The Juneau Empire's publication of Ross Eisenbrey's essay on Labor Day and Rayda Renshaw's My Turn two days later gave me pause to think about the economic fortunes of working people in Alaska and America.
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Eisenbrey documents the steep decline in the financial fortunes and living standards of working Americans as conservatives and Republicans have returned during the past 30 years to a place of greater influence in America's policy-making structure. Renshaw bemoans the steep decline in pay and benefits for Alaska's state employees, teachers and peace officers during the past 20 or so years as Republicans and conservatives have gained a stranglehold on the state's political system.
Are we seeing a pattern yet?
Eisenbrey's documentation is accurate. But I thought he failed to place the issue within the liberal/conservative, working/wealthy tensions that have always driven American politics and social life. He is right that, in the decades following World War II, liberal and egalitarian economic policies resulted in an unprecedented explosion of prosperity for working Americans. Just prior to that period, it had taken more than a decade and a World War for a liberal president and an overwhelmingly liberal Congress to undo the near fatal damage (the Great Depression) inflicted on America's economy by conservatives and conservative economic principles.
It may come as a shock to today's 20-somethings and 30-somethings to learn that in the decades following the the second World War - when a large portion of the U.S. labor force was unionized, and the U.S. economy enjoyed other benefits of liberal economic principles - the typical American working family owned a home financed by a relatively safe 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. They had access to health care. They had no credit card debt. They could provide college for their kids without their kids amassing a mountain of crippling student loans. They had a secure retirement. A parent could stay home and raise the kids because they financed all this with one ordinary job in the family down at the plant, store, shop or office, working 40 hours a week for 40 hours of good pay.
All that, of course, is now history. During the past 30 years, conservatives and Republicans have gutted the pro-worker labor laws that made that middle class prosperity possible. For instance, in the years they controlled Congress, Republicans passed legislation making it possible for corporations to simply walk away from the retirement obligations they made to their workers. So now instead of $100 million going into the corporation's retirement or health insurance system, it goes into the CEO's paycheck or golden parachute.
Renshaw's complaint is not new. Pay and benefits for the peace officers, teachers and workers who make it possible for our state to function have lagged since Republicans took over the Legislature. The retirement system is at risk and our schools and public facilities underfunded, not because Alaska lacks the wealth, but because the Republicans have decided to simply give our wealth away to the oil industry in exchange for laughably puny campaign contributions and bribes (excuse me, "consulting fees").
Renshaw's complaint seems sincere. But it is difficult to feel sympathetic. She mentions she actually voted for Gov. Sarah Palin. It makes me wonder if she's also voted to put any Republicans in the Legislature. It seems to me she should be deliriously happy: She got exactly what she voted for. What did she (or what would any other working person) expect in electing Republicans to office, given their long-standing and well-documented attacks on the financial fortunes and living standards of people who work for a living?
History speaks very plainly and unmistakably. Just as liberals advancing liberal and egalitarian political ideas brought freedom to America in the 18th century, and to the rest of the western world, so liberals advancing liberal and egalitarian economic ideas brought tremendous prosperity and the world's highest living standards to working Americans in the mid-20th century.
The shame of it is that so many working Americans are so woefully ignorant of the liberal economic principles that once brought their parents and grandparents such fair and beneficial treatment in the economic life of our country.
Donald R. Douglas is a Juneau resident. He says he reads a lot and doesn't listen to right wing motormouths on the radio.