Sunday, February 27, 2011

Are we all Wisconsinites now?

When I first head about the conflict between the Wisconsin GOP and the public employees' unions, I wan't terribly sympathetic to the unions.  After all, employees of private companies like me had our benefits whittled away over the past few years, why should government employees be any different?  I've read The Great Stagnation; don't these people realize that the gravy train has stopped, and we're all going to have to make do with less?  Generous pensions and job security for teachers was great when we were all swimming in money, but things are different now.  We just can't afford it.

Thinking about it (and reading about it) some more, the truth occurred to me.  People like me and the public unions are fighting over scraps, and demonizing each other in the process.  Meanwhile, the real villains are laughing their heads off, secure in their money.  We're busy fighting over who get to have a 3% raise, while they're raking money in.  And no, I don't believe it's because they're creating such great value for society.  (Gives her more incentive to become a lawyer?  Stunning ignorance of the real and social capital required to become a lawyer.  And who says we need more lawyers?)  It may be because they've made a large number of very safe bets that are backed by the rest of us.

Because I look around.  I still see luxury cars on the road.  I still see people living in huge houses. I still see folks sitting in the front rows of games and concerts.  So I'm not positive that we're in such dire straits that it's necessary that we stop providing a decent retirement for public schoolteachers.

What we've done is accepted things going on.  We've let Wall Street squeeze how we are treated as workers, so we've figured that's how workers ought to be treated.  I don't have a pension; why should they?  I live in fear of getting fired; they should, too!  I have to fork over a big chunk of my paycheck for health insurance for my family; they ought to as well!  Screw them!

But is this really what we want?  Do we want a world where workers keep seeing their benefits eroded?  And for whom?  Who benefits?  Do we really believe that if the Wisconsin GOP is successful, that the result will be better services for the poor?  I'm skeptical.

This is the last stand in figuring out what kind of society we want to be.  Do we want income inequality to continue unabated?  Do we want the middle class to vanish?   Do we want more and more resources to be funneled toward those who are already rich?

Or is there another way?  That maybe "shared sacrifice" ought to include those who've been making out like bandits over the past dozen years while the rest of us have been treading water at best.

During the Tea Party rallies, I lamented that what gets people out on the streets protesting is the possibility of us paying for others' health care.  And now, I lament that what gets people upset is a marginal erosion in the benefits for workers who will remain solidly in the middle class.  Seems like there's some other injustices that ought to be higher on the list.

It just feels like we're fighting over a shrinking size of the pie, when we should be focussed on where the rest of the pie went.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Not quite hypocrisy

In a column Thursday about why he prefers the NFL Hall of Fame voting to MLB, Bernie Miklasz writes:

Football voters aren't engaging in Cooperstown-style hypocrisy by imposing tough moral standards on some players — alleged steroids users — after we'd relaxed these supposedly rigid ethics principles to admit amphetamine poppers, racists, potheads and baseball-doctoring cheaters.

First, let me say that I am with Miklasz on the NFL Hall of Fame being better, and the overall experience of being an NFL fan being superior as well, in part because (the current labor troubles and concussion controversies being notable exceptions) it seems like it's possible to just enjoy the games.  I can talk about great coaches and grit and heart without being attacked by statheads.

I'm also of the opinion that Mark McGwire and other players currently being kept out of the Hall of Fame due to being tainted by steroids should ultimately get in

But I also think that the BBWA's failure to elect them can be explained by more than hypocrisy.

I'll concentrate on McGwire, since he is probably the most direct case, and I'm most familiar with his career, but the same could apply to others.  I'm not meaning to single him out.

The problem I would have with electing McGwire is that there is a direct link between his success and what steroids can do for you and his success.  What McGwire brings to the table is that he hit a lot of home runs, and they were huge.  Celebrating that, when we suspected and now we know that they were aided by steroids, seems like we are celebrating the use of steroids, and it's understandable that some people may not want to do that.  This is different from honoring Ty Cobb, even though he was a racist.  Nobody thinks Ty Cobb was a great baseball player because he was a racist (though his fiery personality likely fueled both pursuits).   Honoring Ty Cobb is not honoring racism.

Amphetamines are a closer call, but still not the same.  I may not like it if, say, Mickey Mantle popped greenies, but does anybody think that they were a significant factor in the Mick's success?  I'm not sure Mark McGwire would have broken home run records without steroids, but I'm pretty sure Mickey Mantle would have been a great baseball player without amphetamines.

As for "baseball-doctoring cheaters," I would say there are different types of cheating.  Micheal Jordan often got away with extra steps.  On his final championship-winning shot, he pushed off Byron Russell, and it wasn't called.  Is he therefore a "cheater?"  If we punish someone who, say, poisons his opponents the night before a game, must we also punish Jordan in order to escape the charge of hypocrisy?  

There are different kind of rules -- rules that govern the competition and rules that are there for player safety.  I don't think the NFL would honor an offensive lineman who cheated by gouging his opponents eyes, but they might honor one who knew how to get away with holding.  I submit that Gaylord Perry's use of the spitball is closer to the former than the latter.  And McGwire's use of steroids is closer to the latter than the former.  

In making that judgement, I open myself to the accusation of playing "moral police," but I think it's important that we do think through judgements like that rather than commit ourselves to a foolish consistency.

What the BBWA have effectively done is kick the can down the street.  They know that once these players are enshrined, they can't really take them out, but if they pass on them, they can always enshrine them later.  This may not be the most courageous stance, but it is understandable.  They want to figure out exactly what accomplishments like McGwire's mean in the context in which they were compiled.