The Privilege Walk Of Life

The college admission scandal now consuming our news cycle speaks to the many contradictions that now confuse our discussions about privilege and power in America today. To be shocked that the rich are able to buy their way into opportunities closed to the average person speaks to either an enormous naïveté or ignorance about the power of wealth across the timeline of civilization. Money has always been the lubricant of choice to make life a smooth and untroubled path for the fortunate few, and the wealthy always exert outsized influence on the world around them. To presume otherwise is sheer foolishness, and this is the primary reason why those with money and power are typically obsessed with yet more money and power—it is always nice to be very, very rich.

This scandal also is an object lesson in the importance of social and cultural signifiers in a world where developing your “personal brand” is now far more important than being a thoughtful and decent individual. Given that a degree from one of the most elite colleges in the United States—the ones with the name recognition necessary to improve your coddled child’s personal brand—is now considered a critical life accessory by the fashionable elite of Hollywood stars and corporate heavyweights, it should not be a surprise that a well-paid industry of fixers exists to plow the road to admission. A CEO whose child has to settle for a degree at a state college in East Podunk sees this “failure” an implicit rebuke of the parenting abilities of mommy and daddy, so such a sad state of affairs simply cannot be allowed to exist. Bring before me the “consultants” who will ensure my spoiled scion will succeed and reflect well on me!

However, this scandal perhaps most clearly points out our misunderstandings about privilege—and who actually has it—in America today.

Several years ago a former colleague related to me the dismal failure of the “privilege walk” she had her students complete. For those who are unfamiliar with this activity, it requires individuals to stand in a line and then take steps forward or backward based on “privileges” granted them by society. Below is a list of these privileges and deficits (you might want to grab a cup of coffee first), courtesy of Pennsylvania State University:

  • ​If your ancestors were forced to come to the USA not by choice, take one step back.
  • If your primary ethnic identity is “American,” take one step forward.
  • If you were ever called names because of your race, class, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If there were people who worked for your family as servants, gardeners, nannies, etc. take one step forward.
  • ​If you were ever ashamed or embarrassed of your clothes, house, car, etc. take one step back.
  • If one or both of your parents were “white collar” professionals: doctors, lawyers, etc. take one step forward.
  • If you were raised in an area where there was prostitution, drug activity, etc., take one step back.
  • If you ever tried to change your appearance, mannerisms, or behavior to avoid being judged or ridiculed, take one step back.
  • If you studied the culture of your ancestors in elementary school, take one step forward.
  • If you went to school speaking a language other than English, take one step back.
  • If there were more than 50 books in your house when you grew up, take one step forward.
  • If you ever had to skip a meal or were hungry because there was not enough money to buy food when you were growing up, take one step back.
  • If you were taken to art galleries or plays by your parents, take one step forward
  • ​If one of your parents was unemployed or laid off, not by choice, take one step back.
  • If you have health insurance take one step forward.
  • If you attended private school or summer camp, take one step forward.
  • If your family ever had to move because they could not afford the rent, take one step back.
  • If you were told that you were beautiful, smart and capable by your parents, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever discouraged from academics or jobs because of race, class, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back
  • ​If you were encouraged to attend college by your parents, take one step forward.
  • If you have a disability take one step backward.
  • If you were raised in a single parent household, take one step back.
  • If your family owned the house where you grew up, take one step forward.
  • If you saw members of your race, ethnic group, gender or sexual orientation portrayed on television in degrading roles, take one step back.
  • If you own a car take one step forward.
  • If you were ever offered a good job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever denied employment because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were paid less, treated less fairly because of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were ever accused of cheating or lying because of your race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you ever inherited money or property, take one step forward.
  • If you had to rely primarily on public transportation, take one step back.
  • If you attended private school at any point in your life take one step forward.
  • If you were ever stopped or questioned by the police because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were ever afraid of violence because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If your parents own their own business take one step forward.
  • If you were generally able to avoid places that were dangerous, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever uncomfortable about a joke related to your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step back.
  • ​If you use a TDD Phone system take one step backward.
  • If you were ever the victim of violence related to your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • Imagine you are in a relationship, if you can get married in the State of ___ take one step forward
  • If your parents did not grow up in the United States, take one step back.
  • If your parents attended college take one step forward.
  • If your parents told you that you could be anything you wanted to be, take one step forward.
  • If you are able to take a step forward or backward take two steps forward.

