Page Two

Page Two
Classic "Page Two" here: a very long introduction to set a framework to think about the larger meaning of a more local incident. Bear with me. Politics is inherently spin. As an elected official, how do you get to do what you want to do (or think needs to be done) while convincing as many people as possible, despite their sometimes widely varying views, that you're doing what they want and what is best for them? We always think politicians are lying because they are always lying -- all of them. Lying may be too strong a word for some of you -- so call it packaging legislation so it is most appealing, emphasizing the most attractive aspects, spinning for greatest popular traction -- put it however you want. Great politicians understand that the needs of their constituents and their wants are often not the same. Doing what is right, in these leaders' visions, may be exactly what is wrong to their core supporters. Thus selling ideas/legislation is a critical part of a politician's job.

More cynical leaders may be just as convinced that what they are doing is right but more willing and able to gain support of the citizens most adversely affected. A recent editorial in The New York Times referred to the last rounds of fine-tuning on Bush's tax cut package as mean-spirited, because the consequence of this refocusing is that millions of the poorest Americans won't get any benefit from these cuts. Some who pay only a small amount will pay the same, others will get no more back than they already receive. Yet the cut was sold as having across-the-board benefits, providing relief for the poorest classes as well as the middle and upper. The wealthiest Americans will benefit the most from these cuts -- the very wealthiest. Some may argue that of course they will, and they should, because they pay the most in taxes. What can't be argued is that the package, as is, will benefit the poorest Americans -- instead, it won't change anything for them (unless a shamefaced Congress now follows through on promised revisions).

In fact, I'm not buying the charge of "mean-spirited." At their core, the cuts are more ideological than vindictive. Many Republicans do believe the Jeffersonian recitations that the government that governs least governs best. They believe in as little taxation as possible, whatever is needed to run the government (and to buy the military whatever it wants). They believe it is morally wrong to take one taxpayer's money and give it to another, under any circumstances. They omitted the poorest Americans not because they're mean-spirited, but because they truly believe these people deserve no government assistance.

Now they don't say that -- they don't come close. Instead, they insist these cuts will spur the economy and lift all boats, especially those of the poorest. The Congressional Budget Office, under the leadership of a director hand-picked by the right wing conservative Republican leadership, ran a number of economic models -- and not a single one showed the tax cut paying for itself. Yet this doesn't really matter to proponents -- it would be nice to revitalize the economy, but cutting taxes and government is the real goal. This institutional hypocrisy isn't a partisan-specific problem. Democratic politicians and leadership can be just as misleading, but at the moment they're pretty much out of power.

Politicians don't tell us what it is they're really trying to do. Politicians tell us what we want to hear, and many voters are quite happy not to hear about the hidden agendas. Rarely has this been more obvious because rarely has it been more blatant. The current national and state leadership have ideologically conceived, enormously specific goals. This belief in smaller government, fewer services, fewer governmental responsibilities to citizens -- and, consequently, lower taxes, will most damage and least benefit the working and lower classes in the short run. True believers, of course, believe that ultimately, after the storms of change are weathered and the economy consequently blooms, they will have downsized the government and citizens' expectations to the advantage of the nation and all the people. But this is not a vision that can be sold straight -- it has to be accessorized until it looks like the opposite of what it actually is.

You may agree with this vision. I don't. I think government grew to serve real needs, has a responsibility to all citizens, and that this downsizing will be detrimental to the nation's health and well-being in the long run, and for a very long time. Attacking the cuts, I've been accused of advocating class war, because presumably I hate the rich and want to penalize them. Nonsense -- I want this community to be as whole and healthy as possible, meaning shared (not equal) responsibility, with a consequent deep commitment to government's responsibilities. Class warfare in fact develops as the division between the richest and poorest classes becomes more and more pronounced.

Since any vision comes to us spun, on some level we have to trust the visionaries. Party leaders are going to be almost inherently compromised. One does not get to a position of power in an American political party as a consequence of conviction matched to untarnished integrity. This should be taken as a given. But the focus of the leaders' concerns inevitably affects legislation, and thus social reality.

Combing the issue of party leadership, spin, and specific agendas, we find ourselves on the doorstep of Alan Sager, Travis County Republican Party chairman. I'm going to recap, but check out "Getting Sheared by Sager: It's on the (Legal) Record" by Michael King in the last issue (May 30). Sager is involved in a number of ways with operating a substantial number of Supercuts franchises, primarily through Rainbow Investments Ltd., an investment group of which he is general partner. About 13 years ago a number of workers brought a lawsuit against Supercuts management claiming they had required employees to work off the clock. The lawsuit kicked around for eight years, but in July 2000, Travis Co. District Judge Suzanne Covington ruled in favor of the employees, awarding them lost wages and interest, and ordered the defendants to pay attorneys' fees and costs. It wasn't until February of this year that the workers received their checks. Attorneys' fees have yet to be paid.

Here is the heart of the matter, for me. The lawyer representing the plaintiffs is Ed Tuddenham. According to King's reporting, Sager described the case as a "13-year-old nothing lawsuit"; "a personal vendetta by some liberals who are out to get me"; "This guy [King presumes he means Tuddenham] went out and looked for this lawsuit"; and "Just compare the amount awarded to the attorneys' fees. This is sheer barratry, sheer barratry." (Barratry is defined as "the persistent incitement of litigation.")

This is familiar rhetoric in the current political litigation wars. "Tort reform" is built on the very ideas represented by Sager's statements: that the court is not offering legal protection to workers, corrective awards as a response to businesses' treatment of employees, or even equitable enforcement of the law. The true cause is lawyer-driven profiteering.

We've all imagined the teary-eyed plaintiffs' attorneys offering comments on the plight of workers before flying off in their private jets to their second or third vacation home. Sager is invoking that image.

Although I was not aware of this case until King reported it, I know Ed Tuddenham. He is almost fanatically driven by his sense of justice and responsibility, even though it has often taken him in the most personally economically adverse directions. Tuddenham is the poster boy of lost legal causes, and one of a handful of lawyers vainly working to protect immigrant workers' rights in Florida's sugar industry, where to call the prevailing social system feudal is demeaning to the Middle Ages' concept of social justice. Yet Sager suggests the stereotypical demeaning depiction of attorneys. Rather than protecting the rights of workers, they are looking for personal enrichment. Tuddenham, implies Sager, hasn't taken Supercuts into the courts out of a concern for economic justice, but as a way to generate his own income. Even though it's been 13 years, and he's earned no money. Even though much of the other litigation he's involved in is just as hopelessly (non) lucrative.

To return to where I began: the bigger question is which cuts in government and legal protections are ideological, and which are driven by income concerns -- given that making those distinctions can never be entirely clear-cut. Is the idea behind the cuts to move toward a more just society that serves us all better, or simply to create a better place to run a business with less governmental interference (with inevitably less legal protection and regulation, and fewer environmental restrictions)? In this context, how much do real issues frame the debate, and how much does self-serving rhetoric?

Sager is a community political leader and a businessman just doing what he thinks is best, and saying what he thinks is right. Yet in the current political climate, the way issues are framed has greater consequence than a few quotes in a story. Rhetoric drives legislation, and legislation drives social and economic conditions. What happens when rhetoric vastly outdistances the real-world consequences? When what is said is of more consequence than what is actually done? If the spun word trumps not just the word of law, but the history of its administration in real-world terms, where will that leave us? The reality (as we are now seeing as never before) is the long-term, negative impact of the sharply framed, short-answer rhetorical response, on the everyday lives of the working class. end story

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