Freddie is upset by a previous post wherein I suggested that public employee unions should be abolished, and a Matt Welch post highlighting the outrageous costs imposed by public sector unions in California.
Welch ascribes the lions share of California's fiduciary crisis to (can you guess?)... the unions! Meanwhile, he does nothing to acknowledge why unions exist and why people join them: because unions help workers to improve the material quality of their lives. You could be excused, reading economic conservatives' attitudes about unions, for thinking that unions must be a product of some malevolent intelligence bent on destroying our society. In our discourse about unions we are not allowed to point out that unions exist because they are a net positive influence on the lives of those within them, or that improving the financial security and material well-being of the people within society is one of the basic functions of government.I'll certainly acknowledge that California's public employee unions improve the well being of its members. The problem is that the outlandish compensation it wins workers comes at the expense of the common good. The most obvious example are public employee pensions. In California, a state worker can retire at age 50, do absolutely nothing all day, and collect 90 percent of their salary for the rest of their lives! 5,000 of these pensions amount to six figures incomes. Nor can the state afford the system it has. As the Matt Welch piece mentions, "the state's annual pension fund contribution vaulted from $321 million in 2000-01 to $7.3 billion last year." That is a rather alarming rate of growth, and an astonishing figure, don't you think? Given that the state is bankrupt and issuing IOUs to its creditors, it doesn't seem unreasonable to complain that public employee unions have extracted benefits that are both obviously unaffordable and far in excess of what is enjoyed by the taxpayers who finance them.
Freddie goes on to write:
We are instead expected only to constantly harp on the horrible greed of Detroit autoworkers or California teachers, who have the temerity to want to maximize their wages, to gain job security through their labor and to collectively bargain with their peers in order to do so. Whether or not on net those positive public goods outweigh the negative economic effects of union is a matter of argument. But to ignore those things entirely is not to have an argument at all. That's where we stand in our discussion of unions, though, with only the bad effects at issue and the positive effects dismissed as sops to special interest groups. This is not weak manning. It's no-manning, thwacking away at an antagonist idea without even a shred of a notion that it is necessary or helpful to consider why people support unions in the first place.Reading all this, you'd think that Matt Welch and I attacked the idea of unions generally. In fact, we attacked public sector unions in a specific state. The specific argument we're making is that their costs outweigh their benefits. Though Freddie acts as though every union is generally under attack, he mentions the teachers unions and Detroit autoworkers specifically because they are other examples of specific unions that come under fire because their effects are particularly deleterious.
I'm sure that somewhere out there, you'll find an economic conservative who attacks all unions as corrupt and terrible. That would be wrongheaded. Some unions are necessary. Sometimes the benefits of unions outweigh the costs. That isn't the case with California's public employee unions.
One last point I'd like to address before closing:
Welch and Friedersdorf are comfortably entrenched in the world of elite media. That's not a knock on them, and I'm sure they both deserve it. Nor is it precisely an argument against their position. Whether or not unions are a net good for society that we should defend can't ultimately have anything to do with how critics of unions live. But I wish on an emotional level that people like Welch and Friedersdorf would take care to think a little bit more about what exactly they are advocating, to acknowledge that real people will face real hardship without unions, and to stop talking like every union member is some nefarious villain.Ah yes, elite journalism. What a comfortable, well-compensated life we all lead! Folks in a cushy growth industry like ours wouldn't even have any use for lifetime job guarantees or defined benefit pensions. It's no wonder we aren't more deferential to, say, a retired pr flack from a municipal fire department pulling in 90k per year to do nothing from 50 on.