farmer

Public union members from as far as New York and Iowa have bussed to Madison, Wisconsin, to join protests against new Republican Governor Scott Walker’s proposed changes to compensation and collective bargaining for some state workers. Fourteen Democratic state senators fled the state to prevent the legislation from a vote.

Newspapers and commentators have filled reams of paper and the airwaves discussing Walker’s “sweeping” changes intended to “gut” public workers’ “collective bargaining rights.” We’ve read of similar legislation in states like Indiana, Ohio, Idaho, and California (for pete’s sake). But few people have peered past the drums, smelly feet camping at Wisconsin’s capitol, and rehashed labor chants to discover the citizens already deprived of their property by union-induced growth in state spending.

We know the basic facts: Wisconsin faces a $137 million budget deficit this year, and a $3.6 billion deficit by 2013. Governor Walker, who campaigned on cutting wages and benefits, made good on his promise by proposing a budget that would require state workers (except “public safety workers” like police and firefighters) to help fund their pensions and healthcare insurance at or below national average contributions.

Wisconsinites elected him on this platform with 52 percent of the vote. As with other states, increasing taxes paralleling increasing deficits and the requisite economic instability made voters demand change.

In a hullabaloo strangely absent from Indiana a few years ago when Gov. Mitch Daniels excised collective bargaining, the national conversation has missed people who cannot benefit their own agendas by leaving the state or banging drums. They are the reason historically purple Wisconsin, which went strongly Democratic in 2008, flipped its entire statehouse and governorship red in 2012. These are people like my father and grandmother. My father has farmed Wisconsin his entire life, like his father and grandfather before him. Because of this, he owns a good amount of land and pays a good amount in property taxes.

To describe my grandmother, 91 years old, as ‘frail’ hardly conjures an accurate picture. She has been a widow for about 15 years, usually cannot remember my name, and can no longer walk the seeding orchard and grape arbor behind the farmhouse her father left her decades ago. Just last week, as marching Wisconsin school teachers shouted to keep their compensation levels a third higher than the typical Wisconsin household, her children–my aunts, mother, and uncles–feared a new bout of sickness might be her last.

Since most of my mom’s brothers and sisters live in Michigan, they cannot vote in Wisconsin. But they pay grandma’s taxes on the old, central Wisconsin family farm, now waving with tall grass and an almost-indiscernible garden plot. They cut the grass, tie up the apple boughs, wash the windows, fix the sewer system.

Last year, net property taxes in Wisconsin were at a 14-year high, 4.9 percent higher than in 2009. These property taxes bit into the little pouch of money available for paying grandma’s medical bills, grocery tabs, and haircuts. And they will have to increase again if Governor Walker and town mayors across the state can’t fix mounting deficits.

Budget deficits in Wisconsin and across the country are driven by outsized state pensions and benefits. Collective bargaining gives public-sector unions a monopoly on not only state services but the prices taxpayers pay for those services, since taxpayers have no alternative to many state services and politicians risk their jobs when daring to stand against union bosses’ demands.

My grandmother is too old to march and demand that her own money not be siphoned to pay public salaries far above market prices and for no extra value returned. My prudent father would never dream of insisting he deserves someone else’s money. Instead, as a small businessman, he works dawn to dusk (and far beyond) to provide for himself by serving others. He understands the equation: he increases his profits by increasing the benefits his hard work provides to others. He doesn’t increase his salary by marching on Madison and demanding larger chunks from other private-sector workers’ salaries. How odd this works for some people.

That distortion is why Walker says he can’t just leave collective bargaining as it is, even though union leaders and the Democrats they support have said they’ll take his cuts if Walker discards the bargaining changes. That would be like taking the bottle from a drunkard but letting him keep your liquor cabinet key in his pocket.

This is not just a Wisconsin tug-of-war, of course. States and local governments currently owe $3.5 trillion in unfunded pension benefits. Entitlements also drive the national deficit. Americans must decide whether we’ll take my father’s way out, through hard work, thrift, and keeping our hands out of each others’ pockets, or the unions’ way out of demanding more pay for fewer services because your customers have no choice in the matter. The latter invariably encourages plundering from people like my father and grandmother because their faces do not appear on national news to plead for the “individual bargaining rights” our Constitution guarantees.

Joy Pullmann is an assistant editor at the American Enterprise Institute.

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Adam Parsons March 5, 2011 at 12:56 am

“As far as… Iowa?” Have you ever seen a map of the US? You do know that Iowa borders Wisconsin, I assume. (For that matter, have you read the article you cite, which, while it is from an Iowa newspaper, is talking about Rock Island, IL)?

And FPR is publishing AEI shill material. Dirty union workers want to take money from AEI corporate spokesperson’s grandma. Sad. Dirty union workers dare to question their corporate overlords. Union workers should know their place, know their limits, and know the sweeping extent of corporate liberty.

That is, after all, the one question, the one concern that’s absent from all this AEI/Americans for Prosperity/RGA propaganda in Wisconsin and in Ohio (which, as a native, I’ve been following more closely, and which is much more clear-cut of a corporate powergrab, over rather less protest). The concern that’s missing, the actor who’s vanished, is the corporation.

The joke going around in Ohio, at least, goes like this: A CEO, a union worker, and a Tea Partier sit down at a table with twelve cookies. CEO takes eleven, eats them, and says to the tea partier, “Watch out for that union guy – he wants to eat your cookie.”

avatar John Médaille March 5, 2011 at 9:09 am

I must agree with Mr. Parsons that this is a rather shrill piece, one whose “data” seems to come from a puff piece in NRO. It comes complete with “calculations” that teachers make a third more than everybody else, based not on their real salary but their “annualized” salary. Moreover, the problem is not teacher’s pensions, but the fact that gov’ts refused to fund those pensions. It is equivalent to taking the pension contributions and using them to defray current expenses, which is what happened to the so-called social security fund.

