Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Avoiding Hard Questions on Walker

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.

34 comments:

Lester Pines said...

Rick,

The issue is not about the Governor and the Legislature cutting spending. That would have been accomplished without trying to destroy or marginalize public employee unions. Governor Walker's attempt to do so was motivated by a desire to eliminate the main opponents of the political and social agenda of the Republican Party, not to ensure that state and municipal budgets were balanced. Majority Leader Fitzgerald has acknowledged that.
The opposition to Governor Walker derives from his gross political miscalculations that were caused by hubris.

If a governor tries to eliminate his political opponents he must ensure that he is completely successful or they will come back to haunt him, just as the unions have done to Governor Walker. Like it or not, that is how politics works.

Lester Pines

James Rowen said...

Rick - - The recall is justified by Walker's having kept quiet during the campaign about his plan to drastically reduce collective bargaining - - and using state law to bury unions with heavy-handed requirements effectively barring them from re-certification.


Further - - look at the additional partisan advantages Walker and his allies have gained through new or amended law, including primary date movement, a hurried and over-the-top redistricting plan, and restrictions/obstacles to registration and voting.

I see his reliance on manipulation (do we want a Governor relishing having "dropped the bomb" on fellow citizens?) of both people and the law - - as a matter of intentional and coordinated policy and actions - - as reasons to remove him from power.

John Foust said...

You mean this column? Only 52 comments online, including plenty atta-boys, and you've got the vapors over a few anti-Rick comments? Many of the commenters were taking pot-shots at each other, not at you. I can't find the Boots & Sabers imagery / BadgerBlogger-style swearing and insults you describe. Are you saying those insults are in the printed paper?

You start out talking about "avoiding hard questions on Walker" but then you redirect our attention to supposedly overpaid workers and over-taxing of the rich. You're confident that public-sector workers are overpaid, but you can't think of an easy way to compare their compensation to private-sector jobs. Is that the usual outright contradiction that you stick in every blog post?

I don't quite understand your points about comparable worth studies. I've long been skeptical of their methods, too, but I think it's easy to think of ways that many particular public-sector jobs are not easily comparable to private-sector positions, and that many public-sector jobs are different in some respect that could explain market forces that lead us to greater pay if you want to find someone to take the job.

For one, the requirement of public scrutiny is quite different from any private-sector job I can think of. Which private-sector job includes full public scrutiny of all your written communications and an open-door to the public? There are many people who don't want that job. In a private-sector job, you might be subject to review and oversight, but most of us hope that this is done by similarly competent professionals in our fields - but when you're a public employee, you're often subject to review by the hilarity of elected officials.

Anonymous said...

More examples: The exemption of Walker's political supporters, the police and firefighters unions, from the elimination of collective bargaining for public employee unions; and how about the bill exempting Republican donor John Bergstrom from environmental review for those wetlands near Lambeau? And what about that sneaky little provision to sell off state-owned power plants? No relation to the Kochs, you say? Or how about any number of the special-interest provisions that Senators Vos and Darling caused to be inserted into the budget bill?

Article I, section 9, of our state Constitution -- the "certain remedy for wrongs" clause -- guarantees justice for all. It should be available freely, without our being obliged to purchase it. Too many of the things that have been happening in Madison recently seem to violate the spirit of that provision.

George Mitchell said...

Lester Pines asserts that "cutting spending...[could] have been accomplished without trying to destroy or marginalize public employee unions." He then provides a variety of examples...oh wait, he provides no examples.

Pines continues by claiming that "Walker's attempt to [destroy unions, etc] was motivated by a desire to eliminate the main opponents of the political and social agenda of the Republican Party, not to ensure that state and municipal budgets were balanced."
Pines offers as proof...an undeveloped claim that Scott Fitzgerald says so.

Pines does not explain how Walker could balance the state budget and control local property taxes — both campaign pledges — without addressing the elephant in the room, i.e., employee salaries and benefits.

Jim Rowen is way too knowledgeable to be surprised that Walker proposals would address public employee benefits and bargaining rights.

Today's announcement (11/15) that school levies for 2012 will DECLINE is the latest evidence that the Walker agenda is working. Assuming the requisite signatures are obtained, the recall election will feature a straightforward and irrefutable theme: Want higher property (and state) taxes? Recall Scott Walker.

brew city Brawler said...