Quite a long list, to say the least….

Apparently some of my former colleague’s students vociferously and angrily objected to many of the items on this list (or one similar to it) because they felt these simply reflected wise or responsible life choices made by themselves or their parents and grandparents rather than some inherited “privilege” that is presumed to be unearned and unfair. Of course, those who believe in the veracity of this exercise would assert such an annoyed or disbelieving reaction is proof of an inborn sense of entitlement that is the result of privilege, so a discussion of the individual items on the list might be considered by some to be beside the point. However, there does seem to be cause for reasonable questions about the benefit of this exercise and the purpose of some of the items used. For example, a reliance on public transportation is perhaps more indicative of whether you live in a city rather than the sometimes dubious privilege of individual car ownership.

There are, of course, items on this list that perhaps reflect a tougher road ahead for some because they touch upon issues of discrimination or disability that obviously speak to challenges that no one wants to face, but the overall problem with the exercise might be that it focuses on “micro” rather than “macro” issues that affect success and failure—and some important problems are curiously omitted.

It is surprising that being a victim of sexual abuse or violence is not included—only the threat is mentioned in this list—but it could be the case that the authors wanted to avoid prompting any uncomfortable self-disclosures in a classroom setting. However, it is well known that victims of sexual assaults, which sometimes sadly begin in childhood, are at far greater risk of depression, low self-esteem, drug and alcohol abuse and suicidal ideation or attempts that add up to a far greater loss of “privilege” than whether your parents rented instead of owned your home as a child. Moreover, it is surprising that no direct mention is made of household income as a child. Although some items, such as summer camp attendance or household servants, might function as effective proxies for family wealth, there are still too many individual variables—maybe your summer camp was, for example, designated specifically for low-income children—to make a completely reliable connection.

What this type of list also fails to recognize is that privilege is often a more multifaceted conundrum. Sheer physical attractiveness or athletic skill opens a great many doors for a great many people—and to refuse to acknowledge this seems shortsighted. In addition, basic intelligence—or the lack thereof—is a significant precursor of both academic and career success. Moreover, the implication that a multi-lingual upbringing presents an all-but-certain life deficit also seems unsupportable when applied across a broad population. What about those who leverage their foreign language skills into well-paid positions in business?

However, one item does seem to me to be highly predictive of the type of privilege that many find both frustrating and disheartening: “If you were ever offered a good job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.”

Moving back to the college admission scandal now in the news, the mastermind of this scam did not have a billboard up on the highway offering to help bribe Ivy League team coaches or assist students with cheating on their SAT tests—wealthy parents learned about this “service” through word of mouth networks comprised of other wealthy friends and family. As with a great deal of what has passed for “privilege” since the dawn of civilization, most life advantage accrues through personal connections who provide inside information: the stock tip, the job opening that has not been advertised, the great deal on an expensive purchase, the zoning change that is suddenly going to increase the value of a piece of property. These conversations that are leveraged into more money, power, and influence are impossible to track—and unavailable to all but the most privileged few. As a result, the highest circles of power in most societies tend to be both self-perpetuating and supremely exclusionary. Prejudices and poverty obviously impact many lives, but our understanding of privilege tends to be both overly preoccupied with labeling and oblivious to the fact that some realities have more weight than others when it comes the exercise of privilege.

These privilege walks might be an interesting activity that provides fodder for the kinds of heartfelt and clueless conversations that fill many college classrooms today, but they also demonstrate a gigantic blind spot regarding our understanding of how power, privilege, and elites actually operate. Our preoccupation with labeling one person as privileged—and another as not—tends to reinforce simplistic explanations for individual success and failure that fail to account for the many complexities of life and grotesquely understate the enormous influence of family wealth in terms of providing access to information and opportunities that are not available to the average person.

