Taking Apart Krugman's Nonsense on Unions

Krugman's a smart guy, I suppose, but his conclusions are generally dumb. That's the power of ideology.

Last week, in the face of protest demonstrations against Wisconsin’s new union-busting governor, Scott Walker — demonstrations that continued through the weekend, with huge crowds on Saturday — Representative Paul Ryan made an unintentionally apt comparison: “It’s like Cairo has moved to Madison.”

Ryan was, of course, just referring to the large, rowdy crowds.

It wasn’t the smartest thing for Mr. Ryan to say, since he probably didn’t mean to compare Mr. Walker, a fellow Republican, to Hosni Mubarak. Or maybe he did — after all, quite a few prominent conservatives, including Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum, denounced the uprising in Egypt and insist that President Obama should have helped the Mubarak regime suppress it.

In any case, however, Mr. Ryan was more right than he knew. For what’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t about the state budget, despite Mr. Walker’s pretense that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. It is, instead, about power. What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy. And that’s why anyone who believes that we need some counterweight to the political power of big money should be on the demonstrators’ side.

Here's where Krugman gets stupid. Unions are big business. Unions are the political power of big money. And while they may fight for the "rights" of their workers, they make the vast majority of middle class workers pick up the tab for the few to be overcompensated.

Some background: Wisconsin is indeed facing a budget crunch, although its difficulties are less severe than those facing many other states. Revenue has fallen in the face of a weak economy, while stimulus funds, which helped close the gap in 2009 and 2010, have faded away.

In this situation, it makes sense to call for shared sacrifice, including monetary concessions from state workers. And union leaders have signaled that they are, in fact, willing to make such concessions.

I'm glad we've gotten that out of the way - the workers need to make concessions. Then, the question is, what made it possible for them to have compensation packages that were so excessive that they'd need to be rolled back? To fix the problem, you have to attack it at its source. Collective bargaining.

But Mr. Walker isn’t interested in making a deal. Partly that’s because he doesn’t want to share the sacrifice: even as he proclaims that Wisconsin faces a terrible fiscal crisis, he has been pushing through tax cuts that make the deficit worse. Mainly, however, he has made it clear that rather than bargaining with workers, he wants to end workers’ ability to bargain.

They're working for the government. If we've learned anything, it's that in order to ingratiate themselves to large blocks of voters, Democrats will bend over backwards to to overpay and overpromise.

The bill that has inspired the demonstrations would strip away collective bargaining rights for many of the state’s workers, in effect busting public-employee unions. Tellingly, some workers — namely, those who tend to be Republican-leaning — are exempted from the ban; it’s as if Mr. Walker were flaunting the political nature of his actions.

Walker wouldn't be able to get the win if he took on all the unions in one shot. Divide and conquer.

Why bust the unions? As I said, it has nothing to do with helping Wisconsin deal with its current fiscal crisis. Nor is it likely to help the state’s budget prospects even in the long run: contrary to what you may have heard, public-sector workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere are paid somewhat less than private-sector workers with comparable qualifications, so there’s not much room for further pay squeezes.

Not much room? Who is Krugman to decide? Why should they make anything more than the minimum of what the market requires?

So it’s not about the budget; it’s about the power.

In principle, every American citizen has an equal say in our political process. In practice, of course, some of us are more equal than others. Billionaires can field armies of lobbyists; they can finance think tanks that put the desired spin on policy issues; they can funnel cash to politicians with sympathetic views (as the Koch brothers did in the case of Mr. Walker). On paper, we’re a one-person-one-vote nation; in reality, we’re more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate.

Given this reality, it’s important to have institutions that can act as counterweights to the power of big money. And unions are among the most important of these institutions.

Unions offer no counter weight in our society, other than to the notion of democracy. Fair representation is hijacked by the corrupt relationship between the Democrats and the unions, who pay the Democrats with out money to give them everything they want.

You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy. Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic over the last 30 years — which it has — that’s to an important extent due to the decline of private-sector unions.

America has become more of an oligarchy because of the influence of big money over politics. The worst offenders are Wall Street and Labor.

And now Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to get rid of public-sector unions, too.

There’s a bitter irony here. The fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, as in other states, was largely caused by the increasing power of America’s oligarchy. After all, it was superwealthy players, not the general public, who pushed for financial deregulation and thereby set the stage for the economic crisis of 2008-9, a crisis whose aftermath is the main reason for the current budget crunch. And now the political right is trying to exploit that very crisis, using it to remove one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.

The financial crisis had as its source the idea of giving money to people to buy homes who were bad credit risks. Wall Street shouldn't have been allowed to gamble with this bad paper, but the integrity of the system was attacked by the liberal notion that everyone should own a home even if they couldn't afford one, and that Freddie and Fanny should guarantee such insidious loans. ie, liberalism caused the meltdown.

So will the attack on unions succeed? I don’t know. But anyone who cares about retaining government of the people by the people should hope that it doesn’t.

There is no reason that public sector workers need unions. A huge victory for the middle class will be won if their collective bargaining rights can be rolled back. The cost of government will be substantially reduced, and that will help the 88% of middle class workers who don't benefit from the corruption of the union/Democrat relationship.