Government Spending

The Real Lesson from the Wisconsin Recall

When the issues were clear, voters were rational.

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“The art of government is to make two-thirds of the voters pay all it possibly can for the benefit of the other third,” wrote Voltaire, in one of the most counterintuitive yet accurate quotations about modern governance. Why are voters so willing to pay more of their hard-earned money to support the demands of a minority of their fellow citizens?

That’s not the question most of us are asking now, after public-sector unions were dealt devastating blows in Tuesday's elections in two of the most progressive states, Wisconsin and California.

Liberals are asking whether Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s overwhelming victory in a failed recall will spur similar “anti-worker” reforms across the country. Republicans are asking whether the Wisconsin voteâ€"including the victory by three out of four Republicans in Wisconsin Senate seats targeted by the unionsâ€"spells doom for President Obama’s re-election.

Instead of wondering about short-term political implications, we should be asking why it took so long for voters to behave so rationally. Even in Democratic bastions such as San Jose, the public supported serious efforts to roll back benefit levels even for current employees. San Diego voters not only backed pension reform, but they OK’d a ban on union-only project labor agreements in the city and the reformist mayoral candidate took top place, although he will face a November run-off with a union Democrat.

Tuesday’s vote, however encouraging, is just the beginning of the broad-based reform movement that’s necessary to save states and municipalities from insolvency, to improve the nation’s increasingly decrepit public services, and to restore the proper balance between the citizen and the government official. But it is just the beginning.

Over the past decade, California governments have dramatically increased the pay and especially the benefit packages of public-sector workers. We have firefighters earning average total compensation packages of $175,000 a year in many jurisdictions, and majorities of police officers in some agencies retiring on questionable disabilities. The standard retirement package for the ever-expanding class of “public safety” officials allows them to retire at age 50 with 90 percent of their final year’s payâ€"and that’s before all the add-ons and scams. Miscellaneous membersâ€"the rest of public employeesâ€"aren’t far behind, and we’ve seen absurd enrichment schemes and salaries in one scandal after another.

I’ve watched a sea of proposals pass that give government employees special privileges that would never be allowed for mere private citizens, such as a recently passed California bill that allows many officials to shield their personal information from public property databases. These privileges encourage arrogance and misuses of power. Pensions are now consuming 16 percent of California’s discretionary budget, and in cities such as San Jose, pension costs escalated an eye-opening 350 percent in a decade.

Collective bargaining has made it nearly impossible for agencies to fire bad workers or pursue cost-saving alternatives. Although California leads the way in most absurd trends, the vast expansion of government compensation and special privileges is a nationwide problem, and in Tuesday’s election voters across the nation said they have had enough.

How did it get this bad?

The technical answer is the economic notion of “dispersed costs and concentrated benefits.” If we imposed a one-cent annual tax on every American to benefit the Greenhut family, no one would get mad and few people would notice, but I would have a great incentive to keep that tiny tax alive and plenty of money to hire the best lobbyists. All special interest groups work that wayâ€"they push for small concentrated benefits, and figure that the rest of us don’t have the time or incentive to fight back given the costs are spread out.

The public-sector unions have mastered this art, and indeed are far more ravenous than even Voltaire would have imagined. He figured two-thirds of us would work for the other third, but only about 16 percent of American workers are in government employment.

Unions have particular advantages, including the ability to automatically deduct their dues from employees’ paychecks, something that Walker has stopped in Wisconsin. They also have strength in numbersâ€"many workers who can head to the polls and participate in political efforts to prop up their special status.

But mostly union prerogatives have moved forward so rapidly because unions have bought support from both sides of the political spectrum. For instance, Orange County, Calif., where I used to work, remains the most Republican large county in the nation, yet the same pension-spiking schemes moved forward there as in more liberal jurisdictions. Pro-union candidates would dress up their union votes in law-and-order garb. In liberal areas, union legislators would depict their support for the wealthy class of government employees as support for the poor and the downtrodden, given the stated intent of the programs these people administer.

Despite loud union protests we see at capitol buildings, most union power has advanced quietly and behind the scenes. Debates over spending rarely come down to the public vs. the unions, so voters continue to elect politicians who advance union interests. But something shockingly different took place on Tuesday: clarity.

There was a clear choice, from Madison to San Diego. Do we side with a small special interest that has rigged the game in its favor or do we stand up for ourselves and say “no”? We saw what happened. Unions are busy launching their court challenges, knowing that they can't win in the court of public opinion. They have much power and will surely win many more battles. But the gig is up.

When put to the test, to the simple choice of the unions vs. the rest of us, the publicâ€"even in the most liberal places in the countryâ€"does the right thing.

That’s the real heartening news from Tuesday’s election.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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  1. But the Leftists conducted themselves with such grace and dignity, how could they have lost?

    1. Outside money, of course, spent on advertisement that fed sweet truths lies to the ignorant masses.

    2. What they need now is to get rid of secret ballots. How are you supposed to coerce people if they say one thing then vote another?

  2. Ah, yes, if there is one thing we can all agree on about the recall election, it is the cool, rational dispassionate way we reached the outcome.

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    1. (…and the whole thing is further sweetened by the irony that the “scandal” that Walker alleges just so happened to be perpetrated by the very same government workers that he specifically exempted from the union “reforms.”)

    2. I assume they were going to explain what I should think after they got done using dead kids and grieving parents to try to emotionally manipulate me (how ironic!), but I got bored with their tired shit too soon to find out. At least political ads on TV only waste 30 seconds of my time.

  3. Now there is a move afoot to raise the minimum wage to $10.00 an hour.
    Once again the unions will loudly trumpet that it is all about a “living wage” and “to help the poor”.
    Not only will a legislated minimum wage ~never~ be a living wage, partially due to the way union contracts are structured, and also since the price of every good and service derived from minimum wage labor inputs will be forced up in price.
    Very few people understand that to raise the minimum wage is to give all the unions an automatic pay raise as well as push up prices for every good and service that utilizes minimum wage employees.
    How does this give the unions an automatic pay raise?
    Union contracts are usually structured to use a formula to determine the base number from which all wage and benefit amounts are derived. The base number depends on the federal minimum wage so an increase in the federal minimum wage gives the unions an automatic increase without the inconvenience of having to re-negotiate a contract.
    Another win for the public employee unions.

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  7. Outside money, of course, spent on cheap Beats by Dreadvertisement that fed sweet truths lies to the ignorant masses

  8. The great challenge, and I haven’t seen a good answer yet, is how do you institutionalize clarity? Who could possibly be against a clear and forthright telling of the issues. But it happens rarely, more’s the pity.

  9. I work for the State of Kalifornia. I have union dues withdrawn from my check as “fair share” and do not agree with SEIU’s policies at all. In maintenance the workers are not paid what they could make in the private sector (if they could find a job). Friends who used to work in the private sector told the state workers they were fools to work in govt job because private sector was making much more. Now who’s asking how to get a state job? The maint. workers do pay into their own retirement, are not paid any safety pay (like CHP) yet they are most likey to be injured or killed on the job. We haven’t had a raise since 2007 and our benefit costs have increased. The engineers and hire-ups make the bucks, which there are too many of since projects have been cut. Then they downsize our equipment numbers to look good on paper and we have to rent or lease back the same type of equipment tho our equipment had been bought and paid for. Sell it for pennies on the dollar then pay to use the same equipment at triple the price? Too many “book smart-street stupid” people in charge who know nothing of what goes on in maintenance. One reason this state sucks.

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