"What Michael Moore Gets About Wisconsin...and America," shouts a recent headline for a story at The Nation's website.
The filmmaker Moore, of course, became famous for stalking a feckless GM exec years back and Charlton Heston (in the pro-gun-control Bowling for Columbine, which acknowledged that rates of gun ownership don't explain rates of violent crime). More recently, he became infamous for portraying Saddam Hussein's Iraq as an idyllic land where kids flew kites and Castro's island prison in Cuba as a model for U.S. health care reform. Last week, Moore had traveled to Madison, Wisconsin to cheer on students, union members, and other protesters standing up to the Republican-dominated state government that is pushing to increase the amount public-sector workers contribute to health-insurance and retirement benefits and strip down collective bargaining rights.
"America is not broke," said Moore. "Wisconsin is not broke. Saying that the country is broke is repeating a Big Lie."
"Moore does get it," enthuses The Nation's Washington correspondent John Nichols. "He gets it in a fundamental sense, the sense of having waited a very long time for some mass of citizens, somewhere in America, to say: 'We have had it!'"
Actually, Michael Moore does not get it. Neither does Nichols, nor protesters in Wisconsin and statehouses from Idaho to Ohio to New Jersey. Unfortunately, many Americans don't "get it," at least not yet.
[Watch "Are We Broke Yet?: Michael Moore Says No, Reality Begs to Differ." Article continues below video]
Here are three essential facts that we all better face up to, and fast, if we want to maybe not win the future but at least look forward to the next decade.
1. We are in fact broke. We can quibble about semantics - it's not exactly clear what it would mean for the federal or a state govenment to declare bankruptcy - but there's no question that the cash flows at every level of government are more screwed than Moll Flanders ever was. Under President Barack Obama's rosy-till-it-hurts-and-completely-unbelievable scenarios in his 2012 budget proposal, the feds will be running deficits larger than any incurred between 2002-2008 forever and ever amen. And that's best-case, Hail-Mary accounting. And on top of $14 trillion total federal debt, which will double over the next decade under the best-case scenario.
At the state and local levels, things are no different. Because they can't print money, states and cities need to balance their budgets annually, so they don't have deficits, they have shortfalls. Contra Michael Moore, Wisconsin in looking at a $3 billion-plus shortfall over the next two years (many states budget in two-year increments) and $1.8 billion for 2012 alone. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says 45 states (so far) are looking at a combined $125 billion shortfall for fiscal 2012. At the local level, The National League of Cities predicted back in 2009 that combined shortfalls between 2010 and 2012 would be somewhere between $56 billion and $83 billion.
So, are we broke-broke, or just screwed-broke? Call it what you want, but pretending that the mismatch between government revenues and government expenditures at every level isn't a major issue is delusional. Or that the past decade's massive growth in spending didn't happen. Or that we simply can't return to early levels of government expenditures without being reduced to living in Hoovervilles and wearing pickle barrels for clothing.
2. Public-sector workers are compensated better than similar private-sector workers. Nobody contests this claim anymore when it comes to federal workers and similar private-sector employees. They used to, of course, or made sideways explanations for the (nonexistent!) differentials by claiming that federal workers were smarter or did tougher work or had fresher-smelling breath or were congregated in high-cost areas, you name it. The single-largest category of public-sector workers are K-12 teachers (there's more than 3 million). Nationally, they make on average $14,000 a year more than private-school K-12 teachers, a gap that gets even bigger when benefits are added to the total. Studies such as "The Grand Bargain is Dead," by Ohio's Buckeye Institute extensively document "state workers today are paid much more than their private-sector neighbors in 85 out of 88 counties" and The New York Times' recent writeup on the issue make it clear that public-sector employees are doing well by any measure:
Surveys by the Bureau of Economic Analysis show that public workers’ annual compensation — salary plus benefits — is higher on average than private sector workers, and they suggest that the gap is growing....Public workers also put in significantly fewer hours per week. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, their compensation per hour is much higher....Most of the advantage is in benefits. They cost state and local governments $14 an hour on average, about 70 percent more than private employers pay for their workers.
That's The New York Times, mind you. Not the Heritage Foundation, or the John Birch Society, or anybody liberals and progressives want to dismiss out of hand. And what the Times is doing is verifying analyses that came out of the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage (I don't surf the JBS site, so I've got no idea what they think on the topic).
You don't need to introduce the related but distinct (and, to my mind, largely irrelevant) issue of collective-bargaining rights for public-sector workers to understand why state and local governments are trying hard as hell to reduce employment costs (and why public-sector workers are calling in sick or taking personal days to rally against cuts). There's big money at stake. The Buckeye Institute estimates that bringing state-worker compensation packages into line with the private sector could erase almost 30 percent of Ohio's projected $8 billion shortfall over the next two years. State expenditures ballooned by 80 percent in inflation-adjused dollars over the last decade and the cutting is going to have be big and ubiquitous. It's going to happen in states with collective bargaining, states without, and in states where the governors are not questioning that sort of activity. That public-sector jobs have been largely shielded from the broad layoffs that took place in the private sector only makes the imbalance greater. Between January 2008 and May 2010, the private sector lost almost 8 million jobs. Over the same time frame, public-sector employment actually increased by a net 590,000 jobs.