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Posts Tagged ‘Wisconsin’

As I write this, Republican Scott Walker is flirting with a 60-40% landslide victory over Democrat Tom Barrett in the Wisconsin recall election. The GOP state senators up for recall are also all leading by 20%+ margins. While the counting is early yet and those margins may come down (even though the races have been called), the county-level results are showing Walker almost uniformly outperforming his 2010 showing, which was of course a very Republican year. What accounts for this overwhelming victory, which seems to defy much of the polling (although one late poll had Walker up 12) as well as the CNN exit polling?

We can discard one possible explanation right away: low turnout. In fact, the election had very high turnout, about 60% of the eligible electorate, which is normally thought of as favoring Democrats. It is possible that Republicans were more motivated than Democrats and turned out in particularly high numbers, and indeed Walker was more likely to outperform his 2010 performance in counties that were Republican to begin with. So differential turnout remains a strong possibility, but merely invites a further question: Why did pro-Walker voters turn out in greater force?

Another possibility is that Walker is quite popular and that the median voter strongly favors his collective bargaining reforms. This is likely part of the explanation, as polls show majority approval of Walker’s job performance and his collective bargaining reforms, but he still seems to be outperforming even these polls in the recall election.

The third piece of the puzzle may be that some people who oppose Walker and his reforms actually voted for him because they did not believe in using the recall process. The exit polls, flawed as they apparently were, show a strong majority in favor of the view that recall elections should be used only in cases of official misconduct. However, I remain skeptical that very many voters would actually cast a vote in favor of a candidate to which they were opposed. Ideology almost always trumps process concerns for voters. What may have happened is that the process concerns kept moderate Walker opponents home disproportionately, thus contributing to the GOP turnout advantage.

UPDATE: Despite the apparent county-level improvements over 2010 for Walker in the early counting and huge leads for the Republican senators, the final count ended up much closer than the early results. In fact, one of the Republican senators was defeated. The early precincts to report must have been overwhelmingly Republican across the state. The closer final count makes me think that the “process” issues were a lot less relevant to voters than the media spin would have it.

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Another day, another budget battle between public unions and newly elected officials over how to address states’ deficits and debts. Ohio is now about to follow Wisconsin’s lead in requiring its public unions to contribute more toward their own benefits and in limiting their legal rights to bargain collectively.

An Ohio firefighter said that his the bill will cut his family’s income by 10%, adding that he has stopped contributing to his son’s college savings to pay his monthly bills. Though regrettable, this strikes me as perfectly natural, and indeed necessary. Resources are scarce, so all of us must make difficult choices about how to allocate them. And usually when resources are devoted to one use, they cannot be devoted to others. That means that we all face tough choices all the time. Part of becoming an adult is facing this reality and dealing with it prudently.

When others have been subsidizing one’s living, however, it means that one’s pool of available resources is, though still limited, artificially expanded. That means that one has not been exposed to the full costs of one’s decisions about how to allocate. If the time should then come—as it has in Wisconsin, in Ohio, in New Jersey, in New York, in California, and soon in other states across the nation—when the third-party subsidies of one’s standard of living are reduced, one is forced to make new decisions on how to allocate one’s remaining resources. The pool is reduced, and that means that some of the things on which one formerly spent one’s resources will have to be foregone. That new reality is reflected in the Ohio firefighter’s laments.

What is important to keep in mind, however, is that these reductions, though painful, are not penalizing. That is, they do not constitute a penalty that is being imposed on the firefighters or other public sector union members. Instead, they are reflections of the reduced ability of the state to pay. If the reduction in my own income—and my income has gone down this year due to increased health care costs—means that I do not go to my local coffee shop or out to dinner as often as I used to, that does constitute a marginal reduction in revenue for the shop or diner, but it is no penalty to them. Although they might have hoped for my continued business, they had no reasonable expectation of it, and so cannot reasonably demand it or claim injustice.