But at the very least, those concerned with liberty ought to be queasy when the state proposes to take away a worker’s right to bargain. Surely the right to bargain, both individually and collectively, is a basic human right. This returns us to the state of things which so inspired the wrath of Adam Smith, who complained that the “masters” (as he termed them) were allowed to organize freely, but the workers were denied the right to do so by law.

Clearly, this is an issue which requires some serious discussion; this article doesn’t do that.

By way of full disclosure, my wife is a middle and high school teacher. I know of no one who works harder.

avatar sdf March 5, 2011 at 12:31 pm

We’re to take “seriously” an “argument” that is so “weak” it is “forced” to resort to multiple “scare quotes?”

avatar Joy Pullmann March 5, 2011 at 12:46 pm

Dear Mr. Parsons: I could have phrased the Iowa comment better. To my Wisconsin mind, Iowa feels very far away, probably because the border is a good 7-hour drive there from my parents’ house.

I don’t think it’s fair to complain about corporate interests when, in this situation, government stands in the place of corporate interests. I do not mean to attack all unions–just say that public-sector unions don’t make sense because taxpayers are involved in the bargain but get no say in it, as things currently stand (since elected representatives have more incentives to grant public workers wild, and greed-inducing, promises since unions use large amounts of tax money to support or attack political candidates). Private-sector union agreements are between workers and their employers.

To Mr. Medaille: It does not seem unfair to me to compare teachers’ salaries to other salaries and control for, among other factors, the significantly shorter teaching work year.

I do agree that it is a sad situation that politicians have promised workers certain benefits, knowing the promises were unsustainable. State constitutions, however, guarantee benefits for current workers under the contracts they signed. The changes people are talking about go into effect for new workers, and in Wisconsin the proposal doesn’t change future benefits, to my knowledge, but the way those future benefits are funded.

Can someone explain to me why the “right” to collectively bargain is, indeed, an inalienable right not subsumed by those to life, liberty, and property?

Also: My brothers have been in and out of Wisconsin public schools. They have had good and bad teachers, but mostly good. Good teachers, like good plumbers, farmers, and so on, should receive fair compensation. And I know not all teachers do. But it seems to me that protesting union workers should prove they are in this for the kids by loving measures like pay-for-performance, teacher evaluations, and cutting costs on true bloat (i.e. too many administrators and paperwork pushers and union bosses with giant salaries, plus outsized compensation and benefits way beyond the reach of most private workers paying this compensation) rather than running around screaming for “rights” they assume out of greed.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 5, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Suffice to say that best intentions are now immaterial. The Service Economy and Globalism have come home to roost. Our current hand in this great game aint too good. Time to fold, take our lumps and get to work in a manner where our work can be kept track of. If the local is doing well, the larger globe will benefit. This stands in stark contrast to the current regime of Noble Liars who tell us that it is the larger globe that is our home and responsibility….all the while presiding over one of the most precipitous declines of a great power in all history.

Once again, our “leaders” and our media are telling us this is a story of have nots against haves….of us against them. We are habituated to intractable problems because we have forsaken responsibility for our own community. Our “national” and now our global interests are primary.

The aborning clash is real but like much of the era, it is a manufactured “real”….an embrace of polemic, a surrender to the black and white in a very grey world. We are dissecting a frog with a telescope, how Laputan.

avatar Immortal of the Sea March 5, 2011 at 2:42 pm

To raise dissent against the general trend of these comments, I would like to point out that Wisconsin is a forced unionism state–which means that whether or not a teacher belongs to a union, the union still collectively bargains on his/her behalf and gets the basic costs of the services it provides, though this is less than union dues. This means that the union holds all of the chips and the teacher none.

Walker’s attack, and I think the word perfectly justified, on the unions’ power is perhaps best understood as and attack on entitlement mentality in general; certainly not on teachers or their abilities or rights. Collective bargaining per se is not even being attacked–it’s State-sanctioned and monopolized collective bargaining that is poised with the axe to the neck.

Both sides on this debate tend toward over-simplification and gross polemics, but the issue at hand right now in so many states is, nuanced though it may be, a question of corporate power… it’s just that the corporation is an union (which tastes the common American mind like a ‘good’ thing) rather than a supposedly greedy, evil, destructive (and, above all, rich) company.

Such problems as Walker seeks to address arise from exactly the same roots as the sub-prime collapse: the granting by government of special privileges to private groups.

As a final note, Joy Pullman’s article is trying to point out, however implicitly, that the costs of collective bargaining fall on the taxpayers–most of whom have no union with special privileges to protect them–these are the also ‘little guys’ who need protection. Are there other expenses Wisconsin should cut, other ways to prevent catastrophic debt accumulation? Of course there are. For Wisconsin’s sake let’s hope that Walker can see them clearly and move on them with as much bull-headedness or courage as he has shown to date.

avatar Matthew Taylor March 5, 2011 at 2:54 pm

Mr. Parsons: What a useless set of ad hominems, addressing none of the arguments in the article, but doing your best to smash Ms. Pullmann’s credibility, and FPR’s credibility in the bargain.

Did you read the Iowan article yourself, or did you merely seize gleefully on the first apparent contradiction you found? Rock Island, IL, comes into it because members of unions from across the Quad-City (including cities in Iowa and Illinois) gathered on a street in Rock Island, just over the river from Iowa, to travel to Wisconsin.

Ms. Pullmann’s article addresses Wisconsin’s problems, not Ohio’s. Which corporate overlords, exactly, are grabbing power from the Wisconsin teachers’ union? I was not aware that the WEAC negotiated its contract with anyone but the state government.

The next time you charge a fellow citizen with writing propaganda, be less careless.

Mr. Médaille: It seems to me there are two aspects of justice Ms. Pullmann’s article addresses.

