“Lies,” and Let’s Be Real About Wisconsin

I’m officially tired of hearing about conservative and Republican “lies.” It’s as if liberals cannot get beyond their signature victory against a lying Richard Nixon, the only president in American history to fall on his sword and resign in disgrace, preceded by the lying Lyndon Johnson, who simply chose not to run again, who was preceded by the lying John Kennedy, who was assassinated and beatified. And then there was lying Bill Clinton, who actually committed actionable perjury, but was saved politically by Republican overreaction with impeachment proceedings, and thereafter beatified.

“Lying” is a morally charged term in my vocabulary. It means having what lawyers calls mens rea, the deliberate purpose to commit the crime. I see lots of factual manipulation and misdirection in politics, but I don’t see much actual lying in politics. The risks are too grave. In this age of new media, even minor misstatements, never mind lies, get assaulted instantly by hundreds of bloggers and citizen pundits. Politicians dare not actually lie, unless they’re in districts that don’t care.

The latest “LIE” headline is itself misleading: “The Wisconsin Lie Exposed – Taxpayers Actually Contribute Nothing To Public Employee Pensions.” Well, not to quibble, but actually, taxpayers contribute everything to public employee pensions. The author wishes to make a point that state employees use part of their own salaries to make (advantageous) tax-deferred contributions to their pensions — but “their salaries” come entirely from taxpayers (never mind any matching contribution from the state).

So what “Wisconsin Lie” was exposed? How is this ridiculous screech not itself, by the breezy standard of “lie” applied to Republicans, a lie?

Similarly, the Wisconsin governor gets excoriated for “lying” about public sector versus private sector compensation. Lying? The evidence for “lying” is a study written for the Center on State and Local Government Excellence by University of Wisconsin professors Keith A. Bender and John Heywood, which concludes that state and local government employees receive salaries eleven percent lower than similar private-sector employees, and total compensation, including benefits, that is seven percent lower..

But the conclusion is… a lie? Andrew Biggs dissects the study as follows:

  1. The Bender-Heywood study compares public-sector salaries only to pay for unionized private workers, not all private employees. Given that only seven percent of the population is unionized, the comparison is invalid.
  2. The study underestimates the value of defined-benefit pensions because it doesn’t account for the more aggressive funding rules of public pension plans. For a given level of guaranteed retirement income, state and local pensions put aside around one-third less money today than a private 401(k) plan would. Since the Bender-Heywood study measures what employers contribute today, not what employees eventually receive, it significantly understates public-sector pension benefits.
  3. The study omits the value of retiree health benefits.
  4. The study ignores job security, which is worth an extra 15 percent of pay.

The desperate determination to accuse Republicans and conservatives of “lying” is a pathology of our political dialogue. There is no “lying,” except arguably lying about lying.

Let’s be real. Wisconsin is a power play. This isn’t about “the working man.” Public sector unions — and they constitute the majority of the unionized workforce in America — are very rich and reliable Democratic party juggernauts. They play politics in a big way. And because state and federal laws have taken care of worker rights, public sector unions get to focus their wealthy firepower almost entirely on Democratic party politics. The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board released its Top 10 Lobbying Organizations report, and #1, with 10,462 hours and $2,143,588, was the Wisconsin Education Association.

Public sector unions are very powerful organizations with lots of money, and some segments are fighting back against that power and money — kind of the way liberals, in other contexts, have a problem with power and money.

Let’s call it what it is. Public sector unions have been doing serious Democratic party politics, and Republicans think that’s unfair. Corporations, by contrast, split about evenly between serious Democratic party politics and serious Republican party politics — yet corporations get reviled for any contribution to the latter.

It’s not a mystery that Americans are fascinated by Wisconsin. They may not understand the essential difference between public and private sector unions, but they vaguely see a power play, and huddle to their tents accordingly.

Meanwhile, states are going bankrupt, and governors are doing what they’re charged with doing and seeking ways to balance the budget. When they’re Republican governors, they’re apt to target public sector unions, who routinely target Republicans with their substantial wealth.

Public sector unions have been hammering Republicans with mandatory dues for decades. Why is it surprising that Republicans fight back?



2 Responses to “Lies,” and Let’s Be Real About Wisconsin

  1. Jeff Veazey says:

    If this were baseball you would be the kid who held the bat at the wrong end and sat in right field picking clover and admiring the lovely white sphere arcing through the blue sky, ricocheting off the lovely spring-green turf and whistling with top spin as it shot past you, rolling to a stop at the base of the fence.