George:
Why did addressing the budget require measures clearly aimed at undermining the existence of public employee unions as institutions?

You're seriously not aware of the Fitzgerald reference (ie, undermining unions is part of beating Obama?)

Can you point to any part of Walker's platform that called for addressing pub emp benefits/collective bargaining rights? Let alone call for undermining public employee unions? or were we supposed to just "read between the lines" (giving Walker plenty of room to deny any such move)

Scott Walker has said, repeatedly, his success will be measured by job creation. How's that coming?

George Mitchell said...

Brawler,

Anyone who grasps public sector finance knows that to (1) address the structural deficit without (2) raising taxes would necessitate the kinds of measures Walker pursued. But I repeat myself.

As for Scott Fitzgerald, who care what he said or says when it comes to explaining Scott Walker's motives?

An interesting aspect of the debate would include Jim Doyle's 2002 pledge to eliminate the structural
deficit and his subsequent, brazen, claim in 2006 to have done so. As all independent sources confirm, he did not fulfill his pledge and effectively lied about that when running for re-election. It did not occur to Doyle opponents to seek to recall him over those matters. Yet now Pines, Rowen, you, and a cast of others are shocked, shocked, that Scott Walker pledged to not raise taxes and eliminate the deficit and actually delivered. What a pathetic crowd. If you recall him you will be stuck with a huge dilemma the day after the election, as in: Oops. Now what do we do?

Brew city brawler said...

George:
Why did balancing the budget necessitate measures aimed squarely at undermining existence of public sector unions?

Given Fitzgerald played a role in advancing the agenda, one would assume he had some insight into its objectives. Charlie Sykes, who talked to Walker before the agenda was made public, chirped about how it would kneecap the unions. Nothing to see here.

George Mitchell said...

Brawler,

Public employee unions, through collective bargaining, generated the costs that had to be reduced to balance the budget without raising taxes.

The alternative was the Doyle approach, i.e., claim you would balance the budget (but fail), raise taxes, and leave employee benefits largely untouched.

This is not complicated.

Brew city brawler said...

There are and could have been ways to balance budget and rein in costs w/o provisions aimed explicitly busting public employee unions.

If it was essential that would have been an excellent platform for Scott Walker to run on. Why didn't he?

George Mitchell said...

Brawler channels Pines:

"There are and could have been ways to balance budget and rein in costs w/o provisions aimed explicitly busting public employee unions."

The examples he/she provides are....oh wait, there are none offered.

If this lame approach represents the best the recall folks can offer Scott Walker will win handily. In the process they will set him up for re-election in 2014.

Brew city brawler said...

If the only way to balance the budget is by breaking public employee unions - which is what you seem to be saying - then why didnt walker run on that?

George Mitchell said...

Brawler,

First thing to do when you are in a hole. Stop digging.

Brew City Brawler said...

That's not what Ron Johnson said, but, in any event, congrats for living up to Rick's headline.

It was within Walker's power to limit the scope of union bargaining power. If he wanted to drive concessions, he would have had popular support for that. In the end he chose to go beyond that. Why? Or was annual recertification for public employee unions, with the vote being a majority of total membership (which Walker didn't receive) necessary to balance the budget?

If breaking public employee unions is necessary for balancing budgets, then why didn't walker run on that?

Anonymous said...

George, if I sign a recall petition, its because of the fact that Walker did NOT present to the Wisconsin electorate his actual platform; fair enough. But then to claim--"you didn't see that coming???" And as another poster points out-the Fitz's comments from early on well worn in the media and on blogs. Ends don't justify the means, although your "where's the examples" comments suggest they do. Too much snark (especially for the hoi polloi of this little state), too little substance.

Jay Bullock said...

George, changing salary & benefit schedules ≠ eliminating collective bargaining.

Indeed, public sector unions offered the compromise early in the process: we accept changes to compensation, they said, so you don't need to decertify/ eliminate the unions and our ability to bargain other things like safe working conditions.

That compromise--which would have saved every last penny that Walker's "tools" did--was roundly rejected in favor of fully destroying the ability of public workers to speak with a unified voice. Thus proving that the attack on unions was not motivated by the budget by by political animus.

