Saturday, January 1, 2011

Looking for Any Excuse

Brookside Mill workers in 1910, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA
An article in the New York Times describes the growing anger across the country directed at public service workers.  As state budgets face red ink, many are shifting their gaze towards one of the last seemingly stable sectors of the economy.  Unions are seen as shielding their members' exorbitant salaries, pensions and job stability itself.  As the economy continues to stumble, people are asking why they should continue to foot the bill for these seemingly recession-proof workers.  As the article puts it:

A new regime in state politics is venting frustration less at Goldman Sachs executives (Governor Christie vetoed a proposed “millionaire’s tax” this year) than at unions.
This is an interesting point.  There is a clear calculus being made here that unionized public sector workers are somehow less deserving of the need to sacrifice than millionaires.  This, despite the fact that most public workers clock in at the low end of the middle class pay scale.

The philosophical basis for this distinction is rooted in the conservative, meritocratic fallacy that millionaires not only deserve their wealth because of hard work, but are the active engines of economic growth.  Therefore, taxing their income would actually stifle growth.  The essential image of this picturesque fantasy is one of every millionaire out there starting new businesses or investing their money in growth-industries.  Of course, when speaking of tax breaks of $20-30K, none of these individuals is indulging in zero-sum consumption - in which their spending produces no net gain in growth; i.e. jewelry, fine leather goods or vacations in Aspen.  Of course not.

Yet what seems particularly more irksome than the notion that millionaires are magic growth machines, is the idea that lowly non-millionaires are of negligible worth to society.  Now, maybe I'm getting ahead of myself...  maybe these outraged Americans do actually value the public service workers who spend their days working for the very same "government" despised by those outraged, and who perform jobs they would just as soon not have them do at all.

But even supposing these workers are valued, why expend so much energy trying to cut back on their salaries and benefits while sparing the marginal rates of the very wealthy, unless you fundamentally don't believe those jobs are worth doing.  As the article notes, simply acting out of a sense of fairness would seem spiteful.
All of which sounds logical, except that, as Mr. Moriarty also acknowledges, such thinking also “leads to a race to the bottom.” That is, as businesses cut private sector benefits, pressure grows on government to cut pay and benefits for its employees.
An increasingly familiar complaint is that anyone should expect a pension at all.  On a recent episode of 60 minutes, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie flat out asked the question:
I think the general public thinks, 'I can't believe anybody gets a pension anymore. I've got a 401(k). It got killed in the stock market. I don't know what I'm gonna do for my retirement. I can't believe people get a pension anymore.'
Well, we know what Governor Christie thinks.  You know, maybe the minimum wage is a bad idea too.  And maybe costly workplace safety regulations.  Or overtime pay. 

I think we know where this is heading.  We've literally been there before, and conservatives are itching to take us right back.  And a recession is as good an excuse as any.

No comments:

Post a Comment