Archives: February, 2011

Wisconsin, Virginia and Public-Sector Unions

The struggle over collective bargaining and government worker benefits continues in Wisconsin. Residents of the Badger State may be interested in comparing their government’s fiscal and union policies with policies in the Old Dominion.

Wisconsin

  • Collective bargaining (monopoly unionism) in place for government workers, with about 52 percent of state/local workers in unions (Source: Table 1 here)
  • State debt as a share of income: 4.6% (Source: Moody’s)
  • State unfunded pension obligations as a share of GDP: 32% (Source: Andrew Biggs)
  • Score on quality of state government management: B- (Source: Pew Center)  
  • Score on Pew’s subcategory for “people” management: B-

Virginia

  • Collective bargaining in state and local government banned by a 1993 statute signed into law by Democratic Governor Douglas Wilder
  • State debt as a share of income: 2.1%
  • State unfunded pension obligations as a share of GDP: 17%
  • Score on quality of state government management: A-
  • Score on Pew’s subcategory for “people” management: A  

 

Public sector unionism is, of course, just one factor affecting a state’s fiscal and management results. But there is a statistical correlation across the 50 states on unionism and some public policy outcomes (see here and here).

Ending monopoly unionism in state government would not be the apocalyptic event that some Wisconsin protesters seem to think. Indeed, collective bargaining is not a “right” of government workers, but a special privilege that stands in the way of modern and flexible policy management. Hopefully, public sector unions will eventually go the way of private sector unions and the dinosaurs.

More on public sector unions here.

The Internet Kill-Switch Debate

Experienced debaters know that the framing of an issue often determines the outcome of the contest. Always watch the slant of the ground that debaters stand on.

The Internet kill-switch debate is instructive. Last week, Senators Lieberman (I-CT), Collins (R-ME) and Carper (D-DE) introduced a newly modified bill that seeks to give the government authority to seize power over the Internet or parts of it. The old version was widely panned.

In a statement about the new bill, they denied that it should be called a “kill switch,” of course–that language isn’t good for their cause after Egypt’s ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak illustrated what such power means. They also inserted a section called the “Internet Freedom Act.” It’s George Orwell with a clown nose, a comically ham-handed attempt to make it seem like the bill is not a government power-grab.

But they also said this: “The emergency measures in our bill apply in a precise and targeted way only to our most critical infrastructure.”

Accordingly, much of the reportage and commentary in this piece by Declan McCullagh explores whether the powers are indeed precisely targeted.

These are important and substantive points, right? Well, only if you’ve already conceded some more important ones, such as:

1) What authority does the government have to seize, or plan to seize, private assets? Such authority would be highly debatable under any of the constitutional powers kill-switchers might claim. Indeed, the constitution protects against, or at least severely limits, takings of private property in the Fifth Amendment.

and

2) Would it be a good idea to have the government seize control of the Internet, or parts of it, under some emergency situation? A government attack on our private communications infrastructure would almost certainly undercut the reliability and security of our networks, computers and data.

The proponents of the Internet kill-switch have not met their burden on either of these fundamental points. Thus, the question of tailoring is irrelevant.

I managed to get in a word to this effect in the story linked above. “How does this make cybersecurity better? They have no answer,” I said. They really don’t.

No amount of tailoring can make a bad idea a good one. The Internet kill-switch debate is not about the precision or care with which such a policy might be designed or implemented. It’s about the galling claim on the part of Senators Lieberman, Collins and Carper that the U.S. government can seize private assets at will or whim.

Senator Toomey’s Legislation Would Protect Financial Markets During a Debt Limit Showdown

There will be several pivotal fiscal policy battles this year and the fight over the debt limit may be the most crucial.

This is a “must-pass” piece of legislation, so it will be a rare opportunity for fiscal conservatives in the House to impose some much-needed spending restraint.