The shittiest thing (yes, I know, get the fainting couch and smelling salts) that Republicans' enablers in the commentariat--including Esenberg and the execrable Christian Scheider--have done is pound pound pound out the lie that the only thing Walker and his crew did to public employees was make small adjustments to our salaries and benefits. How they can repeat it--and you, too, George--without shame is beyond me.

George Mitchell said...

The claim that Mary Bell, Marty Beil, and others were ready to make real concessions is laughable.

George Mitchell said...

"How they can repeat it--and you, too, George--without shame is beyond me."

Jay....when and where did I say that all Walker did was require small adjustments?

Brew city brawler said...

Ah, I see George still hasn't answered the question of why, if breaking public employee unions was necessary to balance the budget, why didn't Walker run on it.

Jay Bullock said...

George:
Pines does not explain how Walker could balance the state budget and control local property taxes — both campaign pledges — without addressing the elephant in the room, i.e., employee salaries and benefits.

You perhaps did not say "small" in describing the cuts to salary and benefits, but you here pretty clearly imply that all Walker did was cut salary and benefits. That is the least of what Republicans did to public employee unions this year.

You and Esenberg and the rest perpetuate the fiction that it is the compensation cuts alone driving our anger and the recalls, willfully ignoring the true motivating factors despite having them repeatedly clarified for you. Since I know you're not stupid, I can only call it dishonesty.

James Rowen said...

George: I do not see you refuting my comment's central point: that Walker hid his plan to virtually eliminate public sector collective bargaining.

Delivering a sucker punch is a poor way to govern, and even the Journal Sentinel, which had endorsed him, took Walker to task for his methods, as I blogged yesterday:

The Recall Case, In 35 Words, And From Walker Backers

Three simple lines from a March, 2011 Journal Sentinel editorial - - and remember, that editorial board endorsed Walker for Governor - - underscored the basic truth that sucker-punching the electorate is wrong:

Walker never campaigned on disenfranchising public-employee unions. If he had, he would not have been elected. He got a spare 52% of the vote - hardly a mandate for what he is trying to do.

George Mitchell said...

Jay

So i have gone from being a shameless liar to someone who implied something with which you disagree.

Jim,

I hope the recall strategy relies on the message that Walker did not telegraph his intentions.

Jay Bullock said...

Okay, George, here's your chance to settle the question. Yes or no:
Was it necessary to completely kill public employee collective bargaining, as happened, in order to save money on public employee salaries and benefits?

Rick Esenberg said...

Jay

I'm going to call you out and you should regard that as a compliment.

I have never elided the difference between savings that would come from reduced cash and fringe benefit compensation and that which would come from the ability to manage more efficiently. More fundamentally, the chosen savings in this particular budget does not render the future rents that will come form recognizing a labor cartel meaningless.

In fact,I try to make these distinctions at some point when I write about this because I think the point needs to be made. Unions are designed to increase the cost of labor. Anyone who disagrees with that statement is ignorant of basic economic theory.

You can disagree with me. You might say that work rules and seniority rules and the inability to pay for performance and restrictions on the ability to fire poor performers, etc., don't cost money. I would infer from such a position that you have never managed anything or taken an introductory course in economics but I would not accuse you of insincerity.

Or, more credibly, you could argue that the wages paid to public employees ought to be higher than they would be in the absence of a monopolistic supply of labor. We could go back and forth on that.

But if you truly believe that the only explanation for someone not reaching the same conclusion as you is that they are a "liar" or "dishonest," then you need to think again.

Jay Bullock said...

Rick, you wrote a whole op-ed predicated on the idea that all Walker did to public employees was move them "closer--but not all the way to--national averages with respect to employee contributions to health insurance and pensions"--and that to suggest anything else was a literal distortion of reality.

This is a revision of recent history in two ways: One, the pay cut was never the impetus for the "days of rage"; the Madison TA's occupied the capitol not because they would have to contribute to health insurance costs, but because Act 10 dissolved their union. MTI teachers joined in not because they'd lose salary to pension, but because Act 10 took away their right to bargain over key issues that both labor and management wanted to be allowed to bargain over. I marched in Madison not because I can't afford a steep pay cut but because Act 10 made it illegal for me and my colleagues to speak with a single voice on workplace issues that affect our students.

Yet the consistent story from you and the rest of the right has been that the whiny unionistas are upset about a teeny widdle cut in their outsized pay. That is the distortion.

