Kevin Drum

Why We Need Unions

| Mon Feb. 21, 2011 12:45 PM EST

Here's a tweet from one of the economists at Modeled Behavior:

I'm highlighting this not to pick on MB or to weigh in on charter schools. Nor even to weigh in on whether teachers unions should be friendlier toward charters. (I happen to think they should be, as long as charters aren't used as merely a sub rosa way of busting unions.) I'm highlighting it because it represents an all too common style of argument, which goes something like this:

Unions do (or support) X.

X is a bad thing.

Therefore unions are bad.

And (sometimes this is implicit, sometime explicit) they should be done away with.

Every single human institution or organization of any size has its bad points. Corporations certainly do. The military does. Organized religion does. Academia does. The media does. The financial industry sure as hell does. But with the exception of a few extremists here and there, nobody uses this as an excuse to suggest that these institutions are hopelessly corrupt and should cease existing. Rather, it's used as fodder for regulatory proposals or as an argument that every right-thinking person should fight these institutions on some particular issue. Corporations should or shouldn't be rewarded for outsourcing jobs. Academics do or don't deserve more state funding. The financial industry should or shouldn't be required to trade credit derivatives on public exchanges.

Unions are the most common big exception to this rule. Sure, conservatives will take whatever chance they can to rein them in, regulate them, make it nearly impossible for them to organize new workplaces. But they also routinely argue that labor unions simply shouldn't exist. This is what's happening in Wisconsin: Gov. Scott Walker isn't satisfied with merely negotiating concessions from public sector unions. He wants to effectively ban collective bargaining and all but do away with public sector unions completely.

Nobody should buy this. Of course unions have pathologies. Every big human institution does. And anyone who thinks they're on the wrong side of an issue should fight it out with them. But unions are also the only large-scale movement left in America that persistently acts as a countervailing power against corporate power. They're the only large-scale movement left that persistently acts in the economic interests of the middle class.

So sure: go ahead and fight the teachers unions on charter schools. Go ahead and insist that public sector unions in Wisconsin need to take pay and benefit cuts if that's what you believe. Go ahead and rail against Davis-Bacon. It's a free country.

But the decline of unions over the past few decades has left corporations and the rich with essentially no powerful opposition. No matter what doubts you might have about unions and their role in the economy, never forget that destroying them destroys the only real organized check on the power of the business community in America. If the last 30 years haven't made that clear, I don't know what will.

More on this tomorrow morning.

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A Question for the Democratic Party

| Mon Feb. 21, 2011 12:22 AM EST

E.J. Dionne today:

Lori Montgomery reported in The Post last week that a bipartisan group of senators thinks a sensible deficit reduction package would involve lifting the Social Security retirement age to 69 and reforming taxes, purportedly to raise revenue, in a way that would cut the top income tax rate for the wealthy from 35 percent to 29 percent.

Only a body dominated by millionaires could define "shared sacrifice" as telling nurses' aides and coal miners they have to work until age 69 while sharply cutting tax rates on wealthy people. I see why conservative Republicans like this. I honestly don't get why Democrats — "the party of the people," I've heard — would come near such an idea.

Good question. Anybody know any Democrats who might be able to answer this?

The Sunday Morning Shutout

| Sun Feb. 20, 2011 1:14 PM EST

A couple of years ago Pew Research surveyed news coverage of the economy during the first half of 2009. Who drove stories? Who got quoted in stories? The answer was pretty much what you'd expect: the president, the White House, business leaders, academics, politicians, and ordinary citizens. Do you notice anyone missing from this list? Pew did:

One subset of the American workforce was virtually shut out of the coverage entirely. Representatives of organized labor unions were sources in a mere 2% of all the economy stories studied.

But that was reporting about a financial crisis. Surely things would be different if the story dominating the news was specifically about a state governor's attempt to gut a union and the union's attempt to fight back? Eddie Vale, AFL-CIO political communications director, sets us straight:

While we appreciate coverage of this impt issue quite odd not a single union member or officer invited on any of the Sunday shows

Actually, not so odd at all. In fact, it's par for the course. Unless it's a story about how unions are ruining American education or destroying state pension funds, today's press isn't much interested in what they have to say.

More about this on Tuesday morning, when my piece in the current issue of MoJo about the decline of unions and the not-so-coincidental decline of American liberalism goes online.

How Big Are Wisconsin's Problems?

| Sat Feb. 19, 2011 6:29 PM EST

So how big is Wisconsin's budget problem? And did Gov. Scott Walker help create it? Politifact takes a look at the numbers here and tells us.

Nickel version: the projections from the legislative analyst are necessarily subject to a bit of guesswork, but he estimates that Wisconsin will probably have a modest shortfall in the current fiscal year, amounting to about 1% of the total budget. In the two-year cycle after that, the legislative analyst estimates that tax collections will run $190 million below previous estimates. Nearly two-thirds of this revenue deterioration is due to legislation supported and signed by Walker during a special session he called last month.

