable option elsewhere in the country. So Wisconsin has ended up in the vanguard, to which the rest of us say: congratulations, and now you still have a big job to do.

We should note another aspect of all of this that is impossible to deny: the Wisconsin resistance has been inspired by the militant spirit of the Arab revolt. It's not just a few leftist students from UW-Madison carrying signs; you have Democratic state senators making the comparison, saying of Walker's attacks: "The story around the world is the rush to democracy. The story in Wisconsin is the end of the democratic process."

This kind of thing is enough to make any old proletarian internationalist all dewy-eyed, and in a real rather than a sentimental way. Year after year we could bang our heads against the wall for international solidarity: end US military aid to Colombia; allow Aristide to return to Haiti; end US military aid to Israel and Egypt; and so on. Our efforts were worthy, but we could get nowhere until now because of the iron law -- true no matter how much we fight to change it -- that people only begin to see the need for international solidarity when they see how the liberation of others is bound up with theirs. The democratic enthusiasm accompanying the budding revolutions in the Arab countries is so infectious that you didn't even need to watch Al-Jazeera: the plain truth of it all began to come through even on CNN, or even on the snippets of news that most people watch.

Most dazzling of all, after 10 years of the most vile racial demonization of Arabs and Muslims in the United States -- including, lest we forget, an especially ugly episode of national prominence at so-called "Ground Zero" just last summer, as the Republicans prepared for the fall elections -- the ordinary people of Egypt were able to touch something among the ordinary people of the United States. It is why Glenn Beck's racist insanity has lately become even more shrill than usual, as his tribe of Klan-like followers declines in number: democratic revolutions in the Arab world and the broader Middle East do not only mean trouble for US imperialist interests there. They really do present the threat of a good example right here in the United States, as millions of people start to question the myth that "we" are exemplars of freedom for the rest of the world, and start to realize that in fact we are laggards with a lot to learn from freedom fighters elsewhere.

Tough as our own struggles are -- and most of them are still very much uphill -- it is hard to avoid the feeling, unthinkable as recently as a month ago, that we live in a time of revolutionary inspiration. In fact I am reminded of the words of one of the most overrated poets in the English language: William Wordsworth, whose reputation has unfairly overshadowed a more talented contemporary because his rival was a revolutionary and Wordsworth a sycophant. Ironically enough, Wordsworth is relevant in a discussion of public budgets, because in his snarling dotage (which lasted a long time), he lost some money on some Pennsylvania bonds after the Panic of 1837, and in response he actually wrote a poem -- an extremely bad one -- denouncing Pennsylvania for not paying off coupon-clippers like himself. But even Wordsworth could look back on his own brief period of revolutionary optimism, inspired by that revolution that is still the greatest of them all: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven!"

We shouldn't get carried away, of course. We are still in a world of trouble. Worthy as the Wisconsin resistance is, it is still a defensive struggle, and the eventual compromise solution will still look pretty bad unless the mass activity takes some truly unusual large-scale turn. And while the demonstrations in Wisconsin are winning sympathy from many residents of the state, getting to the overwhelming majority needed to stop budget cuts will still require a clear answer to the confusion many people have about public-sector workers who have decent benefits while so many tax-paying workers do not. Therefore, I think that my call for aggressive make-the-rich pay initiatives is still a valid one, for Wisconsin and everywhere else.

This is not policy wonkery. I think that it is good to have some concrete tax proposals, but also to raise the issue generally: throw a spotlight on some of the worst bad actors, corporations that get through tax loopholes, wealthy individuals who pay the same sales taxes as poor people -- whatever works. We should begin to go on the offensive everywhere with the message that there is no real budget crisis, only an unwillingness of the rich to contribute what they ought to contribute.

We should not shy away from militant support of proposals that are already on the table, either. In Minnesota, Democratic Governor Mark Dayton wants to raise income taxes on the wealthiest taxpayers; his assistant commissioner of revenue uses the same kinds of arguments about the regressiveness of state and local taxes that were in the ITEP report I cited in my post two weeks ago. If the governor's proposals were to pass, the tax increases would hit only the wealthiest 5.5% of taxpayers, and would mean that all taxpayers would contribute roughly the same proportion of their income -- a flat tax structure, not a progressive one, though at least not a regressive one either. Mild as this is, and in spite of the fact that Dayton is also proposing severe spending cuts, his initiative deserves mass support on its merits, and it will need it if it is to have any prayer of passing the Republican legislature.

