Why Wisconsin Matters

If your state is staring down a fiscal crisis, it’s likely due to its inability to deliver on its commitments to public sector employees. This is certainly the case in my state. Tonight I sat and listened to Paul Begala sourly claim on CNN that “it’s not the unions that are bankrupting this country” and that’s a (at least partly) true statement – but they are bankrupting the states. Watch this video by Daniel DiSalvo for a quick primer on why public unions are uniquely powerful and have proved uniquely damaging:

That covers the symbiotic relationship that allows public unions to pile up benefits that are not grounded in economic reality. What’s more, the public, politicians and the media are more likely to respond to organized, loud, sustained voices when it comes time to make the case for funding (I’m being pretty diplomatic here). This describes public unions exactly.

But nobody hears from the other side, the side that would benefit from those tax dollars being freed up for use elsewhere, (or, god forbid, being returned to the taxpayer) because the representatives of that side are varied and unaffiliated with one another. Sometimes the representatives of that cost don’t even exist yet (think of the business that isn’t started because tax rates are raised to offset an increase in public sector employment benefits). It’s very hard to capture the point of view of “the rest of us” in a soundbite when we can’t all climb in a bus with matching t-shirts and signs.

Finally, these are jobs that we’ve determined to be critical public services and thus have turned them over to the state – police, fire, sanitation, education – yet because they are unionized, we allow them to hold communities hostage because we’ve preemptively removed their competition. They have nothing to lose. We, the rest of us, lose a lot. That’s why, up until the 1950s, nobody – not FDR, not the AFL-CIO – thought that this was a good idea. More from DiSalvo:

In the private sector, the wage demands of union workers cannot exceed a certain threshold: If they do, they can render their employers uncompetitive, threatening workers’ long-term job security. In the public sector, though, government is the monopoly provider of many services, eliminating any market pressures that might keep unions’ demands in check. Moreover, unlike in the private sector, contract negotiations in the public sector are usually not highly adversarial; most government-agency mangers have little personal stake in such negotiations. Unlike executives accountable to shareholders and corporate boards, government managers generally get paid the same — and have the same likelihood of keeping their jobs — regardless of whether their operations are run efficiently. They therefore rarely play hardball with unions like business owners and managers do; there is little history of “union busting” in government.

So that’s why it’s been so important that somebody – anybody – make an attempt to do some of that union busting in government. Otherwise, state pension plans are going under. It’s that simple. It’s basic math. States don’t get to print money like the federal government does.

I don’t hate public employees like teachers. My wife is a teacher. Hell, it’s even hard to get really mad at the public sector unions, because they’re guilty of nothing except being really good at what they were asked to do – get the best possible deal for their members. No, the people deserving of scorn are the politicians of the past who – if they had even a basic grasp of elementary arithmetic – could see that these promises were not sustainable, but chose to do what was politically expedient for them. And what is politically expedient is always giving stuff to the organized loud people. You shouldn’t be upset at the unions for being shrill and wanting to keep what they’ve got – that’s just human nature. Be upset at the politicians of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s for being spineless. Public sector pension and benefit plans became so entrenched that it was seen as political suicide to take it on. But Scott Walker showed that it can be done. And, since he won the recall by a larger margin than the 2010 election, apparently the residents of Wisconsin think what he’s doing is working. Check out this piece from Reason and this resulting graph:



This is a state that is realizing it’s possible to make some fiscally responsible decisions without reverting to the service-less dystopia the unions promised was awaiting us should their collective bargaining rights be taken away. Still don’t believe me? One third of union households voted to keep him in office. The government-public union arrangement has stayed well beyond its expiration date, but Wisconsin just showed the country that there’s a way to move forward. Even if it took a temper tantrum of hilarious proportions.


