By Pete Shaw
On a summer Monday I was walking through downtown Kenton, excited at the thought of picking up John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space which was awaiting me on the hold shelf of the Multnomah County Library branch on North Denver Avenue. When I got to the library, however, it was closed. I later found out the reason had to do with a lack of funds, and the Monday closure was not limited to my local branch. It did not seem like much at the time. In fact, it seemed like a mercy as my wife does not deal well with Coltrane’s later work, and having the day off, she may well have inflicted violence upon me after about ten seconds of it. Any reasonable judge would probably let her skate on a General Principles plea, perhaps chiding her for not doing more damage.
But after contemplating these highly unlikely but certainly just proceedings, I began wondering what this closure would for Mondays during the school year. The Kenton branch is a pretty lively joint in the Summer, having a large area for kids to read and be read to, a bank of computers, a diverse magazine rack, and a meeting room. During the school year, it becomes even more vibrant, a place for students to do their homework or just spend time before their guardian returns home. Where will these young people go?
And libraries are obviously not just for the young, and they are not just for reading or homework. Movies, music, job advice, tax forms–these are just a handful of items available at our libraries. Most importantly they are places where people come together. They are places of community.
Just not on Mondays.
Austerity is a word we have been hearing in the news for a couple of years now, and it is usually in the context of Europe’s economic woes. The most talked about example is that of Greece, but Spain and Portugal have major problems, and it sometimes seems that larger countries such as Italy are not so far behind. The story, at least by those who support the current form of austerity, is that the state has been profligate in its spending, going to town like a drunken sailor, and now the bill is due. That waste is found in the wages, benefits, and pensions of government employees, government run health care systems, public utilities, and all manner of public institutions.
If some of that sounds familiar, it should. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker promoted similar ideas, and in much nicer words, at least to the public, said the public sector employees were composed of a bunch of greedheads who were overpaid and underworked in jobs for which they were not qualified, and because of them, the state was in debt. The solution, as in other states, and as in some European countries, was to cut public services and turn them over to the private sector. Throw in tax cuts for the wealthy, insisting that despite all historical evidence to the contrary this will produce jobs, and you have austerity in a nutshell, just another theater in the class war, redistributing wealth and power so that those already possessing it can further consolidate their hold while the rest of us are forced to take on further debt to survive.
The economy has slowed down, something probably inevitable since our capitalist model is built upon the twin assumptions of limitless resources and limitless growth, and the earth has finite resources, a reality that will limit growth. Compounding the problem is that a healthy and growing economy has been defined as one that results in the 1% receiving the majority of the benefits accrued by the work of the 99%. With the slowdown governments have focused on three paths toward building the wealth of the 1%: cutting social programs and services, privatizing the commons, and increasing the amount of debt people need to take on to survive.
The most obvious of these has been seen in the battle over Social Security. The dominant narrative is that Social Security is doomed to bankruptcy and the only way to preserve it is to either pare back its benefits or increase the retirement age, or both, a solution markedly similar to how numerous villages were saved during the Vietnam War. In reality, Social Security is not going bankrupt anytime soon, and any problem can be eliminated by simply getting rid of the cap–about $110,000 of wage income–and taxing any dollar of income, whether wage, investment, or dividend.
Simple reality, simple solution. Which is why the reality has to be obfuscated and the solution ignored.
The dynamic is hardly limited to Social Security. Libraries closed on Mondays is not good, but in some parts of the country, including Oregon, libraries have been privatized and thus are now managed for profit. We have a health care system that is based on making insurance companies’ profits instead of making people healthy. Marshall High School and Harriet Tubman Middle School have been closed. Privately owned charter schools, most of them shown to produce results equal to or inferior to public schools, are proliferating across the country. In Portland we have a failing bridge and a transit system that vaguely functions for those who need it most, but fares are increasing and routes are being eliminated. Oregonians are actually debating if it makes sense to allow Nestle the right to take our water, put it in plastic bottles, and sell that water for a profit.
This list is hardly exhaustive, but the common thread running through it is that these institutions and resources were once or for the moment still are part of the commons, the things we create and own as a community, built upon the belief that we are collectively stronger than as individuals; that, as Jim Hightower has it, we do better when we do better.
Those that stand to gain from privatization tell us, to quote Margaret Thatcher, there is no alternative. This is wrong, and what they really mean is they refuse to brook any alternative than one the fattens their wallets. They mean that profit and private property, particularly their own, are more important than people.
On November 3rd in Portland and around the country people will gather to tell them they are wrong, that We the People are who matter. We can have libraries that we own and are open every day of the week for everyone. We can have a single payer universal healthcare system. We can have schools that equally educate everybody regardless of ethnicity, class, and ability. We can have trains, buses, roads, bridges, and all other manner of infrastructure that don’t just connect us to work, but connect us to family, friends, and places of community such as parks, farmers’ markets, and houses of worship.
Some people might say we want it all, to which we might say, “Yes, we want it all for everyone, not just for a privileged few.” And when they ask who we think we are to demand such things, we can respond with the language of the past year: We are the 99%.
For more information on how to get involved in the Solidarity Against Austerity rally on November 3rd see: http://www.solidarityagainstausterity.org/