Home > Clive Crook, Paul Krugman, Scott Sumner, Unions, Wisconsin > Show Me the Cheddar!

Show Me the Cheddar!

When most people look at a political question objectively they try to determine which side is right and which is wrong. But that framework doesn’t properly illuminate what’s going on in Wisconsin (or most other political dilemmas). Just making this a battle between pro-union Democrats and taxpayer Republican advocates obscures some of the deeper issues going on.

Most attempts to make one side righteous and the other wicked come off as silly.

Here’s Paul Krugman in an otherwise decent piece on the issues:

What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy.

As Clive Crook notes Mr. Walker may be disingenuous when he claims busting the unions is all about the budget (“the unions have agreed (under pressure) to the cuts in pay and benefits he was seeking”), but suggesting Walker and allies are trying to bust not just unions but American democracy is ridiculous. Do fair-minded people really think Walker is sitting in his office rubbing his hands dreaming of undermining our founding fathers? It’s is also a weird charge since the only thing preventing Walker from stripping public employee’s collective-bargaining rights is a group of Wisconsin Democrats fleeing the state so a democratic vote can’t proceed.

It happens that I actually side mostly with the pro-union side and think collective-bargaining isn’t incompatible with balanced budgets. Yet after complaining strongly about how filibusters and other anti-majoritarian legislative tools cause more harm in the long run I feel compelled to condemn the technique of fleeing the state to break the quorum. It’s not in some misguided offering to the alter of political consistency, but as a “secular consequentialist” (via Scott Sumner) I think even if this counts in the negative column, more good comes from allowing legislatures to actually govern.

With that out of the way allow me to clear up some lingering issues. A lot of the debate centers on whether or not public employees are “overpaid” compared to their privately employed counterparts. In the much passed around EPI study, we have strong evidence that in Wisconsin comparable public employees are actually compensated less than private workers. Jim Manzi calls into question some of the assumptions in the study and argues that without factoring in an “all-but infinite number of such relevant potential differences” we can’t say for sure that public workers “are underpaid, overpaid, or paid just right.” To a certain extent he’s correct, but as Ezra Klein notes, the EPI study shifts “the burden of proof [onto] those who say Wisconsin’s public employees make too much money.” Anyone who argues that they are overpaid is arguing in spite of available evidence, and public policy shouldn’t be made on sheer opinion.

The reason so many people conclude public employees are overpaid is because those people often have an ideological commitment to that assumption. Many on the right hold as an article of faith that government a priori causes more problems than it solves and doesn’t work as well as the private sector. Given that premise, it’s perfectly logical to reason that public workers are necessarily overpaid. Any cost above 0 is overpayment for a counterproductive job.

Some on the left assume that any benefit cut or pay cut is automatically unreasonable, but given that the union itself has agreed to cuts and compromises we can’t say this about the union itself. The budget shortfall is largely caused by the recession which dried up revenues and for much of the poor reasoning behind cutting the wealthy’s taxes when facing large deficits, Wisconsin’s public workers were going to have to give up a little make the budget math conform to a fair deal for Wisconsin’s taxpayers. With an absence of the ideological assumption that the government can’t provide anything of value, taxpayers need to balance the need for qualified workers with their tax burden. If you think government can provide useful services it’s important to try to attract public employees that won’t cause a potentially self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s only a correlation but “the two states with the lowest public sector unionization rates — Louisiana and Mississippi — have the highest corruption rates.” Also, the 5 states without collective bargaining for educators rank last or near last on their SAT/ACT scores (h/t Heidi).* I don’t believe that the lack of collective bargaining is directly causing corruption or low test scores but if you look at the labor market as one competitive entity it seems natural that lower compensation leads to a weaker work force as better workers flow to higher paying jobs.

Everything unions want isn’t always in the best interest of the state or even of workers generally, but there is no persuasive reason to believe that removing unions as a counterweight to corporatist (anti-market) influence and demonizing public workers leads to a stronger middle class, better public services, or even balanced budgets.

*[update: correction]

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  1. Bill
    February 25, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    Nice post. Would you mind elaborating on the last statement of this paragraph:

    “It happens that I actually side mostly with the pro-union side and think collective-bargaining isn’t incompatible with balanced budgets. Yet after complaining strongly about how filibusters and other anti-majoritarian legislative tools cause more harm in the long run I feel compelled to condemn this technique. It’s not in some misguided offering to the alter of political consistency, but as a “secular consequentialist” (via Scott Sumner) I think even if this counts in the negative column, more good comes from allowing legislatures to actually govern.”

    I think I follow where you are coming from-that perhaps letting the legislation play out would ultimately be more beneficial? In what ways? If the legislation passed to limit collective bargaining power, would it not set a dangerous precedent or are you implying that is would lead to back fire? My fear is that in this climate of corrupt conservative populism, the consequences of this legislation would be spun to make it seem morally just, facts aside, and the ball would be set in motion to play this out in other states. Paranoid? Maybe. But if we wait for the backfire, too much would be lost and there may not be a navigable course back. Plutocracy here we come (maybe we are too late already??)

    • February 25, 2011 at 6:52 pm

      Thanks for the question Bill. I’ve actually been in the process (with a lot procrastination – since before any of this Wisconsin stuff came up) of collecting my views on political consistency, etc. So, I’ll be elaborating on these points in the near future. But in the mean time and to address your question a bit more specifically understand that it’s not that I think this particular bill passing will be ultimately beneficial, but I think allowing legislatures to govern more effectively is ultimately more beneficial even if it means accepting downsides such as Walker’s bill.

      • February 25, 2011 at 6:55 pm

        I also see where you may be misreading me and am updating my text to clear up the potential confusion.

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