Firstly, there is a question of the just distribution of Wisconsin’s public funds. Do the union teachers deserve their current pay package? The consensus, on both sides, is no, for different reasons. The state government says that their pay, unjustly, is well above the average (those calculations cited by NRO link to a piece by politifact.com which puts the total compensation of union teachers at about $76,000/year, and the total compensation of private industry employees at about $58,000). The WEAC is willing to concede that whether or not its teachers are personally worth their high wages, balancing the state budget means being willing to take a cut.

Secondly, there is the question of the possession of the right of collective bargaining. Ms. Pullmann’s article argues strongly that the union has abused its right to such an extent that the distribution of Wisconsin public funds is perenially unjust in favor of the teachers. There is an institutional reason for this – the union possesses monopoly power over a crucial state service. When an individual or a group exhibits a history of abuse, surely it within reason to take the use of that right away from them. The right of collective bargaining is not intrinsic to fundamental US law, and hence the justice of granting of that right is a matter of prudence rather than necessity.

avatar John Médaille March 5, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Joy, one factual correction: they get this comparison by “annualizing” the salary of teachers. Whether that constitutes a valid procedure is not at all clear to me. And your article did not make the distinction between the actual money received and someone’s manipulation of that sum. Surely, that is not “best practice.”

You may be correct that we have no collective rights, and that collective bargaining should be abolished. But in that case, is not the proper place to start that of the corporations, who through their lobbying collectively bargain for their own rights and privileges? Should we begin by breaking up the corporate associations that have become so influential with our legislators. Or is it your argument that corporations, being themselves collectives, have collective rights to which mere flesh and blood mortals should not aspire?

You seem to what to return us to the days of Adam Smith, days of which Smith himself protested with so much wit and energy. Namely the days when the “masters” were free to combine to advance their cause, but the same right was denied by law–laws similar to the one under discussion–the working person.

As for the pay and pensions, it really isn’t the issue, since the unions are more then willing to give in on these points; the point at issue is the right to organize itself, a right which, in my opinion, ought to be granted to both parties or denied to both parties, but not denied to one and granted to the other.

I confess that I am not free on this issue: I am a Catholic theologian and the Church has upheld the right to unions as a right of the working people. There are always valid prudential issues surrounding every right, and these may be discussed. But what is beyond dispute is that this is a war against the working class. That class is not always right, but it always has the right to strive for its own interests.

avatar Adam Parsons March 6, 2011 at 12:08 am

Ms. Pullman,

I apologize for comments that were perhaps unkind and certainly gnomic; they were written in a moment of intense personal disappointment at discovering a connection between FPR and the AEI, which, whatever else it is, is the enemy of all things small. One more sign, for me, that FPR is becoming too intimate with the mainstream Right, which is itself a movement of large things and indiscriminate generalities.

I should have, perhaps, more clearly explained the point of the joke, which, in the end, is not all that funny. This issue is, in the end, about taxes and about spending. Since no one here, I hope, is so doctrinaire as to subscribe to the GOP/Austrian anti-tax prohibition – certainly, Mr. Medaille is not – it’s rather propagandistic to assume the impossibility of higher corporate taxes in your argument. (By the way, in Mr. Medaille’s new book, which I’m enjoying, he makes a compelling argument that high corporate taxes are among the only forms of just taxation). That to say, it’s not appropriate to set the terms of the argument in the way you do – by assuming that the way to close a deficit must be to make budget cuts. That’s an argument that must be made, not an assumption from which to argue, unless you’re arguing with certain people.

It’s also troubling that you seem to assume that union members are inherently greedy (you claim that they are marching to demand higher salaries, a patent falsehood), and that you resort to the classic capital move of setting worker against worker (the point of my joke). Your analysis of the problem of monopoly doesn’t work; neither does drawing a comparison between average teacher salary and average salary. Teachers have special licensure requirements, higher education requirements, and so on. Mr. Medaille’s right, as well, that the case for annualization of teachers’ salaries must be made, and not assumed. (Teachers do work outside of school hours, after all; homework doesn’t grade itself). A bigger problem, however, is that, while union teachers have a monopoly on the labor force available for filling public-school teaching positions, the state has a functional monopoly on positions for which teachers’ education and licensure qualify them. The situation might be different for other categories of state employees, but you chose teachers, so you’ve got to defend them. In this situation, the relationship between labor and capital is such that institutionalized protections for labor are necessary – if not unions, then something else similarly strong.

avatar Adam Parsons March 6, 2011 at 12:27 am

Mr. Wilson,

Probably poisoning the well, actually, as I mentioned AEI at the beginning of my post. I’m not sure that there are many better ways to smash FPR’s credibility outside of the Right than to have a formalized association with AEI.

Having lived in Illinois in the past, I am aware of the location of the Quad Cities; that’s why the assertion that they were at some unimaginable distance from Madison surprised me. It’s rather like talking about protesters coming from the exotic, far-off land of Chi-ca-go.

Re: corporations, see above – when we’re talking about fiscal issues, the question of corporate taxes, and, more broadly, the question of corporate management of the economy must come into play. The increasing corporate management of the economy is on the table in both Wisconsin and Ohio – the proposal to end collective bargaining in WI is tied up with, for example, the proposal to sell off state property without competitive bidding.

avatar John Médaille March 6, 2011 at 12:37 am

To clarify Mr. Parson’s kind remarks on my book, the argument on corporate taxation is reserved only for those which have irrefutable evidence of chronic economic rents, perhaps because of monopoly or oligarchic control of some scarce resource. Such rents would manifest themselves in a firm that produced profits in multiples of the norm. In a perfect world, taxes would only fall on economic rents, or occur in the form of fees for services rendered.

avatar Mark Perkins March 6, 2011 at 1:03 am

“One more sign, for me, that FPR is becoming too intimate with the mainstream Right, which is itself a movement of large things and indiscriminate generalities.”

