Notes From Babel

Archive for the ‘Public Employee Unions’ Category

How do teachers union advocates explain this?

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From WPRI:

The end of strikes, however, didn’t mean teachers were any less aggressive in negotiating. Aided by the new law, teachers redoubled their efforts to improve compensation. And they succeeded, judging by the costs of total pay and benefit packages.

For instance, statewide average teacher salaries increased 6% per year in the 16 years before the Hortonville strike. In the 16 years after the strike, the increase is pegged at 7% annually. Not a big difference, for sure.

But salaries are only a part of the picture. Consider that in the 16 years prior to Hortonville, average state per-pupil spending increased 6.7% per year. Post-strike, it jumped to 9.6% per year in the 16 years following the Hortonville clash.

. . . .

Also in 1973, Milwaukee teachers negotiated a benefit that paid their health care premiums when they retired — in 2016, this benefit will be worth $4.9 billion, or more than four times the size of the Milwaukee district’s current budget.

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Written by Tim Kowal

March 24, 2011 at 10:12 pm

The Labor Movement, Redistributive Justice, and Procedural Fairness

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The left’s alignment with unions is more than merely political—it is ideological.  The major justification for continued existence of unions, particularly public sector unions, borrows heavily from a liberal conception of redistributive justice, as follows:

  • As a matter of first principles, all Americans are entitled to a minimum standard of living.
  • As a matter of observed fact, impersonal market forces sometimes do not result in compensation that comports with that preconceived standard of living.
  • Therefore, the market is an unsatisfactory mechanism for assigning economic values to labor.

I do not hide my antipathy for this line of reasoning, but I will not assail it here.  I want to instead press upon participants in the debate over organized labor, and particularly over public sector unions, of the impossibility of meaningful progress in that debate without acknowledging the standoff between conservative and liberal first principles.  More specifically, I contend that the labor movement will fail to win many converts because it either cannot or will not approach the issues as most Americans do:  by focusing on procedural fairness, rather than substantive outcomes.  While many people might believe they should earn more money, for example, they eschew procedurally unfair mechanisms to achieve it.  The abuse of procedural mechanisms, however, is precisely the criticism lodged against public sector unions.

As I discussed at length in a previous post, public sector unions present, at a minimum, the following forms of procedural unfairness:

  • Striking in the public sector exerts political rather than economic pressure on the government (who continues to collect taxes regardless), and is thus designed to harm the members of the public, particularly the poor, who depend on government services that unions are contracted to provide.
  • The employer with whom public employee unions negotiate—the government—is not just another industry, and thus normal market constraints are often supplanted by political restraints and more flexible accounting practices that enable unfair and unrealistic concessions in favor of unions.
  • Using their substantial political clout, public employee unions are able to influence elections and thus exert control over the representatives with whom they negotiate, resulting in less-than-arms’-length negotiations.
  • Accordingly, public employee unions are able to negotiate deals that often violate state constitutional proscriptions against retroactive compensation and incurring liabilities without voter approval.
  • Public employee unions represent one of the most powerful special interest groups by, in part, having successfully lobbied for laws requiring union dues be automatically collected from their members.
  • Public employee unions lobby against laws, such as Right to Work, that prohibit coercive and anti-competitive practices.
  • Public employee unions, unlike the general public, are permitted to press their interests upon elected officials in closed-door negotiations.
  • All this substantial political influence wielded by public sector unions constitutes an improper delegation of the police power properly held in trust by elected officials for the protection of the health, safety, welfare, and morals of the public.

The dispute over public sector unions, then, is between mainstream Americans in the private sector who believe fairness is achieved with the guarantee of fair and adequate procedures, and union supporters who believe fairness can only be determined by looking to substantive outcomes.  For the first group, public sector unions are unfair because they are given and make resort to special procedures not available to other groups.  For the second group, these various procedural objections are unpersuasive so long as public employees receive adequate compensation according to conceptions of liberal redistributive justice.

