Sunday, February 20, 2011

feel free to straighten me out on this one

Along with the news of all the rumbling going on the Middle Eastern countries, we've got Wisconsin. The state elected a Republican governor and now has a majority-Republican legislature, which is currently trying to pass legislation that would strip away unions' collective bargaining leverage (some would say "rights"). I've never been a big fan of unions. As I commented on Lee's blog (comment somewhat edited):

I have my doubts about unions. After watching what two very different unions did to each of my parents, neither of whom seemed to receive any great benefits from the “efforts” of the unions to which they belonged, I’m deeply skeptical about what unions actually do. I understand that, in principle, they’re “for the working person,” but in practical reality they often seem to be more about (1) dues that pad the union leaders’ salaries, (2) picketing that accomplishes next to nothing, unless we count microscopically incremental changes to a given contract as huge victories, (3) rivalry with other unions (as I saw, in particular, with my mother’s job: she belonged to a small union that worked for a much larger union, and that larger union frequently took advantage of her union), and (4) the promotion of stagnation and incompetence.

Couple that with the nonsense I see happening routinely in countries like France and South Korea, where transportation unions and auto workers’ unions strike and act out violently (especially in Korea’s case) on a regular basis, and I have trouble seeing what unions are good for.

That said, I’m not for abolishing unions; I do believe that workers need to stick up for each other, and that the labor/management divide is a real and significant issue. But a lot has to change before I can be convinced that unions are clearly a good thing. A good start might be for union leaders to be more accountable to union members, and for something to be done about the Mafia-like mentality that causes such blinding hatred toward scabs who, far from being Judases, are often just people who need to feed their families. Unions shouldn’t eat their own, but they so often do. More compassion, please, and less of the black-and-white, in-group/out-group mentality. My two cents, anyway.
Lee's reply was very thoughtful; he emphasized the undeniable role of unions in the past that agitated to give today's workers many of the rights and privileges we nowadays take for granted. Unfortunately, this doesn't alleviate my doubts about unions today.

The resultant pyrotechnics in Wisconsin have taken an unpredictable turn: conservative/Tea Party counter-demonstrations in support of the Republican Governor Scott Walker are now taking place, and some angry citizens have started recall movements to oust the Democrats who've fled the state for parts unknown (at least one Democrat has to be present for voting to take place, which is why they're all gone). Other Wisconsin citizens are telling the state's public school teachers to get the hell back to work (they've been demonstrating, too), and on some level, it looks as if Democrat efforts are backfiring, especially as more and more statistics reveal how a disproportionate amount of public funding is being funneled into supporting a very small public-sector demographic.

Similar backlashes are happening elsewhere. It's with grim satisfaction that I witness, for example, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's constant battles with the unions in his state, or House Speaker John Boehner's open desire to strip away public-sector benefits. But at the same time, especially as I've followed the news about Wisconsin, a nagging thought has dogged me about the self-consistency of the conservative position. In response to a recent post by Malcolm, I wrote this comment:

I don’t know enough about economics to comment intelligently and at length on the subject, but I have to wonder whether there isn’t a sort of “reverse redistributionism” now blossoming in the conservative mind. The inequities of payments and benefits need to be evened out somehow:
[quoting John Derbyshire, from Malcolm's post] “I mentioned Scott Walker raising state employees’ health-care contributions to 12 percent and their pension contributions to 5.6 percent. Who pays for the other 88 percent on health care? Who pays for the other 94.4 percent on pensions? Why, the taxpayers of Wisconsin, of course. That’s the kind of distortion, the kind of injustice, that public-sector unionization has brought us. It’s wrong and it needs fixing.”
Obviously, on one level, there are disanalogies. When liberals get redistributive, they’re usually targeting rich corporate types, individuals who have amassed fortunes and who don’t seem to want to “spread the wealth around” — a dynamic that appears unfair to the redistributionist mindset. The conservative response to this is that, in a free market, you can expect inequities to appear as people demonstrate varying degrees of competitiveness: how far one rises is in large part a function of one’s willingness to work for that brass ring.

The current case, with conservatives crying foul over fiscal inequities, might be disanalogous because, from the conservative standpoint, anyway, this is about the collusion of large entities like the federal government and unions with thousands of members to siphon off public money. As Derb says, it’s a systemic problem (which is, by the way, the sort of language I tend to associate more with liberals than with conservatives: the language of systems, not individuals).

But however we slice it, there’s still the redistributive mindset at work among conservatives, disanalogies aside. Or so it seems to me, anyway. Does this mean conservatives are for equitable redistribution of money in some cases? To put it more succinctly: conservatives normally define economic “justice” in more Darwinian terms (competition, inherent inequities, different outcomes, etc.), leaving redistributive justice to the liberals. Has this changed?

That, for me, is the problem in a nutshell. I may disagree with an ideological position, but I'll respect it as long as it seems self-consistent to me. What seems to be happening now, however, strikes me as inconsistent on some level-- possibly even hypocritical. I'm not sure. And it's because I'm not sure that I invite you to comment here. If you're conservative, feel free to set me straight. If you're liberal, feel free to cheer my analysis and confirm it with more data. If you're on the fence, feel free to commiserate, and to say, along with a former coworker of mine, "They're all dirty bastards!"

For your reference, Scott Walker's page on "The Cost of Public-sector Benefits," here.

UPDATE: Malcolm's response to my comment.

UPDATE 2: Aaron McKenzie writes a post that, while not a direct response to my post, nevertheless rebuts my claim about the Darwinian flavor of conservative conceptions of economic "justice."



Aaron said...

Big topic you've got here, so I'll just make a single point and then shut up. In fact, you allude to this point in your comment on Malcolm's post.

There is a crucial difference between private and public sector unions. In the private sector, companies and workers at least have the yardstick of profitability to tell them, within some range, about what is and isn’t reasonable in terms of compensation. After all, if a unionized company doesn’t provide quality products or services, customers always have the option to go elsewhere. Public organizations, by contrast, are seldom constrained by the boundaries of fiscal reality, and citizens can’t easily decide to patronize a different government. As such, government employees now fare better in virtually every area – pay, benefits, time off, pension, job security – than their private sector counterparts, benefits which must be funded through taxes. Moreover, in the private sector, management and unions must negotiate against each other and thus serve to counterbalance each other's demands. In the public sector, there is no such countervailing force - at least, not until taxpayers (against whom the labor unions are actually negotiating) revolt. Labor unions, both public and private, have become little more than protection rackets for their own members, to the deteriment of non-union workers, but the problem is especially pronounced in the public sector.

By the way, you'd probably enjoy this interview with Professor Richard Epstein, in which he discusses, among other things, the evolution of the American union movement and the reasons for its decline in the private sector. As ever, Epstein is fascinating in this show.

Atlanta Roofing said...

Walker is still trying to ignore the situation thinking it is just going to go away or something. How's that working out? Be a leader, governor, and more importantly­ LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE.