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What's the Matter With Wisconsin? | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

What's the Matter With Wisconsin?

My Think Again column this week is called “The Contours and Context of the Conservative Class War in Wisconsin” and you can find it here

Now here’s Reed: 

America’s Crab-pot Mentality

Last Saturday, as tens of thousands of public employees rallied at the Wisconsin state capitol in what is now a continuing series of impressive protests against Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to strip them of their collective bargaining rights, a few thousand counter-protesters also showed up to make their voices heard. In the latters’ eyes, the unions’ ongoing occupation of the capitol and state Senate Democrats’ refusal to allow the Wisconsin legislature a voting quorum are not so much an impressive exercise of First Amendments rights as they are a repulsive symptom of a privileged class run amok. And despite the fact that many of these counter-protesters had ridden to Madison on buses organized and paid for by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, they nonetheless stood in the cold, and without any apparent trace of irony, generally accused the public employees across from them of being conceited, un-American money-grubbers.

This paragraph from the NY Times article on last Saturday’s dueling protests in Madison pretty much sums up the political moment this country is having right now:

“‘You don’t care about this country! Shame on you, you’re selfish,’ one supporter of Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal told union supporters, wagging his finger as he spoke. Moments later, a union supporter addressed the other side: ‘What’s wrong with you people?’"

I believe this question isn’t merely rhetorical, but a legitimate one worthy of understanding. Indeed, it’s worth understanding just exactly how our country has arrived at a place where poor and middle-class folks willingly engage in internecine class warfare against one another, with one side essentially acting as a cat’s paw for mega-wealthy conservatives intent on undermining every worker protection in existence.

For a helpful illustration of this behavior, consider the crab pot analogy. Place one crab in an open pot (or trap) and it can usually climb its way up and out with ease. But if you add a second crab or even a few more, no crabs will escape. Why? Because as soon as one crab starts to achieve some success in getting out, the others will pull it back down into the pot in a desperate competitive display of every crab for itself. In other words, by viewing survival as a zero-sum experience—where one’s success (or smaller amount of sacrifice) is seen as an unfair punishment for everyone else—these crabs act in a way that ensures that they all perish.

Of course, crabs behave this way because it’s in their nature, we humans don’t have such a convenient excuse. Thomas Frank in his 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, addressed what he saw as a broad swath of that state’s citizens succumbing to populist, conservative messaging in direct contrast to their best interests. (His conclusions, it should be noted, weren’t without their flaws.) But I see what’s going on now as something different than what he explored—rather than a choice by some in the middle-class to willingly choose self-inflicted wounds, it’s a desire to see others suffer to the same degree. So, what’s driving this zeal for middle-class economic Schadenfreude?

Well, the media for one. Mainstream press coverage and Beltway conventional wisdom have been led by the nose to cover these public employee union stories through a narrow, either-or prism. Rarely, if ever, do you read an article or see a broadcast that provides greater context or digs into the real causes of the proliferating budget deficits that plague statehouses across the country. You just don’t hear about how an unraveling housing market, high unemployment and reckless Wall Street bond bets, rather than public-employee union activity, are much better predictors of which state’s revenues are now in the red. Nor do you get much of a sense that the new cohort of GOP governors are exacerbating their imbalanced budgets with counterproductive measures like slashing corporate tax rates.

Unfortunately, those stories that do attempt a contextual breakdown, by comparing pubic and private employee compensation, are riven with poor data choices and, as analytical tools, do more to misinform than anything. Consider the prime talking-point statistic cited by GOP politicians around the country, courtesy of USA Today:

“At a time when workers' pay and benefits have stagnated, federal employees' average compensation has grown to more than double what private sector workers earn.” USA Today, August 10, 2010

This notion that public employees are basking in a bounty of benefits while the rest of the middle-class in this country is simultaneously struggling is the fuel that fires much of the public sector union resentment. Sure, this aforementioned story does add in some disagreement with the statistical analysis—only in the form of union representative’s protesting, however—and subtle caveats like “The analysis did not consider differences in experience and education.” But what’s dismissed in the story as minor quibbling is really the pointing out of a major analytical flaw, one that is ripe for broad brush misinterpretation and political grandstanding.

