As the story goes, a unionized public employee, a middle manager, and a Wall Street CEO are seated at a table, with a dozen cookies on it. The CEO takes 11 cookies, looks at the manager and says, "Watch-out for that union guy -- he wants a piece of your cookie."
There's truth in humor. Since the 1970s, abundance has migrated from the middle class to the wealthiest among us, on a massive scale. As of 2007, the richest 10% of Americans hold nearly 3/4 of this country's wealth. That is a banana republic-worthy statistic, and far out-of-sync with American traditions and perceptions. The imbalance is also unsustainable, as vibrant middle class spending and job creation are crucial to an American-style economy.
Individually self-reliant to a fault, middle class families have tried three unsuccessful strategies in ever more desperate attempts to stay even: spouses went to work, then everybody worked the world's most exhaustingly long hours, and then home equity savings were looted to cover current consumption. Finally, the real estate bubble that funded those second mortgages burst: the middle class is now tapped-out, tired and ticked-off.
Remarkably, however, instead of bargaining for more cookies, or advocating that the wealthiest few acknowledge their good fortune in fairer taxes -- the middle class has turned instead on public employee unions -- groups who have struck better deals and thus stayed closer-to-even. All motion is relative; the sinking middle class blames its nearest neighbors, who seem to be floating slightly higher. The wealthy are, apparently, above the fray. It's a dismal quarrel over the last cookie.
The political Right has done a masterful job mis-framing the debate, raising the specter of dreaded "socialism" (not remotely close to reality), "wealth redistribution" (which has already happened, benefiting the rich), and "class warfare" the only real example of which is the middle class turning on itself. The losers in a smaller government era will be users of government services, and the vulnerable: the needy, disabled folks, students and oldsters among them. The winners? You guessed it maybe the rich really Are different?
This is actually not to castigate the well-to-do for the vast improvement in their economic well-being. Instead, the lesson here is that the middle class must come to grips with its actual degraded circumstances, and direct its collective electoral influence toward the achievement of its self-interests revitalization of its job-creating engine and a reformed tax structure. Those real interests have little to do with beggaring public services or government employees.
We all have to fight for our cookies, and them that's got 'em are not on our side.