Mar 9, 2011

Frank and Sandy in the breakroom — free enterprise vs. fair play

"Can you believe those protesters?" Frank snarls while pouring a cup of coffee at the company breakroom. "What a bunch of losers."

Frank is a marketing manager at Welltrack, a Madison-based manufacturer of RFID tracking products for the healthcare industry. Sandy, an HR manager, is putting her lunch in the breakroom fridge.

"Wow, Frank!" Sandy says. "Isn't losers is a little strong?"

"I don't think so," Frank barks. Sandy isn't surprised, as Frank is kind of an intense guy and is always free with his opinions.

Frank continues: "Don't those people know that Gov. Walker is doing exactly what he should be doing? He's balancing a budget out of control. And collective bargaining? Unions kill jobs and protect lazy bums. If we took off work to protest, we'd be fired. I hope Walker gets rid of those damned unions."

Sandy's a little tired of Frank's rants, so she decides to go for it.

"But Frank, is it fair for Walker to put the whole burden on teachers and public employees? I mean, he's already given tax breaks to corporations and doesn't raise taxes on the wealthy a penny. If teachers have to pay more for their benefits, shouldn't those who can afford it most pay something too? If it's 'shared sacrifice,' shouldn't it be shared by those on the top?"

"Are you kidding?" Frank nearly explodes. "You've got to be kidding! Sandy, you know that lowering taxes always raises revenue. Increase taxes on the productive members of society, and this fragile economy will tank! Even John Kennedy lowered taxes during a recession. I mean, that's just basic economics."

Sandy has been reading a lot about this recently, so she's prepared.

"Funny that you bring up John Kennedy, Frank. Yes, he lowered taxes—from 92% to 75%. The top tax rate was 92% throughout the 1950s, a time when the country really prospered. Kennedy brought them down to 75% on incomes over $3 million in today's dollars. Kind of puts that 'Kennedy lowered taxes' stuff in perspective, don't you think?"

Frank stands silent for a moment, so Sandy continues.

"It also puts in perspective Obama's wanting to raise the top tax rate from 35% to 39.5%, where it was during the Clinton years. Hardly 'socialism' in the grand scheme of things. And since shared sacrifice implies shared-by-all, I don't see any reason why Walker doesn't ask Wisconsin's wealthiest citizens to share a little too."


Frank and Sandy had to go to their offices and get to work, but their debate isn't over—not by a long shot. Frank is collecting his thoughts, preparing his riposte. And Sandy feels kind of proud of herself for speaking up. We'll catch them again in an upcoming post.

Meanwhile, how are we to understand their conversation?

Like all of us, Frank and Sandy have come to their beliefs, values, and choices based on a complex of stories, or "narratives." Scenes, characters, and plots in our memories engage in an interplay with the world we experience: We interpret present events in light of the stories we know; these new interpretations join the complex of stories through which we understand the future.

As I have communicated elsewhere in this blog, two stories run deep in Americans' understanding of what America is all about, expressed as "The American Dream." One, the free-enterprise narrative, has enjoyed near total dominance for more than 30 years. Frank believes it wholeheartedly.

The other, the fair-play narrative, has been nearly exiled from public opinion, inhabiting only far corners of left-wing academia and advocacy. Sandy considers herself a moderate and would laugh at the suggestion that she's "left wing." But she's growing weary of feeling like no matter how hard she works, she can't get ahead. She feels empathy for the teachers, police, firefighters, and state workers protesting at the state capital in Madison.

Maybe Walker's overreach is a setting a scene where the fair-play storyline will ring true among a broad group of Americans—people like Sandy—once again.

We shall see. Stay tuned.

Mar 6, 2011

A letter to Gov. Walker

Mr. Governor,

I'm what most people would call a moderate Democrat, so feel free to interpret my comments in that light. But I am also a citizen of Wisconsin, and I don't want our state to fail. I'm sure you don't either. I'm sure your budget proposals stem from your desire to advance our state's health over the long term. And so, as a moderately left-of-center communications expert, I'd like to offer a suggestion to help you succeed in the interest of Wisconsin's well-being.

