I look at what’s going on in Wisconsin with mixed feelings. The conservative, small government side thinks that its high time that public employees learn to make some sacrifices as states face financial problems.
But I’m also the son of two retired autoworkers who are also members of the United Auto Workers. The UAW was as much a part of the background of my growing up years as was General Motors. Unlike many Republicans, I do see the value of unions, especially private unions like the UAW. For all their faults (and there are many), they did do a lot to improve the lot of working class folk in America.
But the labor movement isn’t perfect and shouldn’t be viewed that way, either. Unions work for the interests of the workers- that in and of itself isn’t a problem. But what happens when those interests get in the way of a more efficient way of running things, be it at a factory or in state government?
Contrary to what some bloggers are saying, this is not about mean Republicans going after innocent unions- or at least it isn’t totally about that. Conservatives are partially correct that this is about budget issues, but they have made public sector unions the scapegoat, when they are but a symptom of a much larger problem.
What we are seeing is the first fight in what might be a long battle over a new social contract. Walter Russell Mead describes it perfectly:
In the heart of Blue State America, we are seeing a challenge to some of the fundamental assumptions behind the progressive state, and we could conceivably be watching both the birth pangs of a new social model and the first big step in America’s transformation into a true 21st century economy. And ironically, while Democrats are not, to put it mildly, happy with Governor Walker’s anti-public union bill, in the medium term the Democratic Party (and others who want to see government taking on more responsibilities) will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the bill.
It is too soon to tell whether Governor Walker will get his bill through the Wisconsin legislature; as long as the beer and the waitresses hold out at the Tilted Kilt, the 14 embattled Democratic state senators can delay final passage of the bill — and they may even force the Republicans to negotiate over its provisions. But with a similar bill moving towards passage in Ohio, and governors and legislators around the country looking for ways to cut state deficits, the foundations of the blue social model are shaking.
As Mead describes, we are seeing the limit of the American social welfare state- at least the 20th century version of it. Back in the days when there was “big government, big labor and big business” it was easy to pay public sector workers lavishly. But in these days of uncertainty and tight budgets, the social contract that supported these public workers is ending and the days of lush benefits are ending.
So what takes its place? What’s the new social contract? I don’t think we totally know yet. We are still fumbling towards some idea. Mead doesn’t say it, but he does worry about what he thinks the Tea Party would do:
The second strategy would be retrenchment. This would mean reducing real wages throughout the economy: competing with the Chinese and other countries on the basis of low wages. This would involve dismantling minimum wage laws, a full scale assault on private labor unions, and an aggressive deregulation of as much of the economy as possible. The hope would be that in the long run enough investment would come into the country that we would get full employment and wages would gradually rise. This is what many good-hearted Democrats think the Tea Party wants; in my view it is the wrong course for America. We can never forget that America is about doing better: in the midst of the greatest explosion of technical knowledge and information since the dawn of time, our job is to help the world grow rich, not to tighten our belts.
And Megan McArdle warns that capping teacher pay, which is being proposed in Wisconsin, will have bad consequences:
On the one hand, freezing your salary bumps at CPI doesn’t seem like a great way to attract and retain the best workers; it seems like Wisconsin school districts will be at a competitive disadvantage with other industries and states. On the other hand, those things are already collectively bargained, and bumping the wages of an entire class of people in order to attract a few more workers does not seem to be a very efficient way to go–indeed, it’s the basis of all those monopsony models of labor market failure.
Do Republicans have a compelling social vision? Do they know how to run a smaller state without it being a “race to the bottom” as Mead says?
I think there are conservative thinkers out there that do have some idea of a new social contract. That said, the conservative response to what is going on in the Badger State is more about politics than it is about a new way forward. I have to think Governor Walker might have gotten farther at least trying to chat with public sector unions and spelling out the problem, before trying to wage war on them.
There is no question that the Democrats have to learn a new way to govern in this new reality. Bill Clinton was 15 years too early when he said that the “era of big government is over.” They way of governing that was part of the Democratic platform and the American fabric since the 1930s – that of large bureacracies- is fast ending. Democrats have find new ways to govern to fit the era of smaller government.
But that means that Republicans also have to find a new way to govern. George W. Bush was on the right track when he called for “compassionate conservatism.” The current budget battles might be what they Tea Party wanted and indeed what America wanted, but Americans also want a government that gives a damn about their lives. The way the GOP is acting might turn away some of the same folks that voted for them in November.
In a few days, the Battle of Madison will settle down. But the battle for America’s future is just beginning.