Saturday, February 19, 2011

More on Wisconsin

An excellent article by Tim Carney gets, I think, to the heart of the issue about "stripping away" collective bargaining rights over non-wage aspects of government union workers.

Carney cites these statistics:
Four of the top six Wisconsin contributors to the 2010 elections were labor unions, with the state's teachers union giving $119,342 and the Wisconsin chapter of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees spending $83,888. The teachers union gave 96 percent of its money to Democrats, while Wisconsin AFSCME gave Democrats every penny.

Government unions spent $573,868 on Wisconsin's 2010 elections -- almost all of it going to Democrats -- while government employees spent another half million, with most going to Democrats.
I trust the broad thrust of these numbers -- the public unions whose collective bargaining rights are being stripped overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party.

Now put yourself in a taxpayer's situation. Public officials bargain with the unions. The unions support them, financially. Taxpayers have to monitor the relationship to make sure it does not get too cozy. The more complicated the bargaining -- the more dimensions for politicians to reward a focused group of supporters -- the more difficult it is for taxpayers to monitor the relationship.

If we are concerned about the classic problem of politics - the ability of politicians to focus benefits on a small group while imposing a small cost on a large diffuse set of taxpayers - I think we could make a strong case for making any bargaining between politicians and public unions (or any other group that fits the above description) as clear and transparent as possible. Having multiple dimensions of a contract up for grabs makes the task of monitoring difficult. In principle, if the union were truly bargaining with the principal (rather than the agent of the principal) then it could extract all that is possible via just one instrument, the cash compensation.

A downside to the Wisconsin solution might be that politicians can set the benefits at any level they want. So if a new regime comes in, it would seem that they would have even more ability to give out largesse to the public employees.

One also does have to admit the view that this is simply reneging on an earlier contract. I am not overly sympathetic to that view, as even in the private sector the contributions to health care and pensions are constantly changing. The idea that the nonwage components of compensation are sacrosanct certainly went out the window, even in academia, with the last financial crisis.

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