Friday, February 18, 2011

Public Sector Unions in Wisconsin

I'm afraid I don't have time to properly break the situation in Wisconsin down fully.  I'm hoping to find some time over the weekend, but here's an aggregation of posts out there and then some brief commentary.
  • Will Wilkinson on the situation.  I'm disappointed he fails to address how collective bargaining will be affected if the law passes, as that seems to be the most objectionable part of the legislation.

  • Ezra Klein on what the bill would actually do if passed.

  • The Washington Post with today's article on the situation.

  • Harold Meyerson writing at The American Prospect yesterday.  This is the piece that drew me into the issue.

  • Will Wilkinson and Matt Steinglass actually discussed this issue about a week and a half ago.  Here is WW's and MS's pieces respectfully.
Commentary:  This is a very specific issue that has led to a major debate over the role of unions, the role of public sector unions, political favoritism, and addressing fiscal crises.  Some bulleted thoughts:
  • Unions serve a valuable purpose in our economy, and while the private sector has largely eliminated unions I would suggest that has not been a net positive for workers.

  • I agree with much of Mr. Wilkinson's description of exceptionalism as it relates to public sector unions, but does that mean they should be broken up?  I'm unconvinced at this point.

  • It is unsurprising, but also unseemly, that Wisconsin's Gov. Walker has put in an exemption in the bill for firemen and law enforcement unions.  I think it undermines the governor's ability to be serious about the fiscal crisis when he leaves out the unions it is most political treacherous to confront, and who tended to support him.

  • Clearly many states need to get their fiscal houses in order.  They can't finance debt like the federal government can.  However, I've heard that Gov. Walker did not approach the unions to re-negotiate terms.  This, again, undermines his credibility in my eyes.  If you go to the table and people say "no" then you need to explore other options.  I think he's trying to do this quick and dirty which seems to make it more about politics then fiscal responsibility.
One final thought:  I see something happening in the political discourse surrounding public budget and fiscal crises.  I see the debate being framed by two principles, "Any new public spending is wasteful and reckless," and "Any spending cuts are virtuous and necessary."  This framing concerns me, because it's not true.  Do municipalities, states, and the federal government need to tighten their belts?  Yes.  But we can't forget to invest in the future.  Likewise, many proposals to cut spending are thoughtful and necessary, but many are punitive and seek to cut to a magic number not based on campaign promises.

My feeling to this point, without really diving into the issue, is that Gov. Walker's proposal is overly punitive.  I also believe some concessions will likely need to be made by the public sector unions and if they prove intransigent, then alternatives would need to be offered.


Colin said...

* I would urge you to reconsider your desire to read anything Harold Meyerson, a self-described socialist, has to offer. The man is one of the most economically illiterate members of the commentariat out there. The column you reference is predictably vile, drawing nonsensical parallels between the revolt against dictator Hosni Mubarak and Governor Walker, who was democratically elected (rather handily too).

* I've noticed that this comparison between Walker and Mubarak has been an ongoing theme in the Madison protests, which have also featured references to Hitler and even crosshairs. Given your past condemnation of "hateful, violent rhetoric" from the Tea Party I am sure you join me in condemning such ill-considered language, which applies to Meyerson.

* I'm rather surprised given your past condemnation of GOP obstructionism in Congress that you didn't take the opportunity to criticize Democrats for leaving the state in order to ensure no vote would take place, thus thwarting the democratic process.

* Why do you believe the elimination of private sector unions "has not been a net positive for workers"? If one compares right-to-work states versus those with forced unionism, the RTW states tend to have better economic performance with lower unemployment and higher growth. It strikes me as preferable to be a non-unionized auto sector worker in a company that doesn't go bankrupt than a unionized worker in a company that struggles to stay solvent and requires taxpayer bailouts.

* Like you, I wish the governor had placed firemen and police officers in the same bucket as teachers. I suppose half a loaf is still better than nothing.

* Teachers also lack the ability to collectively bargain in VA, I think it's difficult to make the case the state suffers from an unusually poor education system. It therefore seems difficult to believe that Democratic opposition to the governor's proposal is rooted in the best interests of the children, but rather a desire to ensure a continued flow of funds to a chief constituency.

* I'd recommend this column from Joe Klein on the subject.

* You speak of the need for government to "invest in the future." Investment implies that some sort of return is intended, and for some government spending this arguably makes sense. More spending on police should yield a return in the form of reduced crime. But much of what government "invests" in yields a miserable, or even negative return -- the war on poverty being a notable example. Government spending on education, meanwhile, typically produces results that are the same or inferior to private schools at a higher cost. Just as it makes no sense to invest in a product that yields a 2% return when another one would get you 5%, we'd be better off having this money allocated by the private sector instead of government. High speed rail is an obvious case.

* I can't help but notice that children who attend private schools are continuing to learn while their counterparts in public schools have to deal with teachers that, in many cases, are involved in a de facto and illegal strike. This is yet another reason why government should not be involved in education.

Jason said...

Lots going on with your comment Colin, so let me respond to some points.

- I like reading in general. Mr. Meyerson is not a "favorite" or "preferred" columnist of mine. But his column was what got me interested in the topic, which is not to say it defines my position on the topic.

- I absolutely condemn any connection Meyerson or the Wisconsin protesters make between Gov. Walker and Hitler. That Meyerson draws a ham-handed parallel between Mubarak and Walker is regrettable.

- I don't much care for the Dems taking flight to avoid the vote.

- I thought my "net positive" comment would draw scrutiny and I am unprepared at this point to properly defend it. Perhaps in the future.

- Regarding investing in the future, not all government invests are sound. For some government investments calculating the return is quite difficult, thought the benefit is obvious. My point was not all government investment is reckless and wasteful.

- Regarding all bullet points related to education, my post didn't talk about education in any specific way and so I feel no need to address it here. This is an issue where you and I are on different sides, but again, I don't think it's accurate or helpful to say "government should not be involved in education."