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Winging About Wisconsin

March 14, 2011

I have been reluctant to chime in on this issue–primarily because  I feel in terms of who reads this blog that this might be a case of choir preaching .  Nonetheless, my frustration level with the overwhelming ignorance about the role and cost of public employees has angrily driven me to the keyboard.   As C.S. Lewis once said, “Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes me.”  If you find this enlightening at all, splendid. If not–well, you can console yourself with the knowledge that I now feel better.

I’m going to do this in a sort of myth versus reality format.  A cliché, I know, but please indulge me.

Public Employees are Paid More Than Private Sector Workers.  Both Forbes magazine and  Fox News (no surprise there) have published data along the lines of Wisconsin teachers earning an average  salary of $55,000 per year, while  the average American worker makes around $38,000.  A damning comparison if it was in any way shape or form valid.  The problem is you cannot compare  teacher salaries in a state with a relatively high cost of living with everyone else in the nation.  That $38,000 figure includes every entry-level and minimum wage job, regardless of whether it’s in Manhattan or Jackson, Mississippi. In other words, the comparison is essentially meaningless.  It’s a bit like saying Wal-Mart cashiers are overpaid by comparing them to maquiladora salaries in Honduras.   No one would take that comparison seriously.

The truth is that when one makes a valid comparison–like comparing teachers to private sector workers with comparable education, experience, and age, the numbers are very different: public sector employees get paid on average 4%  less than their private sector counterparts.   This has been demonstrated by the Center for Economic Policy Research (among others) on countless occasions but the likes of Forbes and Fox News (not to mention the New York Times and the Associated Press) seem to be ignoring this fact.

Governor Walker Wants to Balance the Budget.    I have no doubt this is true.  However,  it is abundantly clear that his plan to strip union workers of their right to collectively bargain is not about the budget.  Otherwise, he would have accepted the union’s ascension on this issue.  He would not have extracted  this particular section out of the budget  so he could get it passed in the state senate without a quorum.  The smoking gun was his claim after the senate ratified the legislation:  that he would now not have to lay off 1500 workers.  Given that the restriction to collectively bargain would have no immediate effect on the state’s funds–the budget concessions have yet to take effect–how could this be?  It’s simple–there is no connection between the ending of collective bargaining rights and these layoffs.  The layoff threat was not an economic consequence, only a political one.

Indeed, politics is  the true motivator here.  Private sector unions make up less than 7% of the workforce–they are no longer a political force. Public sector unions comprise 36% of the government workers in the  U.S.  As a result, they are  a large, motivated, educated group of mostly Democratic voters.  Crippling the strength of their unions would break one of the most effective election bases for Democratic candidates.   Given that Walker demonstrated repeatedly that the end of collective bargaining rights was far important than budget concessions, it should be obvious to the average 12-year-old that this is about politics.  Probably why Fox News hasn’t worked it out yet.

Government Employees are Lazy and Retire with Huge Guaranteed Pensions.  My beginning logic students would recognize this as the fallacy of the Hasty Generalization.  Even if we modify this statement to “most,” it cannot be reasonably defended.  Are there lazy and ineffective government employees?  Of course.  It turns out there are lazy and ineffective employees everywhere, regardless of whether one is the private or public sector. Yes, DMVs can be awful.  However, you may have noticed that over the last three decades the U.S. economy has transformed itself into a service economy without any real service.  Of course, none of this excuses an ineffective or lazy teacher.  It does, however, show that making sweeping generalizations is tantamount to saying nothing.

In terms of those pensions:  in fifteen states, public employees are not allowed to participate in Social Security.  Moreover, thanks to a sub-section of overreaction in federal law, public employees aren’t allowed to collect the Social Security benefits  from a job outside of teaching in which they contribute to the fund.    Thus, if a scientist works ten years at Pfizer and then decides to become a teacher, s/he is no longer eligible for the Social Security benefits earned from that decade of private sector employment.  In states where public employees can contribute to Social Security, their pension contributions are much smaller.  To make matters worse, many of the state pension funds were severely weakened during the economic collapse of 2008.   Which leads me to my last point…

Public Sector Largesse is Wrecking the American Economy.  It’s not, because the economy was already wrecked by Wall Street brokers repacking toxic assets to others, then betting on the market to collapse.  The companies that committed this horrible crime were unable to survive without government intervention, and then decided to reward their CEOs with massive bonuses.  There is a common complaint that public employees are not held accountable for doing poor jobs.  Well, so far, no collection of public employees has managed to throw the world into the worse recession in nearly eighty years.  The group of people who did not only did not get fired, or go to jail, they gave themselves huge raises.   The only reason companies like Bank of America or Citigroup are still around is due to the huge injection of public funds from the TARP program.  In other words–taxpayer funds.  $700 billion of them.  Can you think of anything else that could have been done with that money?

Public employee unions understand the tough situation governments are in–that’s why the vast majority throughout the country have agreed to concessions. Many have had to endure layoffs and reductions as well (my school laid off one of the best teachers in the district–all because our Board of Education thought the Middle School athletic program was far more important).  Yet Bank of America and Citigroup took billions of dollars in government funds to stay liquid, gave themselves huge bonuses–then paid exactly zero taxes last year.

So who do we blame?  Public employee and teacher unions.  We denigrate our neighbors.  Meanwhile, the thieves that wrecked the economy sneak off while our backs are turned.  If you think Scott Walker isn’t aware of this–well, I have an occupied capitol building I can sell you. Cheap.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Valerie Brodie permalink
    March 14, 2011 12:51 pm

    Hey! This sounds a bit like our dinner table and long drive conversations; minus the bit with me raising my voice in exasperation and calling people names. You are much more sophisticated than I, dear husband. Excellent writing. This should go to the papers. Too bad there aren’t any around that Newscorp doesn’t own.

  2. March 14, 2011 5:19 pm

    I imagine it does sound familiar! I didn’t even mention things like 1-3 trillion dollars spent on the wars, or the hypocrisy of justifying the bonuses on the grounds that they are contractual–a standard that doeesn’t seem to apply to the union agreements.

    I can see if the papers are looking for any citizen op-eds…

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