Tim Pawlenty: Taking on public workers is good politics.
Republican presidential hopeful Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty—a long shot by any measure—revealed in a Wall Street Journal OpEd piece that he has decided to build his pre-candidacy on bashing public employees. As 2011 looks to be a horrendous year for state budgets, he probably figures that the timing is perfect for the next wave of anti-tax vigilantism—and he may well be right. As unfortunate as his attacks are, it is even more unfortunate that he has built his case on discredited lies—Big Lies—the kind that come from the engine room of the Rovian Republican machine.
When I read Pawlenty’s WSJ piece, “Government Unions vs. Taxpayers,” I immediately smelled a rat in the following statement:
“Since January 2008 the private sector has lost nearly 8 million jobs, while local, state and federal governments have added 590,000.”
I contacted Nick Adair of PolitiFact, the fact-checking arm of the St. Petersburg Times to request a work-up on the piece. Adair informed me that I must be a mind reader, as they had a work in progress on the OpEd piece; their response was published online on December 16th.
The finding? Pants-on-Fire! Relying on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, PolitiFact concluded that local, state and federal jobs had decreased by 118,000. Here’s PolitiFact:
“The comparison of job growth he made -- which showed the size of the federal workforce going in exactly the opposite direction as it did in reality -- is a key pillar supporting the premise of his column, that government work is "the only booming 'industry' left in our economy." Pawlenty's number is so compromised that we rate his statement Pants on Fire!”
PolitiFact covered the dubious history of the claim, showing that it indeed was a product of what I would consider the Republican disinformation daisy chain. It was first trial ballooned by Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, on August 10. 2010. LaTourette’s source is unknown, since his staff declined to respond to PolitiFact's inquiry.
Unsatisfied with publishing one whopper in the Wall Street Journal, Pawlenty also offered the canard that:
“Federal employees receive an average of $123,049 annually in pay and benefits, twice the average of the private sector.”
PolitiFact dispatches this little gem of disinformation as “False” in a post published on November 11th, “Rand Paul says federal workers paid $120,000, private-sector workers only $60,000.” Given that, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts," it would have been nice if the Wall Street Journal would have checked Pawlenty's "facts."
Ah, the Good Old Days
Pawlenty buttresses the lies with some hefty spin, opening with a paean to the meatpacking unions of his youth—“strong back jobs”—men’s jobs, authentic blue-collar jobs, precisely the kind he himself did not have as a unionized grocery clerk. He offers that once upon a time unions protected families from “economic exploitation.” As if magically, the drivers of such exploitation are nowhere evident in our streamlined, ineffectually regulated, market economy.
In fact, according to Pawlenty, the tables have been turned, and now “pampered employees” exploit the taxpayer, bleeding the body politic dry with exorbitant wages, Cadillac benefits and undue political influence. Pawlenty calls it—ominously—a “silent coup” funded by what he characterizes as outrageously large political contributions in the 2010 midterms (“$91 million,” which is actually fractions of pennies on the dollar to what big business spent).
Pawlenty goes on to state that in Minnesota he stood up to the bullies on the block, taking “decisive action” to stem the tide of exploitative, bullying, public clerical workers, many of whom happen to be women.
Never Mind the Facts…
Excuse me, Tim, but you bring to mind a long, long series of “never minds” that I cannot refrain from pointing out right about now…
Never mind that your case for an exploding public work force is simply not backed up by the facts.
Never mind that any actual comparison of public versus private wages needs to be done on a “comparable job” basis.
Never mind that you conveniently leave out CEO and Wall Street rainmaker wages from any consideration of what people earn.
Never mind that the concentration of national wealth has skewed hard in favor of top 1 percent over recent decades, to the detriment of the middle class, many of whom are public employees.
Never mind that the purpose of public sector unions is to prevent government from balancing the budget on the backs of low-level workers, as would be certain to occur in our era of bankrupt governments and 150 applicants for every public sector job.
Never mind that the pension crisis you cite was brought on by the “fiscal malpractice by state and local officials” (your words) who did not manage pension funds with due diligence—not the fault of public workers.
Never mind that the average salary of the public employee union AFSCME in Minnesota is $38,000, and the average pension is about $13,000 a year.
Never mind that your tough stand in Minnesota consisted of accounting tricks and kicking the can down the road to your successor (conveniently, a Democrat).
Never mind that your avowed strategy is to starve government—and thereby create a public union “crisis.”
Never mind that there is no “pay premium” enjoyed by public sector workers, only a benefit premium.
Never mind that you advocate a race to the bottom to eliminate pensions altogether in the public sector.
Never mind that, unions or no, state and local employment is likely to plummet over the next two years.
Never mind how incongruous it is that you tell government to “get the numbers right” on public pensions when you didn’t on your watch and the numbers you cite here are false.
Never mind that your central contention that there is no “moral case for unions” rings hollow when you would just as soon outsource all their jobs to exploitive private companies that would pay blue collar workers a pittance, bilk the taxpayer and pocket the difference.
So never mind all these factors and the whole thing adds up to you as a tough-guy exec who stands up to profligate legislators. And you did in Minnesota. You cut aid to cities, forcing library and fire department cuts—and city and county property taxes went through the roof. (And in Minnesota, businesses don't pay much in the way of property taxes.) Thanks for that. That certainly qualifies you to be president. I suppose those library workers and firefighters were union members, so we showed them, didn’t we?
I understand that long shot presidential hopefuls need to stake out turf, but here’s the thing: The position you take targeting public workers proves the point that they need unions to protect them from exploitive government. And never has this been as important as in the present moment, when middle class jobs are as scarce as TV airtime for long shot candidates.
I don’t deny that public employee unions are ripe for reform. Many bylaws and contracts no longer correspond to real-world metrics about what constitutes acceptable ROI for the expenditure of public dollars. And overly generous pension benefits need to be scaled back (not eliminated) and augmented by progressive 401k plans. But disband the unions? Never. These unions protect many classes of workers who would otherwise be exploited by an electorate that wants all its government services for free.
As long as our determination of the value of the public sector is shaped by magical thinking, entitlement and the political football you make it, I think our public employees would do well hang on tight to their unions while reforming those practices that need reshaping in an era of diminished expectations.