SACRAMENTO — ???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 today, after public-sector unions were dealt devastating blows 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 vote???including the victory by three out of four Republicans in Wisconsin Senate seats targeted by the unions???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 and the reformist mayoral candidate took top place, although he will face a November run-off against 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.
California pay, benefits up
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 pay and benefit packages of $175,000 a year, and majorities of police officers in many departments retiring on questionable disabilities. The standard pension for the ever-expanding class of ???public safety??? officials allows them to retire at age 50 with 90 percent of their final year???s pay after a certain period of service???and that???s before all the add-ons and scams. Miscellaneous members???the rest of public employees???aren???t far behind in their pay and benefit levels, and Californians have seen absurd enrichment schemes and salaries in one scandal after another.
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 a one-cent annual tax were imposed on every American to benefit the Greenhut family, few people would notice, but I would have incentive to keep that tiny tax alive and plenty of money to hire the best lobbyists. All special interest groups work that way.
The public-sector unions are far more ravenous than even Voltaire would have imagined. He figured two-thirds of us would work for the other one-third, but in America only about 16 percent of 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 numbers. But mostly union prerogatives have moved forward so rapidly because unions have bought support from both sides of the political spectrum, especially at the local level where police and fire unions are so powerful.
Despite typical loud union protests we see at capitol buildings, most of the 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 interest. 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 didn???t stand a chance at the ballot box. They have much power and will surely win many more battles. But the jig is up.
When put to the test, to the simple of the unions vs. the rest of us, the public???even in the most liberal places in the country???does the right thing.
That???s the real and heartening news from Tuesday???s election.