I’ve been engaged in a couple of lively Facebook conversations about the current goings-on in Wisconsin, and a recurring theme has cropped up: “I’m tired of paying for other people’s benefits when they are better than my own.” While this resentment is understandable, I have a couple of philosophical problems with it.
First, I think that the benefits that private corporations are offering long ago stopped being the gold standard in how to treat employees, and we should stop looking at them that way. No one ever went to work at Walmart for the benefits. Virtually no corporation still offers a purely defined-benefit pension to its workers. Employee contributions to both health insurance and retirement benefit costs are pretty much universal and on the increase, and the scope of those benefits has narrowed.
I’m not making the case that corporations are evil (although some of them are), but rather that they are creatures of a market economy, and the pressure they continue to put on employees to help shoulder the costs of benefits is a natural reaction to the huge recent increases in those costs. So they’re trying to find counterbalances to those increases where they can. I also don’t have a problem with this, as I’ll discuss below; I think everyone should have a little skin in the benefits game. But the reality is that corporate benefits are no longer the free ride they once were.
Public-sector unions have been able to shield themselves from this trend to a large degree, and I argue that our communities are better off as a result. Public union members pay less for both retirement and health insurance as a percentage of total cost, and in some cases those benefits are much more generous than private-sector benefits. Put aside the right or wrong of this long enough to consider that this reality has probably enhanced the ability of states and municipalities to recruit teachers and university professors, sanitation workers, police and firefighters. Few people get rich doing these jobs — in most cases average public-sector wages in a state are less than private-sector wages in that state — but the health and retirement security is worth a lot to both the employees and their families. In addition, these benefits were negotiated for in good faith: Employees and states/municipalities both signed off on the deal.
Which brings us back to the resentment at having to foot the bill. A couple of thoughts:
First, if private-sector benefits are the standard to which we should also hold states, then I believe we’re in a race to the bottom. States and municipalities will have increasing difficulty recruiting high-calibre employees, especially for the most difficult and/or most dangerous jobs, and the quality of everyday life in our communities will suffer. (A related consideration: Housing in many municipalities has become too expensive for their public workforces, forcing those people to live far from the communities they serve and reducing their opportunities to be involved in those communities off the job. But that’s for a different post.)
Second, and more interesting to me, is the undercurrent in that statement that a community overall has no particular responsibility for the well-being of its public employees. As I’ve said often, I believe there has been a decline over the last 30 years in the idea of the common good — a community taking care of itself — replaced by the supremacy of individual good. We feel less and less joint responsibility for each other. That to me is truly indicative of an unraveling of community fabric.
This is not to say that public-sector benefits don’t need a second look; I think most people, including me, believe they do. Most public employees probably don’t have enough skin in the benefits game, to pick up on my earlier point, and some shared sacrifice wouldn’t be out of place. The public employees in Wisconsin have indicated they understand this and have expressed their willingness to come to the same negotiating table at which those benefits were granted to craft a new agreement.
But let’s remember that these employees are members of our community. They’re our neighbors, who serve us in multiple ways both on and off the job, and who are part of the ever-shrinking middle class that has always formed the backbone of strong communities. With that in mind, let’s make an effort to understand the true value of their presence, and at least treat this process with the respect and dignity those employees deserve by not doing away with the negotiating table entirely.
Update: Diane Ravitch makes the same point about the race to the bottom.