A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Mad in Madison

This public servant needs a dikshunary.
Judging from recent activity on Facebook, events in Wisconsin (i.e. the state government’s campaign to take collective bargaining rights away from public sector unions) have roused the fury of many of my progressive friends. More than one of them has posted a certain piece from the “progressive” blog Daily Kos, which, from what I can make of it, is a sort of left-wing opinion dump. Nothing wrong with that necessarily, After all, many would say that this is a right-wing opinion dump (with the difference that only one person does the dumping here). As the author of the piece says, everyone's entitled to their opinion. Anyway, the piece I refer to is called “Top Ten Myths About Wisconsin Debunked” by someone styling himself “Jeff from Wisconsin”.

I flatter myself in thinking that my friends are pretty smart cookies, despite the fact that just about all of them probably think I’m a political loony. I value intelligence, so I’d have a hard time respecting them if they weren’t intelligent. Nevertheless, to be frank, I’m rather disappointed to see so many of them taken in by the kind of shoddy argument purveyed in this piece. There is absolutely nothing new in it. Mr. Wisconsin mostly offers the same tired canards that get dusted off and paraded about during episodes of labour strife, along with the songs, slogans, and placards.

I have more than a few thoughts of my own on the subject of the piece, many of which can be gathered from some of my previous writings. Instead of repeating them ad nauseam, I thought instead that I would reproduce the Daily Kos post, with my animadversions inserted at appropriate points [in bold between square brackets]. Unfortunately these have swelled to the point that they are longer than the original essay. I would have preferred to employ footnotes, but alas, the web has yet to catch up with Pierre Bayle.

I confess to feeling a little bit of guilt while writing this, because after I had proceeded to set down my thoughts, I began to realize that perhaps Mr. Wisconsin is not a worthy enough adversary on which to waste my darts. But since I get the impression that he would feel no similar compunction towards someone like me, I decided to lay my scruples aside.

Without further ado, here is Sir Jeffrey de Wisconsin’s piece, glossed by yours truly.

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Ten Myths About Wisconsin Debunked
By Jeff from Wisconsin

I've been listening to a number of people who have been expressing some wildly wrong-headed opinions about the protests in Madison. As the man says, You're entitled to your own opinion, but you're not entitled to your own facts. Here's my attempt to correct some of my fellow citizens.

1.  There’s a budget crisis in Wisconsin.

Like virtually every other state in the country, Wisconsin faces significant budget challenges, most of which will disappear as the economy improves. [This begs the question that many like myself would like answered, which is: what makes you so sure that, unless measures such as these are taken, the economy will recover? Not even Keynes would make such an assumption. Recovery is not something that just happens on its own, by magic. To believe so, as this author seems to think, betrays a puerile ignorance of basic economics. The plain fact is, many jurisdictions must get a handle on their overspending. Deficit finance only pushes back costs to future taxpayers, who, conveniently, don’t get a say in current political debates. It’s a form of taxation without representation, which is an injustice. And it only delays (and exacerbates) the inevitable.] You see, the main culprit in Wisconsin’s economic woes has been the loss of employment. [This is only partly true. The budget woes have been made worse by current high unemployment. But in most jurisdictions, Wisconsin included, deficit spending has gone on unabated in both good times and bad. Wisconsin ran up much of its current debt long before 2008. Wisconsin law requires its legislators to run balanced budgets, but for over a decade this has been “achieved” through various accounting shell games. Thus, its current budget problems started long before the recent downturn. The deficit didn’t just come out of nowhere. And if nothing is done, overspending will not magically go away once the good times are back. If history is any indication, it’s more likely to get worse. If you think governments lack fiscal restraint in tight times, wait until you see how they spend in good times. I will say this, though: the governor was ill-advised to push through tax cuts in such a situation.] This has caused people to stop paying income taxes (because they have no income) and to rely heavily upon the state-funded healthcare plan. [The author here makes an interesting empirical claim, but without providing any evidence: Is it true that the current deficit is made up solely or even mostly of claims on the state healthcare plan? I don’t know, but the author seems to imply it.] As the economy recovers, tax revenues will return and public health costs will decline. [Again this assumes that the economy will magically recover while we do nothing to change it. Even if this were the case, the author gives no indication of how long this recovery is expected to take. How long should Wisconsin be expected to run deficits? And when the magical recovery finally happens, the government will at some point have to start paying off accumulated debt and get its financial house in order. Maybe ― maybe ― this can be done using accumulated surpluses from the coming good times, right? But given how hard governments have found it to run surpluses even during good times, let alone putting those surpluses towards debt retirement, I won’t hold my breath.]