Commence massive eye-roll.

Am I not wrong in thinking that at least one, perhaps even two, FPR contributors just fled the coup claiming that conservatives are no longer welcome on this site, that it’s become some sort of hotbed of sentimental liberalism? Didn’t I just read Russell Arben Fox severely criticizing Gov. Walker?

Anytime I read anything about what FPR is or is becoming, I wonder what this FPR is that they speak of. I have seen very little evidence of central organization or systematic planning. What I do see are contributors, readers, and commenters with very different ideas about what a commitment to, you know, place, limits, and liberty should look like.

Perhaps it’s my middle-way Anglican sympathies, or my own unsystematic set of beliefs, or simply my own epistemological doubts and uncertainties (you can read that as “moral/intellectual/spiritual weakness” if you like), but I absolutely love that about this site. If it ever seems that all the writers on the site are constantly agreeing with one another–regardless of how they are doing so–I’m afraid I might become bored.

avatar Adam Parsons March 6, 2011 at 1:18 am

Mr. Perkins,

Fair enough observations, perhaps. A more charitable reading, on my part, might be that there’s an increasing polarization within the site between the “sentimental liberals” and the more mainstream Right, and that there isn’t the engagement between the diverse opinions that there used to be. Perhaps Caleb’s departure had something to do with that – I don’t know.

If I were ever to have characterized FPR as something, I would’ve characterized it as broadly Berrian, and there’s an increasing amount of material on here that simply doesn’t fit that description. Simply mentioning a family farm doesn’t an agrarian or a localist make, and were I inclined to delve more deeply into the lives of strangers, I might raise questions about the localist credentials of someone whose family lives away from the dying family homestead. (I might, but then I’d also be raising questions about myself. Let’s face it – that, in many ways, is what it means to be Midwestern).

Mr. Medaille,

Of course, I was oversimplifying; if I misremembered at all, forgive me – I didn’t have the book handy. I’ve been recommending it frequently, and its release (or at least its acquisition by our library) was well-timed to interfere with what might otherwise have been a quick slide leftward for me.

avatar Joy Pullmann March 6, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Dear Mr. Parsons,
You are very kind to apologize. Of course, accepted. (And thank you, Matthew.)

Let me (hopefully) dispatch all AEI-related bugbears by saying that I did not write here representing that institution, though I work there and benefit from requisite contact with bright minds and a broad range of ideas. That’s my day job. Occasionally, I write elsewhere. It’s too bad that a simple statement of fact (I work at AEI) must immediately place me as a dastardly neocon intent on corporatizing the United States, or something. Neither is the case. Please do not impute ideology to me. Doing so is on the level of assuming that, for example, if Sally were a union member she necessarily supported unions (because many unions are forced upon employees) and was an evil, greedy, selfish woman.

Which brings me to Mr. Medaille. I see I must set a few very clear distinctions. 1) My anti-union position extends, in this case, only to public unions, not to private-sector unions. 2) When talking about “greed” and “selfishness” and the like, I mean to assign it to public union members who wish to gain their benefits at a massive, unjust cost to the public which pays their wages and can no longer afford it, which main (and clearly selfish) motivation has brought thousands of workers to Wisconsin’s streets. I do not wish to tarnish all public workers, some of whom still deserve, and fully, the designation “public servant.”

A quick note on salaries: You’ll see in my first response that I did discuss “annualization.” I can concede that the model used there is not obvious. I did not mean to be disingenuous there–annualizing seems fair to me since teachers do only work, say, 10 months a year for their full salary. Of course they take grading home, but don’t all sorts of workers take grading home? I take work home. How is this only pertinent to teaching? Even without annualization, WI teachers’ total compensation is disproportionately high.

That said, let’s look at the difference between public and private unions.

Americans (and, apparently, the Catholic Church, though I am neither Catholic nor a theologian) have generally approved of unions because, as you say, they allow a counterweight to powerful corporate interests on behalf of workers. So there’s a sort of balance at the bargaining table, which makes it more likely for both sides to get a fairer deal.

Public-sector unions are different, because of American-style government. Public unions can essentially hire their own negotiating partner using the large dues they have bargained for (i.e., taxpayer dollars) to campaign for a politician more likely to give them what they want. A few decades into this process, there is no balance to the bargaining table–unions stand on both sides. (For more details: http://washingtonexaminer.com/politics/2011/02/democrats-wage-populist-fight-against-their-allies) And who is on the outside with no say? People like my father and grandmother.

That’s why I wanted to start this conversation: Wisconsinites like my family are being denied the outcome of their votes by bloated unions who control all sides of the bargaining table. This one-sided control is driving government overspending in Wisconsin and everywhere because it inevitably leads to absurdly high benefits states can’t afford. So you can’t just cut benefits, the aboveground shoots–the nature of public collective bargaining itself, the roots, must change.

avatar John Médaille March 6, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Ms. Parsons, I glad we agree that “analysis” was manipulated and did not state the amounts that the teachers actually received. But it goes beyond that; teachers are a more educated group than the average, and adjusting for educational level, they make less than their private-sector counterparts, not more. Which brings us to the second point, where I think your thesis really becomes dubious.

You claim that the unions control both sides of the negotiating table. If that is true, they are the most self-less and public spirited group of citizens on the face of the planet. After all, if they hold all the cards and can only get average or below average salaries, then they have exercised remarkable restraint, certainly more restraint than did, say, the auto-workers, who clearly did not “control all sides of the bargaining table.”

Of course, the proposition that they “controlled all sides” is preposterous on its face. Public workers provide neither the majority of the votes nor anything near the preponderance of funds spent on elections. The claim that your father and grandmother have been disenfranchised is difficult to credit.

