“It’s the economy, stupid,” was the mantra that Bill Clinton rode to victory in the 1992 Presidential election, but for more than a few public employees, economic self-interest will not determine their vote—at least not if you believe that this factor would make them unanimous for President Obama’s re-election.
Whatever struggles he has endured in turning around a sluggish economy, there is little question that Mr. Obama’s administration is sympathetic to public workers, while Mitt Romney has made no secret of his hostility toward their unions as well as the United Auto Workers over the course of his battle for the Republican nomination. Throw in their clashing positions on the Bush tax cuts as applied to wealthier Americans, and Mr. Romney’s reluctance to release any of his IRS returns aside from the 2010 one that shows him paying an inordinately low tax rate, and there isn’t much question about whose policies over the next four years are likely to be kinder to those employed in the public sector.
One frequent contributor to the letters column of this newspaper, retired NYPD Lieutenant Michael J. Gorman, went so far as to suggest in last week’s issue that union members who planned to vote for the former Massachusetts Governor were “immoral traitors who are only too willing to take all the benefits of the unions of which they are (or were) members, but will turn against those unions and all those other co-workers and former co-workers as they side with the super-rich.”
A Touch Over the Top
Mr. Gorman has been known to stir strong passions—especially among other cops—with his views, but even so, this missive seemed more than a bit overheated, with its echoes of the blue-blooded Franklin Delano Roosevelt being labeled a “traitor to his class” for the New Deal legislation that reined in the rampant gambling in the financial markets that produced the Great Depression and created the social programs that provided jobs and retirement coverage for ordinary Americans. Beyond that, not everyone votes strictly on pocketbook issues, with physical appearance, likability, race and ethnicity often playing some role along with a candidate’s stand on issues of special concern to various citizens.
And however much he’s been hamstrung by Republican obstructionism in Congress, Mr. Obama’s record during his first 3½ years, while containing several significant accomplishments, is hardly above reproach, even for those at the liberal end of the merry-go-round. (Of course, to think Mr. Romney will be better economically for the average working American, you would have to believe that the only reason George W. Bush left behind such a financial quagmire is that he didn’t cut taxes for the wealthy by enough, or that with one of their own in the White House, Congressional Republicans would suddenly be amenable to practical solutions not dictated by hard-right dogma.)
At the other end of the political spectrum lies another frequent contributor to the letters section, former Off-Track Betting Corporation employee Robert Sica, who dwells primarily on two themes: the President’s allegedly socialist tendencies, and the importance of restoring health-benefit coverage for OTB retirees who are not yet old enough for Medicare.
In last week’s edition, retired transit worker Richard Warren took issue with a July 20 letter from Mr. Sica accusing Mr. Obama of wanting to impose “European socialism” in the United States. Mr. Warren made the provocative but hardly ridiculous argument that Mr. Obama was more akin to “what used to be known as a mainstream Republican” (those old enough to remember Illinois Sen. Chuck Percy, his Massachusetts colleague Edward Brooke, or New York’s Jacob Javits won’t find this incongruous) than a spiritual son of Karl Marx.
‘What’s Wrong With a Safety Net?’
Mr. Warren went on to state that at the heart of “European socialism” was “a safety net that includes decent unemployment insurance and pensions. Why working people would prefer Republican proposals to strip away our safety net by replacing Medicare with vouchers and replacing remaining pensions and Social Security with 401(k) plans that guarantee nothing is beyond me.”
Within hours of Mr. Warren’s letter appearing in print, Mr. Sica fired off a rebuttal (which appears in this week’s letters column) in which he stated, “Beginning in 2010, many European countries were experiencing rioting in the streets because governments had begun to back away from out-of-control entitlements that had been bankrupting them and leading to a world financial crisis (because of uncontrolled debt).”
The reference to “out-of-control entitlements” was particularly intriguing coming from Mr. Sica because of his advocacy for restoring health-benefit coverage to OTB retirees that was discontinued after their employer closed its doors in December 2010. The benefits continued to be paid while the locals of District Council 37 and the Teamsters union that represented OTB workers went to court seeking a continuation of the benefit, but last year it was ruled that the city and state were within their rights to stop providing health-care coverage once OTB was no longer around to reimburse them.
Legislation to reinstate coverage was subsequently vetoed by Governor Cuomo on the grounds that it offered no revenue stream to fund it, meaning the state would have to bear the cost. (A revised bill is now awaiting action by him.) Given his successful efforts last year in negotiating giveback-laden contracts with the two largest state-employee unions that required their members to pay significantly more for health coverage, it is hardly a reach to say that Mr. Cuomo considers public-employee health benefits one of those “out-of-control entitlements” that Mr. Sica referred to in his letter as an example of the negative side of European socialism.
And so I e-mailed Mr. Sica asking whether there wasn’t something inconsistent about his calling for restoration of OTB retiree benefits while railing against socialism and unaffordable entitlements. He wrote back that “socialism is a government system, and New York City OTB health insurance is a government system. Both those government systems have been failing people; therefore it is not only consistent but also reasonable for one to write a letter condemning government systems simultaneously [and] socialism, as well.”
