Friday, February 24, 2012

Thoughts on Envy, Unions, and the Social Safety Net

This week last year, state workers in Wisconsin began occupying the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison to protest budget cuts and the all-out assault on union collective bargaining rights perpetuated by Governor Scott Walker and his Koch Bros corporate owners.  While union bargaining rights, as well as the wages and benefits afforded to union members, have been in the national discourse for decades, the severity of what Walker was doing to workers and the state as a whole, and the subsequent massive reaction to those measures, created a new discussion:  Why should unions have so much power over the wages of their employees?  Is collective bargaining fair to employers?  Why should union workers get such good medical benefits and pensions, when non-union workers around the country are having their wages and benefits slashed so drastically?  Even if labor unions "make sense," does it makes sense for those benefits to be afforded to government workers?  Aren't they somehow different?

Similar arguments are made about people using any part of our rapidly dwindling social safety net: Why should those people get to live off of me?  I work hard, and they should, too!  Those bums should just get a job (in this economy!).  It's not fair that they get to have all this money for food and help with rent and their utilities, and I work my ass off every day and have to shop at Wal-Mart and Aldi!  I saw this one guy use his EBT card and then get into a car that looked more expensive than mine, and he used a cell phone!  They shouldn't have those luxuries while they live off MY tax dollars!  They should be forced to sell everything of value before they qualify for anything!

What it sounds like to me is that the people most likely to complain about the very institutions and programs that exist to help people who are in rough situations are acting primarily out of envy.  It's not fair!! is a commonly-cited reason for opposing such things as welfare and union benefits.  What I think we're missing -- aside from, of course, a well-educated and critically-thinking population that isn't spoon-fed by corporate media, circus politics, and religious dogma -- is that we're placing the blame on the wrong group of people.  Why blame union members for their good benefits and pension plans, and their contractual ability to bargain for fair and livable wages?  If the problem you have with those benefits is that you don't also receive them and must scrape by as a result, then the appropriate target for such anger would be your own employer, who refuses to compensate you adequately for your labor.  The appropriate target for your anger about not being able to afford decent food and your rent or mortgage would not be those who are benefiting from government programs that exist to help people, but the system that allows you -- a presumably hard-working and self-sacrificing person, if one were to believe what you say amid your unceasing complaints about the so-called dredges of society -- to fall through the cracks, and the institutions and corporations who are benefiting from the budget cuts, wage cuts, and austerity measures imposed that are the direct cause of your economic downward spiral.  

A society based on greed and envy doesn't work for anyone, and neither does misdirecting blame when we're upset about an apparent injustice.  We need to think critically before judging the circumstances and motivations of people we've never met, whose shoes we haven't walked in, and whose lives are seemingly different from ours.  As Warren aptly notes:
I think about the two different ways political scientists conduct statistical polling for political contests. What we most often see on TV are the general preliminary polls that give us a rough notion of who's winning or losing the race overall. Then we see the more specific demographic stats done after voting is completed, commonly known as exit-polling. With the latter, the focus is on demographics, details that inform the candidates about who is voting for them based on age, gender, political leanings, race, etc.  The former is based on opinion only.
What I'd like to see us begin to do is to work on that second evaluation.  To judge others not based on the biases and stereotypes inherent to our own lives, but based on listening to their opinions first and our own second should be our collective aim.  Taking such action could seriously effect our long term evolution; a world where we would think before we act and consider others viewpoints whilst determining our own. After all, there is no one answer to decide how we should live our lives - there are millions of ways.  But if we choose to live only that life we were told or raised to inhabit, then we are limiting not only our own horizons, but also those that we love, those we share this earth with and those we want to see succeed as much as ourselves. 
If you see an economically disadvantaged person who seems to "have it better" than you do, or a person with a job that actually provides a decent wage, benefits, and a pension or retirement plan while you have none of these benefits, desiring for their standard of living to decrease is illogical and, if implemented, only further benefits the institutions and corporations that make your situation so difficult in the first place.  Fighting a symptom is never as effective as eliminating the cause of the problem.