Tuesday, March 1, 2011


So let’s get this straight: states and cities are in a huge pickle because public sector workers are paid too much and, even more important, their bloated pensions will result in structural deficits for state and local governments far into the future. Let’s leave aside—for a moment—Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to end collective bargaining altogether, and just deal with this basic claim. The claim is important because it is the crisis du jour that justifies further cutbacks to public workers. 

And it’s not true. In fact, the pension crisis is way overblown. It turns out that while there is a crisis in funding state pensions, it stems from two places. First, most of the crisis is (probably) temporary: it is the result of the stock market nosedive, and the plans are likely to recover significant value, and have likely done so already.  Second, state- and city-governments have made overly optimistic assumptions about the annual rate of return on pension plans, and have therefore underfunded their pension liabilities.  This means that they were not putting in the requisite amounts of money into the funds that would be needed to pay the deferred compensation that retirees are due.  So between dishonest rating companies that made bad investments seem as if they were safe for institutional investors, and state politicians who failed to finance pensions adequately, public sector workers’ greed—or simple addiction to basic comforts that others no longer enjoy—is still to blame.
Even so, there are some state public employee pension funds that are in fairly good shape, including, most famously, Wisconsin’s.

The “solution” to the alleged pensions crisis looks a lot like the “solution” to the crisis facing Social Security.  Privatization and risk-shift.  A good deal of noise is now being generated about moving future public employees—at least those who have not already been moved—to 401(k)-type plans. So that workers can have control over their assets.


It was hard even for the New York Times to find experts who thought this was a good idea.  Between high fees that make these plans extremely inefficient (but good for the bankers collecting the fees) and the fact that 401(k)s generally underperform the more risk-averse investing of defined-benefit pensions over the long term—meaning that retirees face a plummeting standard of living—these proposals transparently advocate throwing older people under the bus.

At this point, one might ask: Why don’t people who are harping on the financial crisis caused by public sector union benefits simply recant?

Because it’s not about the details of this or that crisis, or even whether the crisis is real.  It’s about class warfare.

This isn’t a new observation at this point, and anyone who has rallied in support of Wisconsin’s public employees has heard this shouted from the stage at rallies. If Governor Walker’s getting punk’d by the Buffalo blogger didn’t make it clear enough, the fusion of big money and far-right politics is remarkably strong. And in the wake of the Citizens United decision, corporations willing to spend lots of money to elect their favored candidates will outstrip unions in their ability to do so.  Of course, it won’t always work or work well. Mayor Bloomberg only squeaked past his opponent in the last mayoral race precisely because his ability to buy his own office struck much of the electorate as hubristic.

But there’s a lot more to this class warfare than rich people spending lots of money and buying politicians or office.  The aspect best illuminated by the Wisconsin debacle is—in spite of Walker’s and the other Republicans obvious cravenness—is the respectability of the debate.
Respectable debate over the neoliberal curb-stomping of basic living conditions and the majority’s institutional power to influence them takes several forms. The first, to which I refer above, is sober talk about fiscal crisis and the resulting necessity for austerity.  What is almost amusing about it is that while even the very moderate Paul Krugman has identified Shock Doctrine-type exploitation of the fiscal crisis, his fellow New York Times editorialist David Brooks doesn’t “want to let a fiscal crisis go to waste.” Both tend to talk—as do many others—as if this crisis were unique and as if the solution space is bounded by more progressive taxation on one side and more efficient government services on the other.

Similarly, a strain of academic and policy expert engages in what I can only begin to think of as a gentler version of totalitarian propaganda of the sort Hannah Arendt so expertly dissects.  Arendt writes about the “scientificality” of totalitarian propaganda, the claim that history marches forward according to a natural rhythm that is beyond human capacity to change. We can only do our best to conform to it, else get left behind, forever damaged and disgraced.  Conformity to the natural rhythm of history—or “the market,” which doesn’t have a history, apparently—can be scientifically measured and assessed.  Those with the power to do so, moreover, shed, in essence, their human fallibility. Accordingly, propagandistic predictions become programmatic statements to be fulfilled later on: 

The assumption of infallibility, moreover, is based not so much on superior intelligence as on the correct interpretation of the essentially reliable forces in history or nature, forces which neither defeat nor ruin can prove wrong because they have one concern that overrules all utilitarian considerations: to make their predictions come true.  The Nazis did not hesitate to use, at the end of the war, the concentrated force of their still intact organization to bring about as complete a destruction of Germany as possible, in order to make true their prediction that the German people would be ruined in case of defeat (Arendt 1951: 349).
Thus, when political scientists, such as my colleague, Dan DiSalvo, write that the gap between public and private workers’ pay and benefits will cause a rift between them, he is not only making a prediction.

