Paul R. Krugman PhD ’77’s recent article “Wisconsin Power Play” in the New York Times is a revealing look into the liberal derangement over the ongoing public sector union battle in the Badger State. In his article, our esteemed alumnus claims that unions must be defended because they are a bastion against undemocratic forces. And against what undemocratic forces are they arrayed? The Republicans, of course. And how do we know that Republicans are, as Krugman says, trying to turn America into a “third-world-style oligarchy?” Because they oppose unions.
Krugman’s thesis that unions are valiant knights defending us against an onslaught of corrupting plutocrats could use some shoring up because, at a glance, it looks more like unions are the corrupting influence. Over the past 20 years, unions have made up five of the top ten contributors to congressional and presidential campaigns. In the last election, they were ten of the top twenty political action committees. And what oligarchy does Krugman think unions are balancing against? In 2010, all ten of the ten largest contributing industries gave more to Democrats than Republicans. Unions did not even the score by giving to Republicans. They were, as always, creatures of the party that promises them more wages for less work.
More troubling than Krugman’s selection of such an obviously flawed thesis is what he must have passed up as an even more flawed defense of his partisan interests. Why didn’t Krugman, an economist, try to make an economic case for unions? Something to the effect of: “Unions are a vital feature of our economic system and promote an efficient market for labor supplies” would seem appropriate, given his background.
Perhaps Krugman demurred on the economic argument because there is not much of one to be had; unions are effectively the labor market’s equivalent of a cartel, with suppliers colluding to restrict availability and raise prices above their market equilibrium. But whereas we recognize cartels as rent-seeking, value-destroying organizations, and exterminate them with extreme prejudice, the left wing of our political spectrum likes to pretend that unions are different, that their use of monopolistic power to force all prospective employees of a company to pay dues to their organization, their sacrifice of jobs in order to raise labor prices, and the harm they cause to consumers are all somehow justified because union members vote Democrat.
The problem of public sector unions is even more pernicious than that of private sector unions. Private sector unions face limits on how much they can leech from their host; a company, after all, can go out of business. There is no such backstop for public sector unions. The government is exempt from the fiscal sanity that constrains private enterprise — if unions demand more, politicians can sate them with other people’s money, either borrowed, taxed, or printed.
Imagine if a car company, over the course of fifty years, more than tripled the inflation-adjusted price of its cars even as it lowered their quality. We would be more than outraged — we would speculate endlessly as to what forces had conspired to prop the company up for such a long period of time.
What, then, should we make of our heavily unionized public school system, which has seen its real per-pupil costs increase by a factor of 3.5, even as student performance has fallen? How are we to interpret Krugman’s preaching on the matter? Is there a conspiracy of fat cats, bent on keeping our children from learning math? Or are unions, the defenders of democracy that they are, protecting us from the evils of a more literate nation?
The current state of affairs is so perverse that it verges on the criminal. What a deal we’re offering for the next generation — they’re the ones who will end up paying the bill for an education they never got.
The core reason why government workers are so inefficient in their duties is simple: they are not held accountable in the same way private companies are held accountable. Public unions are not the champions of the working man. Public unions are special interests with only one item on their lobbying agenda: a less accountable, more profligate government.
It takes great courage to stand athwart history, yelling “Stop!” The public has a tendency to kill the messengers that bring it bad news. And yet, someone needed to remind public workers that their jobs exist not for their own personal benefit, but for the benefit of the public they serve. Governor Scott Walker had the bravery to challenge the madness and fight for a more responsible government. If there is any mercy left in our political system, he will be emulated, not demonized.