Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Real Enemies of the Taxpayer

The real problem is the way we're spending money not the amount we're spending. What we really need to do is actually increase our spending on investments … and cut back our spending on weapons that don't work against enemies that don't exist.
Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize Winning Economist

The Kochs are on a whole different level. There’s no one else who has spent this much money. The sheer dimension of it is what sets them apart. They have a pattern of lawbreaking, political manipulation, and obfuscation. I’ve been in Washington since Watergate, and I’ve never seen anything like it. They are the Standard Oil of our times.
Charles Lewis, founder of The Center for Public Integrity

The shortfalls facing most state and local pension funds have been seriously misrepresented in public debates. The major cause of these shortfalls has not been inadequate contributions by state governments, but rather the plunge in the stock market following the collapse of the housing bubble.
Dean Baker, The Origins and Severity of the Public Pension Crisis (Feb 2011)

In his classic The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann explains that the task of faithful Jews and Christians is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us. To be faithful is to be marinated in a different mentality, or as CS Lewis put it: to catch a good infection. This consciousness, or good infection, has too often either focused solely on personal piety (fundamentalist) or issue-based “social justice” (liberal), depending on the Christian tradition one is rooted.

Christian theologian Walter Wink articulates this task as living to recall the Powers to the humanizing purposes of God revealed in Jesus. Powers? Like angels and demons? No. Wink's research posits that Paul (ie, Ephesians 6:10-20) had in mind the Powers (socio-economic-political with a very important spiritual dimension) that God has ordained to organize our lives, yet have become poisoned (a bad infection!) by greed, blame, shame, fear, anger, lust (etc). As a result, the Powers have a tendency to shape us in counterfeit ways. As a result, those of us who pledge allegiance to God's Reign work to "reconcile" these Powers back to Christ (see Colossians 1:15-20). In order to achieve this complex task, Wink proclaims that we must draw on the strengths of both fundamentalists and liberals into a mentality that transcends them: What the church can do best, though it does so all too seldom, is to delegitimate an unjust system and to create a spiritual counterclimate. In recent weeks, we have used a sort of litmus test for public policy that Obama was used in speeches (while failing to carry them out with some of his policy decisions): love of neighbor and privilege for the least of these.

In the United States, there are competing narratives (economic, political, social, etc) vying for the hearts and minds of all of us. Those of us who have become infected by this alternative Christian consciousness are constantly called upon to discern which way God’s spirit of love and justice is blowing in regards to these competing narratives. How might Christians with a biblically based prophetic imagination respond to the present national dialogue on unions, budgets and public pensions? Which way is the Spirit blowing within this economic echo chamber? Which arguments and ideas in this ongoing debate best exhibit a genuine love of neighbor & a bold advocacy for "the least of these?"

Stephen, a fellow Jayhawk and EY conversation partner, asked me to respond to the Wall Street Journal commentary on this issue this week. I should say at the start that I most certainly have an economic interest in this conversation and I am actually quite uncomfortable sharing convictions in this kind of open forum because I am over-sensitive to how subjective these kinds of dialogues can be. I'd much rather advocate for others than myself. In addition, I absolutely do not believe that I am somehow tapping into objectivity (nor, for that matter, do I believe anyone else is--that's why dialogue is so vital). I am a 14-year high school teacher and coach who grosses $65k per year in Southern Orange County, works 6 days per week from August to June, has solid health, dental and vision care & gets into high school basketball games for free. Over the past year, I have come to experience a very real sense of loathing from some quarters of the American population. It is as if I wear my union membership as a scarlet letter. I wrestle with how legitimate this guilt and scorn really is.

With this disclaimer and full disclosure out of the way, the most frustrating aspect of the “national dialogue” on unions over the past two weeks is the contested nature of key foundational issues, as well as the hyper-framing of the issue by conservative media outlets. I believe we have to step back and ask, first, why public pensions are gobbling up more and more of state budgets. The research of “noted economist” Dean Baker unveils that these public pensions have become a liability in the past few years due to the bursting of the housing bubble and the subsequent slippery slope of the stock market (government coffers have to make up losses of "defined benefit" plans--as opposed to the "defined contribution" plans of 2/3 of all private sector workers). Also, the amount of revenue coming into national and state governments has suffered due to the economic recession (again, caused by the housing bubble).

