Wishing Well in Wisconsin
February 24, 2011 24 Comments
Wisconsin is a progressive state in the very best sense of that term. Indeed, much of what we think of as progressivism originated in Wisconsin, thanks to Wisconsin Republicans. In the first decades of the 20th century, Wisconsin Republicans enacted the first state income tax — yes, a graduated income tax that pre-dated, and formed the model for, the later federal graduated income tax. Wisconsin created the first statewide primary election system, the first workplace injury compensation law, and later, in 1932, the first unemployment compensation program.
In the laboratory of states, Wisconsin shines brightly as an innovator. And as home to the Green Bay Packers.
And then in 1959 (the year I was born), Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson signed collective bargaining into law for state workers.
And now, like most states, Wisconsin is broke. Four of the top five employers in Wisconsin are government entities. (The first is Wal-Mart.) The costs are enormous. Government entities don’t typically make and sell things. They perform government services, usually monopoly services, funded by taxpayers. Wisconsin citizens elected a Republican governor and a Republican legislature to tackle the state’s fiscal tribulation. The Republican governor and the Republican legislature have a plan. And the plan involves, among other things, reining in the state’s public sector unions.
To liberals — just barely the descendents of the state’s early 20th-century progressives — the plan is a sinister symbol of a much larger evil, and much liberal political capital has been squandered on characterizing the Republican fiscal plan as union-busting, anti-schoolteacher, Governor-Walker-is-Mubarak-and-Hitler nonsense. The American people aren’t buying it. To be sure, however, we’re seeing the fault lines of a much larger debate. And liberals are beyond-the-pale ANGRY.
The civility memo? Protesters didn’t get that one:
- Poster: “Reload. Repeal Walker.” [With bull’s-eye on Governor Walker’s face.]
- Poster: “Hitler outlawed unions too.”
- Poster: “Hosni + Hitler = Dictator Scott Walker” [photo of Walker with Hitler mustache]
- Poster: “Walker is a dictator” [photo of Walker with Hitler mustache]
- Posters: “One down, one to go: dictators” [photos of Walker and Mubarak]
- Poster: [photo of Walker with Hitler mustache and Nazi swastika scarf]
- Poster: “Al Qaeda Scott: Terrorizing Wisconcin’s Workers and Labor Unions” [photo of Governor Walker as Osama bin Laden]
- Poster: “Heil Walker. Stop the Maniac.” [photo of Governor Walker with Hitler mustache]
- Poster: “Exterminating Union Members” [photo of Governor Walker with Hitler mustache]
- Poster: “Walker Blows Koch”
- Poster: “Governor Mubarak”
- Poster: “Scott Walker – The Reason We Need Planned Parenthood”
- Poster: “Fascist Union and Community Killer Scott Walker”
- Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Ma.) told a Boston crowd rallying in solidarity with Wisconsin union members, “I’m proud to be here with people who understand that it’s more than just sending an email to get you going. Every once and awhile you need to get out on the streets and get a little bloody when necessary.” (Yes, mild stuff, until the Tucson tragedy, and the liberal fury over conservative violence rhetoric.)
Notwithstanding the foregoing — which is relevant only to the perpetual and preposterous demonization of conservatives as monopolists on hate speech — there is a rational liberal position in Wisconsin. Here is what Governor Walker’s Budget Repair Bill proposes to do:
- Government workers would pay half the cost of their pensions (still less than private employees pay for their pensions)
- Government workers would pay 12% of their own health insurance premiums (the national average for the private sector is over 20%)
- End collective bargaining for government unions for pensions and benefits; allow bargaining only for raises that are less than inflation
- End forced union dues, collected by the state; union dues would become voluntary
- Union members get to vote yearly on whether to keep their union
These are significant reforms. The rational liberal position focuses most particularly on the collective bargaining issue. This is a fair, debatable issue. I understand the angst. I do not understand the apocalyptic rhetoric and it does not square with history.
Lanny Davis, Purple Nation columnist and stalwart proponent of civil discourse, goes utterly color-blind in calling Governor Walker “dark red.” In condemning Governor Walker, he invokes liberal icon Franklin Delano Roosevelt as follows:
I believe that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had it right when he said, on May 8, 1937, “The right to bargain collectively is at the bottom of social justice for the worker, as well as the sensible conduct of business affairs. The denial or observance of this right means the difference between despotism and democracy.”
In fact, FDR, indeed a true friend of unionism, had no patience for public sector unionism. He condemned it in 1937:
“Meticulous attention should be paid to the special relations and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government….The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.” [Why? Because] “a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to obstruct the operations of government until their demands are satisfied. Such action looking toward the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it is unthinkable and intolerable.”
Historically, most of America, including the left, has understood the difference between private sector and public sector unions. Most government services are legal monopolies, and consumers have no opportunity to choose a “competing” service if the government service becomes inefficient. There is, therefore, no salutary danger of the government service going out of business if costs are too high. Moreover, the public sector union push for ever-higher pay and benefits lacks the discipline of the private sector because the public sector “managers” are spending taxpayer money — and taxpayers are peewees compared to stockholders and private equity stakeholders.
In short, public sector unions have too much power, and enormous amounts of money, both of which, in other contexts, matter significantly to liberals. That is not to say public sector unions do not accomplish some good things for public sector employees, only that rational limits on what they can achieve are lacking — and conspicuously so when their workers are significantly better off than private sector workers and the government confronts bankruptcy.
Think of Wisconsin voters as stockholders. They have nowhere near the commanding wrath of the typical private stockholder — but they voted, in the indirect way that is our democracy, for Governor Walker and his approach to the business of Wisconsin. As even liberal Wisconsin newspapers have concluded, it’s time to vote on that approach. The 14 Wisconsin Senate Democrats who scurried out of state to prevent a Senate quorum aren’t doing anything illegal — just thumbing their noses at Wisconsin voters.