Bottom line: Wisconsin's budget problems are fairly modest this year, but substantially larger in the two years after that despite the fact that tax revenues are projected to increase about 4% in both 2012 and 2013. However, whatever the size of the future deficit (which is still a point of dispute), revenues for 2012 are about 1% less than previously estimated thanks to Walker's special session bills. Walker isn't at fault for the current year's shortfall, but he is at fault for making the shortfall worse over the next two-year cycle.

Wisconsin's public sector workers have already taken a 3% cut in wages over the past two years. Maybe that's enough, maybe it isn't. But Walker has taken an already pressing problem, made it incrementally worse, and then used it not just as an excuse to bargain hard on wages and benefits, but as an excuse to gut Wisconsin's public unions entirely. (The Democratic-leaning ones, anyway.) It's just not a good faith exercise.

For more, check out Andy Kroll's explainer here, and be sure to scroll down for the updates. Andy's on the ground in Madison right now and you can follow his Twitter feed here.

UPDATE: The original draft of this post underestimated the size of Wisconsin's future deficits. I've corrected the text to more accurately reflect the legislative analyst's estimates. The most recent estimates from the state budget director are here.

Teaching Art

| Sat Feb. 19, 2011 12:58 PM EST

Michael O'Hare weighs in today on the value of public funding for the arts, and although I think we're still talking past each other to some extent, he concludes with a passage that I thoroughly endorse:

Probably the most costly program of government support for the arts, and in my view the most important and the one whose ongoing collapse is the most pernicious, is arts education in the schools. Parental introduction to the arts is the largest correlate of lifetime consumption, but government obviously isn’t in that business. Engagement in school is next. Hands-on and historical education in the arts — both are important — is critical to lifetime access to the cultural patrimony of a country or the whole world, and it’s another real market failure, information asymmetry.

People who can enjoy different, challenging experiences that make them smarter instead of dumber and alert instead of bored, have better lives than people who don’t. But the arts require some investment (though they tend to be beneficially addictive if you just step on the escalator) and pay off richly for accumulated experience. “I’m glad I don’t like opera, because if I did, I’d listen to it, and I hate the stuff!” is the suboptimal stable state a society can help its citizens get out of, and school is the place where it can happen.

I don't know how deeply arts education has been slashed in our public schools, but anecdotal evidence suggests it's been slashed pretty deeply on the twin altars of budget cuts and high-stakes testing. This is, I think, a tremendous loss for society, and it's a loss regardless of whether government agencies should overtly subsidize any particular medium or form of art in the adult sphere. If kids don't learn to appreciate art, then art will inevitably decline, and that makes us all poorer. After all, who wants to live in a world without art?

Friday Cat Blogging - 18 February 2011

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 4:03 PM EST

I'd like to be able to say that Inkblot and Domino are firm supporters of the labor action currently unfolding in Wisconsin, but I'm afraid that would be a bit of a stretch. As you can see, they've already negotiated a pretty good deal for themselves, and collective action isn't really in their nature. So we humans are on our own.

But speaking of cats, I'm pleased to report that 10 Downing Street once again has an official cat. Why? Because, it turns out, 10 Downing Street also has a few official rats. So they brought in Larry. Picture and story here.

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Wisconsin and the Bigger Picture

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 3:28 PM EST

Speaking of my upcoming piece for the magazine, one of its major themes is the postwar decline of private-sector unions in America, culminating in the annus horribilis of 1978, which one business historian called "Waterloo" for organized labor. (Why? You'll have to read the story to learn more! It'll be online Tuesday and it comes with lots of nifty charts and illustrations, like the one on the right.) Today, Greg Sargent says 2011 could be much the same for public sector unions:

As I laid out here yesterday, this is only one of many national proposals being pushed by state governments across the country designed to achieve similarly transformative changes in that relationship between public workers and government.

Pro-labor and anti-labor people I've spoken with in recent days both agree that a defeat in Wisconsin could make it easier for other similar initiatives to advance. One anti-union activist I spoke to yesterday made it clear that if labor loses here, anti-union forces will point to the defeat to stiffen the spines of other GOP-controlled governments who are eyeing similarly transformative efforts but might be wary of a battle on the scale of the one unfolding in Wisconsin. This is just the beginning.

I won't pretend to be the world's most full-throated defender of public sector unions. If I could trade ten points of union density in the private sector for ten points in the public sector, I'd take the trade in a heartbeat. But that is, obviously, not the trade on offer. Nor is what's happening in Wisconsin merely hard bargaining during tough economic times. That would be understandable. Rather, it's an effort to destroy one of the few institutions left that fights relentlessly for the economic interests of the middle class. That's why conservatives oppose unions of all kinds, both public and private, and regardless of their faults, that's why they deserve our support.