Brew City Brawler said...

Rick:
That would have been a hell of a platform for Walker to have run on. Why didn't he? And would he have been elected if he had?

Tom said...

Lester Pines and others, exactly how could the following have been accomplished without destroying collective bargaining: (a) breaking the stranglehold of WEA Trust insurance; (b) eliminating the abuses of sick pay "stacking"; (c) eliminating abusive emeritus programs; (d) removing protections for underperforming employees; (e) eliminating the requirement to offer overtime to the highest-paid employees first.

The answer is, they couldn't. Or at best they could have been accomplished, but only at the cost of giving up something else of value in return.

Anonymous said...

Scott Walker ran on cutting the deficit and requiring concessions from public employees to help him. He vowed to slash pay and benefits for public sector unions. Anyone familiar with Walker's efforts to balance budgets as Milwaukee county executive understood that collective bargaining requirements made his task nearly impossible. And while the specific collective bargaining proposal in the budget repair bill was not a regular line in his stump speech, it was also no secret that he would make significant changes to Wisconsin's collective bargaining rules.

In a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article on August 30, 2010, (A) Ryan Murray, a policy adviser for the Walker campaign, explaining Walker's plan to revamp public health insurance, said, "The way the proposal would work is we would take the choice (of health insurers) out of the collective bargaining process.” Does taking the choice out of CB mean ending CB for health care? The reporter certainly seemed to think so. "Murray said school districts often have some of the most expensive health benefits in Wisconsin and could receive cheaper insurance through the state if they didn't have to negotiate with unions about who would insure their members."

What was clear to the reporter was also clear to the teachers' unions, who reacted to the report thusly: "Our members oppose taking away their rights to collective bargaining, so they would definitely raise their voices against it," said Christina Brey, a spokesman for WEAC.

So a top Walker adviser made an on-the-record comment that both a reporter and a union representative understood as meaning an end to a part of collective bargaining. And another teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers, found Murray's comment so threatening that they included it in a flyer warning teachers to vote against Walker who, they claimed, wanted to "void parts of labor contracts."

Later, in a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article that ran on October 29, 2010, just three days before the election, Richard Abelson, head of the local AFSCME chapter, said, "The premise is still that they want to bypass collective bargaining and adopt wages and working conditions through the budget process."

Even after the election, following a Dec. 7, 2010 Walker press club forum appearance, Abelson was quoted in the Journal-Sentinel, "His union-busting attitude shouldn't surprise anybody."

If Scott Walker did not campaign on the specific collective bargaining proposal in his budget repair bill, it was no secret that Walker would be proposing dramatic changes to the state's relationship with its employees — changes he made clear would include collective bargaining.
Some of you just weren't paying attention.

Jay Bullock said...

Tom, believe it or not, the legislature sets what topics are mandatory subjects of collective bargaining. Any of those things you mention could have been removed from the process without the elimination of bargaining entirely and without the deliberate kneecapping of Walker's political opponents.

George Mitchell said...

Jay,

Necessary? Probably not.

A great outcome? Indeed.

Remaining civil service protections leave public employees in a far better position that most private sector, at-will employees. For those public employees who think life is now too unfair, let 'em hop over to the private sector for a higher paying job, since they claim repeatedly to be under paid.

George Mitchell said...

Anon 1:15

Great post.

Tom said...

Jay - "Any of those things you mention could have been removed from the process without the elimination of bargaining entirely and without the deliberate kneecapping of Walker's political opponents."

First, CB wasn't entirely limited. Second, just because CB is gone for the majority of topics doesn't mean government employers will take every employee-benefiting program out or ignore input from their employees. (In both the private and public sector, employers who are that punitive or completely ignore their workers' input will find themselves losing employees quickly). Taking CB out just means that the employer won't always have to give something back in return if they end abuses.

Regarding your second point, yes, removing automatic due deductions for every worker, union member or not, is bad for Democrats. But having those in the first place was a huge benefit for the Democrats. Why was that necessary in the first place? This is not moving from a neutral position to a pro-Republican position, it's moving from a pro-Democrat position to a neutral position.

If the Democrats lose ANY money because of this, it is entirely because people were being forced to donate to political causes who don't actually want to donate to political causes. Sounds like the right thing to do to me.

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