You go on to characterize the protesters as “selfish.” Well, that may be true for all I know, but if you will consult your colleagues at the AEI, you will find any number of speeches in defense of “self-interest” as the mainspring of a rational economy. Or does this only apply to those who seek a profit, and not to those who are paid in wages?

avatar Adam Parsons March 6, 2011 at 7:58 pm

Ms. Pullman,

I should be clear that I was apologizing for incivility and unclarity, not for my position itself.

The comparison between being employed by AEI and being in a union shop doesn’t really hold water, unless you’ve been forcibly compelled to work there (and even I don’t think AEI is that dastardly). A more apt analogy, I think, is that it is as if FPR is a restaurant review site – say Yelp – and you worked for the Cattlemen’s Board, and began posting reviews of steakhouses. Now, you might really like beef. You might think beef is the best food there is. You might actually like these steakhouses because they have great salad bars, and don’t yourself like beef. However, you can imagine that your readers might be wary.

Similarly, while you may not be a dastardly neocon intent on corporatizing the United States, you work for an organization that has historically been full of, well, dastardly neocons intent on corporatizing the United States. Given that you are making an argument along similar ideological lines in defense of a governor who, even leaving this particular issue aside, is pretty clearly a dastardly neocon in favor of corporatizing Wisconsin – well, perhaps you see the problem.

By the way, you keep dodging a substantial issue which both Mr. Medaille and I have raised, and your dodging of it seems typically pro-corporate and neoconservative. The issue is this: why must we assume that the fundamental problem here is with the compensation of state employees? Why are we expected to accept the non sequitur that because property taxes are too high, we must cut state employee compensation?

You also persist in implying a falsehood – that the protesters in Wisconsin are agitating for higher compensation. This is patently and demonstrably false; the unions were never pushing for higher compensation, and have long since agreed to all proposed pay and benefit cuts. You assume a disingenuous motivation here – while the agitation is, publicly, over bargaining, you present the workers as really after money – and so do something like what you accuse me of doing with AEI. Curiously, this argument isn’t even necessary to your larger point. You argue that collective bargaining will inevitably lead to unsustainable wages – an argument I find specious, for the same reasons Mr. Medaille presents above – so why do you also need to argue or imply that the unions are directly seeking wage increases?

avatar Anamaria March 7, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Thanks to the author and all previous posters for an interesting conversation. The only thing that I have been afraid is happening to FPR is a reduced level of discourse since its inception, and these comments prove me wrong.

One note, to Ms. Pullman and others: teachers do not only work 10 months a year.

avatar Dianne March 9, 2011 at 2:11 am

I live in Wisconsin. I am not a union member, but I’ve been to the Capitol to join the protests about a half dozen times. Forgive the heated tone I’m about to use, but I’m furious about what this governor wants to do to my state.

Count me among those who are waiting for Ms. Pullman to address the matter of revenues. I am fed up with hearing that our budget woes are all about spending and nothing but spending, mostly to pay the wages of unionized workers. I cannot begin to take this argument seriously, because it ignores the herd of corporate elephants in the room, stampeding as they are away from their responsibility to pay some dang taxes already.

“We know the basic facts,” it says here, and yet this most glaring fact about inequities in taxation is omitted. $137 million deficit? Yes, and what did Walker get to work doing about ten minutes after taking his oath of office? Handing out tax giveaways to his corporate pals, to the tune of $140 million, for starters. And that’s really just for starters. The “budget repair” bill that launched this crisis is bad enough — no-bid sales of state power plants at the governor’s sole discretion and the gutting of health care programs and more, on top of the collective bargaining matter that everyone knows about; but the 1300-page biennial budget that Walker unveiled last week is yet more jaw-droppingly aggressive in attacking Wisconsin workers, families, and the poor, destroying environmental protections, and handing Wisconsin over to corporate interests.

Our governor, so vigorously committed to easing the tax burden (what’s left of it) on the wealthy and pledging no new taxes, is even proposing trimming the Earned Income Tax Credit and stopping the adjustment for inflation of the homestead tax credit. No new taxes on the rich; but actually raising the tax burden on the working poor, on top of all the other cuts to workers’ incomes. Could he be any more hostile?

Two-thirds of Wisconsin corporations pay zero in corporate income taxes. Zero. And Walker is bullying the middle class and the poor to cough up more, while trying to roll back those corporate taxes even further. That’s how we balance our budget?

Why is it that to suggest rasing the taxes of the rich a percentage point or two gets called “socialism,” but cutting middle-class wagearners’ incomes by 15% is “just asking them to do their share”? I could spit nails when I hear Walker and his supporters talk about “shared sacrifice.” That joke about the CEO taking eleven cookies is popular here in Wisconsin, too, and it’s perfectly apt. I wouldn’t apologize for it. It’s especially apt in its depiction of the divisive tactics that Walker uses. Almost every time he speaks, he frames his statements in terms of state employees vs. taxpayers, as if state employees didn’t pay taxes, and as if taxpayers received no services of any value from state employees. Walker’s mission to pit citizens against each other, distracting them from the corporate greed that victimizes them all, is contemptible.

So, your good upstanding relatives are being overtaxed: of course, and it is regrettable. I pay outlandish property taxes in Wisconsin, too. But to blame teachers, nurses, librarians, snowplow drivers, home health care aides, and every other state worker for that is misguided, to say the least. Until corporations and the wealthiest individuals actually pay something closer to their fair share, cry me a river.

avatar j blum March 9, 2011 at 3:25 am

Where in Wisconsin are you seven hours drive from the Iowa Border, known otherwise as the Mississippi?

avatar Chris White March 9, 2011 at 12:08 pm

What Dianne said! It was also no surprise that Gov. Walker exempted those public sector employees and unions with predominantly male membership (fire, police, etc.) and focused on those in which women predominate (schools, health care, etc.) from his union busting attack on collective bargaining.

