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.

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