But it’s also a high-stakes game. If Obama (or Reid) refuses to accept the fiscal reforms approved by the House and there is a stalemate, the federal government ultimately would lose its ability to borrow from private credit markets. And while that notion has some appeal for many of us, it almost certainly would require more fiscal discipline than the political system is willing to accept (i.e., actual deep cuts rather than just restraining the growth of spending).

In a bit of reckless demagoguery, the Treasury secretary even says it would mean default – which could cause instability in financial markets.

To preclude that possibility, Senator Toomey of Pennsylvania has a proposal to protect the “full faith and credit” of the United States by requiring the federal government to make interest payments a top priority. Writing for Bloomberg, I opine about the Senator’s proposal.

…the federal government is expected to collect more than $2.1 trillion of tax revenue this year, while interest payments on the publicly held debt will only be about $200 billion. So even without an increase in the debt limit, the Treasury Department will have more than enough revenue to cover its interest obligations and avoid a default. That being said, financial markets are sometimes spooked by uncertainty. And since Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner began making some irresponsible statements about the risks of default, there is growing interest in legislation by Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican of Pennsylvania, to alleviate the market’s fears. Quite simply, Toomey’s bill would require the federal government to fulfill obligations to bondholders before making any other disbursements. …If the Toomey legislation is adopted, fiscal reformers will have a powerful weapon at their disposal. Secure in the knowledge that default no longer is a possibility, they can be much tougher in their negotiations with the politicians who favor the status quo. This explains the attacks against the Toomey plan. Some even argue that the law requires the government to pay Chinese bondholders (gasp!) before it pays Social Security recipients. This is demagoguery. The federal government will collect more than enough revenue to finance the majority of budgeted outlays. Social Security checks will be disbursed, unless the Treasury secretary decides otherwise. In any event, the attack is rather hollow since it’s almost always made by people who say that default would be a cataclysmic event. What they really mean, it seems, is that deficits, debt and default are bad, and only higher taxes are the solution. That’s what this debate is all about. We have a fiscal crisis caused by too much spending, not too little taxes. Restraining the size and scope of government is contrary to the interests of the iron quadrangle of politicians, interest groups, lobbyists and bureaucrats who benefit from ever- expanding government.

Government Unions — beyond Wisconsin

As Scott Walker in Wisconsin and other governors try to rein in the soaring costs of government employee pay and pensions, the Cato study ”Vallejo Con Dios: Why Public Sector Unionism Is a Bad Deal for Taxpayers and Representative Government” takes on new relevance. Here’s the executive summary:

High rates of unionization in the public sector have led to very high labor costs in the form of generous collective bargaining contracts. Now state and local governments are under increasing financial pressure, as a worsening national economy has led to decreased revenues for states and municipalities—many of which remain locked into the generous contracts negotiated in more flush times. Thus, as businesses retrench, governments find themselves in a financial straitjacket. In addition, as government unions grow stronger relative to private-sector unions, their prevalence erodes the moderating influence of the market on the demands that unions make of employers.

Now, as an economic downturn threatens state and local government revenues, officials who want to keep their fiscal situations under control would do well to look skeptically at public-sector bargaining—especially since the existing political checks on it have proven ineffective. Public officials should eschew public-sector bargaining when possible, or at the very least, seek to limit its scope.

As keepers of the public purse, legislators and local council members have an obligation to protect taxpayers’ interests. By granting monopoly power to labor unions over the supply of government labor, elected officials undermine their duty to taxpayers, because this puts unions in a privileged position to extract political goods in the form of high pay and benefits that are much higher than anything comparable in the private sector.

This paper shows how the unionization of government employees creates a powerful, permanent constituency for bigger government— one that is motivated, well-funded, and organized. It also makes some recommendations as to how to check this constituency’s growing power—an effort that promises to be an uphill struggle.