9 thoughts on “Why Wisconsin Matters

  1. A couple comments here (finally):1) It’s curious that you’re now decrying the “loud, sustained voices” who influence the public and the media and drown out the common man, when you seemed thoroughly unimpressed with my observation that Walker basically bought this election by owning the airwaves with money from out-of-state interests.2) You do realize, I trust, that the significance of Walker’s approval rating in the context of this debate is tenuous at best. Your chart shows that as recently as February, 53 percent DISAPPROVED; and as recently as April, 51 percent did. Regardless, his approval rating (or the fact that he survived recall) aren’t accurate measures of public opinion on the collective bargaining issue. Many voted to retain him simply because they didn’t think he deserved to be ousted, even if they disagreed with what he had done during his first year in office. Don’t believe me? Remember that just last November, voters in Ohio rejected that state’s union-busting law by a 61 percent margin. Ohio and Wisconsin aren’t THAT dissimilar politically; in fact, Wisconsin is a more reliably blue state than Ohio is.3) Your solution for the problems outlined in your post seems to be to wipe out public unions altogether. My response to that is contained in my most recent post.

  2. Was it intentional that you left out “politicians” from “What’s more, the public, politicians and the media are more likely to respond to organized, loud, sustained voices”? Because that’s kind of the most important of the three when it comes to the point I’m making.Are you still maintaining Walker “bought” this election, even when the difference between the votes he received in this election and the 2010 election was 1.1%, a difference so small it would be comparable to weather differences? THAT’S the end result of your sinister outside dollars?As to your Ohio point, that’s a pretty big reach, but that notwithstanding, the people of Wisconsin got to see these changes in action and realized it’s not that big of a deal. In Ohio they were voting on spec and with the public hissyfit in Wisconsin fresh in their mind.

  3. Politicians ARE the loud, sustained voices in the point I’m making. Scott Walker outspent Tom Barrett by a nearly 8-to-1 margin, ensuring that the voices of the opposition were, in essence, drowned out on the airwaves. He’s guilty of the very same offense for which you’re excoriating public-sector unions.I’m not sure I understand why it’s significant that Walker won by a margin almost identical to the 2010 race. So what? He almost certainly would have lost if he hadn’t dominated the advertising wars (or if he had faced a stronger opponent, like Russ Feingold). As it stands, he only managed to keep his supporters and not lose too many independents; and the number of votes he GAINED was negligible. Like I said, this contest was just as much about whether Walker deserved to be removed as it was about his union-busting policies.Which is why Ohio is relevant to this discussion. Voting to recall a governor and voting on a ballot measure are two different things. If Wisconsin voters had also had the chance to vote on whether to repeal Walker’s “budget repair” law, there’s a VERY high probability that they would have followed Ohio’s lead while simultaneously retaining Walker himself. It’s not a stretch at all to compare Ohio and Wisconsin. Both are swing states in the Rust Belt (though Wisconsin trends bluer) with strong public-sector union backgrounds and similar voter demographics (liberal urban strongholds, conservative suburban and rural areas). For these reasons, it’s a gross oversimplification to suggest that voters vindicated Walker’s policies just because they chose not to oust him.

  4. I can’t tell if you’re being serious. We’ll file “he almost certainly would’ve lost if he hadn’t dominated the advertising wars” under “things frustrated people just make up.” There is zero factual basis for that (and the 8-to-1 margin is inaccurate anyway, if you tally the amount of union dollars that went to the recall effort in general and not Barrett personally, which any objective person should).The near-identical results, combined with the exit polling that showed most people had made their mind up BEFORE the bulk of the spending happened, really make this a case study in how sometimes, money affects hardly anything but the turnout.

  5. Arguing that money didn’t play a decisive factor in the outcome of this race (or that Barrett was even competitive with Walker in that regard) is like arguing that Ohio’s rejection of the union-busting law is completely irrelevant to the conversation about Wisconsin.

  6. Please show me any metric at all that would back up your claim that money played a “decisive factor” in the outcome of this race.

  7. I’m kind of embarrassed that I have to point out that correlation does not equal causation, but the fact that the money was spent does not mean that it turned into votes, and it especially doesn’t mean it was the “decisive factor” in the election (I would ask the question if there was ANY decisive factor at all, given that this played out as a near-carbon copy of the 2010 election, when none of these extraneous variables were in play). Of course, maybe I’d invent a money boogeyman, too, if the only other alternative was “These people heard my ideas and think they are wrong.”Did you read the comments in that piece you linked, by the way? I’m alarmed to learn that the Third Reich has risen anew in Madison.

  8. Pingback: Three Things We Already Knew, but the Election Reinforced | pro se

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