Friday, July 18, 2008

The Middle Class Squeeze

The progam description notes: "The debt-stricken, under-insured public's realization that their personal economic struggles are really political struggles presents an opportunity for lasting progressive change." This session brought together five panelists to kick that idea around.

The panelists included labor organizer Elana Levin; our own local legend David Goldstein of Washington State political blog Horse's Ass; Julia Rosen of Calitics and the Courage Campaign; Andrea Batista Schlesinger of the Drum Major Institute; and my fellow CAF Fellow David Sirota, author of The Uprising. What follows is my on-the-fly synopsis of the conversation's give and take.

Schlesinger: There's some conventional wisdom in the Democratic Party that the middle class doesn't want to hear fearmongering about the squeeze; that they have completely different interests than the poor; and that "middle class" is synonymous with "moderate." Because of this, the party has ceded an important opportunity to present the progressive story to the middle class, and to recognize that we're now in a place that they have many of the same concerns that the poor do.

Rosen: California has a $15 billion budget deficit. They've been running these deficits for years (Sara's note: since Enron, in fact), and they're down to the bone. It takes a 2/3 vote to pass budgets and tax increases; and the dysfunction this causes leads voters to pass budget items via the initiative process, which only makes the weirdness worse.

As a result, social programs are on their barest threads. Republicans are looking to cut them; Democrats are looking to raise taxes, which is proving to be a hard sell. It's the same old story: don't cut my services, but don't tax me. The Courage Campaign is dealing with this by finding examples of extreme loopholes. Their first example: you buy a yacht and stash it out of state for 90 days, you don't pay sales tax. They branded the GOP as "The Yacht Party" through TV ads aired with support of the nurses union and SIEU. The campaign was a great example of cooperation between unions, legislators, and bloggers.

Sirota: The middle class is often used as a euphemism for the poor or the working class. There's a myth that Democrats can't talk about poverty because that's the old politics of the 70s, and voters won't like it. The conservative "welfare queen" myth is still considered alive and well.

We need to get more clarity. Other people use to "middle class" to mean "upper class." Lobbyist-written trade deals that benefit the upper class are sold as measures that benefit the middle class; a lot of people in the media making $200K a year think they're middle class.

What we've learned about class is that have-nots and have-a-little-bits are far more progressive than the media portrays them, especially on economic issues. As a movement, we shouldn't buy this idea of the "center." (He discusses this further in today's column.) One of the blogosphere's problem is that we take our cues from the media, and that's often fair -- but people are creating change all over the country that the media doesn't cover, and a lot of that change shows us where the real "center" lies.

The media says that supporting NAFTA or more corporate tax cuts is a "centrist" position. It's not. It's an extremist position, and we need to make that clear and push back against it. "Middle-class" has become a euphemism for upper and upper-middle class.

Levin: We also need to be aware of the aspiring middle class, and talk about that in an expansive way.

Schlesinger: And because of this, we don't speak to the middle class, either. The challenge for us -- which we gave up on -- is to talk to the middle class directly from a progressive point of view. We're more comfortable talking about poverty among the poor.

Sirota: We now have an opportunity -- which may be momentary -- to change that. High-tech workers have never been interested in unions. They all thought they'd be the next Bill Gates. But that's starting to change with outsourcing and offshoring. They're starting to think across class lines.

Goldstein: Washington State is doing fairly well these days, because it exports a lot of the commodities that are going up in price. Unemployment is fairly flat, and near the average. Consumers are being hit, and the GOP is using the economic angst politically, but on the whole it's not hard compared to the rest of the country.

Darcy Burner's district covers the Microsoft campus and suburbs, and then goes out south and east into working-class and ag areas. She's dealt with this by talking about the war, which is an issue that cuts across class lines.

The state is also moving toward the California model that makes it impossible to raise taxes and pass revenue laws, and starting to be held hostage to the initiative process. The right wing is bringing this in -- and will likely try it elsewhere. These things cripple the ability of local governments to raise revenue and provide services. Education used to be 65% of general fund revenues; now it's 45%. More of it is going to prisons -- also a repeat of what happened in California.

All of this makes things harder for the middle class -- and we need to be careful to use the voters' own definition of "middle class," which is very broad. The media uses the term to tie the working class to the interests of the upper classes; but they've bought it, and we need to deal with the fact that the language is being used that way.

There's not much the federal government can do for the voters of Darcy's district except spend money they don't have.

Levin: Even if we stopped the war tomorrow, we'd still have these budget problems that are making it hard for the middle class to survive. We've had it beat into us that the middle class hates taxes; but increasingly, they're starting to say they'd pay higher taxes if they could get health care.

How can Obama pass his agenda in an atmosphere where taxes are still seen as evil?

Rosen: We can argue that we're simply restoring taxes to the levels they used to be at. It's less scary that way.

Goldstein: And the truth is that for most Americans, taxes haven't gone down. They've been shifted from the upper class to the middle class. This is more pronounced in Washington than any other state. If you're at the poverty level, you're paying the highest taxes in the nation for your bracket. If you're making over $200K, your tax rate is among the lowest.

Levin: When do we start talking about taxes as an investment?

Sirota: Montana has flipped its politics largely on the strength of the tax issues. People came to see that the tax system was unfair -- not that taxes were bad, but that they weren't fair. Also: the politicians kept telling them they'd passed tax cuts, but they didn't think they were seeing it. Montana has one of the strongest anti-tax cultures in the country; progressives won by making the GOP defend their tax policies. In the end, they couldn't. Progressives went after tax loopholes for out-of-state landholders and other corporate tax gifts; the GOP bit, and was then embarrassed into non-existence.

