In The News
One Potter was enough for Bedford Falls, but for America?
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted July 9, 2011
"You know who he reminds me of? Mr. Potter from 'It's a Wonderful Life,' the mean old bastard who screws everybody."
This was in New Jersey, where bullying and vulgar language smack of normalcy on both sides. We’ll explain the background of the statement in a moment, but let’s look past the invective, when the combative Democrat Steve Sweeney, leader of the senate, was speaking about the combative right-wing Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
Sweeny actually put his finger on a political fact in a destructive political era. Leaving the language and the outsized weight of the participants aside, it actually speaks to what is going on in Wisconsin and throughout the country.
In that classic Frank Capra film, mean old Potter tried to dominate both Bedford Falls and Jimmy Stewart, ruthlessly leaned on the draft board, bought assets cheap during hard economic times and even stole Bailey Savings and Loan money to try to end noble Jimmy’s career. Potter was the town’s rich banker, and that fact alone, fair or not, still speaks volumes to today’s citizens, who will probably never forgive either Congress or President Obama for rescuing Wall Street with TARP and then the US car companies, though the latter worked out great for the taxpayers and workers.
But Potter, once the symbol of what Americans hated about capitalistic excess, has turned into the model typical American. If greed and selfishness were once despised, they apparently are loved today. Where nasty dealing was condemned, it is now embraced. Where savaging of the sick, the poor, the children was once scorned, it is now justified by “we can’t afford it.”
Even the mild-mannered Obama hinted at what was happening while atwittering. Granted, Obama’s willingness to see both sides has always maddened his liberal supporters and infuriated the right wingers who keep trying to goad him into a moment of imbalance. (I often wonder why he doesn’t throw something!) Yet he remains reasonable, some say cautious and middle of the road, refusing to be baited by either camp. So his Tweet town hall included a spirited defense of collective bargaining, and a sad acknowledgement that he can’t step into state law to mend what even Republicans now acknowledge as Gov. Walker run amuck. But even in Tweet discussion Obama saw the other side and put a gentle finger on what is really happening:
“In the public sector, what is true is that some of the pension plans that have been in place and the health benefits that are in place are so out of proportion with what’s happening in the private sector that a lot of taxpayers start feeling resentful,” he said. “They say, ‘Well, if I don’t have health care where I only have to pay $1 for prescription drugs, why is it that the person whose salary I’m paying has a better deal?’”
Note how carefully and accurately Obama suggested that such benefits are not wrong – in fact you could well argue that all workers should have them – but that people in the private sector have not been able to win these. And that has engendered resentment and perhaps some envy.
Realistically every citizen should have good inexpensive health care and pensions, but the corporate management was able to argue that profits for the owners were more important and beat down better care for workers at every turn. Partly, unions would argue, it was from lack of unified bargaining power among workers. Partly many will argue that power diminished because unions were more concerned about protecting their own than organizing for all and not responsive quickly enough to what was happening to their non-union brethren, from urban minorities to IT employees to immigrants.
The price we’re paying is, as Obama hinted, that people see something wrong in what public workers are getting as opposed to questioning why they aren’t able to win the same support in retirement and in health costs.
Now much of this “We can’t afford it” excuse is a lie. As bad as the economy is, you need only look at oil profits, attendance at sports events, spending at the mall to realize how many are carefree about shared sacrifice. Those who don’t need health care or retirement income today don’t think about what waits around the corner. We are instead a nation of instant gratification. The country can well afford to pay workers better if the people sitting on money just paid a fair share or thought of the nation as Bedford Falls, not the future Potterville of Capra’s mid-movie nightmare.
We still hear too many folks saying that public workers are THEIR servants, pretending there are taxpayers on one side and labor unions on the other (though union workers are taxpayers, too). So rather than fight for what they should have, these angry citizens want to bring the public workers down to the income forced on them by corporate shenanigans. It is their constitutional right to hoard, apparently.
Even some people sympathetic of teachers and garbage collectors losing their bargaining rights don’t get as exorcised as union workers do because these are benefits they never had – so why should anyone?
Philosophers, even preachers, can argue that this is wrong on every moral level. But the Potters tend to rule in hard economic times, even to the point of expecting to be admired when they renege on deals.
Which brings us back to New Jersey, where, unlike Wisconsin, the Democrats have the edge in both state houses and decided to make a deal with Christie, an opinionated rough talking darling of the Tea Party proud of saying “we can’t afford it” – meaning just about anything that helps cities, public transit or schools.
Still, Sweeney and the Democrats thought they could bargain – and infuriated diehard unionists, agreeing to give Christie what he wanted in health and pension payments by public workers and a cap on property tax. In exchange, the state’s $30 billion budget included $900 million for such public service as lower tuition, aid to mental health services and AIDS funding.
Christie took the deal and then reneged, using his line-item veto to eliminate every one of the Democrats’ proposals and then added tax breaks for the wealthiest suburbs. The Potter analogy, couched in angry invective that Sweeney refused to apologize for, represented his own political miscalculation in believing that Christie would heed any deal. Even more amazing, just as Wisconsin Republicans cheerfully embraced decimating education and running fake Dems, Christie was proud of the double-cross.
This, of course, is what progressives worry about when they see Obama making nice over the usually automatic raising of the national debt ceiling, which of course has nothing to do with raising the debt but with reassuring the world that the US stands behind the money it has already spent. But as the negotiations now stand it appears that there is $3 of service cuts to every dollar of tax code loophole closing Obama wants, and that the Republicans refuse to accept. The worry is that they will pull a Potter at the last minute, which certainly seems the norm today.
You can hear the Potters all around if you attend Tea Party rallies, Republican stump speeches against all the recalls or listen as I have to the retirees who dominate Citizens for Responsible Government gatherings. “We can’t afford it.” “They’re stealing our money!” They almost spit their disgust of government workers, decrying why they should pay for schools, parks and transit they no longer use, or even courts which they think only evil people are dragged into. Why should they, living on the fixed incomes their years of private sector work left them with, pay for benefits public workers have that they can no longer win?
In their fear, too many Americans have become the meanest boss they could ever imagine, and since they think they own public workers, they treat them like they think Potter would.
“The principle of collective bargaining, making sure that people can exercise their rights to be able to join together with other workers and to negotiate and kind of even the bargaining power on either side, that’s something that has to be protected,” said Obama in his twitter session. “And we can make these adjustments in a way that are equitable but preserve people’s collective bargaining rights.”
Ironically, the last president I recall saying stuff like that so directly was Ronald Reagan, who actually hurt unions badly with his policies. Yet he wouldn’t make it into today’s Republican Party with statements like this:
“Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost . . . Collective bargaining has played a major role in America’s economic miracle. Unions represent some of the freest institutions in this land. There are few finer examples of participatory democracy to be found anywhere.”
Potter, of course, was a caricature. But then, what else are so many of today’s right-wing politicians?