The two groups hopelessly talk past each other, then, as they are each lobbying for disparate forms of justice.  As a matter of practical reality, the two conceptions of justice are mutually exclusive:  The guarantee of procedural fairness is precisely the guarantee of fixed procedures in order to achieve particularized outcomes based on individual merit.  The guarantee of substantive fairness is precisely the guarantee of particularized procedures in order to achieve fixed outcomes based on conceptions of a “human right” to membership in the Middle Class.

It should be obvious, then, that for advocates of procedural fairness, whether public employees are overcompensated is merely a derivative claim—the principal claim is procedural unfairness.  The disparity in substantive outcomes that results between public and private employees—despite their being otherwise similarly situated—is evidence of the fundamental procedural problem.  (Incidentally, the same basic argument runs with respect to wealthy financiers.  Mainstream Americans are not overly bothered by the notion that someone, somewhere, might be very rich.  They are bothered instead by the idea that they might have become rich because of unfair tax policies, unfair regulatory schemes, or outright fraud—all of which are examples of procedural unfairness.)

This is why liberals will not answer the questions about the basic unfairness of public sector unions—they have no interest in fixing the unions.  It’s the unions who’ve got the right idea, according to liberals:  fix the value of labor in the first event to meet a basic standard of living, and then work backwards to somehow make all the math work. Instead, liberals are interested in making the rest of the workplace look more like the public sector.

The strategy seems like it would be a slam-dunk:  who wouldn’t favor an approach that would increase their compensation?  Thus, the fact that as many Americans disfavor as favor public employee unions strikes liberals as evidence of a stupid or brainwashed population captured by powerful corporate interests.  I submit instead that liberals have to this point ignored Americans’ strong predisposition toward procedural fairness, and that, provided procedural fairness is reasonably assured, Americans are willing to accept disparate outcomes—the bugbear of liberal ideology.  This is the bitter pill that liberals are reluctant to swallow, and it is why they have not made meaningful progress in advancing the dialog on public sector unions or addressing their many systemic abuses.

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Cross-Posted at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

Teachers’ Tenure and Due Process: When Is Too Early, How Much Is Enough?

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E.D. Kain’s recent piece on “firing teachers with due process” contains so much spin and sleight of hand that I, even with no particular knowledge of or interest in education policy, could not let it go unremarked upon.  To begin, here’s Kain explaining why it should be hard to fire teachers:

First, this chart only applies to tenured teachers. Bad teachers can be weeded out much quicker before gaining tenure. School officials need to use this time window appropriately.

Second, the point of tenure is to protect teachers from arbitrarily being fired. Teachers need protection from over-zealous bosses and ideological politicians. This is the same thinking behind seniority rules, which protect more expensive teachers (i.e. veterans) from being laid off due to budget cuts. Teaching is not a high-paying job compared to jobs in the private sector, and one of the benefits is some job security. Occasionally this means bad teachers take longer to fire.

So many questions.  First, the typical “window” before teachers gain tenure is just three years—in many states it is just two years, and in Nevada, Hawaii, and Mississippi, teachers are granted tenured after only a single year on the job.  Compare this with the average five year tenure-track in most universities.  This gives administrators a very small dataset from which to make a decision on teachers’ ability.  And it’s a short enough period that even bad teachers can fake it long enough to get tenure.  Thus, Kain’s suggestion that administrators have all the tools they reasonably need to weed out bad teachers before they get tenure is unpersuasive.

Second, tenure is a misnomer when applied to K-12 educators.  The academic tenure system was designed to promote a policy of freedom in academic research among university faculties.  According to the Wikipedia entry on tenure:

Academic tenure is primarily intended to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, or spend time on unfashionable topics. Thus academic tenure is similar to the lifetime tenure that protects some judges from external pressure. Without job security, the scholarly community as a whole might favor "safe" lines of inquiry. The intent of tenure is to allow original ideas to be more likely to arise, by giving scholars the intellectual autonomy to investigate the problems and solutions about which they are most passionate, and to report their honest conclusions. In economies where higher education is provided by the private sector, tenure also has the effect of helping to ensure the integrity of the grading system. Without tenure, professors could be pressured by administrators to issue higher grades for attracting and keeping a greater number of students.

