The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

United States:
Elections:
Two Evils, Asking for the Workers' Approval

Oct 27, 2000

This year, the appearance of two minor parties – the Green Party, running Ralph Nader, and the Reform Party, running Patrick Buchanan – changed the U.S. political scene somewhat, including by having a slight impact on the tone of the Democrats campaign. The Republicans were less affected because Buchanan, tied up in a row inside the Reform Party, never got his campaign off the ground.

Coming into the Democratic Party convention in July, Gore was solidly behind George "W" in the polls and confronting the possibility that Nader might eat into part of the Democratic Party's usual electorate. Thus, in his acceptance speech, Gore stepped forward as a born-again "populist." He went so far as to actually denounce Big Business – or, at least, certain parts of it: Big Oil, Big Pharmaceutical companies, Big Health Insurers, Big Tobacco and, in a bow to his tarnished environmental reputation, Big Polluters.

Big Oil was certainly no coincidence – given the vast number of ties between the Bush family and various oil corporations (although the ties the Gore family has long enjoyed with Occidental Petroleum are not negligible either).

But behind the partisan sniping, Gore had another aim: to present himself as the advocate for the "forgotten man," left behind in the current "good times."

Even while the economy seems to have been bubbling along during Clinton's whole presidency – with profits soaring, Wall Street going through paroxysms of delight, and CEO compensation reaching unheard of heights – little of this economic exuberance has percolated down to the working population.

When speaking to those audiences who have benefitted from the last nine years, at Economic Club meetings and other such venues, Gore makes an open pitch for their votes, claiming part of the credit for keeping the economy going as it has been.

But this doesn't play as well in union halls and in front of factory gates. By almost any measure, the working class today, after nine years of so-called "good times," finds itself worse off than it was 27 years ago. Thus, not only did Gore pretend to be, along with Tipper, the couple after whom "Love Story" was modelled – he also became, in an even bigger stretch of the imagination, a populist critic of the big corporations.

Business certainly understood what Gore was doing – and it didn't seem to be concerned. The Wall Street Journal explained, on August 23, that "many executives assume the vice-president's new theme is more bark than bite." Arthur Leibowitz, the chief medical officer for Aetna U.S. Healthcare, commented: "We understand that some rhetoric is inevitable as part of the political process....We and many other insurers already have adopted virtually all the reforms [Gore] proposed in the patients' bill of rights." And Gore's new vice- presidential nominee, Joseph Lieberman, hastened to reassure business – in case they didn't catch on – that it was all just part of electioneering.

In fact, Gore's new found populism didn't last long – just long enough for him to go up in the polls, and tuck a certain number of endorsements under his belt, including from the UAW and the Teamsters, who had given up flirting with Nader.

The polls, since then, have been jumping all over. Just a little over a week before the election, most of the polls were giving Bush a small lead, although most pollsters added that the race, with too many undecided voters, was still too close to call.

In any case, whether speaking out of the populist side of his mouth or not, Gore is not addressing the real concerns of the working class, no more than Bush is. The fact is, both parties represent the interests of the corporations and of the wealthy class which controls them, and this campaign illustrates this fact particularly well.

"Fixing" Social Security

Look at the supposed big debate around Social Security. Both parties subscribe to the idea that Social Security needs a "fix." And both parties propose to involve the Wall Street lottery in "fixing" Social Security.

Bush would set aside one-sixth of the taxes currently coming into Social Security, putting them into individual "investment accounts."

But reducing the revenues coming into the regular Social Security plan threatens to cut into the benefits that Social Security pays out. Social Security is not a "savings account" which each worker builds up for him or herself – despite the way the politicians present it. It is, rather, a social entitlement, with its current expenditures paid for by its current taxes. Any cutback in revenues would be used as a justification to cut back the pay-out.

Gore's attack on Social Security is more devious, in that he would give each worker the option to put some of his or her own income into individual investment accounts, which the government would match in income tax credits. Supposedly, Social Security would be left "untouched."

In fact, Gore's plan is a kind of Trojan Horse sneaking into the Social Security system. In the first place, he is not proposing to correct the current COLA formula, which causes Social Security to fall a little further behind inflation each year. While the cost-of- living adjustment never did completely keep up with inflation, in recent years, the gap is worse, as the result of the Social Security "reforms" passed in the mid-1980s by a Democratic Congress, signed by Republican President Ronald Reagan. Those "reforms" delayed COLA payments, and allowed them to be recalculated, so as to lower them; it delayed the payment of Social Security checks from the first of the first month following retirement, to the middle or later of the second month following retirement; and it pushed back the age for retirement.

