This Could Be the Start of Something Big
by Gary Jason | Posted March 20, 2011
The first battle of the 2012 campaign has just ended — and it doesn’t bode well for the Democrats, in the short run at the state level, or in the long run at the federal level.
The location was Wisconsin, historically a stronghold of organized labor, the Democratic Party, and the Left generally. But the state has been trending rightward in recent elections, and last year it elected a Republican, Scott Walker, as governor, and a majority of Republicans to the state legislature. Interestingly, however, these are not the sort of Republicans you would expect from a somewhat purple state — RINOs (or Republicans in Name Only) — but honest-to-God RCCs (Republicanos con Cojones).
Governor Scott Walker clearly has a pair. During his campaign, Walker made it clear that he was serious about reducing spending, especially the outrageous compensation packages that public employee unions had negotiated in sweetheart deals with past Democratic administrations. The pattern in Wisconsin was similar to what happened in most other states: a vicious cycle of crony unionism. Public employees unionize, use their massive dues to elect sympathetic politicians, then in bargaining with those politicians receive lavish compensation packages. This enables the unions to collect even more dues, elect even more sympathetic politicians, and get even more of the taxpayers’ dollars. It’s very convenient — for the unions.
In the 2008 election cycle, unions (now predominantly unions of government employees) gave about $400 million to Democratic campaigns, especially Obama’s. Heck, AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the biggest government workers’ union) alone gave the Dems $90 million during the last (i.e., 2010) election cycle.
The public choice tipping point occurs when the pain inflicted on citizens by the rentseekers who have captured a government agency becomes too great to ignore.
So the money that taxpayers pay in salaries to the public employees provides (in the form of union dues) the funds that elect politicians who will in turn raise taxes and give more money to the public employees (and hence their unions). The public, rationally ignorant — that is, having better things than state politics to worry about (such as earning an honest living) — are typically oblivious to the corruption, until the deficits and taxes become outrageously high. That point, which you might call “the public choice tipping point,” occurs when the pain inflicted on the citizens (in increased taxes, increased costs of compliance, or decreased liberty) by the rentseekers who have captured a government agency becomes too great to ignore.
Perhaps the classic illustration was the transition to the all-volunteer army. We kept the draft going from World War II through the Korean War, and long past. It took the debacle that was Vietnam and the student protests it aroused to get the government to change from conscription to a volunteer services model.
Governor Scott took office with the state deficit already at $137 million, but slated to rise to $3.6 billion in the next two years. As he promised during his campaign, he introduced legislation that requires the state employees to contribute more to their health and pension funds. Specifically, his law requires public workers to pay 12.6% of their healthcare insurance premiums from their pay, and contribute 5.8% of their pay to the pension system — an amount that is still quite low compared to similar amounts in private industry.
In so doing, he went to the heart of the state’s fiscal woes. The public sector unions had sweet compensation packages, ones that include not only high pay but also incredible perks (tenure, virtually free healthcare, and pension plans requiring little employee contribution). The average compensation for Wisconsin public school teachers is over $101,000 per year — for essentially eight months of work.
But Walker also proposed to eliminate the power of government workers (except firefighters and police officers) to bargain collectively for non-salary compensation, and eliminate the state’s role of “enforcer” in collecting dues from employees for the union. His legislation further required annual union elections, in which a majority (as opposed to a mere plurality) of workers must approve the union.
Here, Walker showed real understanding of the problem: if he just asked for increased employee contributions to their health and pension plans, the unions might have gone along this year, but the minute the public’s attention was diverted, they would just get those concessions rescinded, especially if union dues elected a Democratic governor. Government worker unions fully understand rational ignorance.
A recent report shows that fully two-thirds of eighth-grade students in Wisconsin’s public schools can’t read proficiently.