The cookie “joke” is both true and not very funny. We are a generation in to a long campaign of “class warfare” and the elite, especially the corporate elite have been winning nearly every battle. They do it by manipulating the public perception of what is going on, getting natural allies to fight amongst themselves. They do it by buying elections and staffing robust lobbying offices. Each time they get an inch, they take as close to a mile as they can. Having greatly reduced the membership and effectiveness of unions in the private sector over the past couple of decades they’ve now turned to killing public sector unions.

The not-too-difficult to figure out goal of the corporatist movement is bringing the middle and working class in the US down to a level of little to no power, thus enabling the corporatists to maximize profits by shifting all benefits to themselves and all costs to “us”. Those whose income comes directly from the corporatist movement (say someone employed by AEI) may well see their interests and those of the corporatists as being aligned. Unfortunately, the corporatist movement has a very robust and all too successful propaganda machine dedicated to convincing average taxpayers that teachers et al want to eat their cookie. Until we recognize it is the guy with the eleven cookies who needs to be dealt with the rest of us are going to fighting each other over crumbs.

avatar Commander of All Living Things March 9, 2011 at 9:12 pm

Conservative-minded individual: “We need to cut government spending. Let’s take a critical look at who’s receiving more than they’ve earned.”

Liberal-minded individual: “We need to get rich corporations to spend more. Let’s take a critical look at who’s spending a lesser percentage than they’ve earned.”

The two sides are talking past each other, and very few people seem to be taking a truly unbiased and critical look in either direction. Are teachers receiving more than they should? Are CEOs paying fewer taxes than they should? I have no idea, because everyone who claims to know is using the “facts” to support an agenda.

As an unbiased onlooker, I’m inclined to side with conservatives on this particular issue. There are an awful lot of tax laws to ensure that the rich pay a proper amount. I find it hard to believe that schools are underfunded due to widespread tax cuts for the wealthy. However, I do find it believable that school board administrators might be overpaid, and that teachers might be receiving some hefty pensions.

Balancing a personal budget is simple: Spend less than you earn. It’s well known that even super-rich individuals (Michael Jackson for one) can have trouble with this. The amount of money is not the issue. In other words, the taxation rate is not the issue. The issue is how it’s spent. This needs to be looked at critically.

avatar Adam Parsons March 10, 2011 at 12:38 am

To take the personal budget analogy further: anyone who’s ever been working class knows that sometimes you need a second or third income, and that extreme austerity now (not replacing your bald tires before winter, or not going to the doctor when you’re deathly ill) often leads to even higher costs (major accidents, hospitalization) in the future. I don’t think anyone on any side of the budget crisis denies the need for austerity – the questions are whether we need to break union power, and whether austerity alone is a wise solution.

avatar John Médaille March 10, 2011 at 11:09 am

As far as personal budgets go, very few people have a “balanced budget,” in the sense of not borrowing. Few of us can buy houses and cars for cash, and we rely on financing. The proponents of balanced budgets do not understand what the term means. This is not to justify unsustainable levels of debt, either at the personal or governmental level. But the unfortunate “balanced budget” rules under which many states operate simply misunderstand what the term means.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins March 10, 2011 at 11:55 am

Ever since William Henry Harrison’s election campaign in 1840, when the Virginia landed aristocrat and aggrandizing military adventurer was passed off by his Whig plutocrat backers as a simple man of the people born in a log cabin, wealthy interests have learned how to wrap themselves in “the common touch” while robbing the pockets of the people they dupe into voting for them. One of those who realizes they are duped is holding the sign, pictured in another column on this subject, reading “I voted for Walker and he spit on me.”

I have to credit Joy Pullman with sincerely telling a true personal and family story that is rightly of concern to her. But the political context she puts it into is, more or less as John Medaille points out, straight from a cynical, manipulative talking point prepared by people who don’t care about grandma, or family farmers, but are looking out strictly for themselves. (Yes, I mean AEI — a propaganda mill for the plutocracy, however substantial the intellectual capacity of its decidedly biased minds may be).

One of the dirty secrets to state and federal debts and deficits is that for the past thirty-plus years, so-called “conservatives” have been mounting abstract campaigns against “high taxes” without mentioning what programs and services will be cut when the taxes come down. Those who always opposed a whole range of New Deal innovations, including collective bargaining and social security, realized in 1978 or so that most voters did NOT want to roll it all back. So, the mantra changed to lowering taxes, occasionally (when pressed) with promises not to touch this or that “essential” program… and every voter has SOME program that is “essential” to them. So, Reagan ran up huge deficits, George W. Bush ran up huge deficits, Dick Cheney announced “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” When Bill Clinton started paying DOWN the national debt, something that had never happened in my lifetime, GWB swept into office and gave the “surplus” earmarked to, shall we say, make the national mortgagte payment, “back to the people.” (Can you imagine if Grandpa had taken the mortgage money and used it to buy Christmas presents, how long he would have kept the farm?) Now, with the debts at mammoth levels, basically the same cast of characters steps out to announce “We really have to cut now,” but have the nerve to still insist that the path to fiscal probity is to further cut taxes.

The property tax is indeed regressive. It should only support local services whose use bears some relationship to the size and value of property. It should be assessed based on use (e.g. farming), not market value (e.g., if you sold the land to build a big shopping center…) Here in Milwaukee, voters tried, by advisory referendum, to get the local bus system, parks system, EMT, and cultural programs OFF the property tax levy forever, substituting a more broadly based dedicated sales tax, which actually would have generated more revenue at minimal inconvenience. Scott Walker took the lead in opposing this measure, and much to the discredit of the spineless fraidy-cat Democrats, who listen to the radio talk show hosts, it died in the legislature. (All the Democrats who feared that voting for it would cost them the next election were resoundingly rejected by voters).

