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Tuesday, 08 March 2011
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Is This What Democracy Looks Like?

If you've watched video of, or been to the Madison protests as I have (three weekends in a row now), you've certainly heard the phrase yelled "This Is What Democracy Looks Like!" Democracy, it seems, has a definition as loose as the term "activist judge". It means whatever we want it to mean at the moment to help our particular political cause along. Of course, the right to protest, or as the Framers called it "peaceably assemble" and the right to "petition the Government for a redress of grievances" are both guaranteed in the Constitution. And as I've mentioned before, both sides have taken freedoms with how far they are willing to stretch the definition of "peaceably".

But do protest and Democracy go hand in hand? There are arguments to be made on both sides of this issue, but it's important to remember how Democracy actually works. Democracy can be defined in many ways, with concepts such as "government by the people" and "one person, one vote"... it also has the notion of "majority rule". But as with any system where the majority has ultimate power, the rights and freedoms of a minority group can be trampled. And so ultimately, it is important to define what the majority can rule.

In the last several decades especially, both Republicans and Democrats have gone to great lengths to increase the scope of what the majority can rule at all levels of government. From attempting to control the types of foods that we eat, to the health insurance we can buy, to how we save for our retirement. Our government has turned away from a Democratic government, to one of Rule by Committee. In a truly Democratic government, the scope of the government is constrained to those issues that truly affect all people. Government should not control what I eat, because my food choices do not affect yours. Where I choose to invest my money does not change how you can or should invest your money. Government's job is not to create a cookie cutter society where all people are made to choose the same things, because we are all different people, with different goals, values and needs. Attempting to create "one size fits all" laws simply does not work, because nobody likes clothes that don't fit.

And so, it shouldn't surprise us that these protests have come about. The Tea Party protests over ObamaCare were simply a response to the overreach of the Democratic (party) majority trying to create a cookie cutter law that the minority didn't want. They saw their rights being infringed, and they protested that. And now we have another minority group (public sector unions) protesting what they see as the revocation of a basic right... the right to collectively bargain.

Of course, collective bargaining as a right is a tricky one. As a general principle, I believe that people have the right to form a union and attempt to bargain collectively. This is tied to Freedom of Association. And just like people can form corporations, or other groups where there are shared values and goals, people ought to have the right to form unions. But bargaining and contracts are a two way street. And the reality is that unions only have the large amount of power that they do now because laws exist which force employers to bargain with them. And while I think its fine for unions to form... it is not a right to force other people to bargain with you. And that is essentially what we have now.

Public sector unions are even worse, because the consequences to bad contracts are essentially non-existent to both sides, as Shikha Dalmia explains:

The reason, explained Orin Kramer, the chairman of the New Jersey Investment Council, in The New York Times, is that the government can use accounting methods and make assumptions about investment returns that private companies are simply not permitted. This diminishes its reserve requirements, freeing it to make lavish promises now and postpone the budgetary consequences into the future. Public unions go along with this subterfuge—something that private unions wouldn't do - because they count on the government’s taxation powers to keep refilling the trough.
But the problem is that the government eventually either runs out of other people's money or it becomes politically untenable to keep raiding their pockets or both. And, at that point, the massive powers it had deployed against taxpayers get redirected towards thwarting those with claims against the government.

In the case of private sector unions, everyone benefits from transparency... especially the unions. If a company promises all sorts of thing that ultimately can't be paid for, the company goes into bankruptcy, and the union risks the benefits they bargained for (unless you're talking about GM). In the case of public sector unions, transparency is actually penalized, because the people doing the bargaining aren't ultimately paying the bills... the taxpayers are.  And when money is tight, lawmakers often times redirect money away from pension contributions to other things so they can keep taxes down, and services constant, even though they are running a structural deficit. This creates a system where the two parties at the table benefit from gaming the system, because they ultimately don't pay the bills, and are able to increase the benefit structure. When that bill ultimately comes due however, as we're seeing in many states, including Wisconsin, the choices become very stark. Hike taxes, cut benefits, or bankruptcy.

Now, at the point in time when that choice must be made, the taxpayers are suddenly brought into the loop. Having been kept in the dark regarding how we got into that situation in the first place, it's no wonder that there is some shock, confusion, and anger. You have one side demanding that they keep the benefits they've become accustomed to, and you have the other side wondering why their bill is suddenly so large. In the case of private sector unions, if the cost becomes too great, than the company suffers, and people stop buying products and services from that company. In this way, there are external forces which keep both sides in check.

In the case of public sector unions however, there is no choice regarding whether or not to pay taxes. In this way, there is no opportunity for people who disagree with the cost of services to stop using and paying for those services. And so what starts out looking like an attempt by a minority group to simply protect their rights is really an attempt to force people to pay for something they may or may not want. Thus you have people saying that Wisconsin is in fact not broke, because we can simply increase taxes to cover the increased cost of benefits. That's like saying that a college student can never go broke because they can always go to mom and dad for more money to help out. At a certain point in time, mom and dad say no.

It's ironic too. Public sector union members often times say that they "sacrifice pay for increased benefits and job security". But they do so in a deal with the government, where everyone is supposed to have a say in how that government is run. When suddenly that government (of the people) decides they don't want that deal any more, Democracy is suddenly about their own protectionism, and not about what the elected majority want any more. But that is the chance you take when you work for a government that is ultimately controlled by the people. As they say, live by the sword, die by the sword.

The reason why we have these protests is that we've forgotten what Democracy is in fact supposed to look like. A small government which only attempts to legislate the small number of things where there is true common cause. When we attempt to make Democracy look like something else, a government made to benefit one group at the expense of another, nobody benefits, and you are left with our current chaos.

This isn't what Democracy is supposed to look like.

# Posted at 09:57 by Nick  |  Comment Feed Link 2 Comments  |  No Trackbacks

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Tuesday, 08 March 2011 19:21:20 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00)
When suddenly that government (of the people) decides they don't want that deal any more, Democracy is suddenly about their own protectionism, and not about what the elected majority want any more.

Does this really describe what went down with this bill? Elected officials confident of their backing by the majority (of the people) generally don't resort to "dropping" sweeping proposals like "bombs" out of the blue in a legislative blitzkrieg.
Thursday, 10 March 2011 11:20:38 (Central Standard Time, UTC-06:00)
First, in both the public and private sector, workers form a union in the first place because their employer isn't treating them right. They want bargaining power with the employer. As you said, freedom of association. Second, when parties sit down to bargain there is no law that says the employer has to accept the union's proposals or vice versa. The only requirement is for the parties to meet and confer. My experience, in actually representing employers and union during bargaining, is that the union NEVER has the upper hand in the negotiations. The employer comes with a 'take it or leave it' attitude and the union has to bargain extremely hard to achieve anything past the employer's initial offer. That brings me to the third point, current bargaining agreements in both the public and private sector are based on years of good faith negotiations and generally vary little from contract to contract except for wages, pension and health care which are the big subjects discussed in today's bargaining. Finally, the employer in both the public and private sector AGREED to the contract. They were not forced to - the employer CHOSE to. Public sector employers do have external forces keeping them in check - taxpayers and an obligation to provide a budget that provides services to the citizens of the town and cities they serve.
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