Perhaps the most notable historical irony in my lifetime was the Nobel Peace Prize going to Henry Kissinger for negotiating an end to the Vietnam War. In 1968, Richard Nixon said he had a "secret plan for peace with honor" to end the Vietnam War, and Kissinger would be his main man. It turned out that secret plan was slowly removing troops to claim progress while increasing the bombing, even in neighboring countries. And it did not work. Kissinger negotiated and accepted the same terms that had been on the table when Nixon was elected. And because of this political sham, we lost more soldiers in Vietnam after Nixon was elected than before.
That most overwhelming sort of irony exists in this historical moment as well: Rep. Paul Ryan offers another budget proposal, and it seems that not only the advocates of the 1 percent but many Washington pundits praise Ryan's courage. Where I come from, the person who stands with the bullies and wants to give them more by taking from the poor, the elderly and the disabled is regarded as clueless, gutless or both, but certainly not courageous.
Great scholars are honored elsewhere in the world, but we do not listen to Nobel laureates in economics like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz or the great New Deal economist John Kenneth Galbraith. No, we listen to Ryan, someone who carries around the twin bibles of Ayn Rand, "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead." Those were interesting reads when I was young, but I noticed the irony: When Ayn Rand got cancer, things changed. She had railed against any safety net, especially Social Security and then Medicare when it was passed, as socialist assaults on individual liberty. But she had no trouble letting Medicare cover her medical bills, though she could afford to pay them herself.
Then, of course, there is irony in the pending case before the Supreme Court on the Affordable Care Act. The irony is that the chief issue before the court, an "individual mandate" that everyone must get health insurance, was always a Republican proposal to foster individual responsibility and prevent freeloaders. It actually came out of the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank.
But the greatest irony in the health care debate, as reported in Newsweek, involves an original plaintiff in one of the lawsuits challenging the individual mandate. It seems that this Florida small-business woman and her husband, whose liberty supposedly was threatened by the government trying to force her to buy health insurance, have filed for bankruptcy, owing thousands of dollars in medical bills. Those bills, of course, are being picked up by people who have health insurance. And her name was dropped from the case before it reached the Supreme Court.
Next we note the continuing pressure from the 1 percent to lower their personal income taxes as well as corporate taxes. Most people are aware of the irony that high earners' taxes are at their lowest rate in more than 50 years. But still we keep hearing that the U.S. has the "highest corporate taxes" in the industrial world. And yet Citizens for Tax Justice reports that 30 major corporations-including heavy hitters like General Electric, Boeing, Verizon and Mattel-paid no net income tax at all from 2008 to 2010, and 26 of the 30 maintained their negative federal tax rate for 2011. Despite $205 billion in pretax profits, they used tax breaks and loopholes to make more money after taxes than before.
If you are a small-business person with less than a million dollars in revenue, you are being stuck with some of these big corporations' tax burden just like working people. Thank the lobbyists and the Chamber of Commerce for pushing the big boys' agenda at your expense.
At the local chamber of commerce, people are screaming that the sky will fall if we raise the state's minimum wage to $8.50 an hour. In their view, it is never the right time to raise the minimum wage. In good times an increase will be passed to consumers and cause horrible inflation; in bad times it will increase unemployment.
Labor is sometimes guilty of its own spin, noting that in the year after the minimum wage was increased under President Bill Clinton, more than 2 million jobs were created. But the overwhelming majority of economists dismiss incremental increases in the minimum wage as being insignificant in an economy as large as ours.
I will never understand people who are well off saying we should not pay workers $8.50 an hour for their labor in the 21st century. How do they look in the mirror? Here is socialism for employers: They pay poverty-level wages that taxpayers then subsidize with Medicaid and food stamps.
Let us raise the minimum wage to a level above poverty, say, $15 an hour. In terms of real wages, the late 1960s minimum wage would exceed $12 per hour today. This raise would cause short-term problems, but in the long run it would increase the money in the economy and boost consumer demand, which creates jobs.
We once had child labor, indentured servitude and slavery. The South said that it could not afford wages, that the agricultural economy in which cotton was king would not survive. Southerners were right that their way of life was endangered, but the nation did not care because such a labor system could not be morally or legally justified.
If the demand in the marketplace is so low for your product or service that you cannot afford to pay a living wage, then your business should not survive in a civilized society. Is that not what a competitive free market is all about?
Finally, as I write this, the ghost of Joe McCarthy rises again. Red-baiting has always been used against progressives and unions. They have been called socialist, foreign, non-Christian-just as our president has been described by the lizard-brain faction on the right. Now Rep. Allen West of Florida has said that the 70-plus representatives who make up the Congressional Progressive Caucus-including Rep. Louise Slaughter-are Communists.
Many people are falsely accused of hating America because we want our country to be more just. But I am reminded of my childhood, when my Italian immigrant grandparents would scold me and then explain themselves with an old Italian proverb: "Solo i tuoi veri amici ti dira quando il tuo viso e sporco."
Translation: "Only your real friends will tell you when your face is dirty."
James Bertolone is president of the Rochester Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He also is president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 215.4/27/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.