When you don't fight what's hurting you. I've blogged before about the Pakistani lawyers and judges. Here they are last March standing up, after decades of passivity, for law and against their tyrant. Pretty simple. Now there's martial law, a suspended constitution, continuous riots. Tariq Ali has an excellent short summary of what happened.
Something similar is happening in France. There were the big rail strikes last month, and the Air France flight attendants strike that stranded us in Berlin for about 12 extra hours on October 27th, and the Bretagne fishermen who have been protesting fuel price hikes and, when le Jogger, aka le president de la Republique showed up, confronted him face to face and said he wasn't doing a damn thing for them. It was an amazing spectacle for an American, raised on our deference to our executives and their vast security forces, to see le Jogger surrounded by local folks listening but dishing it right back to him.
Americans generally don't see why the French make such a fuss about everything, including little stuff like cuts in pensions - in this case, in the "special" pension systems that affect employees of the Paris metro, the national train system, and the national gas company. The reason is simple: the public pensions are much better than the private ones. le Jogger et al want to cut the public pensions down to the private level, because that will save the state and its high-income tax base money. The employees don't want to give their pension money back, so that le Jogger can give it to business and wealthy people in the form of tax cuts.
As in the States, the language of necessity is always trotted out. Globalization means we can't afford your luxury pensions any more. Here are the actual figures, from Le Nouvel Observateur (table not on line): the average monthly pension (I'm assuming after tax, which is how salaries are usually expressed in France) for train folks is 1683 Euros, and a little over 2000 for EDF-GDF (electricity and gas folks). The highest average is RATP (Paris metro & bus), at 2136 E / month. That's 24000 E / year after tax, or what, maybe 40,000 E gross per year. That means that a retiree from those operations in France has an income that is somewhat below average for a family income in the United States (around $50,000 /year, depending on how calculated). FAT!
The private sector average is the big scandal: 827 E / month for non-cadres, meaning roughly blue-collar and other non-professionals, and a whopping 1429 E average/ month for professionals. Who wouldn't fight to keep their pensions from dropping by 1/3 to 1/2 if, as most think, le Jogger wants to shift the public onto the private model and get the final pension as an average of the last 25 years of salary rather than of the last 6 months.
Bush wanted to privatize Social Security in the US after his 2004 re-election. Arnold tried to do the same to CalPERS and other public pensions in California in 2005. It's a trend in Western countries for leaders to try to get money out of funds controlled by labor - and that go into employees' pockets - and into the investment system and corporate revenue streams that they control. How could employees NOT fight this?
The nurses and firefighters fought in California in 2005. But no thanks are owed to the political system. The Dims can't lie down fast enough. They can't manage to pass a law taxing hedge fund managers income - in come cases hundreds of millions of dollars a year - as actual income (it's 15% rather than 35% or so). Will the Dims get as radical as mondo-billionaire Warren Buffett in complaining about the gross injustice?
No. On another front - take the Bush Administration's nominee for Attorney General. He's opposed to torture but won't condemn waterboarding. The context for is the secret 2005 Justice Department memo the New York Times reported on in which, in the wake of Congress prohibiting “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment, declared waterboarding to be none of those things. Michael Mukasey inserted himself in exactly this space, opposed to torture, not opposed to waterboarding. Sens Sens. Fienstein and Schumer created an 11-8 majority that moved Mukasey's nomination out of the relevant Senate committee.
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has responded to a likely downturn in income tax receipts by asking all state agencies to plan for budget cuts of 10 percent. It's a habit among US political and business leaders to cut jobs and services as a first resort. The response? not a peep.
If we define life as acting in history, it's not clear that the US middle class is still alive.