If we continue to ignore the growing public-private gap, the implications will be dire.
Already, it has led to massive budget deficits in many states and cities around the country. Future generations are on the hook for enormous pension commitments, which threaten to crowd out other spending priorities. Meanwhile, restrictive union work rules create barriers to efficient delivery of public services. Taxpayers are paying more for less.
Furthermore, a backlash against public workers looms. While private sector employees were hit with job losses and pay cuts, Mayor Bloomberg negotiated 4% raises with most of the City’s unions, and Gov. Paterson has avoided virtually any lay offs despite a massive budget deficit. Such disparities breed resentment among those struggling in the private sector.
 It is, in fact, true that public sector workers have faced something of a backlash, but it has been stoked by writing such as this, rather than being the outgrowth of some natural process of competition or social dynamics.  Further, DiSalvo has written extensively about his wish to see public sector unions lose the right to bargain, going so far as to compare them with Tammany Hall in their ability to mobilize patronage to the detriment of everyone else.

The problem is that the scientificality of the claim trumps its politics in the eyes of others. Even Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations, and an advocate of public sector unions who looks aghast upon the current scene writes:

The unions must fight for the hearts and the minds of the voters. It is not enough for them simply to demand that what has been given to them in the past must be continued, or argue that they are really not better paid than private sector workers and that cuts are not justified. The unions can only repel attacks with concessions in bargaining reasonableness that seems adequate and fair. If they are to survive to represent workers forcefully in better times, they must now demonstrate that they are willing to shoulder a share of these hard times.
Note that Chaison is arguing for a strategic retreat, much as union leaders in Wisconsin have, in accepting Governor Walker’s demands for a pay cut.  But a retreat is only strategic if there is a plan for a further offensive.  But if one already accepts the “scientific” diagnosis that we really do have a fiscal crisis that justifies givebacks, it is difficult to see how the “hearts and minds of the voters” (Why do we keep using that phrase?) will ever be won.

And that’s the point.  The Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci shared something of Arendt’s understanding of science and politics, but cast it somewhat more generally, and less tendentiously:

It is absurd to think of purely “objective” prediction. Anyone who makes a prediction has in fact a programme for whose victory he is working, and his prediction is precisely an element contributing to that victory ... Only the man who wills something strongly can identify the elements which are necessary for realisation of his will (Gramsci 1971: 171).
In this light, the comparison I made earlier between what seems like a fairly innocuous column in a newspaper to Nazi propaganda seems overwrought. Gramsci sees the drive to self-fulfillment as the property of any knowledge claim that is not purely speculative.  In so doing, he points to a significant failing on the part of the left in the US, one that makes Chaison’s acceptance of the crisis premises, or the earlier labor historians, Jewel and Bernard Bellush’s similar analogy to Tammany Hall (1984), that much more poignant.

We do not have “a programme for whose victory” we are working, and so we accept the “respectable” talk of austerity too readily. We accept, even if in general terms of agreement, the idea that our services should be constantly evaluated, made more efficient, and that rewards—or even the basic tools necessary to perform these services—should be linked to performance.  Who, after all, is for inefficiency?

Gramsci’s enduring legacy, about which I’m sure I’ll have more occasion to write, is to alert us to the marriage of economic, political, and cultural aspects of class struggle.  Our acceptance of crisis, of our need for efficiency, of the appeal of “shared pain” in the face of austerity is, so far, largely bipartisan.  These are what Gramsci understood as the “hegemonic” or dominant terms of debate.   So far, the right seems to have imbibed the lesson that a broad cultural strategy is a partner of economic and political strategies for domination far better than the left, and has therefore forged for us a common vocabulary.  But as we gather to rally in support of Wisconsin’s public workers, as we rally, as we must, to the defense of Providence, Rhode Island’s teachers, and as we marvel at the loss of fear among people oppressed with our blessing in the Middle East, if we fail to talk with each other about a real program, a shared vision of the world in which we would like to live and to bequeath to future generations, we’re letting an important opportunity pass.

Hannah Arendt (1951). The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Jewel and Bernard Bellush (1984). Union Power and New York: Victor Gotbaum and District Council 37. New York: Praeger.
Antonio Gramsci (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers.

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