Keeping it Short

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 2:58 PM EST

Paul Krugman writes today about one of the difficulties of being a columnist:

One of the hardest things about writing the column, as opposed to blogging, is the length constraint. It’s really, really hard to say something meaningful in a limited space. And yet, that constraint has its virtues: it forces you to be concise, to figure out what you really need to say and skip the rest, to find turns of phrase that are shorter and usually plainer. And my experience is that the process of doing all that almost always makes the thing read better.

If I had my way, we’d require students to write 800-word essays, just for writing and reasoning practice. And at the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, this is something we’ll lose when dead-tree newspapers go the way of vinyl records.

Maybe. But keep in mind that for most high school kids, 800 words is a lot. For someone like Krugman, who has a tremendous store of knowledge, the challenge is picking and choosing what to say, and then figuring out how to say it cogently in a small space. For most students, whose store of knowledge is small, it would be just the opposite: tell them to write 800 words and the challenge would be padding it enough to fill up the space.

When I write for the magazine, I routinely underestimate how much space I need. Back in December, I told my editor that I planned for my piece in the upcoming issue to be about 2,000 words, "not some sort of long, definitive take on things." And it wasn't! But it still ran 4,000 words or so because I couldn't shut myself up. But back when I was in high school, 4,000 words would have been a pretty massive undertaking. With a 2,000 word target I probably would have ended up at 1,500 words, desperately searching around for something extra to toss in to bring it up to snuff.

On the other hand, maybe you could solve this by having kids write about stuff they know a tremendous amount about. If the assignment were to write about "Call of Duty" strategies, maybe boiling things down to 800 words really would be a challenge.

Manufacturing a Crisis

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 2:23 PM EST

Regardless of what you think about public sector unions, it's important to understand what's really going on in Wisconsin right now. Were they facing an unsustainable, existential budget crisis when Gov. Scott Walker took office earlier this year? No. Are they facing an unsustainable, existential budget crisis now? No. They're facing a genuine budget problem, but it's one that was made even worse by Walker's own actions:

In English: The governor called a special session of the legislature and signed two business tax breaks and a conservative health-care policy experiment that lowers overall tax revenues (among other things). The new legislation was not offset, and it turned a surplus into a deficit. [See update below.] As Brian Beutler writes, "public workers are being asked to pick up the tab for this agenda."

That's from fellow California native Ezra Klein, and this brings back painful memories. In 2003, pissed off at Gov. Gray Davis over an energy crisis that we later learned had been deliberately manufactured by Enron and wasn't his fault at all, we followed Rep. Darrell Issa down a rabbit hole and recalled Davis. He was, famously, replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who campaigned specifically on a promise to "end the crazy deficit spending." So what did he do once he was in office? He reduced the vehicle license fee, costing the state about $4 billion per year, and then made up for it by passing a $15 billion bond issue. Together, those two things produced a hole in the budget of about $7 billion per year once the bond money had been spent and annual payments started up. That hole accounted for a huge chunk of California's later fiscal crisis, and it was neither inherited from his predecessor nor was it the inevitable result of public policy. It was created.

Walker, like Schwarzenegger, has deliberately aggravated a crisis so he could take advantage of it to attack his political enemies:

That's how you keep a crisis from going to waste: You take a complicated problem that requires the apparent need for bold action and use it to achieve a longtime ideological objective. In this case, permanently weakening public-employee unions, a group much-loathed by Republicans in general and by the Republican legislators who have to battle them in elections in particular.

....If all Walker was doing was reforming public employee benefits, I'd have little problem with it....But that's not what Walker is doing. He's attacking the right to bargain collectively — which is to say, he's attacking the very foundation of labor unions, and of worker power — and using an economic crisis unions didn't cause, and a budget reversal that Walker himself helped create, to justify it.

This is, in a way, not unexpected. Republicans hate public sector unions. The Koch brothers and their allies, who contributed mountains of money to Walker and the Wisconsin GOP, hate public sector unions. Of course Walker and his fellow Republicans would like to dismantle public sector unions. But deliberately exacerbating a budget crisis to help them do it? Even by movement conservative standards that's outlandishly reckless and cynical. And yet, that's what's happening.

UPDATE: Actually, Walker's special session tax cuts didn't affect Wisconsin's budget for the current year. They affect the budget over the next two years. More details here.

Chart of the Day: Sham Budget Cutting

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 1:10 PM EST

Via one of Ryan Avent's colleagues, here's a chart showing the trajectory of non-defense discretionary spending over the past 50 years. This is basically the spending that's left over after you take out Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Pentagon, and interest on the national debt.

This is the part of the budget that Republicans are trying to slash. It's small, it's decidedly not a long-term problem, and it's focused largely on the neediest people in the country. Going after it is a sham, but it's a sham that the Republican base of old people, rich people, and corporations all support. It's a disgrace.