Colorado's a harder case, because there's a lot of big money in-state lobbying against change. Are we willing to force Democratic politicians to talk about tax abuse? Most of them do NOT want to talk about it, and are going to have to be pushed there.

Goldstein: We see this in Washington, which has a Democratic governor and legislature. They won't go near it.

Sirota: We need to push them, and make a strong case that they can win on the tax issue. This has even worked in Idaho -- it does work. It wins as a policy argument; but people don't believe that will win as a political issue, even though it has won.

It's also a great issue to build coalitions around. Colorado has a "taxpayer's bill of rights," which is an anti-tax movement trophy. When they started closing DMV offices around the state, a coalition formed to pass an initiative -- schools, businesses, unions, it was big -- that put an end to implementation of the BOR. Even chambers of commerce are coming out in favor of new taxes to rebuild infrastructure. They know letting the roads and bridges go is bad for business.

Schlesinger: Taxes are not the unifying theme for progressives as they are for some conservatives. Our issue is government, and its ability to provide infrastructure. We need to keep this argument down on that practical level: is it the role of government to keep the bridges and roads fixed?

Sirota: Effective infrastructure arguments vary from city to city, state to state.

Schlesinger: The main thing is that it's not a theoretical argument. Infrastructure and tax fairness aren't as sexy as FISA; but the netroots have the power to make it a litmus test issue. We need to demand that candidates tell us how they plan to improve infrastructure.

Even the New York Times has bought into the "tax relief" frame -- it's how they constantly refer to it. So there's an opportunity for us to start demanding media accountability, too.

Questioner 1: How do we square increasing taxes with the economic effects of rising energy costs?

Levin: Green-collar jobs are middle-class union jobs. We need to take the risk to train people in the new technologies, and solve both problems.

Rosen: This is also another reason to invest in domestic energy supplies.

Questioner 1: I keep telling people this, and they're not buying it. They can't see beyond the price they're paying today. It's a hard argument to sell.

Sirota: Populism is the politics of blame. There are left-wing and right-wing versions of it. We have a blame argument to make. Progressives tend to think we're above that kind of demogoguery; and we don't want to blame Democrats, even when they deserve it. In Montana, they didn't blame the government; they argued that the existing tax regime wasn't fair.

Questioner 2: Nobody's talking about the lifestyle changes that we're needing to make to adjust. We're worried about buying bread and milk, healthcare, college costs -- we're beyond angst, and pissed off. We know we need to change. But neither party is addressing this head-on.

Goldstein: A politician who runs on "you're going to need to change your life" isn't going to poll well. It's a hard conversation to have.

Innumeracy has a lot to do with this. Affluent voters in Seattle readily vote to tax themselves for public services, even though the tax load will fall most heavily on them. The working class won't, even though they won't be touched by the taxes. Also, the working class tend to think that sales taxes and flat taxes are the fairest form of tax.

Questioner 3: How are progressives dealing with the subprime meltdown?

Levin: The crisis is one issue that's made the middle class most acutely aware of how vulnerable they are to corporate power; and it's an issue on which we might argue that government is not the enemy.

Schlesinger: We need to know more about what happened there. There's a lot of progressives who aren't clear on the implications of various policy prescriptions. We need more analysis on how we got here: not just government malfeasance, but civic literacy. We can't address it until our own understanding is solid.

What we have to offer on our own side are the stories of the people who've been hurt. Interestingly, the only mainstream media outlet telling these stories is the Wall Street Journal; but we need to keep telling them, too.

Sirota: We need to make sure DC deals with these issues in a real way -- not band-aids, but real re-regulation that will prevent the crisis from recurring. We missed a big opportunity to re-regulate after Enron. We don't get those chances often, and we need to take them.

Questioner 4: A representative from Demos notes that their think tank offers lots of good analysis on these issues.

Levin: Bloggers and activists might also find useful.

Questioner 5: How do we bring labor into this? Productivity is up, but wages aren't. This needs to be part of this conversation.

Sirota: The saddest part of the netroots movement is that it reflects the degree to which we've forgotten the legacy and importance of direct action -- which is a real departure from Amerian history. We think change only comes through the electoral process, and the establishment really likes that. It's contained and finite and easy to rig.

Most of the change in American history has happened through direct action; and unions and community organizations are the most powerful agents of that action. We don't focus nearly enough of our attention there -- and there's a lot of power to be wielded if it got more attention.

Rosen: Labor also needs to learn about us. We talk about things differently; but it could be a very powerful alliance.

Questioner 6: There's a specific initiative -- Take Back Labor Day -- to commit to get bloggers to blog on Labor Day about what work means to them.

Questioner 7: Two-tier contract schemes are undermining the solidarity of unions.

Levin: Most blog readers don't work in unionized fields; and union people use different language that those without the exposure don't know. That's a challenge, but we can get past it.

Goldstein: We need to remember we're weird and wonky. The middle class just wants their problems solved; they don't want the policy details.

Schlesinger: I disagree. The disconnect between people and policy is so huge that people can't name a single bill that their congressperson voted on. People are using the internet to empower themselves; what will they meet when they do that search? That's up to us. But until they know more about policy -- until we engage them in that conversation -- holding politicians accountable won't be possible.

Sirota: One of the hardest things for me to do as a writer is to explain difficult issues in a way that's fun, interesting, digestible, and not condescending. If we want to reach a broader audience, we have to be better at our craft.

Rosen: And that means slowing down and writing carefully. If you cover something for a long time, you start to write in a shorthand that assumes people know what's going on. Bloggers need to be aware of that, and work to keep their work accessible to readers who are new to the issue.