Gore is not even proposing to return the money lost to these "reforms," much less, to improve the Social Security pay-out to bring Social Security up to the level required to keep retirees from living in poverty. The situation itself will push people to try to dip into their current income to set up the "individual savings accounts" Gore is proposing.

But that is just a vicious circle. If Gore's individual accounts are set up, they will function in much the same way that the famous - - rather, infamous – 401(k) plans have worked to reduce or even eliminate pensions. When these kinds of plans were first introduced in contract negotiations 25 years ago, they were presented as an "additional" benefit, something which workers could contribute to in order to have a little more money when they retired.

But, wonder of wonders – in the few decades since, the picture has shifted drastically. Whereas 20 years ago, only 13% of workers with retirement coverage were in such plans, today, almost one half have no regular pension, only these "individual investment account." Of course, the majority of workers have no retirement coverage whatsoever, other than Social Security.

For the workers, a regular pension is the only real protection, the only thing which offers a certain payment every month for life.

For employers, however, 401(k)'s and other such plans are their preferred retirement package – for obvious reasons: they cost the bosses much less. And Wall Street, of course, was exceedingly pleased by the rapid change from pension plans to 401(k)'s. With the number of accounts mushrooming, brokerage firms extracted fees and commissions from each new account.

How much more inviting for Wall Street is Social Security! Today, its funds are protected from Wall Street's rapacious hands. But the possibility of 140 million new investment accounts must be dancing around in the brains of brokers like an enormous sugar plum tree – with everything that means in the way of more fees, commissions and profit, all to be deducted, of course, from the money put into each individual's account. Instead of Social Security's very low overhead cost – less than one percent a year – Wall Street will grab its usual 10 to 12% or more.

Gore never mentions that aspect of the problem.

Nor does he remember to tell us that his plan will also provide another tax break for the wealthy – since they are the ones who will be able to set up the biggest "investment account," and thus claim the biggest tax refund. Who has extra money at the end of the paycheck to set aside? The poorest workers certainly don't – nor will all those workers who find themselves periodically unemployed or working reduced hours.

In fact, this debate about Social Security is not an issue that divides the two parties. Behind the different plans they present, lies one single perspective: to convince the population that Social Security is in trouble, that it must be handed over to Wall Street to "fix."

Social Security is NOT in trouble. It consistently runs up a surplus. During years of very high unemployment, it may fall back a bit, but overall, more money comes in than goes out. The so-called "Baby Boomer" problem – that is, the prediction that Social Security will go bankrupt when the "Baby Boom generation" reaches retirement – is simply a myth. That same generation is today contributing the money which is building up an enormous surplus – the estimates are that Social Security, if left alone, will have a six-trillion dollar surplus when the Baby Boomers are starting to retire, a surplus that can be drawn on to cover them. The predictions of possible problems, coming to a head in the year 2025 are based on the worst possible economic predictions. But even if they were true, so what? There is nothing that says that the government could not use some of its other revenues to prop up Social Security during the period when the Baby Boomers are drawing down the surplus. Why not? The government certainly taps the Social Security surplus today to cover a large part of the deficit it runs up handing over subsidies to the corporations. And it has been doing so for years.

No, Social Security is not in trouble – to be more exact, the trouble that Social Security finds itself in comes from the designs that Wall Street has on its enormous revenues, and from the willingness of both parties to help Wall Street break into the vault.

Defending Abortion – Whenever the Elections Roll Around

There is one issue which, according to most commentators, puts the two parties clearly on opposite sides: abortion.

That's certainly true, as far as election rhetoric goes. For 12 years, the Republicans, while occupying the White House, regularly made abortion an electoral issue, in hopes of solidifying an electoral base among the Christian fundamentalists. While in office, they took symbolic actions against abortion; for example, requiring women to go through a waiting period of a day or several days, before they could have the abortion – which, of course, is a horribly invasive interference with a woman's right to make her own decisions about her own body.

By contrast, the Clinton administration, just a month and a half before this election, authorized doctors to prescribe RU-486, the so-called abortion pill. This Democratic administration could have authorized RU-486 a long time ago – after all, it has lain there, waiting for approval for 12 years, during which time, it was available in other countries, having already been adequately tested. The authorization of RU-486 just before the elections says a lot about the Democrats' cynicism. But it hardly shows that the Democrats support every woman's right to decide for herself about the issues which affect her own body. If that were the case.