We do still, thankfully, live in a nation that generally rewards hard work and personal initiative, although government enabled—or mandated—mediocrity is a real and growing problem. Moreover, we have to recognize that laws and regulations that are written to allow the elites to invisibly and effortlessly skim money from the economy ultimately turn the American Dream into a a cruel joke for those not born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

As long as government officials continue to trade campaign contributions for one-sided and destructive legislation that is designed to pit the poor against the slightly less poor, the lives of many Americans will continue to consist of catching the crumbs that drop from the tables of the rich and powerful. We don’t need a privilege walk; we need a People’s March against the fixers and insiders who devote their lucrative careers to robbing the many to enrich the few. That would be far more useful than expending our time and energy parsing degrees of victimhood or fighting with one another over matters that are ultimately of little or no importance to the futures of our children, families, communities, or country.

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The Roots of American Despair

We have long assumed that America is the “Land of Opportunity” for all. Our national belief that everyone is free to succeed—or fail—based on their hard work and personal initiative is a key component of both our self-perceptions and our perceptions of those around us.

However, international rankings of social mobility show that many other nations now surpass the United States in terms of their citizens being able to rise above the socio-economic classes of their births. This increasingly obvious disconnect between our preferred myth and harsh reality is likely one of the root causes of the political and social discontent that has pervaded our nation for many years. Americans, who are generally very hardworking, are perfectly willing to sweat and sacrifice—if there is a payoff. If, however, we are simply treading water or, worse yet, falling deeper into debt and dysfunction each day, our frustrations are likely to boil over.

Although there are many reasons for our extraordinarily divided politics, perhaps we fail to properly acknowledge the role of stagnated social mobility in driving American anger regarding our lives and our leaders. Whether it is the case that our futures are more and more being circumscribed by government that is too activist—or are harmed by government that is not activist enough—is a topic for a very long discussion that will likely do little to sway opinions entrenched on either side of this issue.

It can plausibly be argued that a great many problems that impede social mobility—rampant drug use, single parenthood, poor work habits, lack of personal initiative, the relocation of manufacturing jobs overseas, escalating public and private debts, and a disregard for personal responsibility—have been encouraged by government programs and policies that sometimes seem designed to produce the most destructive possible consequences for individuals and society. However, others argue that it is precisely a lack of more expensive and expansive government programs that leaves so many Americans without the tools they need to improve their lives.

Although I agree that we do sometimes need targeted programs to alleviate local and national problems—I would, for example, love to see more attention paid to our crumbling infrastructure—I also fear the many well-intentioned elected officials, bureaucrats, and policy wonks who seem to excel at producing the least possible benefit at the highest possible price. Anyone who has, as I have, watched a half-century of progressive educational dogma produce generation after generation of students who know very little—but feel really, really good about their ignorance—has to seriously question why any rational person would ever listen to a politician or PhD who claims to be able to improve our lives. Self-esteem, as I have often pointed out, can easily cross the line into self-delusion—and sheer stupidity is one of the most powerful precursors to lifelong poverty.

Access to a quality K-12 education—and the lack thereof—is both one of the persistent challenges now suppressing social mobility and a possible solution to this problem. Effective public schools are probably our single most important mechanism for promoting social mobility. Their continued failures over the past fifty years or so are both very visible and very depressing. We hear the outcome of public schools that fail to educate when employers consistently complain of high school graduates who lack the basic skills necessary for work. We see the consequences of public schools that fail to educate in our packed “developmental” classes at colleges and universities—and the many students who slink off after flunking out their freshman years because they lack the basic skills necessary for academic success.

If you want to cripple the futures of your nation’s people, just be certain they can neither read well, write fluently, nor compute accurately when they finish public school. Next offer them a vast array of social programs that discourage independence and encourage irresponsibility. Be certain that you also promote a range of government policies that drive well-paying jobs out of your communities and country while saddling everyone with frighteningly unsustainable levels of debt that will further retard economic growth and opportunity for all. Repeat this process year after year—and generation after generation—and watch Americans become more angry and less hopeful until they finally turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their pain. Does any of this sound at all familiar?

