Saturday, February 19, 2011


Matt Welch at Reason finds a distasteful sign at the Wisconsin rally and has this to say about public sector unions in general:
I have written in the past about how libertarians are pretty lonely in the political scheme of things in terms of constantly being challenged to defend themselves against the "logical conclusion" of their philosophy. But I think it's time to amend that. We are witnessing the logical conclusion of the Democratic Party's philosophy, and it is this: Your tax dollars exist to make public sector unions happy. When we run out of other people's money to pay for those contracts and promises (most of which are negotiated outside of public view, often between union officials and the politicians that union officials helped elect), then we just need to raise taxes to cover a shortfall that is obviously Wall Street's fault. Anyone who doesn't agree is a bully, and might just bear an uncanny resemblance to Hitler.
This is an object lesson in cherry picking problematic elements of the rhetoric used by those with whom you disagree, in order to create a straw man.

That was a terrible sign.  But is there much evidence of that type of rhetoric elsewhere on the left?  With the Tea Party, as with right wing radio and television in general, there seems to be a definite trend.  What is more, there is a longstanding tradition on the right of a narrative that literally worries that liberalism is inherently fascistic and will lead to tyranny.  That said, it is an important reminder of how muddled thinking cripples debate.  More than anything, what the above sign did was to distract from real engagement.

Welch also makes some more serious points.  There are a couple of assumptions implicit in Welch's commentary.
1 - Because few private pensions exist, public pensions shouldn't either.
2 - Public workers shouldn't be allowed to unionize, because they'll end up capturing politicians and getting paid too much.

1 - Should private pensions not exist?  It would seem that pensions are a form of compensation set up in an environment of job stability.  For a number of reasons, they couldn't be maintained.  But does that necessarily apply in public sector work, which is almost by definition a very stable industry (we'll always need cops, teachers, firefighters, etc.)?

2 - Public workers have the same needs as private workers.  Aside from basic questions of labor rights, unions can be an invaluable way for an organization to get objective input from its "members on the ground" - middle managers are just as interested in preserving a status quo that makes themselves look good at the expense of larger truths.  (Our teachers union is greatly interested in best-practices and is often the only bottom-up link politicians and administrators have with what is really going on in the classroom.  To the extent that they are receiving information they otherwise could not that affects students, it is a structure that ultimately benefits student learning).  Any large organization is fooling themselves if they think that workers won't rationally choose to protect their jobs to avoid rocking the boat.  Often, the channels for constructive criticism simply don't exist.  (The popular television show Undercover Boss illustrated this point again and again).

The argument against political capture is valid as far as it goes.  But if you accept the argument that all workers ought to have organized advocacy, not only to benefit themselves, but to benefit the larger organization, this weighs against it.  And if you look at union-backed public compensation in general, it isn't terrible out-of-control at all.  Obviously there will be debate, but if you think public workers are living high on the hog you're sorely mistaken.  The compensation I see seems perfectly reasonable.

Welch is making a slippery slope argument when he says worries that the democratic position on public unions will lead to a political capture that will spiral out of control.  The problem with slippery slopes is that they aren't logically predictive.  Just because something could, in some perfect scenario, happen, it doesn't mean it will.   This is why we don't have speed limits of 150mph - or 10 mph for that matter.  Other pressures come to bear.  With public sector unions, that pressure has kept compensation pretty reasonable, and is certainly coming to bear now.

Yet what to make of Welch's claim that the current situation is proof that public workers will always require an increase in taxes - if tax rates were sufficient to cover compensation before, why are they inadequate now?  A picture is painted in which closed-door negotiations conspire to grab ever-more of public coffers.  Yet the public consistently supports services they are unwilling to pay for.  This schizophrenia pits public confusion (manipulated in no small part by ideologues and politicians) against sound fiscal policy.  What's more, the electoral reality is that this also reflects a bitter split between competing visions of what public services should exist to being with.

Furthermore, while the recession has hit all states, each fiscal situation is different.  It is simply not the case that state deficits can all be pinned on compensation negotiated by public unions.  Frequently, pension coffers are drawn from to finance other areas government.  To blame pensioners now is not only an unfair breach of contract, but it is a dishonest manipulation of fact.

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