Hijacking the Buzzwords
That wasn’t actually the issue I was raising, though. And Mr. Sica didn’t seem to grasp that my point was that when it came to benefits affecting him and his fellow retirees, he was sounding very much in sync with the socialism that he decried in his condemnations of Mr. Obama. My suspicion is that a big part of the problem is that the radical right in this country has so hijacked the rhetorical buzzwords that drive American political life that they have obscured how much socialism courses through the veins of American life, in ways that go beyond popular programs like Medicare and Social Security.
Unions, for instance. Many cops and firefighters may blanch at the thought, but when labor leaders are negotiating a basic salary for everyone in their job title, regardless of the danger of an individual’s duties or the area in which he or she works, that’s socialism, as is enhancing base pay solely in accordance with extra hours worked rather than productivity as measured by arrests made, crimes prevented or fires extinguished and medical rescues performed.
This helps explain why Mayor Bloomberg is so unhappy about the United Federation of Teachers’ reluctance to negotiate most forms of merit pay for Teachers. He complained last week that this leaves him largely powerless to retain high-caliber instructors by upgrading their salaries commensurate with their talents, rather than being bound by a salary scale in which top pay is governed primarily by longevity and to a lesser degree by personal academic advancement rather than the progress of their students.
Serving a Collective Interest
But the union’s concern is with protecting the larger group even if that makes it more difficult to reward the outstanding individual. And in responding to the Mayor’s remarks, UFT President Michael Mulgrew pointed out that the study that inspired them, by the decidedly un-union-friendly New Teacher Project, had found that money issues had less to do with the departure of top-quality Teachers from city schools than problematic working conditions and a lack of positive feedback from Principals. Which meant that Mr. Bloomberg’s concept of capitalism, in which money applied properly can get people to behave as you want them to, has its limits.
But the embrace of capitalism, including its seamier aspects, and the uniquely American aversion to socialism and the drawbacks associated with it, are tough to get past to deal with issues on their merits. In the mid-1990s, I wrote a book about a man who, after losing a promotion at Newsweek in the early 1950s because FBI agents approached his bosses and suggested he had Communist ties, quit his job and devoted his energies to perfecting a system for handicapping thoroughbred racing. In the process, he not only transformed handicapping but revolutionized the methods used by trainers to prepare their horses for top performances.
It was a delicious selling point: a man with an anti-capitalist background and beliefs who had transformed that most capitalist of sports. When I began interviewing him at length, he told a series of amusing stories about his life in the Army during the Korean War era, with his superior officers trying to nudge him out the door before he turned his fellow recruits into pacifists. His partner, who was more firmly grounded in the world in which they operated, protested that putting too much of those anecdotes into the book would turn off many of the customers of their racing-data business, whose politics diverged wildly from their own.
Profits Transcend Politics
The Army stories wound up being trimmed to just two paragraphs, with my argument ultimately overrruled that longer passages would not discourage those who wanted to know more about his theories on how to beat the races and would put aside their political objections to get to them. During my visits to Saratoga during the racing season, where his operation conducts seminars on each day’s racing card, in the time after people have begun to gather but before the discussion starts, when conversation veers away from baseball and into the political realm it becomes easy to understand why his partner didn’t think their core audience wanted to read much about his past life as an Army dissident and factory organizer. And yet none of those people paying at least four times the price of a Racing Form for his data worries about his politics as long as there are winners to be gleaned from his work. Call it one of the wonders of capitalism.
By the same token, consider football (yes, football), that game held most dearly by large corporate gatherings that account for much of the crowd at the Super Bowl. It is the sport in which socialism has its deepest roots, from the equal sharing among teams of national television money regardless of the size of the market that they play in, to a system of drafting college players in which the worst team gets the first pick and the last selection goes to the Super Bowl champion. And that’s before we talk about the straw that stirs the drink: gambling against the point-spread rather than trying to pick who will actually win the game.
It might seem to the uninitiated that this is merely another capitalist innovation—like selling short in the stock market—designed to generate maximum action. But think about it: the New England Patriots over the past decade have played in five Super Bowls and won three of them, yet if you bet on them against the point spread, you lost four times out of five, because in two of their victories they won by less than the spread established in Las Vegas.
Rewarded for Coming Close
Is that capitalism, or the kind of namby-pamby socialist idea that is the equivalent of trophies for all the competitors in Little League? Those who bet on the underdogs can be rewarded if their team merely comes closer to winning than the larger gambling public believed it would. Yet this system is thoroughly ingrained and accepted, and accounts for football being a far more popular sport for gambling than baseball, which remains linked to a money line that discourages many bettors from wagering on heavily favored teams because they have to risk a lot to win relatively little.
Yet the Koch brothers have not assailed this as a threat to the American way of life, and Michele Bachmann and Grover Norquist have not stepped forward to claim this is a subversive attempt to undermine our values and strike a blow against American exceptionalism by proving that life is not about winning but whether you covered the spread.
Free of the baggage of labels, most people are comfortable with a hybrid form of capitalism, one that includes such foreign but not unpleasant ideas as Social Security, Medicare, and the National Football League.
If the unions could figure out a way to remind the larger public of the positives they have brought to the table—job safety; decent working conditions and wages on which you can raise a family; supplemental retirement benefits, and health coverage that sets many private employers’ teeth to gnashing—they might generate the same kind of positive associations, rather than being scorned as the paving stones on the road to—God save us—European socialism and a President with a different-sounding name and a different complexion than we’re accustomed to expect.