Feb 25, 2011

It ain't about budgets; it's about ideology.

If Gov. Walker's "Budget Repair Bill" were really about repairing the Wisconsin state budget, opponents argue, he would have accepted public-union concessions and dropped the controversial measure severely limiting collective bargaining rights.

Nothing doing, Walker and his supporters retort. Collective bargaining is by nature hostile to balanced budgets. "It costs taxpayers serious money," Walker said during his Feb. 22 televised (and ironically named) fireside chat.

Walker's experience as Milwaukee county executive taught him an important lesson: Stubborn unions armed with collective bargaining prevent righteous conservatives (like Walker) from exercising fiscal responsibility. Now that he's duly elected governor—with duly elected huge Republican margins in the Wisconsin senate and assembly—well, now those union thugs are going to learn what stubborn really means.

But is Walker's hypothesis true? Does collective bargaining as such prevent fiscal responsibility?

Turns out that we can do a pretty good social-science experiment to find out. There are 50 states in the union. Some require collective bargaining for public employees. Some allow it. Some outlaw it. All but six will run deficits in 2011.

Is there a connection? If Walker's hypothesis is true, it's reasonable to expect that a state's fiscal condition would correlate with its public employees' collective-bargaining rights.

From Walker's point of view, here's the hypothesis: On average, states requiring collective-bargaining with public employees will be in worse fiscal condition than states either allowing or outlawing such rights.

Now let's "operationalize" (oooh, I love the language of social science) the experiment. We'll correlate each state's 2011 budget shortfall with each state's collective bargaining laws. If the hypothesis is correct, states outlawing collective bargaining should have lower average deficits than the other states.

I got each state's collective-bargaining laws from James Joyner's Outside the Beltway blog. He got the info from Josh Marshall on TPM. I got each state's 2011 budget shortfall from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. I ran a simple pivot table to get the correlations. Here are the results:

In states where
collective bargaining is
the 2011 budget
deficit averages:

Plus, of the six states with balanced budgets, none outlaws collective bargaining. Three require it; three allow it.

What's the takeaway? Collective bargaining doesn't cost taxpayers serious money in any special way. Which demonstrates that Walker's antipathy to collective bargaining has nothing to do with budgets; it's about ideology.

Walker is no conservative. The first principle of classic conservatism is a respect for a people's customs and a mistrust of a person's abstract schemes. Walker is a radical ideologue. He sees himself as a modern-day Isaiah, calling down the fire of Jehovah on the prophets of Baal.

"This is our moment," Walker said to the prank caller pretending to be billionaire ultra-conservative David Koch. "This is our time to change the course of history."

Hang on, Wisconsinites. You chose the bus. Get ready for the ride.

Feb 18, 2011

Should public-sector employees have the right to organize?

I live in Madison, so I’m in the thick of the protests that are now national news. I am both a full-time and a part-time public-sector employee. I’m a senior editor at UW-Madison; I teach part-time at Madison College. Gov. Walker’s bill would cut my net pay about 8.5%.

But paying more for my benefits has nothing to do with my opposition. As a reasonable person, I’m able to look at the situation and make a sacrifice if necessary. I’m protesting because the bill effectively ends collective bargaining for every public union except the few that supported Walker in the election.

Unfortunately, national coverage of the protest has focused on the easy story rather than the crucial one.

This morning Joe Scarborough went into an astonishingly ill-informed, 10-minute rant about teachers (and by implication, other public employees).

“Children are not learning in Wisconsin today,” Joe railed, “because teachers don’t want to pay the same … money for benefits that the rest of Americans have to pay. How sick is that?”

I immediately sent Morning Joe a message explaining how the show’s host completely missed the point. 

About a minute later, with much less bravado, Joe said, “One of the big things going on in Wisconsin is that the governor is trying to eliminate collective bargaining, which raises a much larger question: Should public unions have collective bargaining?”

To that question—the crux of the issue—Walker says no. I say yes.

During a discussion on the issue on my Facebook wall, a friend posted: “Kyle, it’s important to remember that without the private sector, there cannot be a public sector.”

“Agreed,” I replied, “but it’s equally important to remember that without the public sector, there cannot be a private sector—at least not a civilized one.“

If there were not educators teaching us, the private sector would have no customers who could read well enough to buy its products. If there were no police and firefighters protecting us, families would have no hope of feeling safe in their homes. If there were no inspectors keeping our food and buildings safe, we couldn’t go to the grocery store without fear. No roads, no traffic lights, no courts, no high-end research.

No America as we know it.

“The public sector needs to answer and be accountable to the people,” another friend said. “On what grounds do public employees feel that they have the right to bargain with taxpayer funded positions?”

The question assumes that public employees are in a fundamentally different position vis a vis their employers than private-sector employees. And that is the case only if public-sector employment depends on the private sector in some special way.

I deny it. I say that the public sector depends on the private sector no more or less than the private sector depends on the public sector. They are equally important and equally important to each other. Two strands in the helix of America’s DNA.

We used to know this. We’ve forgotten it because for a generation we’ve been steeped almost exclusively in a radical free-enterprise storyline that tells us “government is the problem, not the solution.”

No, we—private sector and public sector—are both the problem and the solution. Pitting one sector against the other is easy but counter-productive. We need each other, so we need to be reasonable. Stripping public employees of the right to negotiate working conditions with a unified voice does violence to both America's and Wisconsin's traditions of fair play.

Rings true to me. And you?