The preponderance of state budget proposals out there now remains awful and is getting worse as each governor lays out plans. In Michican, Republican Governor Rick Snyder proposes changes to business taxes that would actually raise $1 billion less in revenue, even as he hints at a new $900 million tax on pensions (!) and calls for the end of the state earned-income tax credit.

The struggle continues. And while Scott Walker has led the way in anti-people aggression, Wisconsin's workers have led the way in militant resistance. And it is in this latter sense that we should fight to make two, three, many Wisconsins.

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Wisconsin State Representative Mark Pocan: Walker’s Trojan Horse

Wisconsin State Representative Mark Pocan: Walker’s Trojan Horse

===This is the beginning of the post. It serves as the summary/teaser of the post. Put anything you want behind a "Read More" link after the HTML right here - Here is the rest of the post. It will remain hidden until someone clicks the Read More link.

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February 13, 2011

Official Slogans for Comrade Valentine's Day, 2011!!

As we celebrate one of the great holidays of the international working class, Comrade Valentine's Day, it is indeed heartening to see the the Official Slogans for the 2011 observance have been released by the Freedom Road Socialist Organization/OrganizaciĆ³n Socialista del Camino para la Libertad.

As in previous years, Freedom Road has commendably undertaken to give scientific guidance to comrades celebrating this great day, taking into account the exact conjuncture of the class struggle at the present time. [Directly after the 2011 Official Slogans, reposted immediately below, Fire on the Mountain directs the attention of all dedicated proletarian revolutionaries to previous years' Official Slogans, with links, to permit study and memorization. (Ultra-leftists and sectarians will, of course, seek to parse and nitpick them.)]

Official Slogans for Comrade Valentine's Day, 2011

Workers And Oppressed People Of Every Nation!

1. Eternal Glory To Comrade Valentine And His Wise Teachings!

2. History's Dustbin Awaits The Haters, Homophobes And Hypocrites Who Would Deny Love To Any Of The Toiling Masses, And The Entire System Of Exploitation In Which They Flourish!!

3. To Celebrate The Revolutionary Romantic Spirit Of Comrade Valentine Is To Uphold Those Who Exemplify It, Like Oula Abdul Hamid And Ahmad Zaafan, Married In Tahrir Square Among The Comrades Who Courageously Defended It!!!

The 2010 Comrade Valentine's Day slogans can also be found on the FRSO/OSCL website.

The Official Slogans for 2009 appeared here at Fire on the Mountain.

The 2008 Official Slogans appear on the FRSO/OSCL website.

The 2007 Comrade Valentine's Day slogans are archived here at FotM, and in the comments thread on that post,and so are the 2006 and 2005 Official Slogans.

The 2004 Official Slogans, thought lost, have been retrieved by Comrade Google as they were preserved by the far-sighted Scott McLemee. Here they are:

Workers and Oppressed People, Unite to Make Comrade Valentine's Day a Joyous Holiday of Proletarian Class Love and Militant Struggle!

Decisively Defeat the Sinister Schemes of the Bush/Cheney Gangster Clique to Thwart the Romantic Aspirations of the L/G/B/T/Q masses!

Eternal Glory to Comrade Valentine!
Secondary sources--the legendary Leftist Trainspotters listserv--indicate that Comrade Valentine's Day Official Slogans were also released in 2002 and 2003 Further archival work will, it is to be hoped, make them accessible to future generations of proletarian fighters.

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February 4, 2011

Of Blood and Stones

Note: This post Contains a lot of links, including to some publications with subscriber-only content. However, in the case of The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, it is possible to get around the subscriber firewall by taking the URL for the link, posting it into Google and hitting search, and then following the first link from Google to the story itself. Don't ask me why this works, but use it while it lasts!

