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Pay no attention to the billionaire behind the curtain

Work. Get a house, a car, health insurance, some vacation time, and a reasonable measure of financial security so you won’t be poor when you’re a geezer.

Those are, or were, the modest and unremarkable yet dear trappings of the middle class American dream.

Unless you’re a civil servant, in which case what used to pass for middle class success now symbolizes a “lavish” lifestyle enjoyed only by the “privileged class.” Or so says the right.

And so hostility to “overpaid” public employees and their “corrupt” unions is one of the most potent narratives on the 2012 campaign trail, in Nevada and the nation.

But here’s a thing: All that outrage toward public employees? It’s not really about them.

Cranky little area megalomaniac Sheldon Adelson did not give Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign a quarter-million dollars because Adelson thinks the assistant manager of the Oshkosh DMV office needs to contribute more to her retirement. Adelson and the rest of the bajillionaires who ladled money on Walker’s successful campaign against a recall, and who generously finance a host of right-wing advocacy groups and PACS, could give a shit if some fireman in Eau Claire is overpaid.

The Koch brothers have not bankrolled a Nevada branch of their severely anti-union wingnut factory, the Orwellian named “Americans for Prosperity,” because the Kansas-headquartered petrochemical tycoons are deeply disturbed by the compensation package awarded to North Las Vegas park maintenance crews.

Americans for Prosperity and its AFP-Nevada affiliate could give a shit if the Hellmouth opened up beneath North Las Vegas, devouring the city and all within it. But AFP-Nevada stuck its nose into the city’s union struggles anyway, blasting “despicable … union officials” and “the 1 percent of union bosses” for failing to make concessions to the city. (Amusingly, the same day AFP issued that statement, Teamsters employed by North Las Vegas were urged by their “union bosses” to make concessions, but the rank and file voted no. Evidently — and contrary to rote assertions from the likes of AFP — rank and file union members are not, in point of fact, unwitting pawns obediently heeding the commands of their “despicable” leadership).

So if billionaires and their puppet groups don’t really care about pay and benefits awarded to civil servants, why are they waging war on public employees?

Granted, they detest unions — that’s especially true of Adelson. But war on labor is motivated by more fundamental political goals.

First, the war on public employees is a classic wedge issue. That is, by fomenting resentment and anger against public employees among the broader electorate, the right drives a wedge between those who support organized labor and other middle income workers whose earnings, benefits and opportunity for financial security have eroded. Much of that erosion can be traced to the fact that over the last 30 years, the fraction of income that goes to the richest 1 percent has doubled, and the fraction that goes to the top one-tenth of 1 percent has tripled, which of course means that the fraction left over for everybody else has gotten smaller. If you are among that richest group, you would prefer to divert the rest of the population’s anger away from you and toward somebody else. Public employees will do nicely. Plus, the wedge issue will drive voters to support a candidate who echoes their anger toward public employees — Republicans, generally, who in office can be relied upon to support policies that further redistribute America’s wealth to the top.

The billionaire right is also keenly interested in inflicting lasting damage on any force that might threaten or — gasp! — thwart its self-interested agenda, such as, say, the occasional progressive impulse from elected Democrats.

Labor is by far the most significant source of nonbusiness funding for Democratic candidates. Diminish labor even more, and Democrats become virtually entirely beholden to business for their campaign cash, which is to say their political lives. There’s an argument to be made — I’ve made it before — that from the perverse embrace of austerity to the spineless unwillingness to force banks to write down mortgage principal to the shameful acceptance of a capital gains tax rate that allows Mitt Romney to pay an income tax rate that is half that levied on the middle class and on and on, the economic debate in this country spans the spectrum from A all the way to, well, B. The hard right would redirect wealth to the already rich as fast as possible; mainstream Democrats politely request permission to do it just a bit more slowly.

But if you think there is little difference between Democrats and Republicans with respect to the care and feeding of the rich now, rest assured that difference would be obliterated if the time, money and organization that labor dedicates to politics were to vanish.

And then Adelson, the Kochs, and the rest of the one-percenters won’t care which party is in power because either will do exactly what they’re told.

The war on public employees isn’t about “overpaid” civil servants and “despicable” union “thugs” who are “bloating” state budgets at taxpayers’ expense. It’s about smothering any and all opposition to the ruling kleptocrats and rendering contemporary cash-based democracy even more of a farce than it already is.