States cannot run up debt, but states too are run by a mix of cynical politicians and spineless liberals who are all trying to keep taxes down (not just property taxes, income taxes) while preserving spending on all kinds of goodies people don’t want to lose. Scott Walker WANTS grandma to be scared, so she, and her grandchildren, will give him a free hand. It’s a power grab. We have huge deficits because legislators have been afraid for thirty years to honestly face voters and say, if you want X, its going to cost this much in taxes, if you want lower taxes, we have to take Y out of the budget. Either option is fiscally sustainable, but voters have been lied to repeatedly that they can have their cake and eat it to, that there is enough “waste and fraud” to substantially cut taxes.

Walker won 52% of the vote because several hundred thousand voters didn’t bother to vote at all. I knocked on some of their doors. They are exemplified by the question “How can I choose between two people I don’t trust.” The Democrats would rather go for “name recognition” than have the confidence to offer a fresh face, which is what voters are looking for. Tom Barrett had plenty of baggage, and Scott Walker was a fresh face. He did NOT promise to cut wages and benefits, although anyone who knew his record should have expected that. He promised to “create 250,000 new jobs,” and instead he’s been chasing jobs out of state. After only two months in office, he has a 57% DISapproval rating, and may be recalled at the end of one year.

Unions exist because individual wage workers are POWERLESS in the face of unencumbered employers. Any organized bureaucracy has its drawbacks, but until the measures are worked out whereby workers are in FACT, not just in name, part OWNERS of the enterprise they work for, they need unions. When it comes to the public sector, its not an easy call, because public employees are, first and foremost, public servants. But, we are not talking about people working a few years as aid to a legislator or department head. We are talking about civil service employees who support their families, for life, at a real job, requiring real skills, performing a necessary function for their state or community. They have the same problems with arbitrary supervisors, bureaucratic misunderstandings, and employers who have incentive to short-change them to balance the books, that private sector workers have.

Wisconsin’s unions have made many concessions already. They could make some more. But about sixty percent of the population appears to believe the governor is dead wrong. It is a red herring to say that the people who “benefit” from ending collective bargaining rights are without a voice. Those who really benefit hire the most expensive lobbyists in the country, and virtually OWN the governor. Grandma is just a pawn in their TV spots.

avatar Albert March 10, 2011 at 12:38 pm

Two-thirds of Wisconsin corporations pay zero in corporate income taxes. Zero.

Wow. That clinches it for me, though the prospect of being forced to join a union is disturbing.

avatar Joy Pullmann March 10, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Dear commenters,
Thank you for this stimulating discussion. I apologize for waiting so long to reply—as a working mom with a husband on an opposite work schedule so we can care for baby ourselves, time is limited for me. But I do appreciate the chance to rethink and solidify my thoughts.

I don’t think it possible to reply to everyone or everything; I do not have the time or interest to do so. But I can talk about a few major points.

Mr. Parsons does well in distilling the issue: “Why are we expected to accept the non sequitur that because property taxes are too high, we must cut state employee compensation?” Fair. This is not an obvious link. But, unfortunately, he and others ignore what I’ve already stated: state employee compensation (mostly, pensions and health benefits) are driving the increases in Wisconsin’s budget, as they are in every state and for the federal government. See the work by one fine Andrew Biggs. Thus to control taxes, we have to do something about these. They are the reason for higher taxes (largely), and the will continue to be for decades.

I stand accused of a “falsehood”: that the agitators want higher pay and benefits, not full collective bargaining rights (which, by the way, only workers in 26 states have). To say that state workers just want collective bargaining rights and not higher compensation is foolish; the reason they (or anyone else) want collective bargaining rights is because, well, it nets them higher compensation. One leads to the other. It’s supposed to work that way. Collective bargaining is a means to an end, that end being better pay or working conditions. To divide them is disingenuous.

I am not against taxes. I am not against public schools. And of course I am not against good pay and benefits. But I am against taxes which, as even my detractor Dianne agrees, choke the lifeblood of a state and country. And spending, not too-low taxes, has caused our national fiscal disaster. Do I realize that taxes will have to increase to get us out of this? Yes. Am I wiling to pay them? Yes. But it’s wrong to ask me, my father, my grandmother, Dianne, and other non-public taxpayers to pull the belts tighter while public workers live high on the hog. (P.S. I have several family members who have taught in WI, IL, and MI public schools. They are all wonderful, work hard, and are experts at their jobs, but definitely enjoyed those summers off work. Don’t kid me.)

Speaking of that, since my WI teacher salaries comparison has come under some fire, here’s another, though older (2002), thorough survey that is not only clear but outlines that WI teachers make as much as 20 percent more than their private counterparts. It discusses why, and also compares their salaries to other government workers and other unionized workers and still finds a statistically significant pay premium. It also, as Mr. Medaille noted, controls for higher education levels of teachers. Similar analyses are available by a simple search to anyone actually interested in the numbers. They’re easily on my side, no matter where you pull them.

The fact that unions can either pay people or that their bargaining has secured people enough time off to protest for collective bargaining for more than 19 days ought to tell you something, especially as, let me repeat, ordinary Wisconsinites like my family can’t do so themselves. They voted in November for the platform Walker and the others ran on. Too bad their influence and shouting can’t reach farther.

avatar John Gorentz March 11, 2011 at 3:14 am

“Scott Walker WANTS grandma to be scared, so she, and her grandchildren, will give him a free hand. It’s a power grab.”

Curious. Usually when people grab power, they do it by grabbing more of the people’s money, not less. This is a new phenomenon, grabbing power by taking less.

