“Lies,” and Let’s Be Real About Wisconsin
March 3, 2011 2 Comments
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- The study omits the value of retiree health benefits.
- 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?