Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Show Me the Money

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers. The union representing the controllers, PATCO, ordered the strike to get the controllers' workweek reduced to 32 hours, among other demands. Although public employees such as police officers, postal workers, etc., are prohibited from striking under federal law, these strikes in various incarnations still occur with little or no consequence. This time, however, the consequences were dire for both the union employees who refused to return to work and, to a lesser more temporary extent, the general public in the form of interrupted air travel. Important, but not indispensable, the air traffic controllers lost their gamble and were sent packing.

So what? That was 1981 - things were different then. Yes, but much remains the same. This idea of self-importance of various interest groups – trade unions and otherwise, is as much or more an act of self-interest than it is about the public interest. And before any individual member of one of these groups takes offense, let’s be clear that these are institutional, not personal attitudes. That is, individual teachers or prison guards, for example, are very likely to be in it not for the money but rather the service they are providing to society. But as an organization, these groups are almost entirely based in self-interest. It’s all very convenient; the individual can hold onto his or her personal ethos while vicariously pursuing self-interests in a detached manner, thus absolving oneself of individual responsibility for organizational self-interest.

Don’t get me wrong; I am hugely supportive of some professions (teaching being one of them, prison guards not) getting much better compensation. I am also in favor of any professional advancement through excellence. The combination of better pay and merit-based advancement will produce much better employees, but that is not how these organizations operate. They demand higher pay and benefits for every member – they have to do it that way to maintain the strength of numbers. And to do so, these interest groups portray their services, their departments and their status among other departments as indispensable. In California, with another multi-billion dollar deficit looming, nothing and no one is indispensable.

Each of these groups, however, claim they are. “You can’t cut us,” they exclaim, many citing valid and often compelling arguments as to why this is so. And maybe they are, but the money has to come from somewhere. At the institutional level these groups are largely sticking to their guns, making small concessions perhaps, but expecting the bulk of the budgetary relief to come from some other, less essential group. They are pointing the finger in some nondescript “somewhere else,” leaving it to someone else to magically make the money appear out of thin air. They don’t come out and say, “Take it from the prison system,” or “just raise taxes,” but they do say, “you can’t cut us.” They all do.

The lobbyists present the doom and gloom, the end of the world scenarios that range from real possibility to outright fantasy and they do it with impunity. They tacitly acknowledge the budget is in crisis, but point out how small their particular department’s percentage is in the overall picture, or they show how the money spent on their service is paid back tenfold in future savings. Or my personal favorite, "our money doesn't come from the general fund."

But the future is now. The money must come from somewhere and it is going to hurt everyone. I could argue for the necessity of every single one of this state’s social and public services - not the least of which is one that is personally near and dear to my heart, the publicly funded state university system – but we can’t continue to fund them all like the lobbyists that represent them demand. We simply can’t. The money has to come from somewhere.

Here is an L A Times column that pretty much says it all.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Mike, you're absolutely right. Anyway, here's a video of probably the most egregious example of a threat being made in public by an interest group against legislators:

Cross-posted on Facebook.