The key front in the class struggle in the United States over the rest of this year is going to be over the shape of public budgets. Not just the Federal budget, but especially budgets at the lower levels: states, counties, municipalities, school districts, and public authorities and commissions covering everything from parking garages to parks to mass transit. Because there are thousands of different jurisdictions, the struggle will have a thousand variations, but make no mistake: it is a struggle of class against class, and the strategy of the political representatives of the ruling class benefits when the working class is divided. And I scarcely need to point out that the ruling class is set to win this one, big-time. At stake are the basic services and living standards of the working-class majority, but especially its poorest sectors. Unless the majority gets organized really fast, with the aid of some dynamic and visionary leadership to overcome those divisions, then the long-eroded living standards and overall social well-being of the working class are going to erode still further.

In other words, the people need a left, perhaps more now than at most times in history. And if the left is to develop a strategy to defend the people's interests in the midst of the state and local budget crisis, it is important to understand not only the causes of the crisis -- the bad economy combined with bad policy -- but also the interests behind it.

There are two capitalist interests behind the crisis, a proximate one and an ultimate one: (1) the rent-seeking of the bondholders and (2) the continued ideological offensive of the capitalist class as a whole. We should look at each of these in turn.


It's not hard to notice in this country that we do not, as a general rule, tax rich people to pay for projects of public benefit. Instead, we borrow the money from them and pay them back -- with interest -- for the privilege. Even in a more rational capitalist society (or indeed in a socialist one), there would be a need for debt financing for large public projects, but public and non-profit finance in the USA is set up to disproportionately benefit wealthy interests, and to ensure that the people who pay for most of it are the people least able to do so. If you were a vulgar Marxist, you might even say that the whole thing was deliberately set up this way.

States, school districts, counties, public authorities and other public entities, as well as large non-profit institutions (such as universities and hospitals), all raise capital by issuing tax-exempt bonds. These are also referred to as muncipal bonds or "munis." The borrower -- also called the "issuer," or the "obligor" in the case of non-profits -- then pays the bonds back over a period of years (30 is a typical figure). The borrower will pay a lower interest rate to the bondholders than a for-profit borrower with a similar credit rating would have to pay, because the bonds are tax-exempt. However, you have to be in a high enough tax bracket for the tax exemption to be worth it; if you're a person of more modest income and want some fixed-income securities for your retirement account, it is more worth it to you to buy for-profit corporate bonds, because the tax exemption on the muni bond would not be enough to offset the higher interest rate that you will receive from a for-profit borrower.

The result is that only rich people buy municipal bonds. They constitute a core of people who have a direct interest in state and local government finance, and whose sole concern is ensuring that they will be paid on time. This is why 60 Minutes chose a Wall Street analyst like Meredith Whitney to lead December's campaign commercial for Chris Christie. (Well, that and the fact that Whitney is taking an especially alarmist line on munis -- but her alarmism has been accurate in the past and may turn out to be accurate in this case as well.)

It is important to keep this in mind when public sector workers' pensions are described as over-generous. What you are hearing here, first of all, is the rentier's complaint that someone who has actually worked for a living his or her whole life is entitled to a claim on the financial resources of troubled state and local governments, when there might be danger of skipped payments or even defaults on obligations to the bondholders. This won't do, and as of right now the bondholders are a considerably more powerful constituency than organized public workforces, no matter how much the propaganda says otherwise. Cross city workers, and as a politician you can more than make up for any hit to your campaign PAC by scapegoating them in the eyes of an increasingly unsympathetic public, hardened by its own experiences in a dreary economy. Cross the bondholders, on the other hand, and your city is screwed, relatively speaking, forever: the city will never be able to borrow from these people again, except maybe at exorbitant interest rates that it could never afford anyway. And in that case you can kiss goodbye any ambitions of your own for higher office.

While this may sound simplistic, in its basic outlines this is how class rule actually happens at the local level; how the loyalties of politicians to the capitalist system are cemented at the beginning of their careers; and how the options for even limited reforms in favor of the working class become more and more restricted, so that a "There Is No Alternative" mentality reigns. Organizations of the working class, including its poorest sectors, can at best win improvements around the edges of such a system, but any gains are precarious, especially during times of austerity when the powerful rentier constituency of bondholders fears for their interest payments. Absent a mass movement (more than just a collection of working-class organizations), this situation will not be turned around.

