The Gilded Age of Austerity and the breakdown of civil society

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The End
Sluggomatic

Is this the week that civil society in the US finally collapses? It’s starting to feel that way. Most of the federal government is already shut down, and on Thursday, it could start defaulting on its debts, possibly dragging down the global economy. And here in the Bay Area, our transportation system will descend into gridlock if strikes shut down BART tomorrow and AC Transit on Thursday, as their unions are threatening.

It may not be the End of the World as We Know It, 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 remains largely intact (86 percent of Department of Homeland Security employees are on the job and soldiers are 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, 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.

BART managers argue that the district has offered enough and that the rest of the money is needed for its ambitious expansion plans, but there should have been a solution here somewhere short of ultimatums (strike vs. the district’s “last, best offer”). They shouldn’t have needed Gov. Jerry Brown to order the recently ended 60-day cooling off period — the same stall tactic that AC Transit is now asking for — in a world where the basic social contract behind civil society was still intact. When the center still held, before the new Gilded Age fused with the Age of Austerity, people of goodwill could find common ground.

“People’s very livelihoods hang in the balance adding to the additional frustration felt throughout the Bay Area today when both parties failed yesterday to reach an agreement,” Mayor Ed Lee said yesterday in a prepared statement about the BART strike as he cancelled plans to leave on a trade mission to China sponsored by business elites to help carry out their agenda.

Yes, people’s very livelihoods -- and their quality of life, and sometimes, their lives -- are at stake in these political struggles, those I mentioned and those happening in San Francisco around gentrification and taxation. Anyone who thinks that modern capitalism is sturdy enough to withstand any shock doesn’t have a very good grasp of either economics or history.

Maybe we’ll pull ourselves back from the brink and learn our lessons. Or maybe we’ve entered the endgame, a place where the desperation of those living in the Age of Austerity finally matches the greed and self-interest of those living in the Gilded Age, where one must defeat the other to survive, like two fighting birds plummeting to the ground in a death spiral.

And if that’s the case, are we ready for the next era? Have we sown our seeds and tended our gardens? It took World War Two to really get us out of the Great Depression, and I’d like to think we’ve evolved since then. But this week, I’m not so sure.