More and more, investigative reporting (like Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi and the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job) is unveiling the unrivaled role of Wall Street in our disastrous economic crisis (which continues today despite officially being out of the recession—jobless recovery, rising foreclosure epidemic, health care premiums, etc). On top of all this, Baker adds that "the United States has just gone through the most massive upward redistribution in the history of the world over the last three decades." This mosaic is the appropriate backdrop for a conversation about unions, budgetary gaps and our economic recovery.

Unions are a convenient scapegoat for a far more complex situation. The lack of imagination on both sides of the aisle is rather revealing. The Wall Street Journal editorial exhibits this national weakness well:

Without Mr. Walker's budget reforms, Wisconsin will have to begin laying off thousands of workers as early as today. The unions would rather give up those jobs—-typically for their younger members—-than give up their political negotiating advantages.

I find it very frustrating how state budget issues are framed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and virtually every conservative-leaning media outlet that I’ve read or viewed the past couple of weeks? There are only two choices: either (1) we cut public union pensions and take away collective bargaining rights for public union members (except for wages—-which are locked in at the inflation rate anyway—-not much wiggle room) or (2) we start laying off thousands of government workers. This is it? Walker didn’t finish his degree at Marquette, but we should still expect him to come up with more creative ways to solve budget crises—-not to mention that he already cut corporate tax rates by $117 million while, at the same time, regulating only one industry: wind farms.

In addition, conservative media outlets continue to simplistically frame the issue as “bloated union worker versus the taxpayer” or as the WSJ crafted it: the monopoly power of government unions that have long been on a collision course with taxpayers. "Monopoly" is precisely the wrong word for government unions. What about all the monied interests that every political leader caters to all over the political spectrum? The Koch brothers, who have poured millions into the Tea Party Movement and campaign contributions for libertarian-leaning leaders like Walker, are just two examples of many interests that clash with the common good.

Charles Koch himself applauds Walker in his own WSJ commentary for taking away public workers' collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and regulating alternative energy companies (one man's ceiling is another man's floor). Earlier this week, Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker wrote about the dramatic campaign reversal brought upon us by the Citizens United Supreme Court case:

Of the five biggest non-party organizational contributors to political campaigns in 2008, the top two were unions, both of them pro-Democratic and both composed partly or wholly of public-sector workers. The other three were pro-Republican business groups or PACs. In 2010, after the Supreme Court threw open the cash sluices in the Citizens United case, only one union made it into the top five, and it came in fifth. And from now on, thanks to five Justices, corporate campaign spending will be literally limitless.

These donations are all pitted against Joe "Six-Pack" Taxpayer who rarely has enough take-home pay to lobby for their interests. Unions have never had a monopoly over taxpayers pre-2008, but in the past two years, unions are getting shoved to the sidelines by corporate donations. Not to mention the fact that public unions exist for vulnerable workers who simply cannot afford to individually provoke (bribe) their political leaders to look out for them too. Teachers are tremendously vulnerable to the market. They perform virtual miracles in classes filled with english learners, learning disabilities, family dysfunction and technological distractions (to mention just a few obstacles). These are the children of taxpayers who expect that none of their children should be left behind (even though too many of them have already been left behind by pop culture and abusive, neglectful or indifferent parents). Should these workers not have a right to bargain collectively? (and let us not forget, this is exactly why thousands are protesting this Wisconsin bill--the public unions have already made concessions to balance the budget).

Let's get back to the Journal:

If anything, by reining in public union power, Mr. Walker is trying to protect private workers of all stripes from the tax increases that will eventually have to finance larger government. Regarding public finances, the interests of public union workers and those of private union taxpayers are in direct conflict.

