Pensions

Get Serious About Governing, Democrats

No amount of crying over evil Scott Walker will help governments fix their bleeding balance sheets

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When politicians and activists warn that this or that election is a stark, Manichean choice between the champions of good and the malefactors of evil, many of us on the sidelines of political tribalism tend to wearily roll our eyes. But what independents tend to underappreciate is that the artificially raised stakes are a main part of the consumer attraction in the first place. It makes politics more meaningful, even fun, when you imagine that you are up against a pure form of rapacious evil.

Wisconsin has been the front line of America's Democrat vs. Republican, blue vs. red rhetorical war for 16 months now, ever since newly elected Republican governor Scott Walker pushed through a budget repair bill that withdrew government from the union dues-collecting business for public employees and removed the collective bargaining power of most government unions, an act that triggered historic public protests. So on the morning after Walker survived a labor-led recall election by a higher margin than he originally won office in 2010, there were plenty on the left grumbling darkly about the Dark Lord rising over our once-free country.

At The American Prospect, Harold Meyerson compared Walker's actions to a "jihad" and suggested (paradoxically) that a post-union labor movement might just resort to rioting. Walker "wins one for the plutocrats," Joan Walsh lamented at Salon, without really explaining how the monocle-wearers could win 38 percent of the union vote.

Such demonization was of a piece with leftish commentary in the run-up to the recall. Esquire's Charles P. Pierce described Walker as a "goggle-eyed homunculus hired by Koch Industries to manage its midwest subsidiary formerly known as the state of Wisconsin," which would now be subject to "the habits of oligarchy." Even more grossly, The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote in The Washington Post that Walker's policies were intended to "cleanse the electorate of people who don't look, earn or think like him."

It's almost comforting, in such a florid, menacing universe, to wallow in righteous defeat. But I would suggest that if progressives want to change minds and political outcomes, they might try a different strategy: Instead of merely rallying opposition to irredeemable bogeymen, how about providing a concrete, numbers-rich alternative to the brutal budgetary math Walker's union-tweaking policies were designed to address?

It is a fact that the majority of state budgets are in the red, that overall state spending increased by 81 percent from 2002-2007, and that rare-in-the-private-sector defined benefit pensions for government workers (along with post-retirement medical benefits) are a large and growing portion of state and local budgets, even while being chronically underfunded. The situation is terrible now, and will be much worse in the near future. So, progressives: Tell us concretely what you plan to do about this.

The state of California's public-sector pension contributions have increased 304 percent in a decade, up to $2.2 billion of a $91 billion budget, and growing faster by the minute. Pension contributions account for 20 percent and 27 percent, respectively, of the city budgets of San Diego and San Jose, whose citizens have responded by passing initiatives asking government workers to contribute more to their own pension and health care. Cities from California to Rhode Island have initiated bankruptcy over pension costs.

So, progressives: What is the right percentage of a government budget to be spent on public sector pensions? If this requires that cities and states simply need to come up with bigger budgets (through increased taxes) precisely how much bigger would be appropriate? If you don't want to increase overall budgets, what other government services are you willing to cut?

If the past four years of public debate are any indicator, we won't soon see concrete answers to any questions like these. Progressives almost never tell us how big they think the government should be. It is easier to make grand and vague gestures on behalf of working Americans than it is to justify the math of public sector unions negotiating with union-backed politicians to spend the money of non-union taxpayers, which may help explain why Americans are solidly in favor of public employees paying more of their own freight. And in all the hot air spewed about the Wisconsin recall, where were the positive arguments for all the citizen benefits received in the prior run-ups in Badger State spending?

As long as Democrats keep dodging these questions, no amount of plutocrat-baiting will reverse their political fortunes. Governments at all levels are out of money. Progressives are going to have to come up with a better response to that than saying "we were robbed."

Matt Welch is Editor in Chief of Reason, and co-author (with Nick Gillespie) of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America, now available in paperback.