For this reason, “[a] junior professor will not be promoted to such a tenured position without demonstrating a strong record of published research, teaching, and administrative service.”  Think of it this way:  Tenure is essentially a status in which the burden of proof in justifying termination is shifted from the employee to the employer.  Pre-tenure, a university may terminate for no reason, and it would be up to the professor to demonstrate the termination violated the law.  This state of affairs is essential to universities in maintaining an effective, top-notch faculties that not only provide competent instruction, but perform significant academic research to advance the reputation of the institution.  A professor can flip this burden only by meeting a burden of his own by providing quality instruction, and publishing important and novel research. Once the professor achieves tenure, to justify a termination, the university bears the burden of proving the professor violated the law or some documented rule of conduct.

Bearing in mind what tenure actually is, consider now the “tenure” track of most K-12 educators.  What sort of “strong record” must they demonstrate?  What sort of important academic research must they perform?  What role does intellectual autonomy play in kindergarten and grade school as compared to university?  Quite simply, none of the reasons underlying tenure in the university system apply to K-12, and teachers need not demonstrate anything like the body of research and academic excellence that professors do to earn tenure.  Instead, as long as K-12 teachers stay under the radar, they’re awarded tenure.  Not only that, K-12 teachers earn tenure in roughly half the time as professors—i.e., between one and three years, versus five years in most universities.

So, if “the point of tenure is to protect teachers from arbitrarily being fired,” this is a goal that unilaterally advances the interests of teachers’ unions, not the public.  If it is the case that over-firing teachers is a real problem such that it is chilling participation of qualified educators in that profession, I’d love to see some persuasive evidence of it.  At the very least, a school voucher system would seem to present a nice solution:  If it’s true that “over-zealous bosses and ideological politicians” are creating a glut of qualified unemployed educators, this translates to a ready hiring pool for charter schools.  This would be a more elegant and self-executing way of disincentivizing public school administrators from casually firing gads of qualified teachers—if indeed we are convinced that is a truer picture of what’s happening than this is.

I also disagree with Kain when he suggests that teaching is such “a very difficult job” that it would be impossible to attract enough qualified educators to the profession unless they were given Kevlar-grade job security in addition to their already generous compensation packages.  No doubt the job has its challenges.  But it’s rewarding, too, and comes with lots of flexibility and perks.  But at the end of the day, it’s a job.  It cannot be too much to ask that employees—even public employees—work to impress their employers if they want to keep their jobs. 

I also sense Kain and I might be living in two very different worlds when it comes to what constitutes a “high-paying job.”  In a previous post, Kain groans that the average $90,000 teachers make in Wisconsin is too little compensation for nine-months’ work.  Even were teachers merely considered “babysitters,” Kain argues, they ought to earn at least $108,000 for the same period.  That’s $144,000 for a full year.  Adjusting for cost of living where I live in Orange County, California, Kain’s methodology suggests that $192,932 a year is still not enough compensation for a K-12 teacher.  If that is the mentality represented by teachers unions, it is no wonder that bilateral reform has proved unsuccessful.

Would if I could end this post and go about with my Sunday.  But Kain insists on overblowing the concept of “due process”:

Third, the chart claims that it take 2-5 years to fire a bad teacher. This is true, but also misleading. The process requires one year of remediation. Is anyone suggesting that a remedial period is unwarranted? Many private sector jobs require similar remedial steps for ‘unsatisfactory’ employees. These steps take longer and are more complicated as the job in question becomes more difficult to assess. Successful teaching is very difficult to assess.

Then there are a series of hearings. This is the due process period put in place to ensure that the actual reasons behind firing the teacher are legitimate. Is the Tribune suggesting that there should be no hearing process at all? Even then, the hearings only take place if the teacher requests them. Many teachers will not put up this much of a fight, but some do.