Initially, the unions fought all the provisions of the law, but as the public learned about the lavish compensation packages government workers receive, public sympathy evaporated. Also responsible for reducing taxpayer sympathy was the report that emerged, just as the controversy was getting intense, that fully two-thirds of eighth-grade students in Wisconsin’s public schools can’t read proficiently. According to the US Department of Education, in last year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress tests only 2% of Wisconsin eighth-graders scored as “advanced” in reading, and only 32% as “proficient.” The remaining 66% were below proficient (44% rated “basic,” 22% “below basic”).
The taxpayers of Wisconsin have paid exorbitantly for this laughably lousy quality of education. They pay more per public-school student than any other Midwestern state.
So the unions modified their demands. They said they would agree to increased contributions to the healthcare and pension plans; they claimed that they objected only to the loss of collective bargaining “rights” — allegedly “natural rights” as fundamental as free speech. And with their PR plan in place, they went to war.
The unions employed all their classic tactics. Of course, teachers called in sick en masse, cancelling classes and snarling the schools. There were weeks of massive demonstrations, with as many as 100,000 demonstrators on the streets of Madison, occasionally closing the capitol down, with the usual chanting, screaming and pushing, all aimed at intimidating Walker and the Republicans into submission. Many of the demonstrators were paid for and bused in by the unions in a classic display of “astroturfing.” The protestors were egged on by the usual repellent, aged leftist icons, from Jesse Jackson to Michael Moore to Susan Sarandon. And the unions paid for endless ads aimed at demonizing Walker and the Republicans in the legislature.
In the meantime, the Democratic state senators left the state, in order to deny the Republicans a quorum for considering the governor’s legislation.
Also in the fight — while of course pretending to be above it all — was President Obama. He clearly viewed Wisconsin as the first battle in his reelection campaign, and promptly accused Walker of “assaulting” workers’ rights.
Against this formidable array of foes and this well-strategized campaign, Walker stood firm. After an extended period of what seemed like stalemate, the Republicans figured out how to separate the essential restrictions on unions and make them legislation not requiring a special quorum. They passed the legislation, and Walker signed it into law. The deed was done.
Walker took a major hit in his poll numbers, yet his victory should worry the Dems about the next election, and elections thereafter, at least at the state level.
One cause for worry is the fact that in the battle of Wisconsin the unions had to expend a lot of money — for ads, for demonstrations, for agitprop in general — cash that now isn’t available for the 2012 election cycle. Second, they face a loss of membership. Average yearly union dues are in the range of $700 to $1,000 in Wisconsin, and now that the government won’t be deducting those dues, members may decide they no longer want to pay. One suspects that fear of lost members and members’ dues is what really drove the unions to fight so furiously.
Many of the demonstrators in Madison were paid for and bused in by the unions in a classic display of “astroturfing.”
If similar battles occur in other states, such losses will bite the unions hard. And it may well happen. After all, if the economy in Wisconsin responds well to Walker’s actions, he will rise again in the polls, and that would encourage other governors to follow his lead. Indeed, similar battles have already been going on elsewhere. In Ohio, Republican Governor Kasich is trying to limit public employee bargaining “rights” and is facing demonstrations because of it. In Indiana, Republican legislators have introduced right-to-work legislation that will apply to all unions, and they also saw their Democratic colleagues walk out the door. (While Republican Governor Mitch Daniels doesn’t support this right-to-work movement by his colleagues in the legislature, he did manage to get a law restricting the right of public employee unions to bargain collectively back in 2005).
Republican leaders at the state level — in the face of burgeoning state budget deficits now totaling about $125 billion for the 50 states — seem to appreciate the urgent need for measures that limit the power of unions to game the system. The three most effective measures appear to be laws limiting the collective bargaining privileges of public employee unions, right-to-work laws allowing all workers the right not to be forced to support their unions, and paycheck protection laws that require unions to get the explicit consent of workers before using their union dues for political purposes. These types of laws are kryptonite to the unions.
All of this raises an interesting question. Why are Republican leaders suddenly so bold at the state level, but still so timid at the federal level? Why are some state Republicans willing to address growing deficits in their states, even at the cost of taking on the special interest behemoths that are the unions, while Republicans in Washington seem reluctant to address the federal deficit, which dwarfs into insignificance the state deficits?
