The Fights To Come

David Frum says what's happening in Wisconsin is only going to spread:

Since 2007, Americans have lost trillions of dollars in wealth. And ever since, we’ve been arguing about who should pay and who should be protected. Wisconsin represents the next and most painful round of the argument. During the good years, states and cities made retirement promises to their workers. When you total all the promises – and compare them to the money set aside to pay the promises you reach a gap of more than $1 trillion, according to the Pew Center on the States.

Where did the trillion go? Some was lost in the declining value of investments after the dot-com crash in 2000 and the financial crisis of 2008. Some of the trillion was unexpectedly added as rising health-care costs inflated the projected costs of state-worker retirements. But the largest part of the trillion dollar gap was accumulated by wishful thinking and political cowardice: States making workers happy by promising them payouts in the future, and trying to keep taxpayers happy by neglecting to set aside the necessary funding in the here and the now.

Here's something to understand about the antagonistic relationship developing between public employee unions and the public at large. In normal circumstances, the tendency is going to be for the government to pay its workers a bit more than would be the case if the public were paying closer attention, because special interests are always more focused on matters that affect them directly than average voters with many disparate priorities.

As a result, when the public at large suddenly starts to scrutinize the deal any special interest has secured for itself – public employee unions included – it's quite normal for there to be a sizeable backlash as voters begin to comprehend a status quo on which they never knowingly signed off. In this sense, public employee unions benefit from the ignorance of voters during boom times, and suffer more than most from backlashes in bad times.