People are naturally inclined to cultivate valuable resources to improve their lot in life. In a politicized economy, influence is an extremely valuable resource. In fact, as more of the economy falls under political control, influence becomes the most important commodity. What we are witnessing in Wisconsin is the cultivation of this political resource.
Public employee unions exist outside of market forces. For instance, they are protected against competition. Even in the case of education, where private schools do exist, they are not truly “competing” against public schools, because citizens pay for public schools whether their children attend or not. Private competition against other civil services is either placed at a similar disadvantage, or completely against the law.
Because they are protected from competition, public employees don’t feel the consequences of poor performance as quickly as private-sector workers. This is especially noteworthy in the case of unionized public-school teachers, who have turned in decades of deteriorating performance, which makes American kids sitting ducks in academic competition against countries that spend far less money on education.
In Wisconsin, according to a March 2010 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “reading scores for Wisconsin’s African-American fourth-graders trail those of their racial peers in every other state and the District of Columbia,” while “fourth-graders as a whole in Wisconsin are losing ground in reading while other states make gains.” Meanwhile, at the eight-grade level, “black students scored poorer in reading than students for whom English is not their native-born language.” This is the work product of teachers whose average salary plus compensation reaches into six figures, and who launched an insurrection because they were asked to shoulder a small percentage of the cost for providing their now-infamous “zero contribution” pension plans.
The public sector is shielded from the economic realities that would apply swift and painful corrective input to a malfunctioning private corporation. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is trying to close a $3.6 billion budget deficit, a fiscal reckoning that was delayed by a $2 billion infusion of federal money from the Obama “stimulus” program last year. Private industries can’t limp along for years with gigantic budget deficits, or count on infusions of taxpayer cash to balance their books (unless, of course, they get a government bailout.) A private company going off the rails must make hard choices quickly, or face bankruptcy. Government doesn’t go bankrupt for a long time. It just chugs along on borrowed and imaginary money, doing the same things that caused it to become insolvent, until the debt becomes so huge it can no longer be ignored.
For all of these reasons, the fate of public employees is determined by politics, not market realities. Influence becomes their essential resource, cultivated through huge political donations under normal circumstances, and noisy demonstrations in emergencies. Using this influence brought immediate results, as Democrat lawmakers fled the state to avoid a vote the unions would lose. To give you an idea how extraordinary this level of service to a powerful constituency is, consider that one of the reasons Wisconsin is having fiscal problems is a $200 million raid on the Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund, conducted by Walker’s Democrat predecessor in 2007. Did any Democrat lawmakers flee the state to prevent this illegal raid from taking place? Of course not. Mere conscience would never provoke such behavior… but a large, wealthy, well-organized union can demand it.
Look at the situation from the public employees’ point of view. It’s not surprising they don’t like the idea of sacrificing some of their benefits. They can’t protest by leaving their current positions and finding more lucrative work with a competitor, or becoming entrepreneurs and starting their own businesses. They don’t see their employer, the government, standing on the verge of closing its doors unless they make sacrifices, no matter how dire Governor Walker says the budget situation might be. They’re not worried about losing market share to aggressive competition and going out of business.
These people exist within a system that makes it logical to stage a wildcat strike and march around the Capitol, screaming threats. The resource of political influence is cultivated by maintaining solidarity, which requires inflaming passions against a designated common enemy – thus, a sea of “Walker = Hitler” signs. In the zero-sum world of central planning, those who would take State-allocated dollars away from you are your enemies, not your competitors.
The Wisconsin showdown is a preview of the future that awaits us all, if politicians are allowed to become masters of the economy. When the private sector withers away, everyone will be obliged to join some manner of collective, and begin cultivating the resource of influence. It is a poisonous crop, which makes for a bitter harvest.