Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Teachers, Stop Being So Scared of the Rich

My school district just had their first Wear Red for Public Ed event (hopefully with many more to follow). In addition to wearing red, we handed out fliers to parents and neighbors that discussed the March 15 deadline for pink slips and how dramatically the annual teacher layoffs affect their children.

While the leafleting and unity in attire went well, I was very disillusioned (though not surprised) with one aspect of the action. My original draft for the flier included the suggestion that if the rich paid more taxes there would be no budget crisis and no reason for any layoffs. Indeed, if only the richest 19 Californians paid 10% more in taxes, the state budget deficit would be completely erased. Keep in mind that California has 80 billionaires. Therefore, if just the billionaires paid more in taxes, there would be a huge surplus, enough to increase wages and benefits, shrink class sizes, hire librarians, counselors and nurse, purchase science equipment, and increase per pupil spending to generous levels. Yet members of our union’s legislative council insisted that the word “rich” be purged from the flier. They were fearful that some of our parents would be offended.

I should emphasize that there was nothing in the flier that was rude or disparaging toward the rich. I did not call them parasites or sponges. I did not use adjectives like greedy or reckless. I simply suggested they pay more in taxes. How else can the budget gaps be closed? How else can schools, health, housing and other necessary social services be funded? The rest of us can only contribute so much of our own modest wages before we, too, become dependent on state handouts.

This controversy revealed an important paradox: We want good schools and other social services, but we are not allowed to even mention the most obvious and simple way to get them. Obviously, the rich won’t allow it. Such talk would never make it into the mainstream media or get discussed by state lawmakers. However, even the left does not want to talk about it. Words like “rich” and “wealthy” are considered dirty words. Worse, it is as if they do not even exist.

On the one hand, to discuss the wealthy, one has to acknowledge that there are those who are not wealthy. Indeed, the vast majority of us are not wealthy. Thus, by discussing wealth we must confront and accept our own relative poverty and powerlessness, something that for many is just too depressing and terrifying to contemplate. Such discourse makes plain the distinct class divisions in our society, that we are NOT all one big happy middle class. It reveals an American Dream that is really just a fantasy, or, for many of us, a nightmare. It reminds us of our own vulnerability and just how close we are to becoming dependent on others for our own survival.

On the other hand, unions and other oppositional groups are terrified of alienating potential donors or sympathizers. In fact, virtually all politicians, including Democrats, are rich relative to the majority of Americans. To union leaders, Democratic candidates are their bread and butter; they cannot make any demands that might piss them off. Alienating the Democrats would take away the one political foil to union busters like Walker and Daniels.  There are also the “good” billionaires, like George Soros, who contribute millions to liberals’ pet causes, like MoveOn.org. Don’t want to alienate them, either.

Yet if we never confront the class distinctions (and ultimately class power) in our society, not only will we fail to make any progress in our living and working conditions, we will actually continue to be pushed backward, as we are seeing most vividly in the Midwest. The wealth gap will continue to grow and the middle class will continue to shrink, while our schools and continue to get sucked dry.

The only way to improve our schools (and our own living conditions) is to get those who have more than they need to contribute a whole hell of a lot more. This will never happen if we are afraid to admit that there are rich people. It will never occur if we continue to act as though it is o.k. for some people to posses far more wealth than they can possibly use in their lifetimes, while others are allowed to live desperately from day to day. It cannot occur by playing politics and trying to compete with corporations for the allegiance of fickle and untrustworthy politicians, all of whom are members of the upper class. It will only happen through class struggle, by confronting the wealthy head on at the workplace and in the streets, by taking away their ability to make profits. Yes, teachers, some privileged parents may not like it. But you know what? They can afford it and we don’t need their approval anyway. There are more of us than them. Far more.

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