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Wednesday, February 23, 2011  

The Irony of Wisconsin

There's a lot of beneath-the-headlines stuff to dislike about new governor Scott Walker's budget proposal for Wisconsin. Leaving the procedural quibbles aside--politics being something other than beanbag and so on--it is a document striking in its variety of offenses. There is the provision to allow the no-bid sale of the state's energy plants without any demonstrated respect to the public interest. Really, it's there. The bill kicks thousands of limited-term employees off of health insurance and into an individual market that few of them will be able to afford. And it allows the state Department of Human Services to change the state's health care programs for children and the poor without respect to the requirements of current state law, subject only to the "passive approval" of the Joint Finance committee. This means that programs like BadgerCare that help cover all the state's children will be on the block for potentially radical changes. Yes, it does that.

All of this, of course, has been engulfed in the debate over collective bargaining for public employees. Suddenly every major paper and every conservative brain-stem tank is stocked with self-taught experts on the perfidy of public-employee unions (some of them even daring to contrast them unfavorably with private sector unions, hoping we'll forget that they also despise those). There is tremendous--ungodly--zeal for making teachers and nurses and police officers and wage earners pay for the sins of the global financial markets and the lackluster policy response by Washington, as if pension vesting rules had plunged otherwise-healthy state budgets into crisis. It's just unimaginably stupid and beastly, and yet among a substantial swathe of the American commentariat, it's become conventional wisdom.

And to give the devil, or at least his very, very gullible henchmen, their due, you may as well grant that an organization of public employees will have interests that are hardly identical with the public as such or with the goals enshrined in the concept of the public sector. I'm as sentimental about labor as the next liberal, but the whole point of the movement was that labor has specific interests that need defending, not a redemptive role for the whole society. Public-sector compensation is structured in some problematic ways (ways that the specific proposals here do nothing to change, but whatever*), incentives are not well-aligned, and so on.

But ask yourself for a moment what this process would have looked like had Scott Walker just left the unions alone and decided to focus on handing the state's energy infrastructure over to whichever firms he pleased and on stripping low-paid workers and poor kids of their health plans? There would have been objections, and people like me who've read too much of the Old Testament to sleep soundly at night would raise the usual complaints about offending God by taking needed things away from children in order to give tax breaks to big businesses and wealthy people. But these objections would have had exactly as much relevance as they always have when a governor sets his mind to screwing the poor and the vulnerable: none. The only reason this process has taken long enough for people to learn about the offenses contained in this document is that the governor decided to add all of them together with a frontal assault on the one constituency still organized in a way that can thwart his will.

And that, friends, is why we are obligated to go into the last ditch for the union.

* There is a sort of pundit's law that any argument against a disfavored program or group may be used to defend any attack on it, whether or not it's germane. We see daily a version of this with respect to the 2005 Social Security privatization plan, in which worries about the program's long-term solvency are applied in defense of a proposal that would have radically undermined its solvency.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:28 PM
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