I don’t worry about Russia; I worry about our own government. Our leaders are much more likely than Vladimir Putin to destroy America—because they want so badly to justify their existence by “helping” us. However, given that the national unemployment rate is currently trending down to levels not seen in half a century, perhaps those who have had their lives sidetracked by decades of government assistance, which has primarily served to assist them into lives of quiet despair, will now have opportunities available to rejoin the labor force, develop a sense of self-confidence heretofore cruelly stripped from them, and begin to reduce some portion of the income inequality that is a legacy of so many decades of government help gone awry.

Big Money Politics Helps Produce Political Extremism

People have been complaining about the corrupting influence of political contributions forever, and it is true that the escalating costs of running for state and national political offices have turned our elected officials into full-time fundraisers—for themselves. Given the many millions of dollars it might today cost to campaign for a Congressional or Senate seat—and setting aside the astronomical $850 million spent by the two major party candidates during the 2016 Presidential race—it is apparent that we now have a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.

It is an open question just how much of the daily struggle of the average American actually gets through to candidates who are cosseted by campaign contributors handing them gobs of money. This does not become less of a problem after they are sworn into office. Upon being elected, officials immediately start to raise the dollars necessary to hold their seats, eclipsing the daily work on behalf of constituents—whose troublesome needs eat into the time that must be spent raising campaign funds.

However, the power of incumbency at least makes raising money easier because political favors now can be granted in exchange for campaign contributions, which are certainly a pernicious form of peculiarly legalized bribery. As the costs of political campaigns keep increasing, the importance of your opinion to your elected representative is ever more related to the size of your bank balance, the “pay to play” politics that disgusts most Americans. We are, sad to say, now all forced to live by the Golden Rule: “Those who have the gold make the rules.”

There is, however, another problem beyond the capture of our political institutions by wealthy individuals and interest groups—and it is helping to tear apart our nation.

Campaign fundraising used to be built around two basic appeals. On the one hand, you could attempt to appeal to the more elevated human traits of empathy or sympathy. An example of this approach might read as follows:

“Your contribution will give this puppy a warm bed tonight.”

Of course, if you really wanted to motivate potential contributors, a more crisis-laden approach was often more effective:

“Unless you contribute, this puppy will die tonight.”

If, however, you are running for political office today and need oodles of money in order to compete, a more sensationalistic and confrontational approach is preferred:

“UNLESS YOU CONTRIBUTE, MY OPPONENT WILL MURDER THIS PUPPY TONIGHT!” 

See the problem? The ongoing need for cash to keep today’s mega-million dollar campaigns afloat inevitably pushes all political discourse to the extremes because this is what best motivates contributors. Candidates can no longer afford to be gracious, reasonable, or moderate. All political opponents are now by grim necessity depicted as horrible brutes, and all opposing policy ideas are certain to result in lingering death, massive destruction, and the breakdown of civil society—because to say otherwise would not persuade anyone to write a check. Every election cycle is now Armageddon—the ultimate confrontation between good and evil—and each campaign season only further reinforces these venomous attitudes.

Big money politics have, of course, become an even worse problem over the years because of both inane Supreme Court decisions that have privileged wealthy donors and the sheer recalcitrance of officeholders who love the fundraising opportunities of incumbency and are allergic to reforms. However, reform we must if we are to have any hope of rescuing our nation from extremist politics and speech because campaign cash does more than just buy influence: It is itself a major driver of the political extremism that is both stalling our political processes and sidetracking legitimate national needs—all the while turning neighbors into enemies. Unless we can find a way to reduce the extraordinary costs now associated with political campaigns, we are likely condemned to yet more divisive and damaging political speech that will continue to hollow out the shrinking center of our national dialogue.

Should You Hate Those Who Disagree With You?