This, once again, is a disappointing lack of imagination. I simply refuse to believe that so many of my conservative brothers and sisters who are genius entrepreneurs in the world of business cannot think out of the box during government budget debacles. They know full well that there are plenty of other possible budget solutions, but framing the issue dualistically serves their (perceived) interests. There is apparently only one last choice for Walker: raise everyone’s taxes. Seriously? If a government needs to raise revenue, shouldn’t it be creative and highly selective (based on wise discerning decisions to enhance the common good) with how she does that? This is why all unions are so important.

In a democracy that has turned into a corporatocracy, in order for other options to be on the table, a political leader will virtually always demand for interests to “show me the money”--truly unfortunate, but the way things are (I don't write this sarcastically, cynically or shouldn't be this way and we should fight for a more humane and just system). This is why real campaign finance reform, regulating the interests of both worker and owner, will bring more freedom and power to every taxpayer. However, in a "laissez-faire free market" economy with fewer collective bargaining rights for workers (both public and private) and more campaign contribution rights for owners & investors, the freedom and power of the average taxpayer will continue to diminish (as we have ironically experienced in the mostly union-free private sector where workers are stretched to the limit: lengthening-&-multitasking job descriptions, stagnant wages and skyrocketing anxiety).

This is well-documented in US history, and more importantly, this is precisely how the Powers work, according to the Bible (see Col 1:15-20: our task is to reconcile the Powers back to their intended purpose). We are called to carefully discern how these Powers (both unions and corporate interests) become bloated and hurt the common good (I'll have plenty to say about this in regards to how unions hinder genuine education reform--a future post). This is why I’m a progressive. There must be a government that protects workers and businesses from the overwhelming demands of a profit-driven economy. We prophetic Christians know that life is not all about profit (can’t serve two masters: either God or mammon) and our economic system should reflect that Reality (check out Bill Simmons' ESPN column this week for a masterful expose on the profit-as-the-ultimate-bottom-line mentality in the world of professional sports). Hence, we should have churches that confront this capitalist tension and governments (national, state, local) that write rules and enforce them so that hard workers (in both public and private sectors) can have decent job security, health care, safe food and a world-class education.
Epilogue: In addition to the prophetic imagination of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, I am shaped and scripted by economists like Joseph Stiglitz, Dean Baker, Paul Krugman & Robert Reich. I understand that these thinkers are labeled on Fox News as "far left liberals" and other titles that are intended to be perjorative.

In addition to "consulting with" these valued economic conversation partners, every morning, I click on the conservative-leaning political news aggregator Real Clear Politics which has a variety of political and economic commentaries from across the political spectrum. This site is helpful because it gives a bird’s eye view of how issues are framed on the right and the left.

Both conservatives and liberals love offering examples from the ranks of their opponents who side with their argument. I their commentary piece, the WSJ uses George Meany, FDR and LaGuardia. I watched Eliot Spitzer the other night use Michael Bloomberg. Both sides play the same game, but in the end, we must choose which arguments are most compelling based on rationality, research and evidence (etc). Baker, Krugman, Stiglitz and Reich continue to compel me (on most issues) because of these factors that meet the basic requirements of Christian political engagement: authentic love of neighbor (the interests of the common good) while giving privilege to "the least of these" (the poorest and most unskilled among us). Over and over, these economists have the interests of the common good at the forefront of their work.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. You need to support your claim that Public Unions are not a monopoly. I thought this was precisely the point of collective bargaining. If an individual wants to be a teacher in CA they have only one employer to go to, the state of CA. If the state knows they are the only employer, they may exploit workers, so this theoretically justifies public employee unions.

    The problem is there has not been an historically adversarial relationship between the negotiating party, unions have asked for whatever they want, and short sighted politicians who generally support unions and possibly where elected on the backs of unions give it to them.

    Yes, other lobbying groups give money, but public employee unions are the only group that is allowed to lobby freely PLUS have monopoly bargaining power. Please convince me that they are not a monopoly.