2.  Wisconsin state workers are paid too much. [This is very misleading phrasing. Saying “X earns too much” seems to make the common socialist mistake of assuming there is some divinely determined “just price” for a given person’s labour. If, in an open market unaffected by the coercive power of unions, public sector workers would earn less than they currently do, then yes, they earn “too much”. On the other hand, insofar as that open market for labour has been distorted by other non-union coercive powers (say, large rent-seeking corporations), then “progressives” have a valid point here.]

If you compare the salaries and benefits of public employees covered by the collective bargaining agreements in question with their counterparts in the private sector, you’ll see that Wisconsin public employees are actually paid slightly less. Their cash compensation is significantly less, but that is nearly counterbalanced by the values of their benefits. Nearly, but not quite. Most state workers could do better by working in the private sector. [Some actual numbers and references would be helpful here. In their absence, I can only retort, “Bullshit”. In any case, this outrageous claim naturally begs the following question: If these public sector workers could make more in the private sector, then why don’t they go and work there, instead of fighting tooth and nail to keep their supposedly “low” current remuneration? Plus, there’s a degree of self-refutation in this claim ― “Most public employees would do better in the private sector” to me seems incompatible with the earlier claim that the private sector suffers from a loss of employment and wage erosion.]

3.  Wisconsin state workers don’t pay for their pensions.

Not true. The collective bargaining agreement calls for the state to pay the equivalent of 5% of a state worker’s salary into a pension fund, which is professionally managed on behalf of the workers. What the state pays into the plan is part of the employees’ compensation that would be otherwise paid to the employee. [This is disingenuous, to say the least. Yes, they get some of their compensation in the form of a pension contribution. It’s still compensation. If the workers got paid in-kind, in the form of pigs and chickens rather than dollars and cents, this would still be compensation and counts towards total pay. The only difference is that with a pension, some of the payment to the worker is deferred to some future time, with further money added to it as compensation for foregoing current consumption. This pension contribution comes from the employer. In that sense, worker’s don’t pay for it. However, they do work for it (let us assume).  To say that they pay for their pension contribution is like saying that they pay for their own compensation, which is rather an odd locution, no? The worker “pays” for his pension contribution in the form of labour. If he thinks his labour is worth more than what he receives in wages, then he’s welcome to test this hypothesis out by shopping his labour around somewhere else. He’s not welcome to use coercive powers to make others pay him what he thinks he deserves to get for his labour.] This is the workers’ own money, just as what you contribute to your 401(k) is your own money. It’s not some “gift” from the taxpayers – it’s taxable income.

4.  Wisconsin state workers need to step up during this crisis.

Representatives of the state employees’ unions have, in fact, offered to make all the concessions asked for in the budget repair bill. Every fiscal request being made by the Walker Administration has been agreed to by the unions. To whatever extent there is a fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, the unions have proven themselves willing to bear their share of the load. [I don’t know enough to be able to comment on this. If the author is factually correct, then this is an interesting argument, possibly the only one in the entire piece.]