The Democrats may try to step forward, during the election campaign, as the defenders of women's rights, but in fact, they were the ones who carried out on the federal level the biggest legal attack on abortion rights. The "Hyde Amendment," which forbids Medicaid from dispersing any funds for abortion procedures was passed in 1977, during the presidency of Democrat Jimmy Carter, by a congress in which the Democrats controlled both houses by almost a two-to-one margin. The Hyde Amendment, which effectively prevented poor women from getting an abortion, opened the door to the attacks which have come down since on every woman's right to choose an abortion.

Only once did the Democrats try to use their congressional majority to reverse the Hyde Amendment – that was in the period coming up to the 1992 presidential elections. They passed a bill which would have overturned the Hyde amendment in 1991, knowing that then President Bush, given his electoral needs, would veto it. He did.

Yet, when the Democrats took over once again, after the 1992 elections, controlling not only the presidency, but also both houses of congress, they did NOT bring the issue back up. In other words, when they could use the issue for electoral advantage, they did so, but when they could have actually done something about it, they didn't.

In fact, it's obvious that the Democratic Party is not a defender of women's rights. But the one argument that has gained real currency in regard to abortion is the question of the Supreme Court, since the Supreme Court is often considered to be the first (and last) line of defense against attempts to role back the clock on abortion.

NOW (the National Organization for Women), for example, rests its support for Gore on this question. Its election material includes the following explanation: "With the next president having the power to appoint Supreme Court Justices who can either secure or destroy or rights, and with Bush citing Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas as those he most respects, NOW members know what is at stake in this election."

The implication of this is that the Democrats, even while not being consistent supporters of women's rights, will nonetheless appoint less bad judges to the Supreme Court.

In fact, the Supreme Court has never "secured or destroyed our rights," as NOW would have it. Rather, when the Supreme Court took on questions like abortion or, before that, legal segregation or, before that, the right of workers to form unions, it consistently ruled according to the social climate. In the face of determined social movements, the Supreme Court has often been constrained to "secure rights" – that is, to give legal approval to rights which the movements were already taking for themselves. But in the absence of those movements, the same Supreme Court can begin to unravel the rights once granted. (Ironically, the "Warren Court," often considered the most consistently ready to "secure rights," was directed by a Republican once considered to be very "conservative.")

To argue that we must depend on the Supreme Court and, by indirection, the Democrats, is to weaken the only real defense we can have for those rights, the readiness to carry on a struggle.

Choosing Not to Give Our Vote Away – and Doing it Consciously

Gore and Bush are the representatives of the two major parties which, for 18 of the last 24 years, shared the responsibility of government: when one party controlled the presidency, the other controlled at least one house of congress, or vice versa. During only six years did one party control both the congress and the presidency – and that party was the Democrats: during the four years of Jimmy Carter's presidency and the first two years of Clinton's presidency. But whether the Democrats controlled everything or not made no difference for the workers; the Democrats did not use the positions they had to put forth any kind of defense of the workers' interests.

During the first two years of Clinton's first term, the Democrats, who had been put in office by the campaign efforts of the unions and their members, didn't even bother to offer any sops to the unions: no increase in the minimum wage, no anti-striker replacement bill. In fact, they did not introduce one single bill into the Congress which corresponded to the priorities around which the AFL-CIO had campaigned for them. The fact is, both parties are completely implicated in what has been done – or not done – by government. (The last paltry increase in the minimum wage was agreed to by both parties – exactly four years ago, that is, coming into the last presidential election. Its insuffiency and its timing simply prove that both parties hold the working class in contempt.)

Once again, the workers come into an election year, with no one to vote for. There is no party which opposes the greed of the bosses, denounces the complicity of the government in what the bosses have done, and defends the interests of the working class.

Both major parties, even in the midst of an election campaign filled with lies, are admitting what they intend to do: put their hands on Social Security for the benefit of Wall Street, among other things. They discuss it openly. If the workers give them their vote, this is like giving both parties a blank check to go ahead and carry out this attack.

Are the Republicans slightly worse – a lesser evil – than the Democrats? Raising the question in this way puts us into a dead- end. Neither party represents our interests. Both parties attack us.

To choose one of these "evils" over the other is a trap, and a trap in which the working class has been caught for too long a time.

The workers are better off not voting for anyone, than voting to give their approval to people who attack them; better off preparing to resist and fight back against the things that both parties have in store for the working class once the election is over.