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Hullabaloo


Monday, June 11, 2012

 
Why is pension envy OK but "class warefare" isn't?

by David Atkins

It's called pension envy: the resentment that non-union employees often feel toward workers with good union pensions and benefits. As the results of the Wisconsin recall and ballot initiatives in San Jose and San Diego show, pension envy is not a phenomenon limited to the right. As a small business owner without unemployment benefits or even much in the way of retirement savings to fall back on should things go south, I myself feel it from time to time. Digby wrote an excellent and lengthy piece earlier today about pension envy and the way the Right has managed to marginalize the union movement in the United States while keeping Americans fighting one another for scraps.

But the puzzling phenomenon in all of this is the fact that pension envy is supposedly widespread, justified and politically acceptable, but resentment of the ludicrously wealthy who have stolen the nation's wealth from its workers is not. Someone who is upset over teachers' vacation and retirement pay should be a hundred times as angry at the ludicrous salaries of Wall Street executives skimming off the corporate profits that should be going to better private sector wages. There are a few probable explanations for it beyond simply the hostile conservative rhetoric that plays well with their base.

The first is that they're not mutually exclusive occurrences. The partisan divide may suggest that people would be either upset by pension envy or by radical income inequality, but not both. But polling on income inequality and the results of recent elections involving public union pensions suggests that there is a lot of both simultaneously. The difference is that few politicians dare to put initiatives on the ballot or pass laws that seriously impact the incomes of the top 1%, and that corporate cash is able to overwhelm union money in most cases where the two are comparably tested. It's also important to remember that unions themselves are not monolithic: many union members are Republicans, and there is a significant divide between public sector and private sector labor. Those factors combined to cause 38% of union households to vote against the recall. There is even some pension envy within the labor movement itself.

Another theory is that there is a special resentment of people who get paid with tax dollars, as opposed to those who are seen as taking money out of the private sector. This one is less persuasive to me: teachers, firefighters are police and respected professions; private sector unions don't have markedly better approval ratings; and Wall Street CEOs face extremely heavy anger that goes beyond their having taken taxpayer bailouts. Still, if the labor movement is to survive, it probably must do a better job of expanding aggressively into the private sector and not be siloed into taxpayer-funded jobs, a situation that will inevitably lead to political demise.

But there's a third explanation that I think is salient as well: regular people have much more everyday contact with public employees than with the super rich. As angry as regular voters are about inequality, most have no idea about the true extent of it. In the old days the Rockefellers and Carnegies would make ostentatious displays of their wealth. Nobles and peasants used to live in close proximity, and the palaces were but a short distance away from the slums. Meanwhile, there were multiple layers of social strata separating the nobility from the working class, including radically different dress styles and linguistic registers.

We don't see as much of that today. The democratization of wealth has meant that the very rich tend to look and act much more similar to the working class than they ever have before. Transportation and communications technology also allows them to paradoxically lead lives more separated from the working class than they ever have before.

What that boils down to is that people rarely knowingly see a member of the top 1%. But they do see teachers, firefighters and police every day. Pension envy is in their faces every day in a way that income inequality usually is not.

I see no way to immediately solve that problem beyond continuing to rhetorically highlight the vast income inequalities in this country, and fixing the campaign finance system that makes politicians so terrified of fighting for the middle class against the interests of the top 1%.


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