5.  I don’t have a pension plan at my job, so why should they get one?

This is a morally troubling argument. If my house burns down, should I go next door and torch my neighbor’s house because, darn it, if I have to suffer then everybody should have to suffer? Taking away the pension from a seventh grade math teacher isn’t going to make your retirement any more secure. The better question really ought to be, if those people over there can have a pension, why can’t I have one? [This argument would have the makings of something convincing if it weren’t for the behaviour of unions themselves. During collective bargaining, they’re always the first to demand that they should have X, because some other group of workers get X. Thus, it’s more than a bit rich of them to chide the public for doing exactly the same (but with much more justification).]

6.  Hey, I’m paying their salaries!

Yes, you are. And every time you buy a loaf of bread at the local supermarket, you’re paying the salaries of every employee in the store. Every time you fill up at the gas station, you’re paying all the salaries at the oil company. This is how capitalism works. Everybody is always paying everybody else’s salary. That doesn’t give you the right to demand that the produce manager take a pay cut to keep the price of cabbage low, or the guy behind the country at the gas station doesn’t deserve a health plan. [The author should be ashamed of himself for trying to pass this “argument” off on the reader. If I don’t like the price of the cabbage at the grocery store, I have the option of not buying cabbage, or buying it somewhere else. That’s how I demand that the produce manager keep the price of cabbage low. In fact, that’s why economists call it demand. And that, Mr. Jeff from Wisconsin, is how capitalism works. The analogy simply doesn’t fly, because unlike unionized labour, the grocery store manager does not have the option of dictating the price and then forcing me to buy cabbage at that price. Not only that, but I am forced to pay for the government “cabbage” even if I don’t want any, and at the dictated price to boot. So if for once the government is competent enough to use its leverage to get me a discount, I’m all for it.]

7.  The Democratic Senators ought to come back to Wisconsin to do their job.

The state senators who fled to Illinois to prevent a quorum are taking the only action they can take to prevent what they feel is a patently unfair and unwise bill from becoming a patently unfair and unwise law. [Then hopefully they are willing to give up their paycheques and position as well. They were elected and are paid to play a certain well-defined role within the institutions of government as they exist according to the constitution of the state of Wisconsin. Once elected, it thereby becomes their duty to play this role. They are not entitled to shirk this duty simply because a vote threatens not to go their way. They simply lack the courage to vote against a measure they know has considerable support among the people of Wisconsin. They should either vote their conscience or resign their seats. They are in dereliction of duty, and they are cowards. This is not a partisan comment. I would be saying exactly the same thing if party roles were reversed here.] If the Walker Administration showed any indication that it would negotiate in good faith to reach a compromise, the senators would return. [If Governor Walker doesn’t want to negotiate, that is his prerogative, whether you happen to like it or not. Woe to the conquered.  He was elected to play a certain role, and to carry through those policies he thinks would be best for the state, even if he is mistaken. The place to debate those policies is in the legislature. That is what lawmakers are supposed to do. The public business must go on. I imagine that many among the people of Wisconsin might even be happy that their governor refuses to engage in such backroom dealings. The action of the “Democratic” senators betrays a remarkable lack of respect for democracy.] But as last week’s “punking” of Governor Walker demonstrated, the administration has no intention of working with the Democrats and would resort to lies and chicanery if given the opportunity. [I confess I don’t know what the author is referring to here. The dictionary I have at hand doesn’t contain the word “punking”, so I can only conjecture. Maybe he’s referring to the prank phone call to the governor by a radio personality pretending to be one of the Koch brothers? In which case, I heard only a portion of it replayed on CBC radio, and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what the governor said that was so bad, unless you already disagree with his position in the first place. If I’m supposed to have contempt for the governor because he was fooled into believing he was speaking to someone he wasn’t, then it was a puerile gag that adds little to the political debate. Therefore, I would advise Jeff from Wisconsin to be careful about accusing others of “lies and chicanery”. On my opinion regarding the Koch brothers, see below.]

