What's at Stake in Wisconsin?

I'm hesitant to dive into the topic again after our record-breaking 1450 comments on the previous post, but here goes:  there's something very odd about the arguments, and the passion, over the Wisconsin teacher showdown.  The teachers are not, to be sure, behaving particularly well by falsely calling in sick and faking doctor's notes--and for that matter, neither are the doctors.  I would certainly understand if the parents are outraged, but not why conservatives in a different state care so much.  Is wanting to be overpaid some sort of grave sin unique to public sector unions?


Nor do I understand why liberals have gotten themselves so emotionally committed to the collective bargaining rules of a local union in a single state--or for that matter, to the notion that public sector unions are an institution so valuable that they must be defended at all costs.  I don't necessarily agree with all the reasons that unions are celebrated in the private sector, but I do understand the argument for unions as a counterweight to the asymmetrical power between owners of capital and unskilled or semiskilled workers.  I do not understand why the sight of government workers losing the ability to collectively bargain for benefits, or automatically deduct wages from paychecks, triggers all this stirring rhetoric about fighting on the streets of Wisconsin to preserve the last vestiges of a gauzily idealized world in which everyone had three squares, a split level, and a defined benefit pension.  I don't understand passages like this:

But the decline of unions over the past few decades has left corporations and the rich with essentially no powerful opposition. No matter what doubts you might have about unions and their role in the economy, never forget that destroying them destroys the only real organized check on the power of the business community in America. If the last 30 years haven't made that clear, I don't know what will.

In what way do public sector unions act as a check on the power of corporations?  They are not negotiating against corporations; they are rarely competing with corporations (and certainly not in the case of the teachers' unions); and corporate taxes do not provide the bulk of the revenues for state and local governments.


It is surprising to me how determined both conservatives and liberals seem to be to view this through the lens of the private sector union fights--exploitative corporations and militant workers have been neatly transmogrified into selfish taxpayers and greedy unions.  And yet it seems to me that the fight is less between taxpayers and unions than between the people who consume government services, and the workers who provide them.

Maybe I'm cynical, but Igenerally assume that at any given time, taxes are, within some margin of error, basically as high as taxpayers are willing to tolerate--or at least, as high as they're willing to tolerate for a given level of services.  To put it another way, taxpayers are virtually never looking to pay higher taxes so that their teachers, firefighters and cops can have higher pay.  Maybe they're willing to pay more to get extra services, but they're definitely not willing to pay more to get the same or less.

Especially in an environment like this, where taxpayers are under unusual financial pressure at the same time as the claims on the government are especially high, the choice is not between collecting a lot more taxes, or keeping public worker salaries under control.  Oh, many states (and certainly the federal government) may need to raise taxes.  But they aren't simply going to raise them high enough to cover any amount of spending.  Spending cuts are going to have to be made too, which means that every decision not to cut spending in one place is, de facto, a decision to cut it somewhere else.

If you keep the unions happy, the service cuts are probably going to hit the programs and districts that serve the poor, because the poor, unlike the public sector unions, don't vote.  So while both parties seem to think that they're fighting their usual war over the size of government, this is actually a distributional argument--and oddly, what we think of as the usual party positions are reversed.  This time, it is Democrats who are fighting for middle class benefits that will probably come at the expense of the poor.

I think many of the union's boosters, they're assuming a level of services, and then trying to up the spending on those services to spread even more wealth around even further.  But especially now, with rising costs and demographic pressures, that just isn't a very plausible model to me.  In fact, one could argue that Democrats are undercutting their own side even worse than that.  Expensive government services mean that taxpayers see less value for their dollar--meaning that they're likely to support an overall lower level of government services.  This effect is not so pronounced at the federal level, where so much of what the government does is writing checks.  But at the state and local level, where there's more direct provision of services to taxpayers, it's conceivably a real problem.

I understand why Democratic politicians are supporting the unions in all of this--they're very dependent on these unions for money and political legwork.  But I don't understand why the wonks and the outside activists are so determined to turn this into a high-profile fight to the death.  They might give the GOP a bloody nose and secure some extra benefits for the teachers' unions--but there's a lot of downside risk here with parents scrambling to find care for their kids, and fiascos like the fake medical excuses.  And what's the upside?  The teachers get to keep bargaining for higher benefits, and someone else's medical care gets cut instead.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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