Monday, February 28, 2011

Killing Peter's Pig

The question of public employees' pensions in Wisconsin, secondary to the goal of union-busting, keeps being framed as whether those pensions should be taken away so that public employees may share the insecurity inflicted on workers in the private sector. Here's one example, but there are plenty more.

There was a time, when our government was more humane and unions were stronger, that the question would have been why private workers should be exposed to such uncertainty and how that security might be extended to them. It was, in fact, in the days of defined-benefit pensions. But that was not capitalistically competitive enough, and the poor workers were not free to invest in the stock market and make billions with their money. Many of those workers bought this fantasy and encouraged their elected representatives to make it easier for companies to slip out from under their obligations to the workers. This was in the spirit of rich and poor alike being free to sleep under bridges, but the workers didn't seem to notice.

Back in the last days of the Soviet Union, when something like free elections was taking place there, a story circulated in the United States to show that the Russians weren't quite "getting it," and bolstering our national self-esteem. I suspect, however, that the story predates the Soviet Union.

One of the candidates is campaigning in a village. "If you elect me, I will help to improve your situation. We will build roads so that you can more easily take your produce to market." And all the other good things that politicians promise.

A villager comes up after the speech and takes the politician aside. "You know Peter, down the street? He has a pig."

"Oh yes. I will work to see that everyone has a pig."

"No, no, you don't understand." The villager is now whispering urgently. "I will vote for you if you promise to kill Peter's pig."

That seems to be where our national politics have taken us here in America.


Anonymous said...

The problem is much bigger than unions or the humaneness of government. Simply put, costs are growing faster than gdp and have been for quite some time.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Andy, your comment has nothing to do with this post. It's tempting to delete it, but you're a regular commenter, so you get some benefit of the doubt.

There are ways to deal with the costs, if the will is there. Scott Walker uses the "budget crisis" he contributed to manufacturing as an excuse for busting unions. And divide and conquer tactics by politicians like Walker lead to the "kill Peter's pig" syndrome.

In focusing on one part of the budget, you are implicitly accepting formulations like Walker's.

The question is how we make our society the one we can all live in reasonably comfortably. Attacking the people, and encouraging them to attack each other won't solve the budget problems you posit; in fact, we can hardly solve anything that way.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Okay. After a bit of thought, I see that Andy is simply repeating the popular frame. Which is what I was trying to break up.

The argument that we don't have enough money to fund the Wisconsin public employees' retirement fails on the basis of what I've seen: their retirement is wages that the employees choose to defer. And when everything is taken into account, their pay is still less than in the private sector. So it's not a matter of "affording" anything, just giving them what they've been promised.

With the removal of assured pensions because the companies involved refused to handle the money for those pensions responsibly and the recent market failure, I have to wonder how the Boomers are going to manage retirement.

Surely it's not acceptable public policy to have elderly people starving in the streets? Or even eating catfood in a dismal rental?

Peter said...

There's something I simply don't understand about rising health care costs: Why is spending money on health and well-being inherently bad??

I understand that the US pays more per person for worse outcomes, and I agree that's a bad thing. But why is it that growth in health care as a percentage of GDP something to decry? Isn't that precisely the goal of a well-developed economy? To enrich every person's life from beginning to end, to foster an environment where people are healthy, happy, and helpful?

I see my own spending on health stuff as a quality of life choice, and I'd much rather put $40 a week into my body than into my car. But I'm lucky enough to belong to a union that reimburses my out-of-pocket medical expenses.

I guess I don't understand why, in the wealthiest nation in the history of the planet, more people aren't asking why they don't also have a pig like Peter does.

troutsky said...

"Eating catfood" is basically what Orin Hatch recommended last night on the News Hour. He shrugged,and with a somewhat pained, final solutionish look said "there is just no money".

This is no mere budget crisis. This is a global political crisis meeting a historical capitalist crisis and I fear it is too late to be saved by Keynesian policies, even if they were acceptable.

Cheryl Rofer said...

There actually is a rather simple solution: tax the rich at (modestly) the levels of the 1990s. Or, more stringently, at the levels of the 1950s. Both times were economically expansionary; nobody has shown that cutting taxes has led to economic growth. It's an article of faith.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Tom Scocca says some similar things to what I said.

He doesn't mention the setting of people against each other, but the economics is the same.

The debt—the runaway debt—has nothing to do with morality. Casting the debt as an object of moral concern is the work of minds that have come detached from human experience. The debt is an epiphenomenon. It is the side effect created by the specific moral decisions about what the country wishes to see funded, and how it is willing to fund those things.

Read the whole thing.