Here’s the chart Kain is referring to.  Here’s an even better one describing New York City’s process.  Even before getting to them, however, note how Kain shifts the discussion away from firing teachers with disciplinary problems, excessive absences, and other misconduct, and instead to the firing of instructors simply because they are not “successful,” noting that “successful teaching is very difficult to assess.”  The threshold question is not whether administrators can fire otherwise competent teachers who, to the bewilderment of everyone, are just not getting great scores from their students.  The question is why can’t administrators fire teachers who exhibit chronic misconduct.  This is the sort of sleight of hand that labor supporters engage in to avoid talking about the issues.  Rather than sitting at the same table with reformers and talking about things mainstream Americans care about, they set up their own table and invite reformers to sit down and talk about nominal problems that no one cares about.

But to answer Kain’s question, no, no one is “suggesting that there should be no hearing process at all.”  What folks are suggesting is that there should not be so many hearings that all put the burden on the administration while the allegedly offending teacher—against whom there must be multiple disciplinary write-ups to begin with—continues to teach with full pay.  That is, there must be a preliminary determination that the teacher is unsatisfactory, and that determination is subject to confirmation and appeal by different reviewing bodies.  Only then can termination proceedings be initiated.  At that point, the teacher is entitled to special evidentiary and discovery rules, including not having to provide certain documents even if they might lead to the discovery of relevant evidence against the teacher.  Usually, the teacher continues to receive full compensation pending the outcome of the hearing.  Remember that all of this “due process” is in addition to the teacher’s right to file a regular civil lawsuit once the termination is upheld.

Administrative procedures are important in providing employees a more informal, less expensive adjudicative process as an alternative to expensive civil litigation.  On the other hand, however, these “savings” to the employee are shifted to the employer, who is disincentivized from making prudent employment decisions that benefit the school and its students unless and until the teacher is so bad as to warrant the heightened expenses and burdens placed on the school.  Given that tenure is a misnomer to begin with when applied to K-12 educators, it ought to be clear there is such a thing as too much process, particularly where that process so impedes the normal operations of the public employer that it is unable to effectively serve its public function.

Taking the Offensive Against Unfunded Pension Liabilities

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In his piece entitled Dodging the Pension Disaster, Josh Barro claims:

Short of defaulting on these debts, the only way states can eliminate unfunded pension liabilities is to fund them.

Not true.  There are several strategies available:

  • Under Stone v. Mississippi (1879), a state legislature does not have the power to bind the decisions of the people and future legislatures.  A legislative act that threatens the public health and morals thus may be invalidated.  Debt obligations incurred in favor of public unions, then, might be struck down as void ab initio under this rationale.
  • Some state constitutions make retroactive compensation, gifts, and debt obligations without a referendum void ab initioI’ve written at length about those limitations under California’s Constitution.
  • Bankruptcy may be an option (though certainly a disfavored one).
  • Under the logic of a recent California Court of Appeal, pensions are not a “debt.”  Instead, to avoid the effect of the state constitutional limits on incurring debts without a referendum, the court reclassified pension liabilities as “an actuarial estimate projecting the impact of a change in a benefit plan.”  If that rationale is upheld by the state Supreme Court, it suggests the projected “unfunded liability” does not constitute any present legally cognizable right or expectation of pensioners to that amount.  Thus, under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause, state and local governments might be able to unilaterally cash-out pensions, offering “just compensation” in the amount of their present value.  (Credit to Tim Sandefur for this idea.)

Practically speaking, bringing any one or more of the above to bear upon public unions will help to bring them to the bargaining table.  Unions are running up against economic reality, constitutional and legal doctrine, and political will.   The hope is that once they appreciate this, they might be willing to negotiate more practicable retirement and benefits packages than the ones they secured while the economy was booming and voters weren’t looking.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised…

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…but I was quite disappointed that E.D. Kain chose to engage only the noisy and debatable points about public sector unions rather than the serious and systemic ones.  I have been writing about these problems at great length here, and have shared them with E.D. in another forum.  E.D. is generally a very forthcoming writer and thinker, but when it comes to an issue so deeply enmeshed in the liberal agenda, he can’t bring himself to consider the serious arguments against public unions—even though his recent post purports to do just that.

I appreciate the left’s political angle in the union debate.  As the argument goes, unions work as a countervailing power to corporate economic and political clout, and are thus the only practical hope for securing some semblance of a middle class.  I don’t necessarily accept the premise, but there’s lots of interesting topics to unpack and discuss there.  At any rate, I do agree we’re facing a Middle Class Problem generally.  (But then again, when are we not?)

But this is no excuse for question begging.  Let’s put it another way.  Consider the following argument:  “Crony Capitalism is justified because it is a countervailing political and economic force to that of the Thuggish Labor Unions.”  Is not your first reaction to resist the despicable premise of Crony Capitalism as vile and anti-democratic, whether or not it is somehow “balanced out” by another vile and anti-democratic special interest?  And is not your second reaction to wonder whether we can simply mitigate the influence of both of these vile and anti-democratic special interests? 

This is my problem with the left, particularly those who profess open-mindedness, “no labels,” and aversion to politics as usual.  Though a conservative, I have expressed concern over the forms individualism and corporatism have taken in contemporary America.  There are reasons for this, partly due to government’s dual tendencies toward secularism and expansion, and partly due simply to human nature.  But there are some of us on the right who really are concerned with such problems, and would even concede there’s something to the necessity of unions as a countervailing force against corporate influence.  But to meaningfully advance labor’s concerns requires an acknowledgment of some of labor’s serious systemic problems, particularly those in the public sector. 

So I am disappointed that E.D. has chosen to eschew talking about those problems in favor of taking sides in favor of a special interest group in favor of a political agenda.   This is why he has chosen to willfully ignore the deeper problems with public unions as they relate to the integrity of our system of government itself.  Now that E.D. has apparently put himself in the service of political causes rather than political thought, serious debate on these tough questions simply gets in the way of the accumulation and wielding of power for the benefit of the special interest group du jour.  To that end, one must waste no time with stubborn conservatives and libertarians—not while the middle class is suffering so.

Again, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but I’m still disappointed when even the most thoughtful among those on the left pretend these kinds of deeper problems don’t exist.

Written by Tim Kowal

February 27, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Right to Work

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Here’s Tim Carney on Right to Work:

Right to Work laws bar employers from imposing a different sort of condition: the requirement that all employees join a union. Thus they take away property rights and infringe on the right of contract.

There are plenty of stupid labor laws that restrict employer freedom, but none of these laws force employers to have a closed shop. Preventing employers from agreeing to a closed shop is no free-market solution.

The suggestion that Right to Work is somehow anti-conservative or anti-freedom-of-contract is about the dumbest thing I read last week. The idea that employers would, on their own, require all employees to join a union seems obviously incorrect.  Right to Work prevents unions from urging employers to adopt these restrictive policies.  It’s not as if employers on their own came up with the idea to drastically limit their work force and prevent themselves from hiring bright, qualified, willing applicants, simply because they are non-union.

Instead, what’s going on here is unions leveraging their influence against employers to use employers’ freedom of contract in an anti-competitive fashion in the aid of unions.  Right to Work, then, deprives an employer of a right that is quite useless to him—i.e., the right to limit his hiring pool—because that right is too often used by unions to anti-competitive ends.  Thus, if employers no longer have the right to limit their work force, unions can’t urge them to do it.

There’s an analogue here in the eminent domain/redevelopment context, which I wrote a law review article about some years back. Eminent domain is an important governmental tool to the extent the public needs roads and schools and parks and other public works; but it is a dangerous tool when the law permits it to be used for mere economic development. Why? Because even if the government has beneficent ends (e.g., rooting out slumlords, revitalizing an impoverished area, etc.), many businesses don’t. Costco, for example, is well known for its tactics in leveraging its economic muscle against redevelopment agencies to use their power of eminent domain to make space for them. If they don’t? Costco will move down the street to the next town and draw lots of tax revenue from the first town.  In the case of 99 Cents Only Stores v. Lancaster Redevelopment Agency in 2001, Costco threatened to close up its store at the hub of a major shopping center, and leave it shuttered and unoccupied for the remainder of its lease if the city didn’t use eminent domain to take the 99 Cents store competing with Costco.  The city gave in, and agreed to take 99 Cents’ store and give it to Costco for $1.00.  Luckily, the court ruled against this illegal power play.

Redevelopment agencies’ “freedom” to take property for economic development, then, winds up being used against them.

Same with Right to Work.  There are all sorts of laws that prevent parties from “freely” contracting where the resulting contracts are anti-competitive. Typical are agreements in which an employee “freely” agrees not to compete with his employer after his term. But because this restrains his ability to practice his profession post-employment, such agreements are routinely struck down by courts.  The law tends to disfavor the sorts of contracts that are systematically used in the aid of subverting liberty more generally.

Agreements between unions and employers in which employers purport to bargain away their freedom to hire qualified, willing applicants, simply because they are not a union member, is just this sort of anti-competitive agreement.  An employer’s “freedom” to require employees to join a union is not one that benefits employers; it is one that unions leverage against them. Right to Work, then, is typical of laws that invalidate abusive, anti-competitive contracts in the cause of greater overall liberty.

Written by Tim Kowal

February 27, 2011 at 7:00 am

Unions, Politics, and Honesty

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A friend asked me today why there seems to be relatively little emphasis on a peculiar distinction made in Gov. Walker’s public union reform proposal.  Specifically, while the proposal disallows the unions to collectively bargain to increase wages, it would still let them collectively bargain to increase benefits, i.e., health care, vacation and sick pay, and, of course, pensions.  (Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal is here, and Ezra Klein does a fair enough job explaining it.)  It strikes me as very odd that Walker took this approach rather than the opposite—that is, rather than killing collective bargaining on benefits, leaving wages on the table for negotiation.  Wages are easy to quantify.  You give workers pay raises, and you have to make it work with this year’s budget.  Moreover, most states have balanced budget requirements imposed by their constitutions.  In short, there’s little room for mischief when it comes to negotiating for wages.

Benefits, however, is a much more vexing issue, because it’s so much easier politically for the government to increase benefits by tucking the liabilities away in future budget projections and investment portfolios.  As a result, “future” compensation is nearly limitless when it comes to government accounting: if the funds aren’t there presently, they can kick the can down the road to future elected officials and taxpayers.  Unions realize this, of course, and put pressure on government employers for generous benefits packages.  This helps explain why public employees have such generous benefits packages, even if by some accounts their actual wages might track slightly below the private sector.  According to Forbes, for example,

NYC socked away $20,000 per employee last year for pension benefits. Since 2000 its pension funding bill has risen ninefold, from $615 million to $5.6 billion in 2008. That’s more than the city spends on transport, health care, parks, libraries, museums and City University of New York combined, says the Citizens Budget Commission.

[Update: There’s also this from Robert Costrell, via Avik Roy:  “The average Milwaukee public-school teacher salary is $56,500, but with benefits the total package is $100,005, according to the manager of financial planning for Milwaukee public schools.”]

Realizing this phenomenon, some state constitutions require that future liabilities must first be subjected to referendum.  California is one such state.  However, as you’ll see from my analysis of a recent California Court of Appeal decision, this state’s courts have long employed judicial sleight of hand to avoid the effect of these constitutional restraints.  Unfunded pensions, the court held, are not really a “liability.”  Instead, they are “an actuarial estimate projecting the impact of a change in a benefit plan.”  In this way, the taxpayers’ constitutional protections on runaway unfunded pension liabilities have yielded to the government accounting tricks and judicial linguistic machinations.  Thus, California’s public sector unions have been effectively exempt from obtaining taxpayer approval for pension increases and other benefits, even while those packages are crippling the state’s economy. 

Specifically, San Diego’s pensions are facing mortal danger.  Vlad Kogan provides a fair assessment of the fiscal realities of public employees’ defined benefit pensions.  Kogan argues that, taking the long view, there really is no difference between defined benefit and defined contribution pensions: in good times, the taxpayer will contribute less to pensions; in bad times, the taxpayer will feel the pinch.  Except, it’s more than just a pinch.  Kogan does the math, and reveals just how costly the defined benefit plans are:  public employee pensions, currently accounting for more than 40% of San Diego’s total payroll, will climb to a dizzying 55% by the mid 2020s.  In theory, things will level out.  In reality, however, San Diego may not hold out long enough to see that happen: 

As we try to learn our lessons from the Great Recession, policy makers might well decide that the pinch put to taxpayers by taking the “long view” approach in defined benefit pensions is simply too destructive and too inequitable.  With public sector unions standing guard, however, policy becomes frozen in time, and policy experiments only ever move one way: in favor of public sector unions at the expense of everyone else.

Politics proves again and again that democracy is a very bad accountant.  The Economist explains how the seldom discussed concept and calculation of discount rates contributes to the inscrutability of what the taxpayers’ true liability is for public employee pensions.  In Britain, for example, using a conservative discount rate indicates a liability up to 85% of GDP.  The Economist concludes that if the whole picture of public employee compensation—salary, health care, benefits, and pension—were revealed to the public in straightforward terms, taxpayers may demand reform. 

But this problem of political dishonesty in public union political bargaining could not be expressed any better than New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at his speech at the American Enterprise Institute:

You can imagine how that was received by 7,500 firefighters. As I walked into the room and was introduced. I was booed lustily. I made my way up to the stage, they booed some more. I got to the microphone, they booed some more. So I said, come on you can do better than that, and they did! They did. And then I said to them – I took away the prepared notes I had for the speech – I actually took them off of the podium, crumpled them up and threw them on the ground, so they could see that I would. And I said, here’s the deal: I understand you’re angry, and I understand you’re frustrated, and I understand you feel deceived and betrayed. And the reason you feel all the things is because you have been deceived and you have been betrayed. And for twenty years, governors have come into this room and lied to you. Promised you benefits that they had no way of paying for, making promises they knew they couldn’t keep, and just hoping that they wouldn’t be the man or women left holding the bag. I understand why you feel angry and betrayed and deceived by those people. Here’s what I don’t understand. Why are you booing the first guy who came in here and told you the truth? See, there is no political advantage to me coming into that room and telling the truth. The way we used to think about politics and unfortunately the way I fear they’re thinking about politics still in Washington DC. See, the old playbook says lie, deceive, obfuscate and make it to the next election. You know, there’s a study that says by 2020, New Jersey is one of eleven states whose pension could be bankrupt. And when I told a friend of mine about that study, he said to me, well wait. By 2020, you won’t be governor. What the hell do you care? That’s the way politics has been practiced in our country for too long and practiced in New Jersey for too long. So I said to those firefighters, you may hate me now. But fifteen years from now, when you have a pension to collect because of what I did, you’ll be looking for my address on the internet so you can send me a thank you note.

One last point about the current debate over public sector unions.  These and the many other criticisms of public sector unions are not new.  Yet, instead of meaningful responses to these arguments or explanations of their abuses, public union supporters have offered no direct justifications for maintaining a regime that enables public sector unions to collectively bargain at less than arms’ length, in an anti-democratic process that pits unions against elected officials with a mix of political and soft economic objectives, while holding hostage the public who depends on the services they provide.  The train of public sector union abuses, then, are not mere anecdotes, not mere loose ends to be tidied up with corrective legislation.  They are symptoms of a systemic problem.  It’s a feature, not a bug.  Public union supporters thus send a strong message by their failure to acknowledge these systemic problems, their refusal to come to the table to discuss solutions, their stubborn insistence on continuing to hand out lavish benefit packages at the expense of future taxpayers, and, in the case of Wisconsin Democrats, their fleeing the state to prevent discussion or reform of serious issues relating to the public welfare.  That message is, sadly, that Democrats are politically invested in unions, and will not countenance any reforms that will dilute the power of that political stronghold.  The support for public union collective bargaining cannot be explained by anything other than dirty politics.