Sunday, June 24, 2007

Here we go again

Last week it was noted that former Assemblyman Keith Richman has filed an initiative to reduce the retirement benefits of state and local employees. It still needs many petition signatures before it can be approved for the ballot, but once again the successful and profitable CalPERS program and the people that keep this state moving every single day will have to fend off another attack.

Both Juls Rosen at Working Californians and Randy Bayne of California Notes cover the story very well. As Juls reminds us, this isn't the first time Richman has gone after state employees. Last time he wanted to eliminate Calpers altogether, but this time he's pushing for a two tiered system.

He must figure that if an all out assault didn't work, he'd move on to divide and conquer tactics. Sounds to me like a lesson learned from the Southern California grocery stores who have been using that technique to weaken grocery worker unions.

So here's the thing...I don't believe for one minute that the Calpers systems comes under repeated attacks because it's bad for the state from an economic perspective, because that's just not true.

I'm inclined to believe that the constant attacks on the benefits of public employees in California are strategic, and have two things at the root:

First, it forces the employee unions to spend a lot of money to constantly defend themselves, thereby keeping them from spending it on productive political action and union activities. It's designed to "starve the beast", which is precisely the strategy the far right has used to destroy regulatory agencies that impede their ideological vision. In other words, this is a direct strike on the checkbook of the public employee union. Defund, and/or create financial imbalance. It's very effective.

Second, the intent is to ultimately weaken the strength of public employees, thereby weakening the checks and balances built into the system. The role of the bureaucracy and professional staff is to act as a counter balance between politics and specials interests. Weaken any one, and the other two can run amok. Sound familiar? That is another proven right wing strategy, and in recent years, incidents of politics trumping professional experience are too numerous to mention.

I suspect there's some inclination to hurt CalPERS too because of their history of shareholder activism, and corporations generally prefer their smaller shareholders keep their opinions to themselves.

In foreign policy analysis, one of the indicators of a healthy democracy is a strong, independent bureaucracy. It provides a check on power. It encourages and allows stability. That's why we have civil service laws that are applicable to government employees. One of the goals of public administrators is to maintain independence from overt political influence, and to keep ideology in check.

Public employees are not the bad guys. They're the ones that run the government on a day to day basis. Politicians, particularly Republicans, attack and malign the bureaucracy because it gets in the way of their ideological advancement...which is exactly what it is supposed to do. The ship of state is rightly designed so that it doesn't turn on a dime, and stability is more important than speed. No one administration or political party is supposed to be able to exert dominance over the entire system to the point where they can make wholesale change overnight. These attacks are a part and parcel of the right wing strategy for governance. The constant assaults on the people who keep the ship running is an assault on the ship.

This goes hand in hand with the drive toward "smaller government" which in right wing terms means the destruction of every possible agency and social program so billions in tax dollars can be made available to enrich their cronies and their corporations by way of contracting out services at all levels, eliminating regulations, and removing the teeth from corporate regulatory enforcement.

The constant attacks on public employees is one more tiny part of the strategy, and it's made easier by the demonization of public employees as lazy, officious pigs at the public trough. The $25 an hour unskilled laborer leaning on his shovel is about an accurate an image as the welfare queen picking up her check in her Cadillac. It paints a picture in the mind of someone who is taking an unfair advantage of the system and who feels entitled to a gift. It's a story designed to create bias.

Fortunately the public employees unions have been mostly successful in fending off the worst of the attacks, in no small part by reminding people that public employees are people they count on everyday. They're teachers, nurses, doctors, librarians, firefighters and police officers. They're your fellow Californians that run the public universities, immunize your children, and fill the potholes. They're 1.5 million of your friends, family members and neighbors right here in California, and these incessant attacks are one more indicator that the Republican party has no problem with chipping away at checks and balances, AND in squeezing the middle class a little harder if it means advancement of their ideology and enrichment of corporations. This current attack is just more of the same.


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