Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Chauffeur's Dilemma for Wisconsin's Police

Frank Pasquale

Kevin Drum has explained events in Wisconsin well. Whatever you think of public sector unions, Gov. Walker's proposals ring alarm bells because they are so high-handed. They are also embedded in a larger package of crony capitalism, authority for infrastructure giveaways, and Medicaid-mongering.

What's particularly striking about Walker's proposal is that it carves out favors for certain public sector unions which supported his election, including the police. These same unions may need to decide whether, in the event of continuing protests, to forcibly remove "agitators" and round up Democratic state senators. At that point, they might face what Arlie Hochschild has memorably styled "the Chauffeur's Dilemma:"

Let's consider our political moment through a story. Suppose a chauffeur drives a sleek limousine through the streets of New York, a millionaire in the backseat. Through the window, the millionaire spots a homeless woman and her two children huddling in the cold, sharing a loaf of bread. He orders the chauffeur to stop the car. The chauffeur opens the passenger door for the millionaire, who walks over to the mother and snatches the loaf. He slips back into the car and they drive on, leaving behind an even poorer family and a baffled crowd of sidewalk witnesses. For his part, the chauffeur feels real qualms about what his master has done, because unlike his employer, he has recently known hard times himself. But he drives on nonetheless. Let's call this the Chauffeur's Dilemma.

The Chauffeur's Dilemma may seem overdrawn, but consider the recent raise in federal taxes for the working poor, compared with Obama-GOP unwillingness to tax those in the top 0.1 or top 0.01% more. Households in the top 0.01% make over $27 million annually, on average. Those in the top 1% captured 67% of all income gains from 2002 to 2007. And yet budgets must be balanced on the backs of teachers and the working poor? Even as the scandal of tax havens, costing taxpayers $100 billion each year, goes unaddressed?

The Chauffeur's Dilemma has broader relevance to the current US political situation. Bruce Ackerman has feared a "decline and fall of the American Republic," given that escalating power struggles between the branches of government could leave "the military as a potential arbiter" (85). If the recent uprisings in North Africa teach anything, it is the critical role of army officials at moments of political turmoil.

As Ackerman has noted, in our military, "by 1996, 67% of the senior officer corps were Republicans, and only 7% were Democrats"---a pattern that had continued at least through 2003. Does anyone think that political skew would have no bearing in case another Bush v. Gore-type dispute degenerated into constitutional crisis? If one ever wanted to prove the insularity of the US academy, one could do worse than compare the gallons of ink spilled on viewpoint diversity on campus and the near-invisibility of the partisan skew of the actual guarantors of order in our society. Even demonstrated cases of political targeting by the US domestic intelligence apparatus have generated little outcry.

As Simon Johnson predicted a few years ago, the financial crisis will bring economic pain for years to come. Protests like the ones going on in Wisconsin may continue, or may fizzle in an increasingly fragmented America. Whatever happens, the "Chauffeur's Dilemma" is sure to become more common, as those at the top push for a punitive austerity that promises little more than intensification of our current economic woes.

X-Posted: Concurring Opinions.

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