8.  The protestors at the Capitol Building are union thugs.

Given the massive groups that have assembled at the Capitol Building (100,000 last Saturday alone) [Wisconsin has close to six million citizens, most of whom do not belong to well-organized groups such as these unions. Therefore, I warn the reader to beware of the author’s rhetorical implication that the protesters represented some kind of broad-based consensus, especially since a considerable number of them are coming to these demonstrations from out-of-state (not that there is anything against that). My online trolling among various polls on the issue seem to indicate that half of polls show majority support for the governor’s measure, and half show a majority opposing it, depending on the bias of whoever is doing the polling in a given instance. In almost all cases, the margin for either side is slim. In other words, I suspect the public is about evenly divided. I get the impression that a solid majority favour the idea of public sector workers being subjected to some kind of austerity, but are not so favourable to outright revocation of their right to collective bargaining. In this latter regard, I recognize that mine may be the minority opinion among Wisconsinites.] the complete lack of anything remotely resembling a disturbance reflects well upon the citizens of the State of Wisconsin. Even on the day when a Pro-Walker counter-protest occurred side-by-side with the Pro-Union protest, the Madison Police Department reported no incidents. Those who are protesting are teachers, students, government workers, and in a profound display of union solidarity, fire fighters and police officers. Hardly the makings of an ugly mob. [This is fair comment on the author’s part, and I have nothing to add, except perhaps to emphasize that both sides, both pro- and anti-Walker demonstrators, should be commended for their general restraint and civility. If there were no incidents reported, then that means that pro-Walker protesters were well-behaved too.]

9.  The mob is full of out-of-state agitators.

This is virtually impossible to prove or disprove, but unless busloads of people from Illinois are stopping at the border and buying Badger and Packer sweatshirts and stocking hats, the crowd at the Capitol Building appears to be almost completely home-grown. The same cannot be said for the Koch Brothers, the multi-billionaires who stand to make a(nother) fortune if the budget repair bill passes. From Utah, the Koch brothers have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Wisconsin politics – from direct contributions to the Walker Campaign to their funding of shadowy “advocacy” groups that ran attack ads almost non-stop during the last election season. If you’re worried about out-of-state influences on our politics, look over there. [Again, the author makes a fair point. I would only add one thing: From what little I know of the Koch brothers, I don’t personally like them. But much of the criticism I’ve heard about them seems based on the fact that they’re rich (vide the author’s gratuitous and ad hominem reference to “plutocrats” further on). No one complains if a poor or middle class person chooses to spend some of her meagre funds to advocate for a political cause. I think the same right should be extended to those who happen to have more money to spend. We cannot in fairness stop one group of people from advocating for their cause simply because we happen not to agree with what they advocate (barring certain extreme and legally prohibited “causes”, of course). It simply means that their opponents will have to be more vigilant in making the nature and motivation of such advocacy known, so that “shadowy” groups (among whom I would certainly classify unions) can be rendered a little less shadowy.]

10.  This is not a big deal.

What happens in Wisconsin is going to have a large impact on what happens in Ohio, then in Indiana, then in Michigan, and then in Florida. Once politicians and their ultra-wealthy owners crush public-sector unions, the task of crushing private-sector unions becomes just that much easier. And when unions have been destroyed, every worker in America will be reduced to taking whatever job at whatever lousy pay and with whatever lousy benefits (like none) that corporations decide we deserve. If the past few years have shown us anything at all, from Enron to Lehman Brothers to British Petroleum, it’s that large corporations are simply cannot be trusted, and there needs to be some force in our public lives that counter-balance their power and influence. [I would put unions in precisely the same class as Enron, etc. As far as I’m concerned, they’re all rent-seeking parasites, coercing or bribing governments into giving them profits that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them in an open market, profits which come at the expense of the public in general.] With governments at every level being bought and sold by plutocrats of all sorts, labor unions have never been quite so vital to the survival of the Middle Class. [Unions are vital to the survival of union leaders only. They do precious little good for anyone else. My personal experience with them has been that unions aren’t even vital to the survival of their own members. When the chips are down, a union will abandon its members at something approaching the speed of sound.] Thanks for reading!

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