Indeed it does. The study makes another point that is worth keeping in mind during these battles. Many discussions of government unions, such as this one on Friday’s Newshour, tacitly or explicitly assume that we’re talking about teachers, police officers, and firefighters. But the study notes:

Of course, while these “heroic” public servants are the ones who are most visible in public disputes over collective bargaining, a large number of unionized state and local employees fall into more mundane categories such as secretaries, middle managers, engineers, administrative law judges, school custodians, and cafeteria workers.

When Should Courts Overturn Precedent?

Cato legal associate Nick Mosvick and I explain that Citizens United overturned one 20-year-old court decision in the name of restoring an older tradition upholding First Amendment rights, in a new article about to be published in the (Chapman University Law School) Nexus Journal of Law & Public Policy

Here’s the abstract:

Stare decisis is an important doctrine with deep roots in the common law. It “promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.” Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 827 (1991). Indeed, our interest in the law’s stability and predictability, and the reliance interests produced by judicial decisions, sometimes dictate that incorrect legal rulings be maintained — because the social disruptions from correction outweigh the benefits of reaching better decisions.

Still, stare decisis is neither an “inexorable command,” Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 577 (2003), nor a “mechanical formula of adherence to the latest decision,” Helvering v. Hallock, 309 U.S. 106, 119 (1940). Instead it is a prudential policy, one in which courts have to decide, based on factors such as the correctness, antiquity, and workability of the legal regime a precedent created, whether to overturn their earlier rulings. As Chief Justice Roberts put it in his Citizens United concurrence, “abrogating the errant precedent, rather than reaffirming or extending it, might better preserve the law’s coherence and curtail the precedent’s disruptive effects.” 130 S. Ct. 876, 921 (2010) (Roberts, C.J., concurring).

And so the Court in Citizens United found that both Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U.S. 652 (1990), and the part of McConnell v. FEC, 540 U.S. 93 (2003), that relied on it were not worthy of preservation. They created an arbitrary and increasingly irrational campaign finance system that was an aberration of restrictions in a sea of protections for political speech.

Moreover, then-Solicitor General Elena Kagan abandoned Austin’s speech-equality rationale during oral argument, undercutting any possible reliance interests. Only by overturning precedent could the Court contribute to the stable and orderly development of the law. This article will explain the role stare decisis played in Citizens United and build on the Chief Justice’s concurrence to describe the current state of the doctrine.

Thanks to Larry Solum for featuring us on his Legal Theory Blog.

Bribes to Brazil to Continue

An amendment to end what Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) rightly called “lunacy” failed this afternoon in a depressing show of cowardice on cotton subsidies. The amendment [Amendment No. 89] would have ended payments to Brazilian [yes, sic] cotton farmers that cost U.S. taxpayers $150 million a year.  The House rejected the amendment 183 to 246. 

Republicans – those stalwart fiscal conservatives! – voted 75 in favor and 164 against. The Democrats showed more courage and voted in favor of the amendment 108 to 82. (These numbers are according to C-SPAN; I will post an update if they prove to be incorrect).

The deal on cotton is one of the more shameful aspects of U.S. trade policy. As I blogged last year, U.S. taxpayers are paying millions of dollars to Brazilian farmers in a deal to ward off retaliatory tariffs Brazil has the right to impose on U.S. goods. That right was granted them by the World Trade Organization in the face of the United States’ continued failure to bring its cotton subsidy program into line with its obligations to other WTO members. Rather than cut off the subsidies to the powerful cotton lobby, though, the United States Trade Representative instead opted to do a deal with the Brazilian government.  (No bribes for the poor African cotton farmers also harmed by the price-suppressing effects of U.S. subsidies, though.)

The Hill article (linked to in the first paragraph of this post) points out that some members (presumably the Republicans who voted against the amendment) were concerned that ”the move [to cease the payments to Brazil] could create a trade war if Brazil decided to retaliate.” It doesn’t seem to occur to those concerned members that one way to avoid a trade war would be to abide by international obligations and cease subsidizing U.S. cotton farmers. It would also shave a few million from that huge deficit about which they profess to be concerned.

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing Government, we focused on the following issues this week: