Jonah Goldberg on public sector unions

Jonah Goldberg:

A crucial distinction has been lost in the debate over Walker’s proposals: Government unions are not the same thing as private-sector unions.Traditional, private-sector unions were born out of an often-bloody adversarial relationship between labor and management. It’s been said that during World War I, U.S. soldiers had better odds of surviving on the front lines than miners did in West Virginia coal mines. Mine disasters were frequent; hazardous conditions were the norm. In 1907, the Monongah mine explosion claimed the lives of 362 West Virginia miners. Day-to-day life often resembled serfdom, with management controlling vast swaths of the miners’ lives. Before unionization and many New Deal–era reforms, Washington had little power to reform conditions by legislation.

Government unions have no such narrative on their side. […] Government workers were making good salaries in 1962 when President Kennedy lifted, by executive order (so much for democracy), the federal ban on government unions. Civil-service regulations and similar laws had guaranteed good working conditions for generations.

The argument for public unionization wasn’t moral, economic, or intellectual. It was rankly political.

Traditional organized labor, the backbone of the Democratic party, was beginning to lose ground. As Daniel DiSalvo wrote in “The Trouble with Public Sector Unions,” in the fall issue of National Affairs, JFK saw how in states such as New York and Wisconsin, where public unions were already in place, local liberal pols benefited politically and financially. He took the idea national.

The plan worked perfectly — too perfectly. Public-union membership skyrocketed, and government-union support for the party of government skyrocketed with it. From 1989 to 2004, AFSCME — the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees — gave nearly $40 million to candidates in federal elections, with 98.5 percent going to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Why would local government unions give so much in federal elections? Because government workers have an inherent interest in boosting the amount of federal tax dollars their local governments get. Put simply, people in the government business support the party of government. Which is why, as the Manhattan Institute’s Steven Malanga has been chronicling for years, public unions are the country’s foremost advocates for increased taxes at all levels of government.

And this gets to the real insidiousness of government unions. Wisconsin labor officials fairly note that they’ve acceded to many of their governor’s specific demands — that workers contribute to their pensions and health-care costs, for example. But they don’t want to lose the right to collective bargaining.

But that is exactly what they need to lose.

Private-sector unions fight with management over an equitable distribution of profits. Government unions negotiate with friendly politicians over taxpayer money, putting the public interest at odds with union interests, and, as we’ve seen in states such as California and Wisconsin, exploding the cost of government. California’s pension costs soared 2,000 percent in a decade thanks to the unions.

The labor-politician negotiations can’t be fair when the unions can put so much money into campaign spending. Victor Gotbaum, a leader in the New York City chapter of AFSCME, summed up the problem in 1975 when he boasted, “We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss.”

This is why FDR believed that “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” and why even George Meany, the first head of the AFL-CIO, held that it was “impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”

As it turns out, it’s not impossible; it’s just terribly unwise. It creates a dysfunctional system where for some, growing government becomes its own reward. You can find evidence of this dysfunction everywhere. The Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner notes that federal education spending has risen by 188 percent in real terms since 1970, but we’ve seen no significant improvement in test scores.The unions and the protesters in Wisconsin see Walker’s reforms as a potential death knell for government unions. My response? If only.

Read the whole thing. Pournelle’s Iron Law in action again.

UPDATE: the indispensible Michael Barone: Public Unions Force Taxpayers To Fund Democrats.

Everyone has priorities. During the past week Barack Obama has found no time to condemn the attacks that Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi has launched on the Libyan people.

But he did find time to be interviewed by a Wisconsin television station and weigh in on the dispute between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the state’s public employee unions. Walker was staging “an assault on unions,” he said, and added that “public employee unions make enormous contributions to our states and our citizens.”

Enormous contributions, yes — to the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign. Unions, most of whose members are public employees, gave Democrats some $400 million in the 2008 election cycle. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the biggest public employee union, gave Democrats $90 million in the 2010 cycle.

Follow the money, Washington reporters like to say. The money in this case comes from taxpayers, present and future, who are the source of every penny of dues paid to public employee unions, who in turn spend much of that money on politics, almost all of it for Democrats. In effect, public employee unions are a mechanism by which every taxpayer is forced to fund the Democratic Party.

Zombie: “Death Channels”

My honorable blog ancestor has been unseen for the past month, which normally is the harbinger of some big cyber-expose. This time around, it was personal business — namely, an experience as “Advance Health Care Directive” executor for a close relative. (S)he writes about the experience in great detail here, in a post entitled “Death Channels”.

Whichever side of the end-of-life-care debate you are on, this article is mind-blowing (and reads like a novella). Read it all, and pass the link to everybody you know.

Government cyber-astroturf project

Via Insty:

U.S. Gov‘t Software Creates ’Fake People’ to Spread Message via Social Networking. “The US government is offering private intelligence companies contracts to create software to manage “fake people” on social media sites and create the illusion of consensus on controversial issues. The contract calls for the development of ‘Persona Management Software’ which would help the user create and manage a variety of distinct fake profiles online. The job listing was discussed in recently leaked emails from the private security firm HBGary after an attack by internet activist last week.”

Un-freaking-believable. Yet the only way some phenomena I have seen can be rationalized.

Democrats go un-democratic when they lose

Via Insty:

HISTORY: Flashback: Democrats go un-democratic when they lose, and then they lose some more. “The mess in Wisconsin has happened before. In 2003, faced with a new Republican majority intent on redrawing an electoral map that preserved power for Democrats that the voters no longer gave them, the Texas Democrats fled the state. And in 2009, rather than allow a vote on an election security bill that they didn’t want, the Texas Democrats brought the state legislature to a halt — killing the voter ID bill and everything on the calendar that followed it. . . . So the Democrats are trying to bring both houses of the legislature to a full halt to kill the union bill. It may work, at least temporarily, just by running out the clock. But if what has happened in Texas is any guide, it will be a pyrrhic victory. Democrats in Texas have won very little since the 2003 run to the Red River. And after they filibustered the voter ID bill in 2009, which a heavy majority of the voters supported, they suffered an unholy beating in 2010. The Republicans now have a super majority in the House, and the man who led the filibuster, state Rep. Jim Dunnam, was defeated. He didn’t lose just because of that filibuster, but having that on his record certainly didn’t help him.”

Posted at 10:17 pm by Glenn Reynolds

See also handing out fake doctor’s notes at rally. (more here). Law professor and repentant 0bama voter Ann Althouse has videoblogged up a storm: go to her blog and keep scrolling.

And a little history lesson (via Ann Althouse): the Wisconsin Gov. finds himself in the august company of that [sarc] raaaaacist christofascist teabagging reichwinger [/sarc] Franklin Delano Roosevelt!

“The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” Roosevelt wrote in 1937 to the National Federation of Federal Employees. Yes, public workers may demand fair treatment, wrote Roosevelt. But, he wrote, “I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place” in the public sector. “A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government.”

Related: Ed Driscoll on “financial catastrophe denialists”. And the WI Deemocrats who fled to Chicago to avoid a quorum for a vote they would lose are now called “fleebaggers”. Heh.

On being a closeted conservative in academia

Insty linked to two great posts by Megan McArdle on liberal bias in academia. The first, which she got lots of vigorous reactions (and hate mail) too, points out the laughably lopsided distribution of liberals vs. conservatives in academia (we’re talking 200/1 ratios in some disciplines). The second gives a rundown of all the lame excuses proffered by apologists, which she facetiously compares to “oh, women are happier in the kitchen and blacks don’t want responsibility” rationalizations for gender and racial discrimination.

Academia is probably the quintessential New Class career path, and in my day job I get to deal with a great many academics, mostly in the hard sciences. I can testify that even in the hard sciences — where politics is rarely an issue in tenure decisions — there is very strong peer pressure. Let me quote an Email I got:

I was at [a major university in the Midwest] at the time of 0bama’s candidacy and quickly learned to keep my political opinions to myself. I was prepared to like 0bama (potentially the first black president and all) but quickly realized he was going to be at best a crooked hack politician in the Chicago mold, and at worst a radical the likes of which the USA hadn’t seen. Typically I was the only person in the room who did not think 0bama was the second coming of JC [well, he does resemble Jimmy Carter, no? — Ed.], and I lost count how many times I heard remarks to the effect that any opposition to his candidacy could only be motivated by racism. I ended up moving to a red state where at least I could open my mouth with impunity — and even here I am one of only two conservatives in my department and generally avoid the subject of politics. Note my field is [a basic science], not English literature or sociology.

I’m the sort of person who doesn’t give a rat’s backside what anybody thinks of him. Even so, it got to me at times and was a factor in deciding where to live next. I can only imagine how this would affect a person more sensitive to peer pressure — probably “adapt or leave”.

Earlier, Insty reproduced an Email he got from a “conservative in the closet” in academia, with some reminiscences of his own added. (Thankfully, Insty works in an unusually supportive environment. He does point, whimsically, to his usefulness to the university administration as a “token” libertarian — and I am not 100% sure he is joking.) An excerpt from the Email:

I have used this comparison [with being in the closet about one’s sexual orientation] myself, it is apt, and it doesn’t just apply to students. You hide yourself in plain sight. You make comments that are carefully crafted to allow you to make small talk, and which will allow your colleagues to think you’re in agreement with them, but which nevertheless satisfy your own sense of integrity. You never lie. You just make comments and allow them to draw their own conclusions. A classic example is the way I’ll make comments about politics, saying things like “I don’t trust politicians, period.” My liberal colleagues will nod and agree. We’re all in agreement, they believe. It gets easy after a while. You make comments about Marxist ideology that are really rather neutral, such as how you see similarities between Marx’s views, and something else. You leave it unstated that in fact you think this is appalling, while they nod and smile at the continuing relevance of Marxism in today’s society. Everyone is happy. I don’t feel quite so happy when someone says something about “stupid fucking conservatives” (I’m quoting exact words here), but I just nod, and say “ugh-huh”.

I’ve just been watching the first series of Mad Men, and I’m struck by the gay guy Salvatore Romano, and how similar his behavior is to me, only I’m hiding my politics, not my sexuality. There are also the classic moments, whereby fellow believers in academia carefully try to work out if you are one of “us”. I remember one guy who heard me comment on how some architecture reminded me of something I read in The Fountainhead, which was enough to alert him. Later we went out for a drink. I remember the nervous moment (for both of us) where he finally came out and asked me, “so what are your political / economic beliefs?” I chickened out, tempered, and said, “well, perhaps more to the center than most academics” and countered, “what are yours?” Reassured, he was willing to admit to conservative leanings. Then I was willing to admit it too. Then at last we could talk about our true feelings, with it clearly and openly stated that (of course) none of this was ever, ever, ever, to go beyond our own private conversations. (I also learned to never ever, in future, mention Rand within hearing of any academics, in case I accidently revealed myself again.) In another case, the vital clue was our shared interest in science fiction, and over the weeks there followed careful probing concerning which authors we liked, until we eventually discretely revealed ourselves. Now he lends me books saying “don’t let any of your colleagues see you with this.”

When (if) I get tenure, I toy with the idea of coming out of the closet. I don’t think I will though. Perhaps my job will be more secure, but I have to live and work with these people for years to come. I prefer to work in a friendly environment. I don’t want to be the token conservative, and I don’t want to be the one who speaks at meetings while everyone else rolls their eyes and exchanges meaningful glances.

Needless to say, don’t under any circumstances use my real name if you choose to refer to my email. Thanks!

Aside from the “closet” metaphor (make sure to check out this blog, BTW), this behavior reminds me of the submarine warfare tactic known as “silent running“. Make no unnecessary sound, and run the electric engines of the sub at an RPM rate calculated to be minimally detectible by passive sonar.

Megan makes the case that a combination of discrimination, peer pressure, and self-selection is at work. I can second the latter: my guess is that most conservatives would consider “studies” fields to be wastes of time for all considered, and Erin O’Connor of Critical Mass is an example of a tenured literature professor who eventually left academia in disgust. But this should be much less of an issue in hard sciences fields (except, obviously, for environmental science and climate studies).

If I’d gotten a dollar for every time I heard somebody refer to academics as “the most self-centered people on the planet” I’d be rich now. And there is indeed a rub, if not necessarily the rub. Like any highly competitive creative field, it self-selects for egomaniacs — and perhaps to the benefit of all concerned. (To give an example outside academia: where would Apple or Microsoft be today if Steve Jobs or Bill Gates were modest, self-effacing people?) Now whenever you put a lot of people of (real or perceived) high talent together, one gets not only the backbiting everybody in academia knows (I’ve seen academic knife-fights to the death over completely apolitical scholarly disputes in physics or chemistry), but also a kind of “esprit de corps”, a feeling of group superiority over other mere mortals. At best, this gets sublimated into an admirable sense of “noblesse oblige”. At worst, one gets what Robert Nozick incisively described as (via Clive):

Intellectuals feel they are the most valuable people, the ones with the highest merit, and that society should reward people in accordance with their value and merit. But a capitalist society does not satisfy the principle of distribution “to each according to his merit or value.” Apart from the gifts, inheritances, and gambling winnings that occur in a free society, the market distributes to those who satisfy the perceived market-expressed demands of others, and how much it so distributes depends on how much is demanded and how great the alternative supply is. Unsuccessful businessmen and workers do not have the same animus against the capitalist system as do the wordsmith intellectuals. Only the sense of unrecognized superiority, of entitlement betrayed, produces that animus.

It is my hypothesis that, more generally, the vast majority of academia subconsciously identifies as members of the New Class (by whatever name they may call “our kind of people”) before everything else, and will naturally tend to favor policies that reflect New Class sensitivities and interests. Big-government philosophies, and especially redistributive “social justice” programs run by bureaucratic elites, have a natural appeal to them.

And academics can rent-seek with the best of them. I have seen liberal academics be apologetic about receiving defense-related funding, but applying for and accepting it nevertheless. Or people who receive research funding for the liberal pet cause du jour while, out of earshot and with a couple in them, admitting to be skeptical about it. I have heard more than one academic tell me flat out that (s)he thinks Al Gore is a huckster, but if his AGW doom talk can scare people into weaning themselves off fossil fuels before they run out then it will have served a useful purpose. And of course, easy availability of funding for research in… is a useful benefit. (With all due respect, but “pia fraus” and “taqqiya” belong in religions, not science.)

Ideally, an academic should seek the truth wherever it can be found, without fear or favor. In the real world, academics are humans and no human foibles are alien to them. One of the most sobering things  I learned in my 4.5 decades on this mortal coil is that in some “real world” matters, farmers and small businessmen without any formal education can exercise more sound judgment than most professors.

ADDENDUM: I should have pointed out the degree to which already existing tendencies are exacerbated by the whole “postmodern” fad. To state that personal perspective may create observer bias, or that it may be worthwhile to look at historical or political events through different eyes, is one thing. To deny the very existence of objective truth (even as a platonic ideal) is another: if there is only the “struggle between competing narratives” (how people who believe in this radically subjectivist notion can take pride in being “reality-based” is a miracle of psychology), then the search for truth (by however imperfect means) degenerates into a sophistry contest. Which is how many conservatives increasingly look upon humanities and “soft subjects” academia (actually, various unprintable versions of “mutual gratification society” are more commonly heard) — and which, in turn, increases the mutual aversion. There is a definite “feedback loop” going on here…