But to me the saddest thing about this whole situation is that the matter of teacher salaries in Wisconsin has become a state issue. It ought to be a local issue, decided separately in each locality. But in a blog that’s supposedly dedicated to Liberty, Limits, and Place, this hasn’t even been part of the discussion (unless I missed its presence in some dark corner of the forum).

avatar Adam Parsons March 11, 2011 at 6:17 am

Ms. Pullman,

No one is denying that labor costs are the major factor in state budgets. That would be clear even without referring to statistical analysis, as states provide services, not goods. The flip side of my question – and perhaps I should have clarified it – is why we are expected to treat “taxes” as a monolithic bogey-force. Your article argues that unfair taxes are levied on your grandmother; perhaps. From what I’ve seen, Wisconsin’s property tax rates are substantially higher than Ohio’s – maybe somewhere between Pennsylvania and New York – although I haven’t had the chance to search out those particular numbers. (Where I’ve seen them, they’re often listed as percentage of income, which isn’t especially helpful). However, it simply does not follow that because your grandmother’s property taxes are too high, and because the budgetary demand that drives the tax burden is largely made up of labor costs, we must lower labor costs. It could be that the total tax burden is reasonable, but unfairly distributed, perhaps overly regressive. However, if we are expected to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain as regards your employer, perhaps we can do so with this argument, as well.

Regarding the difference between higher compensation and bargaining: they’re different things. So, in your opinion, if the unions retain bargaining, they will inevitably push for higher compensation and benefits. (We’ll leave aside for the moment the actual history of concessions made by public unions). I think that breaking unions and lowering taxes in the way Walker is will lead inevitably to a plutocratic corporate dystopia; perhaps I’ll start asking why you persist in arguing for a plutocratic corporate dystopia. I assume you see the problem.

avatar Adam Parsons March 11, 2011 at 6:21 am

John,

As I’ve said elsewhere, I know much more about the situation in Ohio than in Wisconsin, so forgive me if I speak to that, but in Ohio, many localities are upset at the limits the state is placing on contract negotiations (especially the loss of short-term budget-balancing tools like pension pickups).

It’s also perhaps worth noting, since I haven’t seen it elsewhere on FPR, that Scott Walker is a transplant from Colorado Springs, and not a native-born Wisconsinite.

avatar Hermonta Godwin March 14, 2011 at 10:33 am

Mr. Parsons,
If collective bargaining did not secure compensation higher than without collective bargaining, why would anyone support it and its costs?
Also corporate taxes and tax rates are not set in a vacuum. If companies do not like what they see, they can decide to move their operation to another state where they believe the take home pay for them and their shareholders will be better.

avatar Albert March 14, 2011 at 5:08 pm

Ms. Godwin, you’re right about the collective bargaining. But while companies can decide to move their operations in response to higher costs and often do (e.g. to China where weak labor and environmental protections make it cheaper to employ workers there), there are other considerations that encourage companies to stay, like the rule of law, the quality of life, etc. That’s why all corporations are not moving to Hong Kong.

Of course, when you patronize a company whose sole goal is higher profits for shareholders, you run the risk of them leaving once they can no longer exploit the resources of a locale. That’s fine if you don’t actually care about places. But FPR does because the profit-uber-alles model is not good for society and is unsustainable in the long run. There are other many other posts on economics on this site.

avatar Sean Scallon March 15, 2011 at 1:11 am

What Ms. Pullman doesn’t tell you is that farmland in Wisconsin is taxed differently than residential or business property. It is taxed at a lower rate, or the rate of its value as farmland i.e. the soil which grows things, not the land upon which you can turn into subdivision. As land values tripled during the housing boom, many farmers complained they were getting killed by high property taxes because appraisers were valuing land upon its real estate potential, especially on farms in the golden triangle of the state (the area in between Green Bay, Madison, and Milwaukee which has the word “exurban” written all over it) So the state said okay, and changed the formula upon which local communities can appraise farmland value. Thus, thousands of dollar such communities could have received to fund schools and such they cannot tap into. One of our local state senators who is a farmer and supports the governor’s budget is going to find out the hard way what the meaning of the phrase “shared sacrifice” is if the recall committee have their say.

Of course I don’t believe the solution to the state’s economic is get the farmer. Wisconsin’s problem is its a middle class state and the middle class right now is hurting. Local units of government are trying to squeeze blood out of turnips, especially if you are elderly and living only on Social Security, which one quarter of the state’s population does living in dilapidated farm houses. There is no high tech. economy to tax nor investment bankers because the new economy passed Wisconsin by in the last decade and attempts to try bring about economic growth through the “green economy” has been viciously opposed by the governor who in the back pocket of the fossils fuels industry (Koch brothers anyone?).

What 250,000 jobs is Walker trying to create? Manufacturing? perhaps but you’re not going to see the private sector unionized jobs of the paying $18 an hour. Those jobs are long gone. You’ll be lucky to get $10-13 hour jobs. He’s increasing the tourism budget, what the hell kind of jobs can the tourist industry support? $8-10 an hour? A middle class like this, almost a working class basically, cannot support Wisconsin’s vast local units of government or schools with these kinds of jobs. So what we’re talking about is not just making teachers pay more of their pensions or health care benefits, but a wave of consolidations and closings which will alter the state completely, especially its rural areas. You’ve seen pictures of western Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota and North Dakota lately? Well, such rural depopulation is headed Wisconsin’s way with plenty of empty front porches if Walker gets what he wants.

avatar Adam Parsons March 16, 2011 at 1:32 am

Ms. Godwin,
That the American labor force (and by extension the labor movement) has historically been more concerned with control over working conditions than with compensation is fairly well-documented; David Montgomery’s “Workers’ Control in America” is a good place to start.
Albert has addressed the reality of your second point; I simply ask, if I may, why we can expect the middle and working classes to take a difficult but virtuous stand – that is, to “share in the sacrifice,” to tighten their belts, to pay more for fewer services – but we cannot expect the upper classes, the capital classes, the invested classes to make an analogous stand by being loyal to their employees and their communities even if it lowers their dividends and profit margins. There’s a double standard here, in which the lower classes are asked to behave morally in order to accommodate the wealthy who cannot be expected to.

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