By contrast, the public sector workers negotiated contracts that do stipulate certain wage, benefit, and bargaining conditions; those contracts gave rise to reasonable expectations, which are now being threatened or removed. So I think they have far more justification for complaint. Not getting something one hoped for is disappointing; not getting something one expected, and something to which one is (was) contractually entitled, is frustrating and infuriating. 

The generous benefits and wages contractually negotiated with public sector unions were indeed too generous and thus should never have been made. I do not blame the workers for getting whatever they could—who among us would turn down a raise?—but the politicians making those promises were obligating other people, including future generations, to pay for them, and thus they had no moral right to do that.  We are left, then, with a real difficulty: public-sector workers who have legitimate, because promised, expectations of high wages and generous benefits, and an economic reality that those promises cannot be kept.

What should we do? The economic reality leaves us, unfortunately, with no real option. The promises will have to be broken. Though it will be little consolation to the affected public-sector workers, those promises should never have been made. The people who made them were either crooks or ignoramuses or both; they include both the politicians and the labor leaders, both of whom should have known better. Let us hope they are held accountable.

In the meantime, however, I have a proposal to make to help alleviate the difficulties public-sector workers will face as they recalibrate their lives in accordance with their new economic realities: Start a charitable Gap Fund for Public Workers. Solicit private, voluntary donations to help fill the gap between what these workers expected to have and what they will in fact have. I see no political or strategic reason (from the public-sector workers’ perspective) not to do this, and by making it voluntary it will not further indebt or obligate people who had no say in creating their expectations. It will also offer a way of measuring actual public sentiment in favor of the workers, as opposed to rising sympathetic poll numbers, which reflect only costless verbal solidarity and thus are not as indicative of real sentiment.

It is a regrettable, unfortunate situation for the public-sector workers. They have been betrayed by all the people who pretended to protect and represent them. Perhaps they, like investors in Bernard L. Madoff Securites LLC, should have mistrusted the lavish promises, but still the promises were made. A charitable Gap Fund will not give them everything they were promised, but it might be a way to mitigate some of the temporary hardship, while at the same time softening some of the opposition they are facing and even generating.

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David French writes of what he calls “Entitlement Derangement Syndrome,” which he thinks is motivating what we’re seeing in Wisconsin—namely, aggressive protesting over benefits and pensions, as if we had some kind of natural right to them. He likens the Wisconsin protesting to what went on in France last October when they wanted to raise the retirement age to 62.

I think this points to an unanticipated negative consequence of the welfare state: It corrupts people’s moral sensibilities. More specifically, it encourages people to ignore, violate, and even pretend does not exist a central, foundational moral premise of politics, namely that it is wrong to live at others’ expense.

Now of course that premise has to be properly qualified. Children may live at their parents’ expense; adults who have entered into marriages, partnerships, contracts, or other voluntary associations may live at each others’ expense; and sometimes people have to live at the expense of others’ charity.

But able-bodied adults should not live at the unwilling expense of others. And they certainly have no right to live at unwilling others’ expense. That is why forced labor and slavery are wrong. Forced labor and slavery are wrong not because they are costly or because they are inefficient; they are wrong even if they were inexpensive and efficient. They are wrong because it is wrong to live at unwilling others’ expense.

The welfare state clouds that moral intuition, which should be among our most deeply held. Indeed, the welfare state has not only clouded that intuition, it seems it has entirely inverted it. Thus we have people who believe they are entitled to live at others’ expense, even when those others are in debt, having great difficulty of paying their own way, and thus want to pay less.

It is demeaning for adults to live from the charity of others, even when the charity is voluntary. Even when offered with the best of intentions, it can weaken the recipients’ moral fiber and the power of their independent judgment, reducing them to “kept” status—which is why it is to be avoided except when absolutely necessary. But when the support is not charity and thus not voluntary, it is all the more morally suspect.

The fact that so many people, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, can behave and speak as if they nevertheless have a right to the fruits of others’ labors does not change the character of the reality. If they thought that their case warranted overriding the standard moral prohibition of living at others’ expense, then they should, and presumably would, make the case for why that is. But they make no such case. That suggests they don’t believe any such case has to be made. And that is the kind of moral confusion that I think the welfare state can foster.

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