I often feel that those who see racism and sexism (and other “-isms” too numerous to count) all around us share much in common with those who use the teleological argument to demonstrate that God exists. Just as some argue that the appearance of order and rationality in nature absolutely proves the existence of a purposeful creator, so do others contend that all forms of inequality are clearly the outcomes of embedded hatreds and deliberate discrimination. The use of such obviously circular—or at least specious—logic to prove that America is still an openly discriminatory nation chock full of bigots and haters should give one pause. Moreover, one has to also wonder whether such beliefs about America and Americans create their own issues—and explain a good deal of our troubled contemporary political culture.

Although there are certainly bigots to be found in our nation, one would be somewhat hard pressed to demonstrate that discrimination is still a driving cultural force in America. Indeed, when one looks at our prevalent commitment to multiculturalism throughout the public and private spheres of our society, the immense and broad-based popularity of diverse entertainers, sports stars, politicians, and public figures across our nation, and our increasingly multiracial and multicultural population, we see clear evidence of a country less and less concerned with anything other than our shared humanity.

Nonetheless, our nation’s liberals still routinely describe our country in terms that make it sound as if ignorant bigots still rule across the land. One CNN commentator memorably described the election of Donald Trump as a “white-lash” in response to the two Obama presidencies, and the progressive press is regularly filled with dire predictions about the future of the United States that suggest conspiracy and malign intent abounds around us.

To presume that all negative life outcomes and experiences are the results of discrimination is an incredibly reductive—and damaging—assumption that both provides a facile excuse for personal failures and insults the vast majority of Americans who treat their friends, families, neighbors, and co-workers with the utmost respect and consideration. I increasingly find myself wondering whether the liberal obsession with “micro-aggressions” has become so extreme because there truly is not much overt bigotry in American society today. A lack of cultural sensitivity and knowledge, which is certainly unacceptably neglectful today, is very different from hatreds based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender—and those relatively rare situations where such attitudes are now ever expressed are roundly condemned. A nation such as ours where currently 1 of every 6 marriages is racially mixed just doesn’t appear able to support the level of hatred that many insist still exists throughout our nation.

Unfortunately for progressives, acknowledging the many successes of our diverse nation disables the overarching political narrative of the Democratic Party—the need for Big Government to protect us from all those horrible bigots out there—which might explain some portion of their inability to move voters in the Presidential election last year. To continue to assert that discrimination explains everything means nothing to voters who might, for example, go to a female doctor, report to an African-American supervisor, have a lesbian sister, and attend a night class taught by a Chinese-American professor. There are, of course, many areas of the United States where the population is less heterogeneous and the understanding of our very diverse nation is perhaps less sophisticated, but these folks are still at least exposed to a much broader reality through their voracious consumption of mass culture. Even the kids in Topeka are grooving to Beyoncé these days, and the bad old days of regional insularity and parochialism are probably gone for good.

Many voters are increasingly annoyed by those who insist on blaming their own failures and problems on discrimination when it seems obvious that a more multifaceted understanding of persistent inequities might be more reasonable. For example, if your local community has a difficult time attracting small businesses because of crime, are those business owners who are keeping their distance bigoted—or smart? If your child is flunking in high school, are the teachers failing to provide a nurturing environment—or should you be taking away your kid’s cell phone and insisting on some study time? If you are not hired for a job because you cannot pass a police background check, whom do you blame for your misfortune—yourself or a “hate-filled” world that kept arresting you for breaking the law? Although it is now common to dismiss discussions about personal responsibility and real life consequences as “victim blaming” or something worse, perhaps these dialogues are necessary—and even helpful.

We have problems—all societies and nations do—but active discrimination might be slipping down the hierarchy of concerns faster than many realize. Healthcare, affordable housing, quality schools for our children, income inequality, reliable infrastructure, taxes, secure retirements, crime, and a host of other pressing issues likely preoccupy more Americans than the random cuckoos who justify their awful behavior and attitudes with cock-eyed theories about humanity. Given this, the liberal insistence on pushing identity politics to the forefront of every discussion eventually turns off voters who are looking for practical and affordable solutions for their concerns rather than virtue signaling and sanctimonious lectures.