The Ideological Offensive

This brings us to the second, "ultimate" and more important interest behind the state and local fiscal crisis: the ideological offensive of capital as a whole.

It is not necessary to go into detail here about the 30 years of the right-wing offensive since Reagan. But we should say something about what it is about. In a capitalist society, no matter how much the right wing likes to rant about the need for "smaller government," there is still a need for a state. Basic state functions at all levels of government are necessary for capitalism's functioning. The questions are: (1) who pays for the state and (2) who benefits from state action?

Capitalists are clear on what they would prefer: as much of the tax burden as possible shifted down the social scale; as few benefits as possible to go to the working class and the poor, both so that the state will be less expensive and so that people will be obliged to work for less because there is less-reliable state support for a basic income, health services, unemployment insurance, etc.; more benefits distributed upward in the form of privileged enclaves for some services (like lily-white school districts) as well as subsidies for "research and development" and other corporate welfare; and a preference for enhanced repressive functions (military at the national and international level; police and prisons at the lower levels of government) instead of social-welfare functions.

Make no mistake: the ultra-right view of proper state functions is the dominant one in the capitalist class. There may be "enlightened" capitalists who favor some ameliorative social-welfare measures, or who (like Warren Buffett, or Bill Gates's father) are relatively reasonable on tax matters. But the preponderant view among capitalists is that they are entitled to as much as they can get away with, and they chafe under the restrictions imposed on them by democracy, even as democratic initiative among the masses has corroded.

If you are reading this, chances are you have been frustrated with the Obama Administration from the left, and that is true whether or not you are among those who found the administration's deference to corporate interests surprising. The capitalist class, however, has by and large not seen the Administration in such a light. They have seen Obama as problematic, even hostile. The focus on health care restructuring (which in its final form will hit insurance company margins and potentially cost money in fines for employers who do not offer at least a minimal level of health insurance) and the Administration's appointment of the "pay czar" and occasional verbal lashing of the banks -- mild as these measures may have been, business viewed them with real alarm.

After the Democratic defeat in the mid-term elections, the Obama Administration did not see a need to re-energize the demoralized base, but a need to move further to the right to capture a rightward-moving "center" where it believes the votes really are. (Incidentally, this ought to serve as a lesson against all forms of "left" abstentionism or 1%-of-the-vote "third party" dilettantism in national elections.) Obama's "campaign to make peace with business" -- capped off by a Wall Street Journal editorial by the president himself announcing a campaign against regulations that "have stifled innovation and have had a chilling effect on growth and jobs" -- was seen by capital as the chastened contrition of a servant who had gotten out of hand. They describe it as "a small beginning in a much, much bigger arena of problems," saying that "the business community should have a seat at the table" now, as if it once did not.

You don't have to look hard to find a left critique of the current Administration that mentions the substantial Wall Street funding of the Obama campaign. It would be a mistake to see this as an expression of Wall Street's desires, however. Large sections of capital leaned toward the Democrats in 2008 because the Republicans in general and Bush in particular had been spectacularly discredited. To the extent that the capitalist class was dissatisfied with Bush, it was not for his domestic policies -- by and large, they loved their tax cuts -- but for his adventurist "over-reach" in warmongering, which was out of step with the "realist" imperialism of the Kissinger/Scowcroft/Eagleburger variety. But overseas disasters combined with real domestic discontent to form a perfect storm for Republicans, and capital recognized that it had to make the best of a situation where the population still has to be occasionally consulted about who should govern. Especially with the apex of the financial crisis, a Democratic electoral victory became inevitable in 2008, and capital steered its money toward the sure winners in the hopes of influencing policy. It is true that they felt comfortable doing this precisely because Obama was so favorable to capitalist interests; Wall Street's tolerance of "populism" from politicians does not go far at all. If -- for instance -- John Edwards had been the nominee, it is unlikely that he would have received such a warm welcome from capital, especially if he had continued to say the same things during the general election that he had said during the primary.

