Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Fat Bastard Vs. Powerman And The Money-Go-Round

So what I want to know is: Since when did a snowplow driver become a Fat Bastard?

For those of you who don't know sports (and some of you who do) let me explain a Fat Bastard. A Fat Bastard is a player, most often a football lineman, who on the basis of one quasi-All-Pro season signs a five-year, $175 million contract, reports to camp looking like he swallowed Jonah, tweaks his hamstring in the first workout, and spends the remainder of his contract shuttling between the trainer's room and gentlemen's clubs.

Albert Haynesworth is the reigning Fat Bastard. Redskins fans hate Haynesworth because he's only in it for the money, and he quit trying once he got the money. Plus he was never that good to start with.

Somehow, astonishingly, in Wisconsin that same sort of hate is being leveled on snowplow drivers and second-grade teachers and all manner of public employees.

(Yes, this is a marketing column and not a political screed. Stick with me on this.)

The attack is being led by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who is sort of the Jim Rome of politicians minus the occasional zinger. His line is: 
  1. Wisconsin needs to cut government spending; and
  2. Breaking the public-employees' union is the way to get there. 
This is the simplified version. The more complicated version also involves removing the gold-plated urinals from the Black River Falls DMV office and replacing the snowplow-equipped Bugatti Veyrons with more conventional diesel-powered Macks.

Walker is much loved by the Tea Party, a group that can be described as the reactionary version of Wavy Gravy coming out of retirement and organizing all the flax-weavers and organic goat farmers in support of legal mushrooms for everyone.

Walker's line is being accepted because there is a current of society which holds to a complex belief system consisting of this: teachers make too much money.

Ever since there have been teachers there has been a segment of society claiming that teachers make too much money. When the first mother archaeopteryx nuzzled her baby archaeopteryx out of the nest and coaxed her into flight there was a equus on the ground saying, "She got two lizards for that?"

I've seen a lot of teachers, and from what I've seen 90 percent of them do not make too much money. Their benefit packages have been brought more in line with private industry, and they'll be graded on outcomes and paid on merit within the next 10 years regardless of whether Scott Walker dons a tiara and declares himself King of Brodhead and Greater Juda.

Public employees' compensation is generally built on a formula that pays less in wages and more in benefits. As a university official told me the other day, "When we recruit we know our wages are 15 percent below the market, but we used to make up for it by saying, 'But we have a really solid benefit package.'"

Because the benefit package is really solid – really solid, mind you, not outlandish in any dimension -- it is declared to be too much (definition of "too much": anything more than what I have) by those whose self-assembled retirement package consists of a handful of acorns stuffed into a hollow tree. And a twelver of Keystone.

Gov. Walker's remedy to this problem which is not really a problem is to strip the union of its collective-bargaining rights, which is like the old Monty Python sketch that has a couple of Bruces bagging a mosquito with a bazooka.

The Tea Party's message (and here's where the marketing comes in) has been communicated very successfully through Gov. Walker and his minions (who actually are little yellow pills, just like the characters in Despicable Me). Then again, it ought to be, seeing as it consists of four words: Taxes are too high.

The problem is it's inaccurate – or at the very least unfair.

Railroad workers have a fabulous retirement package, mostly funded by the government -- and by extension taxpayers -- but you don't see fiscal Luddites marching on Washington, the earpieces from their transistor radios pumping Glenn Beck into their shared left brain, demanding that the railroad workers give some back. Yet just as assuredly railroad retirement is paid for by the taxpayers, and railroad workers' benefits are paid for by consumers in higher prices for everything from bouncy balls to ball bearings.

And railroad workers are just one example. Think you don't pay for the severance and retirement packages of BP executives in terms of higher gas prices? Think you aren't paying for someone's cottage in northern Wisconsin every time cable rates go up? I know of some executives in an arcane nook of the financial-services industry who just voted themselves $20 million into their 401(k) accounts. Think that has something to do with the 0.5 percent you get on your money at the local bank?

Fact is, just about everyone is paying for everyone else's retirement, Social Security notwithstanding. But when the non-union private sector does it it's all right with the TP'ers, and when a union or a public-sector group does it they howl like a wounded panther.

Okay, so what happens next?

The Tea Party and its Republican shills, as mentioned earlier, hold the marketing high ground by virtue of their simple all-purpose message. No matter the issue the answer's the same. The environment is a mess. Taxes are too high. Discrimination is rampant. Taxes are too high. Corporations are taking the incentives and offshoring anyway. Taxes are too high. Health insurers and drug companies are making zillions and an inner-city mom still can't get to a doctor. Taxes are too high. John Boehner's hair looks like it was dropped on his head from a helicopter. Taxes are too high.

The Democrats, in contrast, have a couple of disadvantages. Their rebuttal is shorter – no, they're not – but far less versatile. Also, there has not been a ripe political situation since the Great Depression that the Democratic Party has not managed to spill all over themselves. They're the Exxon Valdez of political parties: They carry a lot of important stuff, but they run aground at the most inopportune times, and cleanup's a bitch.

In essence, what we're seeing is effective marketing of a lie versus ineffective marketing of the truth. In a case like this, sorry to say, bet on the lie every time.

There is hope for the truth, however. The images from Madison, the firefighters walking through the capital rotunda, are powerful tools for an outside organization with the bucks to spew it everywhere. Social media has already proven its worth in that regard.

History has also shown that a simplistic movement like the Tea Party breaks down when presented with a situation that does not lend itself to a simple answer – "A school-choice program requires taxpayer dollars" comes to mind – but does lend itself to divisions within a previously unified movement. Also, political pendulums do swing.

The 2012 elections will be interesting. And expensive. Count on seeing the images from Wisconsin 2011 over and over again. Count on hearing the Tea Party mantra repeated like ... well, a mantra, only with fewer people reaching fiscal nirvana for the buzz. And count on seeing a new Fat Bastard crowned sometime during the process.

This time, let's hope it's a real Fat Bastard. I have a few ideas if you're interested.