The crux of the issue—and likely one that has motivated the increasing rejection of Democratic candidates on a national level over the past decade—is a frustration many voters feel about being labeled as bigots because they don’t support or believe the progressive political agenda, and this is a discussion that the Democratic Party needs to have if they hope to regain their electoral footing in the years ahead. To continue to argue that any judgments about behavior, values, or morality are hatred and bigotry in disguise will not be a winning strategy with voters who take pride in their accomplishments derived from self-sacrifice, hard work, and personal integrity. Although some Democrats disparage “values voters” for their supposed lack of intelligence and worldliness, it might be worth remembering those very same voters are often the bedrock members of communities across our nation—and to refuse to honor their lives or hear their concerns is both wrong and wrong-headed.

Moreover, to persist in branding all those who disagree with your values or assumptions as bigots likely causes its own set of difficulties by closing ears, heads, and hearts to any reasoned conversation while embittering rather than enlightening. An electoral strategy predicated on convincing your supporters that their fellow citizens are “deplorables” is a prescription for a nation that is fragmented, fearful, and frustrated—which seems to be right about where we find ourselves at the moment. Perhaps it is time to stop and consider the damage these defamatory characterizations inflict on both individuals and our country.

Further proof that we need to stop demonizing others is the shocking and cowardly shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise—by someone who obviously thought he was stopping a bigot or something worse because of what he read and heard. This tragedy is a harsh reminder of how encouraging the hatred of those with different views or values can have tragic consequences. It’s time to grow up and work together for the good of our nation. If we can start listening and stop attacking, there is much we can accomplish.

Some level of bigotry will always exist in any society because we cannot outlaw individual stupidity, but to presume that everyone is a bigot and hatreds run rampant causes its own—and, in some cases, worse—problems by putting everyone in the position of walking around with their fists up. No nation can survive living in a state of constant suspicion and anger, and we condemn ourselves to a prison built from our own fears if we live our lives always presuming the worst of one another.

As much as so many dislike politics and politicians, we must recognize that they will play a key role in whatever healing is possible. Just as the Democratic Party must rethink their approach by listening more, the Republican Party must contribute to the healing that is necessary by speaking more softly and carefully in order to avoid their own brand of inflammatory rhetoric. President Trump might have ideas worthy of consideration, but he harms our nation when he continually presents his thoughts in the most combative manner possible. Leadership requires toughness at times, but more often it requires a respectful tone that soothes rather than scars.

Democrats In A Debt Trap

The electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party are now at a low ebb, and leaders of the party are seeking a path that will allow them to begin winning back the governorships and state legislatures they have lost to the Republican “Red Wave” in recent elections. On the federal level, the loss of all three branches of government—the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency being the most galling loss of all to many—has led to a great deal of soul-searching that has yet to produce a solid strategy for success beyond continuing to paint the Republicans now firmly in power as heartless plutocrats out to enslave America.

Only time will tell whether simply bad-mouthing Republicans will ultimately turn into a winning electoral strategy (Hint: It didn’t work for Hillary Clinton). However, I wonder if there is a much bigger electoral problem facing Democrats that is not being sufficiently discussed: trends in the American labor market over the past half century—particularly those regarding union membership—that could ultimately serve to lock Democrats out of power for many years to come.

The support of the Democratic Party for the American labor movement during the glory years of the Roosevelt presidency, the industrial boom due to rearmament around World War II, and our manufacturing hegemony in the period immediately after the war while the rest of the world’s factories still lay in ruins likely hit its high point in 1954, when roughly 35% of all American workers were unionized. Our heavily unionized private sector employees in key America industries such an automobile and truck manufacturing, steel, coal, and transportation helped create national wealth on a scale never before seen in world history, and many Americans enjoyed a lifestyle as a result that was previously unimaginable.

The precipitous decline of many formerly dominant U.S. industries is well-known to all, and today a scant 6.5% of private sector workers are members of unions, which would seem to signal the death of the American labor movement—but this is not the case. Although total union membership has certainly declined, and now only 11% of all workers are unionized, labor unions have become a dominant player in one part of our job market—public sector (read: government) employees, where roughly 35% of workers are now unionized.

