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“ ... humanity needs stories that highlight the many absurdities that arise from collectively knowing what’s coming while collectively failing to act...We also need stories that show humanity responding rationally to the crisis ... ” Peter Kalmus, climate scientist and author
Mr. Kalmus was writing in the Guardian magazine about the movie Don’t Look Up. He says the movie (about a comet strike) is really a story about climate change and our ignoring the warnings and danger to humanity. The same could be said for many critical problems we face. People are good at collective denial.
Our collective denial, our lack of vision, our failure to do what we know is good for the majority of people limits progress in our society. As a result we miss out on a lot of life, liberty and happiness.
The anti-government attitudes of conservatives are a case in point. They believe government is bad and the free markets can solve all problems. But a 2019 Baylor University study says Americans are happier in states where people have more public goods and services even if they have to pay more in taxes. Public goods like libraries, good public schools, parks, public transportation, roads, water and sewage systems are the foundation of quality, desirable communities. These amenities benefit everyone and attract businesses. Public goods and services will not be provided by for-profit private sector.
The pandemic shows how essential government is to the well being of society. The private sector fell flat with supply chain disruptions, workplace safety blunders, and failures to respond to pandemic caused economic disruptions. It was the federal government that subsidized the development of vaccines, supported laid off workers, issued relief checks to millions, helped small businesses and kept the economy from tanking. Even wealthy corporation got in line for handouts while making record windfall profits.
Recent news reports document the value of these relief bailout monies. Since 2020, Congress passed five major bills to provide $4.6 trillion in emergency assistance for people, businesses, the health care system and state and local governments.
Wisconsin has benefited from these COVID relief dollars. A Wisconsin Policy Forum report says local governments will receive more than $20 billion in relief funding through 2024. This does not include direct federal payments to individuals and businesses estimated at $13.6 billion. The nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum says, “this unprecedented influx of federal aid has turned what a year ago appeared to be a historic fiscal challenge for state and local governments into a potential opportunity to address needs that emerged from the pandemic or even predated it.”
So when you hear Republicans criticizing “big government” or President Biden for deficit spending you should understand that federal government action saved our collective bacon. Many families would have been bankrupt, homeless and going hungry without this public assistance during the pandemic.
Whenever disasters occur – whether hurricanes, wild fires or speculative financial meltdowns as in 2000 and 2008 – the federal government is expected to come to the rescue. Every time the anti-government Republicans are first in line for the handout.
Another Republican-sponsored disaster is the unprecedented exodus of teachers from the profession. Teaching is a difficult job in good conditions. Typically 8 percent of teachers leave after the first year. About 45% of new teachers leave within five years. Governing Magazine says 500,000 teachers quit in 2020, including many with long experience. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics figures show 2.6 million educators and staff have quit public education jobs in K-12 and higher education during the pandemic.
Teachers have long been frustrated by rigid curricula requirements and excessive standardized testing. The pandemic created many more challenges. Now teachers must also endure political pandering on what and how they teach, the banning of books, accusations of indoctrinating students and angry parents protesting sensible health and safety practices. All this to earn 19.2% less than other college-educated professions.
Republicans with their political games, budget cuts and culture war absurdities have created a hostile work environment for educators. Given low unemployment and widespread labor shortages in other jobs it is a wonder they all haven’t walked!
The shortage of nurses is another crisis exacerbated by Republican free market ideology. A recent Economic Policy Institute report says 51% of nurses are considering leaving the profession. Nationwide 20,000 quit in 2020. Fewer people are choosing to go into the profession. Pandemic stress is part of the problem but the primary cause is staffing levels and mandatory overtime. In large hospital chains profits are more important than people. Many overworked nurses no longer find satisfaction in helping people. So they are leaving.
Even politicians are fed up and quitting. In Wisconsin one quarter of incumbents in the legislature are not running again (24 Assembly members and 7 Senators). This is the highest turnover since 1950. The increase in ugly personal attack politics, the cost of running for office and the partisan division that prevents getting anything done are primary reasons.
A similar trend is developing with other public employees in Wisconsin. Many civil service employees are retiring, budget cuts are reducing staffing levels, remaining employees are overworked, and younger people are not entering public service. The Republican budget cuts, bashing of public employees, scapegoating of public employee unions and anti-government rhetoric are producing negative consequences.
A strong civil service is the hallmark of good government. It is what separates failed from successful nations. Wisconsin used to be a leader in good government until the Republicans took over in 2010. All of us are paying the price.
The Trump “big lie” about election fraud is driving away even local volunteers for public service. The lies about “election integrity” have spawned right wing anger. Election officials and poll workers have been verbally attacked and threatened. Many are quitting. When Republicans replace these patriotic, dedicated, local volunteers with partisan hacks, you can be sure fair and honest elections will be history.
When essential professionals are saying “take this job and shove it” we are in serious trouble. Collective denial will not solve anything. We must have rational collective actions. This must begin by removing the the naysayers who refuse to “look up” and see the dangers to all of us.