    “States are going bankrupt, governors are doing what they’re charged with doing and seeking ways to balance the budget.” How absolutely trusting of you. It seems that Republicans offer you the innocence and promise of spring training, while Liberals are the Chicago Black Sox.

    I am officially tired of sanctimonious Republicans referencing that, “The voters made it clear in the last election that they…(fill in the blank with your special governmental peeve). The number of things made clear by the last election in Republican eyes is now exceeded only by the number of big corporations not paying any taxes. Which leads me to the quote above. The Federal and the State governments are going broke because politicians in both parties (but especially Republican Rick Perry in Texas) have been running a thimblerig on the voters on behalf of business and blaming various groups: unions, teachers, the unemployed, those receiving entitlements, etc. The fact is, the popular and wholly unnecessary political patronage act of continually lowering tax rates on businesses, on the rich, on all taxpayers, is financially unsound. We stopped paying our bills. We did not budget for two wars yet we thought we were still entitled to more money and more toys. Americans charged up their credit cards and the Government did the same thing. The people said we don’t want to pay our fair share to the government, we want to pay our credit cards and the government said, “If you let us keep being the government and don’t touch our retirement or our benefits, we’ll let you hang yourself, if you want to.” And lo, taxes were lowered again.

    Well, as my friend Alla DiPie, a member of the Republican Billionaires Club says, it’s time for everyone and everything to pay their share and to raise taxes a little. This one thing, raising revenue, will cure all of Wisconsin’s and Texas’ problems and go a long way toward fixing the national problem. The problem is not that government is onerously too big, though sound management and lean budgets, top to bottom, should be the highest priority. The problem is that people want all of the government services without having to pay for it. The “my wife got her boob job and I love my hummer but don’t raise my taxes you’re hurting the small business man” crowd is out of control. There is one thing worse than Socialism and Unions, the anarchy of the selfishly unpatriotic, me-first, American Right Wing. Unpatriotic is worse than liar. But when your country calls for help, everyone sacrifices and those who have benefited from the rules that contributed to their prosperity may be asked to sacrifice more. America is a place where shared sacrifice has historic traction. Blaming groups or loading a cure on the backs of those who will suffer most as a result is the most cynically unpatriotic policy I can think of, not to mention that it still won’t work. Those who refuse to see the glass as half full (and insist on further draining the half-empty glass) are preying on fear and divisiveness and are unAmerican liars.

    • Jeff, interesting to see you’re still invariably determined to belittle the person with whom you disagree. You just can’t stick to the merits. But nicely written my friend. Lovely image, that strange baseball metaphor. Yes, I was sporty once, but I peaked in 6th grade. Actually won the sportsman award that year, and then spiraled down into conceiving athleticism as a particularly harrowing round of speed chess.

      I’m not clear why you’re making a point about sanctimonious Republicans here. I’ve never said “the voters made it clear in the last election…” In fact, the day after the election, my post warned Republicans to stay sober and avoid reading too much into the votes of an irritable electorate. I give you credit though — you have an actual plan regarding bankrupt governments: raise taxes, at least on businesses and the rich. That’s fairly debatable. I think it’s a bad plan, and I think you underestimate the policy importance of creating business-friendly environments. Business-friendly means stimulative of actual commerce, which means creation of more jobs and enhancement of the tax base. But my point in this post was to talk about the optics and reality of what is happening in Wisconsin. I in fact conceded a point insistently made by liberals: that the Wisconsin battle is not merely about the budget, but about a larger political contest. In that political contest, public-sector unions have been very nearly 100% supporters of the Democratic party. Their business “nemesis,” by contrast, split about evenly between Republicans and Democrats. To many Republicans, that looks like an unlevel playing field, especially considering the mandatory dues, even from Americans who do not support the political agendas of their unions. So if public sector unions are going to continue giving enormous amounts of union dues money exclusively to Democrats, relentlessly organize and campaign exclusively for Democrats, and use union dues to lobby for expansion of union power so that they’re evermore empowered to promote the Democratic party, then what’s the surprise that Republicans would like to try to clip their wings?

      For you, this political contest, absurdly in my view, is about “the anarchy of the selfishly unpatriotic, me-first, American Right Wing,” which “is worse than liar.” I’m suggesting a straightforward political slugfest, without demonizing either side — other than to exhort an end to the profligate accusation of “lying.” You’re driven to spew baseless bile about the side you dislike, indeed to call them “unAmerican liars.” That’s wearisome Jeff.

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