During the decades following World War II—and most particularly during the decades following the “Great Society” progressive politics of the 1960’s—government employment as a percentage of the workforce exploded, and today roughly 1 in 5 American non-military workers is drawing a municipal, state, or federal paycheck. At the local government level union membership among workers hovers between 40-45% because of the inclusion of heavily unionized police, firefighters, and public school teachers in the totals. This is a transformation that has changed both the American labor movement and its relationship to our citizens.

In a galaxy a long, long time ago—and now far, far away—unions largely represented the downtrodden industrial proletariat battling the evil capitalists for a fair share of the wealth, in the form of profits, their labor was creating. However, the demands of workers were always constrained by the profits that were available to share; unions certainly did not want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. This near-magical balance was, of course, destroyed by foolish free trade agreements that allowed companies to simply relocate their operations to countries where labor was much, much cheaper. However, I hope—and I know I am not the only one who feels this way—that a rejection of the illusory benefits of globalization will bring much needed manufacturing jobs back to America and reinvigorate our private sector unions.

However, when it comes to public sector unions, there is no balance between worker demands and available revenues/profits that constrains negotiations; taxes are simply raised or costs deferred to pay for contract agreements, and any dollars and cents reality is largely absent from the equation. Those long gone battles between industrial workers and greedy capitalists that still inform our collective understanding of labor-management relations are misleading models for today’s labor market; the negotiations between public sector unions and craven politicians who often lack all business sense are one-sided affairs that have become, to be blunt, a fiscal disaster for the taxpayers of our country.

Unconstrained by the realities of profit and loss, public sector workers now typically enjoy salaries, job protections, and benefits (particularly as regards healthcare and retirement) that the average private sector worker no longer even dreams of possessing. We now often encounter the rather perverse situation of relatively less affluent private sector employees being taxed to pay for the comfortable lifestyles of those who work for government, and these pressures are reaching the boiling point as the costs of public pensions and retiree healthcare agreements—that were negotiated decades ago with absolutely no thought as to how they eventually would be funded—are now blowing gaping holes in local, state, and federal budgets. Estimates of the cumulative shortfalls in public sector retirement plans, which are still built around defined benefit models that have largely disappeared from the private sector, range between $3-5 trillion. This is going to get real ugly real soon, and taxpayers—unsurprisingly—will be caught in the middle.

All of this leaves the Democratic Party in one heck of a bad spot. Given that many millions of dollars of union contributions to the Democratic Party and Democratic politicians are major sources of funds to support political and electoral operations, Democrats cannot back away from their traditional support for these unions and their demands their contracts be honored in full. However, given that this will essentially boil down to requesting steep, escalating tax increases to cover the costs of fiscally unsound pension and healthcare plans for decades to come, Democrats are going to find themselves in the very unpopular position of squeezing money—and lots of it—out of the struggling many to pay for the comfy lifestyles of the few. Citizens will certainly push back hard—as has already happened where bailouts have been sought after municipal public sector plans have failed—and their demands that retiree benefits be reduced to levels that can be sustained with the tax dollars now available will certainly grow louder and angrier.

The bottom line is that, in the difficult years ahead, the Democratic Party will be in a perfect position to make a lot of enemies. Members of public sector unions will feel betrayed by the Democratic politicians they have so lavishly supported with political contributions, and taxpayers will be likewise angered about being asked to foot the bill for financially irresponsible employee contracts. Republicans, who have historically advocated for small government and (at least in words) for fiscal restraint will simply sit back and watch these battles while positioning themselves as the protectors of working class taxpayers—unlike those danged crazy Democrats who just want to raise everyone’s taxes and spend, spend, spend.

Unless the Democratic Party can find a way to convince their allies in public sector unions to voluntarily reduce their salaries and benefits in order to forestall a fiscal supernova, it is going to be a very rough go at the ballot box for their candidates, which will push them even further into the political wilderness and leave our nation with de facto one-party rule. This would be a real shame because a vibrant two-party system provides tremendous benefits to our nation and its people, but I wonder whether this fiscal trap is one the Democratic Party has any hope of escaping unscathed.