In fact, if you start to correct for important salary and benefit impactors—like experience and education and others—the statistics tell a very different tale. For example, in the current case of Wisconsin’s local and state workers, an Economic Policy Institute study found that public employees enjoyed a 5% wage and benefits penalty when compared to their private sector counterparts. And even when the mainstream press does offer an appropriate contextual comparison, as the New York Times did this past Tuesday concerning public vs. private worker salaries in Ohio, it’s buried deep within the story, in this case in the 28th paragraph of a 31-paragraph story. (Incidentally, that article noted that even though state public employees enjoy a 20% higher median salary than private sector workers, when you compare those who are college graduates, “public workers make less than the private sector.”)

Nevertheless, conservative commentators and politicians have seized hold of the “public employees are overpaid” meme and run with it, doing what it is that they do best, unfortunately.

David Brooks, New York Times—public employee unions can’t be trusted to be as ineffective as private sector unions so they need to be weakened:

“In Wisconsin and elsewhere, state-union relations are structurally out of whack...Through gigantic campaign contributions and overall clout, they have enormous influence over who gets elected to bargain with them, especially in state and local races.”

Michael Goodwin, Fox News—talking about the “entitlement culture” and how tough it is for today’s high-earning taxpayers, who are suffering under the lowest tax burden in decades, to pay for public employees’ salaries:

“From that willful ignorance, it's perfectly acceptable to demand pay without work, or, almost as insidious, pay and pensions that dwarf those of your neighbors who foot the bill.”

Tim Pawlenty, former GOP governor of Minnesota and budding Tea Party darling—on how the public sector unions are some kind of predatory fifth column readying to overthrow the Republic:

“The rise of government unions has been like a silent coup, an inside job engineered by self-interested politicians and fueled by campaign contributions…Government employees today are among the most protected, well-paid employees in the country. Ironically, public-sector unions have become the exploiters, and working families once again need someone to stand up for them.”

Newt Gingrich, former, future and forever potential GOP presidential candidate—sounding very reasonable but, of course, getting everything completely backwards when it comes to the Wisconsin labor dispute:

“In Madison, Wisconsin, we are witnessing a profound struggle between the right of the people to govern themselves and the power of entrenched, selfish interests to stop reforms and defy the will of the people.”

The subtext in all of this is pretty clear when you, respectively, strip away the distinctions without a difference about public vs. private sector unions (Brooks, a myth that Ezra Klein dispenses with here), allusions to old conservative canards about Cadillac-driving welfare mothers (Goodwin), intimations of socialism and unearned job security (Pawlenty), and outright repudiation of public workers as full citizens in our democracy (Gingrich). What’s eating at them and the followers is that public-sector unions have been exercising their political and economic clout and doing a somewhat good job of it. Of course, in reality, many public workers have already had to swallow pay cuts and watch their benefits erode over the past few years, a compromise the teachers and public workers in Wisconsin are willing to accept provided their future organizing rights aren’t gutted in the bargain. And relatively speaking, these unions have maintained some enduring strength as compared to their private sector counterparts—unionized or not—who have seen their real wages stagnate for nearly three decades while average CEO pay has skyrocketed and pay inequity in this country approaches an all-time high, as these eye-opening charts over at Mother Jones show pretty clearly.

So what to do? Why, the answer is temptingly simple if you’re a disgruntled American stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder. Make these unions victims of their own success and, in a bit of political jiujitsu, use their ability to secure relatively modest salary and benefit packages for their members as the primary argument against them. Let’s pull these uppity public employees back down into the unprotected labor pool with the rest of us, whose wages and job security rest in the hands of cold-hearted corporate managers and fickle shareholders. That’ll get the economy cooking again, right? And, if it doesn’t, well, at least the well-off in this country will continue to enjoy a nice life, feasting off all of us poor crabs who ensured we got cooked in the process.

The Mail
Mark Paul
Highland Park, IL

One thing to add to Reed's admirable summary of the prospective NFL lockout is this: despite the owners' claim that they are dedicated to growth of anything more than their own accounts, the NFL is the only league that doesn't have a franchise in the nation's second largest media market. The Rams left for St. Louis after the 1994 season.

To their credit, the Los Angeles municipal authorities have declined to use scarce taxpayer funds to fund a stadium, and there the matter rests.

Paul Minkoff
Rochester, NY

Interesting stuff.

Would have welcomed some data that compares the income and whiteness of the NFL owners vs the players. Richardson has the same scent as the Koch Brothers—did he attend their recent bash in the desert? What if any connection do you see between Richarson's position and the subsequent vertical drop in his team's performance the last 2 years, and I think the loss of their widely respected head coach? Could it be that good ole Jerry is maneuvering to receive a bailout of some kind? Afterall, it turned out well for GM, unless you are like me, a devotee of the 1990s Saturn SL2s.

Thanks.

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