Gilded Age of Austerity breaks down

Contemplating the federal government shutdown, strikes by Bay Area transit agencies, and political dysfunction

Activists perform a "die in" outside the SF Federal Building on Oct. 16 to protest the government shutdown.
AP Photo by Jeff Chiu

It was a week when it seemed that civil society in the US was on the verge of collapse.

Most of the federal government was already shutdown when Congress came without hours of letting the US default on its debts, a fate avoided late on Oct. 16 with legislation to limp along for a few months before repeating the partisan budget standoff again.

That same day, both BART and the AC Transit were headed for strikes that would hobble the Bay Area’s transportation system after long contract impasses between workers and management. Gov. Jerry Brown then ordered a 60-day cooling off period for AC Transit, just like the one he imposed on BART that had just ended, leading BART to be shut down by a strike that started Oct. 18 (for more on BART, including what caused two fatalities in the system on Oct. 19, see related story).

It may not be the End of the World as We Know It (the title and subject of our 12/18/12 cover story), but this is a striking confluence of events that should cause us all to take stock of the things we take for granted, from reliable public transit systems to a functional federal government to the ability of politics to resolve our differences.

This era could be called the Gilded Age of Austerity, a duality marked by huge and growing concentrations of wealth for the few, but for the rest of us: increasing economic insecurity, a tattered social safety net, crumbling public infrastructure, and few signs of hope that things will get better.

Democracy is a fragile experiment that needs to be regularly reaffirmed by all sides. The US electoral system was already heavily skewed toward the interests of the wealthy, who sponsor both major political parties, to the point where many consider elections to be a sham. But there was still a political system, a basic framework for running the country even during tough times, and that seems to be breaking down.

For the radical right-wingers responsible for hobbling the federal government, this might appear to be a dream come true: Most of the regulators furloughed, funding for most social services stopped, and only the police state remained largely intact (86 percent of Department of Homeland Security employees were on the job and soldiers were still getting paid).

But these anti-government ideologues have never fully understood or appreciated the myriad things that government does to keep civil society functioning over the long term. Our economy relies on federal spending, our health relies on the CDC spotting coming epidemics and the FDA inspecting our food, justice needs a civil court system, our travels depend on roads, and our future depends on today's young people getting educated (ie Head Start) and fed (ie Food Stamps), and that's all come to a grinding halt.

It's a similar situation with public employee unions, like those that operate BART trains and AC Transit buses. As we've reported (see “Last train,” July 9), private sector wages and benefits often rise or fall with those negotiated by unions. So when unions can't win good contracts or maintain funded pensions for workers, we're all dragged down.

The Gilded Age gets better for the bosses as the Age of Austerity gets worse for the workers.

BART's unions had an understandable expectation that they would share in the agency's recent budget surpluses, particularly after accepting wage and benefit concessions of $100 million over the last four years to help with projected budget deficits that never materialized.