The right wing, with the approval of the broad swath of the capitalist class, scored an early victory in the Obama years by limiting the size and character of the economic stimulus. The "moderate" group in the Senate led by then-Republican Arlen Specter kept the total under $800 billion and weighted it more toward tax cuts. But the most important people's victory in the fight over the stimulus was the fiscal relief that the government granted the states, in the form of a greater Federal share in Medicaid funding (the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage, or FMAP) and more education funding.

With the Republicans taking over the House, further aid to the states is now out of the question. This is in keeping with Wall Street preferences and the preferences of finance capital worldwide, as evidenced by the position of Jamie Dimon and other leading bankers at the most recent Davos meeting, where they said that "governments around the world must stop banker-bashing," and also complained of high government debts and the possibility of inflation. These are absurdities in a world economy that is still as depressed as this one, but it is important never to underestimate the extent to which capitalists believe in their ideology of austerity for the many in order to secure the greatest short-term profits for the few.

So as the economic crisis continues, the question of who pays becomes ever more important, and Federal retrenchment in funding basic state functions amounts to a shift of the taxation burden on to people who can least afford it. As unfair as Federal taxes are, especially after the Bush tax policies recently continued by the Administration and the lame-duck Congress, the Federal tax structure still rests heavily on a progressive income tax, and looks all the more progressive still in comparison with the state and local tax burden.

If you look at Chris Christie's New Jersey, for instance, you will see that the richest 1% of the state (with annual family incomes of $732,000 or greater) pays an average of 7.4% of its income in state and local taxes after the Federal offset. If you are in the middle fifth (family incomes between $41,000 and $69,000), you pay 8.6% on average. For the poorest 20% of the people (family income less than $21,000), the percentage is 10.7%.

And New Jersey has one of the least regressive state and local tax regimes. The state has a progressive income tax, for instance. But the poorer you are, the more likely you are to live in an area with a low tax base, which means that your local taxes are going to have to be higher to fund basic services at the local level, which are receiving less help from the states in the same way (and for many of the same reasons) that the states are receiving less help from the Federal government. The worst aspect of this, of course, is at the school district level: For fifty years this has been the primary area of reproduction for white supremacy, with affluent whites walling themselves up in their rotten-borough school districts, jealously guarding their resources in the manner of a fortified settlement in Hebron.

As bad as the New Jersey example is, state and local taxes in other states are even worse. Neighboring Pennsylvania, for instance, has a flat income tax, and also relies heavily on regressive sales and excise taxes. If you're in the top 1% with family incomes over $428,000 a year, you pay on average less than 4% of your income in state and local taxes. If you're in the bottom fifth, with income under $19,000, you pay on average 11.2%.

Clearly the rich are winning the fight over the question of who pays. The answer is that the rest of us pay, in the form of reduced services, higher taxes for the majority, or both. How can we begin to fight our way out of this?

What Not to Do

Governors in every state are rolling out the austerity programs, and it is a bipartisan affair. We ignore the differences between the two parties at our own peril, especially at the Federal level, as I have noted. But at the state level, while the attack is going to be spearheaded by the Chris Christies, Nikki Haleys and Tom Corbetts, the Andrew Cuomos and the Jerry Browns are not going to be far behind. Even if a socialist were governor of some state, we would be severely circumscribed in our possible choices. We need people in the streets demanding a different way of doing things. Where can we start? Well, let's first look at a few places where we can't start.

In much of the country, the attack on public services is accompanied by an attack on public sector unions, especially on workers' pensions. The shortfall in US public pension funds is esimated at $2.5 trillion, a potential crisis that would not be as bad as it is if governments had properly funded pensions in better economic times, and if the investments of pension funds had not themselves fallen victim to the consequences of Wall Street's irresponsibility.

The idea that public-sector workers are responsible for state and local governments' financial woes is simply preposterous: States with little to no public-sector collective bargaining are also facing major budget problems. But that is not really the point. In especially hard economic times, it is easy for the enemies of the working class to drive a wedge between the hurting majority on the one hand and public-sector workers with good benefits on the other (even if those benefits have been won at the cost of wage increases for years or even decades). For Scott Walker in Wisconsin, "public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots." This is a lie, but like all effective lies it is half-true, and Walker scored points with it.

