Saturday, February 19, 2011

Madison ≠ Cairo

I’ve been reading a lot about events in Wisconsin lately. What is clear is that Governor Scott Walker is making a concerted effort to economize by reducing the overall pay packages of state workers, from teachers to prison guards to nurses at public hospitals. That’s about as much as we can say with certainty. But both the left and the right want to talk about recent events in Cairo.

From the left, Michael Moore tweets that “Madison is the new Cairo! Wisconsin teachers, nurses, firefighters—shut the state down! All of working America is with u!” AlterNet’s Rose Aguilar wonders “Is Wisconsin Our Egypt?” and cites a high school senior in the affirmative. Alex Moore sniffs on the Death and Taxes site that “Where Madison became like Cairo was when, at the behest of Governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin turned into a police state threatening force against citizens and lawmakers alike.”

From the right, Rep. Paul Ryan complains that Walker’s “basically saying ‘I want you public workers to pay half of what our private sector counterparts’ and he's getting riots—it's like Cairo has moved to Madison these days.” Right-wing commentators like Sean Hannity and Michelle Malkin were quick to pick up on Moore’s tweet and try to use it to enflame their own base.

The left would like to envision the protesters as some sort of freedom fighters struggling valiantly to prevail against a brutal and oppressive regime. There are protest signs reading:
Hosni Walker
WI Dictator
Must Go
The right is more concerned with a false sense of law and order. To them, any protest, no matter how restrained or non-violent (unless, of course, orchestrated by the Koch brothers or their minions) is, by definition, a riot. The idea that thousands of people would object to being asked to shoulder what they believe to be a disproportionate load of so-called austerity measures while fat-cats get more tax breaks: this is heading into dangerous mob territory in the eyes of the GOP. There are reports, apparently accurate, that state police were dispatched to round up the Democratic lawmakers who were boycotting the legislative session in order to prevent, or at least delay, passage of Governor Walker’s cost-cutting measure. Maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t strike me as a particularly appropriate use of tax-payer money, especially during a budget crunch, even if the representatives in question were behaving petulantly at best.

The bottom line: to both sides, I say the following: Shut up. Madison isn’t Cairo.

Wisconsin State Journal cartoonist Phil Hands (that’s his cartoon at the top of this entry) has it right:
I'm sorry, but Walker is not a despot or a dictator. He, and the rest of the republican clowns serving at the State Capital were elected, by a wide margin, by the people of Wisconsin. I find it ironic that the same day that thousands of people skipped work to rail against our “undemocratic” leader, fewer than a quarter of the registered voters in Madison bothered to vote in an actual election.
Preach it, Phil.

There has been some good reporting from PolitiFact Wisconsin on many of the disputed issues here. Supporting the Governor’s position are their findings that claims by progressive pundits Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow were “false”: Schultz for exaggerating the extent of the proposed cuts, Maddow for not “reading the fine print” and suggesting there’s really no budgetary crisis at all.

Moreover, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee’s claim that Gov. Walker had threatened to call out the National Guard if state employees protested his cuts earned a “Pants on Fire,” PolitiFact’s harshest rating, reserved for actual lies as opposed to mere untruths. The AFL-CIO ad that says that Walker’s bill would, “for thousands of teachers, nurses, and other trusted public employees… take away any say they have in the workplace” rated a “Half True.”

That said, the liberals fared better than the conservatives on the Truth-o-Meter. Representative Ryan’s claim about riots earned a “Pants on Fire.” State Senator Alberta Darling’s claim that “collective bargaining deal[ing] only with wages… is how it is, for the most part, in the private sector” was declared “False.” The Club for Growth’s claim that “state workers haven’t had to sacrifice” received a frankly rather generous “Barely True.” And the governor himself merited a “False” for offering the false option of “look[ing] at 1,500 layoffs of state employees or close to 200,000 children who would be bumped off Medicaid-related programs” (given the fact that he couldn’t have done that, legally, if he wanted to) and a “Pants on Fire” for spewing the absurd notion that “civil service protections” would “remain fully intact” under his proposal. In short, there’s a fair amount of disinformation out there: neither side has covered itself in glory here. One could I suppose, make the case that the Republicans are probably a little more egregious, given the fact that a good deal of their outrageousness stems from political leaders rather than pundits, but forgive me if I don’t find “we lied less than they did” a compelling rallying cry for Democrats.

The purpose of this piece isn’t to take sides on the debate—besides, if you read my stuff with any regularity, you already know where I stand. State employees do get excellent, union-negotiated, benefits that are probably better than those of most of their counterparts in the private sector. But I have seen no refutation of the claims that state workers in Wisconsin actually get lower salaries than private sector employees with equivalent education, or that their salaries are in fact lower than those of state workers in neighboring states. Still, this doesn’t make state employees exempt from having to shoulder some of the burden of what appears to be a real budgetary shortfall.

Ultimately, state workers have a right to be upset, even angry. If, as some have suggested, Governor Walker gave misleading indications of his budgetary intentions in order to get elected, then those who voted for him can rightly feel a little betrayed. The protesters aren’t a mob, and there is little indication of even minor violence, although President Obama’s recent call for civility of discourse has often gone unheeded by his political allies.

But a pay cut isn’t repression (I say this as a state employee whose next contract may well show a pay cut), and Walker is a duly elected official, not a dictator. Is he a hypocrite? Almost certainly. Corrupt? Possibly. Would I vote for him? Never. But he isn’t Hitler. He isn’t even Mubarak. In fact, he isn’t even close, Chicken Little’s testimony to the contrary notwithstanding.

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