You say that your budget proposal's deep cuts to public education, shared revenue, environmental programs, and tax credits for the poor are necessary to ensure Wisconsin's future fiscal health. You also say public-union rights long enjoyed in Wisconsin—such as collective bargaining, mandatory membership, and automatic dues payment—must be eliminated in order to give local governments the "tools" and "flexibility" to operate in the context of reduced state aid without having to impose layoffs.

Your opponents have, for the most part, pledged to give you what you want on the former; they have vigorously opposed your plan for the latter. They are winning that communications battle. Every poll shows that strong majorities support your quest for fiscal health but oppose restrictions on workers' rights. You ignore this broad public sentiment at your peril.

You are most likely hearing fellow ultra-conservatives urging you to stand strong and refuse to budge on these restrictions, as lessening the power of unions in general and public unions in particular will advance the ultra-conservative cause. Given your history and temperament, these recommendations undoubtedly confirm your impulses. But if you want to succeed in advancing your vision, you should resist this narrative. It appeals only to partisans on one side of the debate. It alienates the center that overwhelmingly elected you and your Republican compatriots in the assembly and the senate—and can overwhelmingly turn you out.

If you are to move Wisconsin closer to your vision, you must be a statesman, not a CEO. Chief executives of businesses must focus on this quarter's shareholder value, maximizing profits using whatever means are required. And they give orders, which subordinates must obey or be fired. Statesmen don't have that option. They must focus on a state's long-term health, which includes much more than reaching a 0 balance on a spreadsheet.

You probably will respond to that distinction by claiming that all of your proposals serve Wisconsin's long term interests, as you see them. Fair enough. I disagree, but that's not the point of this appeal.

If you are to be a statesman and not a CEO, you are obligated to take into account more than your own ideas of reasonableness, more than your own values. You must, to the degree you are able, prevent the kind of conflict our state is experiencing in no small part because of your own rigidity.

So here's my suggestion, given in good faith and with hope for settling our current crisis: I propose that you schedule another "fireside chat" and say the following:

"I love Wisconsin, and the conflict ripping us apart isn't good for our state. I take responsibility for my part in this conflict, as I know my budget proposals represent a significant and sweeping change in direction. You have, with your votes, placed me in a position of leadership. My proposals reflect my sincere beliefs about what is best for our state in the short-term and for the future.

"However, I must lead—even when leading requires me to accept less than what I believe is ideal. Therefore, I have decided to propose a principled compromise designed to advance our fiscal health while listening to the values of many of you concerning our state's tradition of union rights. I will remove all restrictions on union operations from my budget-repair bill and from my biennial budget. I will trust that our public unions will fulfill their pledge to accept all of the budget's fiscal provisions, even those that require painful sacrifice on the part of public employees, public education, and other state expenditures.

"With this compromise, our senators and those protesting at the capitol can return home. And Wisconsin can return to engaging in arguments over ideas, rather than a conflict that is crippling us and leaving me with no alternative but to impose layoffs. Make no mistake, I cannot in good conscience propose a budget that does not address our fiscal problems. As I have said repeatedly, we are broke. All of us must take that as seriously as the demands to take seriously our Wisconsin tradition of union rights.

"I will submit a new budget bill with the controversial union provisions removed. Once I have done that, I urge the senators to return so that we can move forward to fix our state's fiscal issues together in the interest of all Wisconsinites."

Governor Walker, say that and you will win the narrative battle. You will be hailed statewide and nationally as a conservative statesman, strong enough to stand for fiscal responsibility and strong enough to reach a hand across the aisle to do so. Fail to say that, and you will be decried as a pariah, too weak in your rigidity to understand the context and work within it to accomplish your goals.

Not budging, to use your words, will work well for us Democrats in the next election cycle. But it won't work well for our state's health. Which should be more important for both Democrats and Republicans than political strategy.

Rings true to me, Governor Walker. And you?