I spent most of last week in DC. In reviewing the responses to my column opposing the recall of Governor Walker, those opposing my position fell into three camps. First - and, unforunately, largest - were those characterized by unadorned name calling. I am, it turns, out full of s***, un-American, a**-licking, etc. Not a few commentators wanted to say that I am un-Christian and mired in sin for failing to accept the Gospel of the Democratic Party.
But there, thank God, people willing to make an argument and their responses were largely focused on the unfairness of a paycut for public employees (who they claim make less than those in "comparable" positions) and Governor Walker's failure to detail his budget reform proposal during the campaign.
What opponents did not do is challenge the notion that the state had a serious fiscal problem and that the reforms allow services to be provided for less money. No one can question that this at least reduces the needs for service cuts and sometimes eliminates it all together.
And no one did. They either argued as if fiscal questions can be addressed by deciding whether or not a bit of spending or cut is "good" in some absolute sense without regard or whether or how it can be paid for. State employees are paid, on average, far more than the average worker. Studies that purport to show that this is, nevertheless, less than the pay for "comparable" jobs are, I think largely worthless because there often are no "comparable" public sector jobs. Pay is determined by market forces - not by some aggregation of educational background, experience and hours worked - and the former is not readily controlled for in a study.
So a general tax increase to pay higher salaries to public workers is not easy to justify. Some commenters wanted to focus on taxing "the rich" and this will become the Holy Grail of American politics in 2012. The idea will be to avoid hard choices by imposing the cost on someone who is not us and seems to have more than what he or she "needs" already.
This is a temptation in American politics as old as the Constitution itself - famously warned against by Madison in Federalist No. 10. While I depart from some of my conservative colleagues in the belief that, say, repealing the Bush tax cuts for the truly wealthy or even minimizing the spread between the taxation of ordinary income and capital gains might not be disastrous, paying for things by "soaking the rich" is difficult and does not have a great historical pedigree. Wealthy people have the ability to engage in substanital tax avoidance behavior and there is a point at which tax rates become serious disincentives and impediments to capital formation. The problem is even worse at the state level because rich people don't, for the most part, have to live in Wisconsin.
Warren Buffett may have abased our public discourse as much as he informed it. Millions of Americans now believe that rich people pay a lower effective rate than the rest of us (on average and in the vast majority, they do not) and pay something less than their share of national income. (In fact, they pay much more.)
One can certainly wonder about the ballooning incomes of economic "superstars." But it is a mistake to think that fiscal challenges can be paid for by someone else.