I cannot remember being as frustrated as I am now about the persistence of a lie. In the space of less than two years, the political right, the finance industry and the class whose interests they serve have succeeded in shifting the blame for a worldwide economic crisis from the finance industry itself to the salary, pensions and benefits of public employees.
Two years ago, middle-class Americans were calling for historic reforms of finance capitalism. Now the same class is expected to rejoice because “the stock market has come roaring back,” as President Obama said in his State of the Union address, and accept that the real cause of the continuing crisis is us and our pensions.
Even as class war is being waged against working people, workers are being cast as the aggressors.
Many of us see through the lie, but it has proven surprisingly difficult to dislodge. Like all Big Lies, it has succeeded in part because it is so outrageous. We seem to have fallen through the looking-glass and entered a world where down is up and up is down. But of course we didn’t fall; we were pushed.
The apparently spontaneous reversal of public discourse is in fact a triumph of a campaign that stretches from Davos to Wall Street to the White House to Albany. Its most impressive accomplishment may be not in what it says, but what it makes unsayable. Almost all talk of an alternative to economic austerity for the working class, the middle class and the poor has been written out of the script. Cuts to CUNY, increased tuition for our students, wage freezes and concessions for us – all are described as “inevitable.”
This column, however, is not about the success of the Big Public-Employee Lie. There are many strong analyses available, including the one by Richard and Max Fraad Wolff in this issue of Clarion (p. 10). My subject is how we can fight back.
As public employees and as educators who care about the quality of public college education, we are up against power, not just spin doctors. Ultimately it will take an assertion of power, a people’s campaign, to counter the effort to further concentrate wealth in the hands of a few. (New York already has the highest income inequality in the country, and nationally, income has not been this skewed since the eve of the Depression.)
The PSC is working seriously on developing such a campaign, helping to build the coalitions that will make it possible. I will be calling on each of you to join that effort. But there is something else we can do with the power we already have.
Fight the lies. Do what we do best as academics: unravel false logic, investigate orthodoxies, question “common sense” – and teach what we learn. Research alone is clearly not enough to unseat the powerful interests demanding reductions in education, health care, and services, but it is key to building a strong movement. I am inviting you to participate in a shared research project, starting with the PSC and possibly expanding far beyond New York. We do not have to be silent in the face of massive untruths. Take on one of the research questions below – or perhaps develop one of your own – and share your research. We will post selections on the new PSC website, and work with you on other ways to use what you discover in union meetings, testimony in Albany and activist campaigns.
Think of it as crowd-sourcing or a virtual teach-in. Lay claim to the most energetic tradition of academic research at a time when academic freedom is also under renewed attack. Whether you are a computer technician, a program director, a senior research scientist or an adjunct instructor of writing, I am asking you to do unapologetically what academics do: discover the truth and make it known.
1. What is the pattern in migration into and out of New York State during the last decade? The standard response to proposals to close the State’s budget gap by restoring a progressive income tax is that higher taxes will drive out the rich and undermine the tax base. We have evidence from several years during the past decade during which a high-income tax surcharge – “the millionaire’s tax” – has been in place. What does the evidence tell us?
2. In whose interest is the attack on public employees? If public employee pensions are only a fraction of the New York State budget, and if the radical pension reductions Mayor Bloomberg seeks would do little to address the City’s current budget issues, why are pensions such a focus of attack?
3. What is the evidence that the right-wing campaign against public employees is connected to the demographics of public service workers? Richard and Max Fraad Wolff write in this issue of Clarion that government employment has historically been a route to middle-class stability for African Americans. Some have argued it has played the same role for white women. Is there evidence that the sudden outcry against public employees is connected to an effort to limit economic advancement for these groups?
4. Is there evidence that the scapegoating of public employees for the budget crisis is part of an attempt to break the remaining power of unions? Some have argued that ruling elites were willing to destroy manufacturing in the US to weaken labor unions; does the attack on the public sector now – the only sector where union membership is relatively high – arise from a similar agenda?
5. What are the rhetorical strategies used by those in power to rule out any consideration of alternatives to cutting the public sector? We could use a good analysis of the strategies of silencing in Obama’s State of the Union, Cuomo’s State of the State and Bloomberg’s State of the City addresses.
6. Who profits if austerity is imposed on the middle class and the poor in New York?
7. Is there evidence that the ruling elites are seeking to ration education? This is not their expressed aim, but it is worth investigating whether limiting access to education is the underlying agenda of the current frenzy for educational “reform.” And if so, why would it be in their interest?
8. How has the role of foundations working in education changed in the last decade? Why are they demanding a seat at the national policy table, when in the past they had largely worked on projects outside of major policy debates? What are the implications of that shift for higher education?
9. What are the examples from the past of successful efforts to change public discourse? What strategies were employed, and what can we learn from them? How have progressive movements gained from and contributed to a change in discourse?
USE OUR SKILLS
These questions are just a start. I’d also like to see colleagues research how unions rose from a similar paralysis at the start of the Depression to fight back. I’d like to hear more about how austerity pressures are shaping scientific research. And I’d like to see reports from faculty who incorporate their research on these topics into relevant classes. We do not have to be silent in the face of outrageous lies. As academics, we have had an immensely powerful training, a training being actively denied to millions of others. We have a responsibility to use it.
More Coverage / Viewpoint: The Consequences of Our Tax Cowardice