I don’t agree with Andrew on the issue of public sector unions at all but at least this post is a good deal more measured than many of his recent efforts. It’s also revealing of a certain mindset that I think a lot of Americans share.
I will try to explain how I see the situation. Here are the talking points you hear from many libertarians and conservatives, in no particular order:
1) The government is out of money, and we need to cut spending or future generations will suffer.
2) Austerity should be for everyone, not just private-sector workers.
3) We cannot raise taxes – even on the rich despite their inordinate wealth and not on corporations despite their extraordinary return to profitability during the jobless recovery.
4) Public-sector workers have unsustainable wages and benefits. They need to be brought in line with the rest of us by whatever means necessary.
5) Union-busting is just democracy in action. Protesting is ridiculous. The Republicans won, deal with it.
6) Passing health-care legislation is tyranny. Tea-party protests are democracy in action. Democrats won, but it’s our duty to obstruct them at every turn.
So this hodge-podge of talking points spins an oddly appealing yarn for many Americans. We must all pull together to sacrifice – but not by raising revenue or taxing those who can afford to be taxed, but rather by laying off public sector workers (since private-sector workers have already been laid off) and cutting back their benefits (since private-sector workers had to have their wages and benefits cut) and busting their unions (because that’s what we did to the private sector). The government is out of money, so we must all tighten our belts. Or, rather, those Americans who depend on public services must tighten their belts. The fabulously rich get a free lunch and are sent on their merry way, lugging along piles of cash and a much more productive workforce thanks to the ever-looming threat of double-digit unemployment.
Meanwhile, as John pointed out earlier, the first wave of 401k retirees is facing a serious crisis. This should come as no surprise. But context is especially important. At the same time that we’re discovering that the 401k model is unsound, we’re also seeing a concerted effort to attack the last bastion not just of unionism in this country, but of pension-based retirement plans. And the even larger picture, if we zoom out a few hundred feet or so higher, is that this is an attack on the middle class and on the future of the middle class in America. Not just on the public sector, but on the entire middle class, private sector included (though those battles have largely already been fought, and the middle class has lost them one by one).