Among the dead lock certain winners at last night’s Oscars was Charles Ferguson for his documentary, “The Inside Job”. Upon winning he delivered the night’s only note of social commentary, reminding his worldwide audience of a billion that three years after the meltdown of 2008 and the beginning of the worldwide Great Recession not a single one of the architects of the casino of cards that caused the disaster has gone to jail. His comment was received with polite applause in the Kodak Theater, where I suspect more than a handful are on a first-name basis with the major (as yet unindicted) players in the crash.
After that it was quickly back to admiring the prom dresses.
The Oscar show came one night after our book club of 31 years met in Stillwater to discuss Graham Greene’s “The Third Man”. (Oh hell, why lie? We were there to drink and eat.) The post-book discussion revolved around events in Madison these past couple weeks and the “problem” of public employee benefits. (Seven of the group are or have been teachers.) Somewhere about the time one of the group was re-making the argument that the average carpenter/tradesman just can’t get his head around comfortable (but far — far — from lavish) pensions for people who chose to forgo private sector salaries in exchange for long-term benefits, I’d had enough.
Once you understand that Gov. Scott Walker’s Tea Party-pandering ploy is 99% political and 1% budgetary you kind of have to start asking yourself why we’re having this discussion — about the rights and benefits of indisputably middle-class workers — and not having a much more focused debate about the roots of the economic collapse/slump, the astonishing pooling of literally billions of dollars into the hands of pretty much the very crowd that caused it and how it is exactly we get to a point where the former debate is front and center while the other is all but ignored?
In politics as in marketing, there is an art to “framing”, by which one side cleverly asserts a need … that benefits their constituency. In this case the framing is around what is purported to be an honest debate over fiscal integrity. Please. To accept this particular “frame” or marketing strategy is essentially to agree that middle-class workers in the world’s largest and most productive economy have been and continue to be “over” compensated and that the only way to balance the common ship of finance is to require them to accept less … less affordable health care, less affordable education and fewer opportunities to improve the quality of their modest lives.
What is as ingenious as it is diabolical is that this frame succeeds in pitting, as my friend said, (middle-class) carpenters against middle-class teachers (and cops, and firefighters, etc ), while entirely exempting the crowd that benefits most from both the financial and political end-game. For short-hand purposes here we’ll refer to those fellow citizens as the “job providers”.
How this happens is sadly familiar to anyone who has paid attention to how public attention is steered and inflamed in modern America. I’ll spare you re-re-reiteration of the mechanics of conflict-generation and anger exploitation by our enormously successful echo chamber of (misplaced) rage. For today I’ll just leave you with the reminder that while one side of the ideological split — serving the interests of the monied elites at the expense of the middle classes — has an unprecedented and unparalleled technological apparatus for inciting, building and driving their frame.
The book club discussion over how to build a counter-frame pretty much fizzled and died, largely because on a day-to-day basis your average teacher spends infinitely more time interacting with carpenters, small business owners and other middle-class types and rebutting their (recently incited) view that in the midst of The Great Recession teachers have more left of their financial lives and dreams than they do, and therefore are their adversaries. Basically, this frame is another variation on Ronald Reagan’s “welfare Cadillac”, which succeeded in distracting middle-class voters into regarding a mythical, impoverished (but lazy) black “welfare chiseler” as the primary reason why their personal economy was forever spinning its wheels.
The most misleading among many bogus assertions within the “middle class must sacrifice” frame is that “there just isn’t enough money” to provide the legally and publicly negotiated pensions and other modest benefits guaranteed to the employee class. This frame is valid only if you exempt from any part of the discussion the vast hoard of cash that has piled up in the hands, vaults and Swiss bank accounts of the “job providers” over the past generation. Were that money on the table as a part of a rational (and truly informed) discussion, the argument that would be spinning its wheels would be the one that says we can’t afford contractually obligated benefit packages for middle class workers.
But as we hear regularly, (it’s an alarm button rejoinder within this frame), to challenge that astonishing mountain of loot is to engage in “class warfare”. I.e. those who haven’t been as entrepreneurial and “achieved” as much as the “job providers” are reviled for unfairly seeking a “redistribution of wealth” that … well … they just don’t deserve. (And please, for the moment, ignore that “most productive workers in the world” cliché, will you?)
In the context of vast pools of untouchable money is the likewise non-existent argument/frame over defense spending. With an annual budget greater than the next seven militarized nations combined common sense would demand that that money also be on the table when we get all worked up over the “fairness” of public employ pensions and slicing back Pell grants for college tuition. But it isn’t. The Pentagon budget-as-sacred cow is very much a part of the primary frame here, the constituency for which is the “job providers” living remarkably well off government contracts for radar detecting super bombers in an age of suitcase bomb terrorism.
But then common sense doesn’t have anything to do with this frame. Common nonsense, yes.