The big battalions of the public-sector unions are a necessary part of the fight. These workers do the work every day, they understand its importance and they are directly affected by cuts. But they need to couch their demands in the form of a defense of public services if they are to have any prayer of success. By and large the public-sector unions understand this, even if they have done a poor job of coordinating, getting the message out, and organizing alongside others who will be affected by cuts.

But even the best public-sector union fightback is not going to cut it this year, even in states outside the South where public-sector unions are a factor in politics.

This is because no fight to maintain services will win public support unless we start addressing the question of "who pays." The right wing is going to scream about the danger of tax increases. And they are going to make headway in this, even among many people who need better basic public services, because while the right wing is wrong in aggregate about high taxes (taxes in the US on the whole are low), in light of the lived experience of most people, it rings true. As we have seen, taxes at the state and local level are grossly unfair, and most people are paying more than what they ought to be paying. Republican scaremongering about a tax increase works with many of them, even in cases where the Republicans are really trying to protect an affluent minority from a tax increase, because people will not look at the details absent a serious program of mass education, and they immediately think that tax increases are aimed at them.

We can't continue to defend individual services for poor and working-class people by mounting a militant defense of one service which eventually "wins" by taking money away from another important service: transit vs. education vs. health care vs. environmental clean-up, for instance. How many times have we, as advocates and organizers, found ourselves in situations like these? Similarly, we can no longer expect to fund services with revenues derived primarily from the people who can least afford it. Think back to one of the earliest victories of the Obama Administration: Before the battle over health care, we won an extension and expansion of children's health insurance (SCHIP), a measure that had been twice vetoed under Bush. But it was funded by a regressive excise tax on cigarettes. Very soon, the tendency for state governments to tax cigarettes and alcohol, or to legalize some other form of gambling and tax the proceeds, is going to reach a point of rapidly-diminishing returns, if it hasn't already.

Make the Rich Pay

There is no avoiding the need to make the rich pay. Raising the demand to the point where it even gets a hearing is not going to be easy. But the two-point proposal (1) We need these services and (2) Here's where the money is going to come from is the only way to win real improvements for the people. This demand has been too long delayed, and we continue to ignore it at our peril.

In each state and local area, leaders need to identify ways to take some of the loot back from the hoarding rich, and we need to start organizing and mobilizing people to make this demand. This is going to differ from place to place. In Pennsylvania, for instance, there is still no extraction tax on the natural gas that drilling companies are taking from the Marcellus Shale through fracking; as of this writing, the failure to enact this tax has cost the state $128 million. The Republican governor and legislature -- all of them recipients of the industry's campaign contributions -- are not planning to move on this any time soon, even though two-thirds of the state's people support a tax. To win will require mobilization among the progressive base in the cities as well as in the Appalachian rural areas -- mostly dominated by Republicans -- where most of the drilling is going on. The money raised from an extraction tax will still not plug the state's budget hole, but it is a start. Some opportunity like this must exist no matter where you are in the country.

Once local- and state-based tax-the-rich movements are up and running, they will need to link up in the middle of the year, and make the organized demand for more Federal aid to the states.

This is a very tall order. That I am even suggesting this as a strategy may sound like music to the ears of leftists who are accustomed to making militant demands and not winning anything, but it sounds downright utopian to leftists and progressives in mass organizations and advocacy groups who are focused on the day-to-day and the defensive struggles that predominate in a conservative age. But now is not the time to say that "now is not the time." We either start raising these demands now, or we never will. We have some cause for hope in the discontent at the base provoked by the tax deal between the White House and Senate Republicans at the end of last year. MoveOn, union leaders, liberal TV talking heads -- all of them among the president's strongest supporters -- were angered by the massive giveaway to the rich, and the rank-and-file reponse of the Democratic faithful was real. Eventually, even many of the more progressive-minded members of Congress -- such as Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio -- voted for the package out of desperation that the unemployed not be harmed further. But many other Democratic members of Congress rejected it from the left, and their votes reflected real sentiment at the base.

It is up to the left to organize that base, get people in the streets in creative protest, and thereby change the rules of the game. Right now we are far behind. If we don't act to change this, and quickly, then we have as good as given up.

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