A number of reasons explain the disparity. First, the 2010 Republican electoral triumph was manifested more on the state than the federal level. Yes, the GOP took back the House of Representatives, but (because of some unwise voter choices in the primaries, and the large numerical advantage that the Democrats had enjoyed in the Senate before the election) failed to get even a tie in the upper house. You can’t stop a devoutly leftist president — one willing to use the formidable power of the executive branch to keep increasing the size and regulatory scope of the federal government — when you don’t control Congress.
Second, most state constitutions require budgets to be balanced, whereas the federal constitution has no such requirement. This means that to handle the rapidly rising costs of public employee salaries, healthcare expenses, and pension payouts, most states can only raise taxes or float bonds. But taxpayers are already financially stretched to the limit, and bonds are costing more as investors find out how shaky state and municipal finances really are. The recent revelations that states and municipalities already have taken on $3 trillion in bonded indebtedness, and are about $3.5 trillion underfunded in pension and healthcare liabilities, have really hurt the market for muni bonds.
The federal government has a seductive option not open to the states: just print more money. This is of course precisely what the Fed is doing right now.
Add to this the possibility — dare I say the likelihood? — of a bankruptcy in a big city (my favorite candidate is my hometown, Los Angeles). In that event, or the event that a state defaults on its bonds (my favorite candidate is my home state, California), the market for muni bonds would dry up immediately, and with it the ability of states to borrow money at reasonable rates.
The third major difference between the challenges confronting state-level and federal-level Republican leaders has to do with competition. If the politicians in a state jack up taxes to solve a budget shortfall, the productive people (aka taxpayers) and businesses can and will move elsewhere.
This has already had an effect even in such historically high-tax states as New Jersey and New York, where there is now a broad awareness of how many of their productive people and businesses have fled to low-tax havens such as Florida and Texas. The old phrase “Gone to Texas” is now a frightening motto now to the high-tax states.
But the federal government faces no such competition. If I leave California for Florida, the cultural adjustment is minor. To move from America to another nation takes a major adjustment, one far too expensive for most people to make. And most other nations where American might otherwise want to live have equally statist governments.
The fourth major difference lies in the power to print money. Faced with deficits, states have only three options: borrow money, cut spending, or raise taxes. But the federal government has a seductive fourth option: just print more money. This is of course precisely what the Fed is doing right now. It allows all politicians at the federal level to avoid cutting programs and thereby incurring the wrath of special interests.
There is a fifth difference, and it is the most important. On the state level, the Republicans are moving to cut lavish government worker benefits, which are the major cause of the state budget problems, because most citizens are not themselves government workers. The other major choices — raising taxes and cutting programs — are politically unpalatable. Try convincing the average voter that we need to eliminate half the firefighters so that the few who are left can get lavish pay and retire at age 50 on a $250,000 pension for life.
But on the federal level, the programs most responsible for bankrupting this nation are Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, not federal employee compensation (or defense spending or discretionary spending in general). Those programs are still popular among Americans, even Tea Party members. A recent poll reported in Policy Review is telling on this point. If you ask Americans where we should cut, the results are dismal. On Social Security, only 9% of the respondent’s would cut it, compared to 84% who would rather increase it or keep it the same. Medicare? Only 12% would cut it, compared to 82% who want to increase it or keep it the same. Medicaid gets only 15% support for cutting, versus 78% who want to increase it or keep it the same. About the only federal project that Americans want to cut is foreign aid.
So in the short term, it is doubtful that Republicans will step up to cut these programs, and if they did, they would probably be hurt politically. But long term, the fiscal crisis that many states are now facing will hit the federal government. The three programs I identified are estimated to face long-term underfunding to the tune of over $100 trillion. As each year passes, their deficits will only balloon. At some point, rational ignorance concerning them will tip into rational knowledge — to the grave damage of the political party that created, expanded, and repeatedly campaigned on them.
Gary Jason is a philosopher and senior editor of Liberty, and the author of Dangerous Thoughts.
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