Some Thoughts On Wisconsin

Ryan Noonan

Ryan Noonan is an economist with a small federal agency. Fields in which he considers himself reasonably well-informed: literature, college athletics, video games, food and beverage, the Supreme Court. Fields in which he considers himself an expert: none. He can be found on the Twitter or reached by email.

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68 Responses

  1. M.A. says:

    There seems to be a weird amount of cognitive dissonance surrounding the role of money and unions in elections. On one side, we have liberals lamenting the way Citizens United opens the floodgates for corporate spending on elections during a recall election that only appears to have happened because public sector unions spend so much money on elections in the first place.

    Out of state Super-PAC money seems to have tripled Walker’s advantage from a few wealthy but secretive donors.

    Not just that, but Wisconsin’s rules for a recall election are messed up. Walker had a weeks long, unlimited donation option not available to his opponents who were still limited in the size of donations they could receive!.

    The idea of fair elections has been tossed out the window with this election, along with any shred of credibility the Supreme Court had left.Report

  2. Roger says:


    I’ve always wondered why Californians never used the crazy initiative process to wrest control of the budget from the state legislature. In other words, why don’t they propose an initiative which would mandate cut backs in a way which doesn’t penalize kids and park visitors and other high profile victims?Report

    • Zach in reply to Roger says:

      There are all sorts of California ballot initiatives that affect the budgeting process or directly weigh in on either the tax or spending side. In the last few years: prohibiting pay raises for state employees when running a deficit, a billion dollars for children’s hospitals, 10 billion for high-speed rail, a couple initiatives that prohibited the state from taking control of money earmarked for transportation, etc. Coupled with the balanced-budget initiative, this seems to be exactly like what you’re talking about. I suppose the balanced-budget amendment doesn’t say “Balance the budget but don’t reduce spending on x, y and z,” but it’s essentially the same to say, “Balance the budget while spending this amount on x, y and z.”Report

  3. Is it just me or has this site been on fire for the last five or six days? Another great post, even if it’s not quite as experience-driven as some of the other posts this week. I agree 100% with you on each of your points, and have nothing to add.Report

  4. damon says:

    “Generally speaking, they don’t exist to protect government employees from the unfair hiring (or firing) practices of voters, who largely have no control over the day-to-day operations of the bureaucracy in the first place.” Of course not. They exist to siphon off more money from the tax payers for their member’s benefits. And since their nominal employer (the state government) is in cahoots with them, it’s become quite easy, until recently.Report

    • Zach in reply to damon says:

      “And since their nominal employer (the state government) is in cahoots with them, it’s become quite easy, until recently.”

      I don’t understand this idea that public employees’ unions have some unique negotiating power. Is AFSCME money to state races enough to buy off state legislatures and governors? On the other hand, public unions have a unique disadvantage: like private-sector unions, they negotiate long-term contracts in exchange for losing other rights; unlike private-sector unions, these contracts can be torn up by management (as in Wisconsin) at any time without any third-party arbitration.Report

      • Roger in reply to Zach says:


        Without trying to introduce values into the discussion, the argument is that the legislature is empowered to exchange concentrated benefits to government employees in exchange for votes or contributions. Since the benefits are concentrated and the costs are diffuse, opaque and in many cases delayed (pensions) this creates a serious conflict of interest.

        In markets, the manager is empowered to determine wages and benefits but is constrained by market forces. Therefore wages are set by supply and demand. Governments are monopolies, and are not constrained, other than via exit of citizens.Report

        • Zach in reply to Roger says:

          “Since the benefits are concentrated and the costs are diffuse, opaque and in many cases delayed (pensions) this creates a serious conflict of interest.”

          This dynamic is mirrored in the private sector, where instant/on-going concessions from labor (e.g. not striking) are exchanged for long-term promises of seniority-based promotion, pensions, etc. I don’t see how the conflict-of-interest of public unions supporting Democrats because Democrats support public spending and union rights as being different from conflicts on any other spending issue.Report

          • Simon K in reply to Zach says:

            The difference is that private sector employers are usually in business to make profits, in the long run. They have an obvious trade-off to make between paying higher benefits to workers versus short run profit, and some freedom of manouver to find mutually beneficial outcomes in the medium run. For the most part, any agreement the union and management may come to at worst will only harm the enterprise and may in fact help everyone.

            The tradeoff is much less obvious in government – senior government officials aren’t there to make profits for themselves or anyone else, so they don’t necessarily have any incentive not to give the union what it asks for. Indeed, they may share an interest in expanding the footprint of whatever program they happen to both be working on. The check on this should be the democratically elected legislature. The worry is that if the unions can co-0pt the legislature, no-one involved has any interest in containing the tendenncy of governemnt institutions to serve the interests of their employees instead of the public.Report

            • greginak in reply to Simon K says:

              I’m not sure what state or country you live in. It is really really common for state departments to not get all that ask for or for their budgets to get cut. It happens all the time. That is pretty strong check on what can be given to employees.Report

            • Kimmi in reply to Simon K says:

              May I propose a simpler solution? Taskforces, and burning the bureacracy to the ground. On a regular basis, like they burn parks in the West. Have it be employment neutral (there will be an equivalent amount of jobs around, doing “roughly” equivalent things) — but be able to spin, do something new with the people.Report

            • Kimmi in reply to Simon K says:

              we are going to abandon the blind and the deaf in my county. federal minimums only. We are cutting the bus service by 40%, a year after cutting it 20% — and there were earlier cuts. These are bonebreaking, cut the person in half and watch the blood gush out cuts that will leave poor people with no service.Report

            • Simon K in reply to Simon K says:

              Of course budgets get cut, Greg. That doesn’t change the argument – budgets can be cut, just as they can be increased, based on political influence. Do you think the specific profile of budgets that are being cut right now is in the public interest? Certainly from where I sit it doesn’t look that way.Report

              • greginak in reply to Simon K says:

                I don’t see how limiting unions does anything to improve the likelihood of good government.
                It seems like an ideological drive based on a hatred of unions (which Walker pretty much admitted) . All sorts of groups have influence. The argument seems to be that public employees should be singled out to not have unions to support them. Why should that group get no voice? Who should speak for, as an example, what teachers think should happen when education budgets are being cut? Should teachers have a voice regarding a Gov. implementing personal polices or cutting benefits that might make it harder to find good teachers? Unions are a way of giving people some amount of power and voice, limiting them cuts people out.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

                Do you think that the TSA’s union is more likely to result in terrorists being caught? More Americans being kept safe?

                How about Police unions? Do you think that those are more likely to result in procedures being followed, rights of the citizens protected, and criminals being caught?

                Do you think that Teacher unions result in better educations for our The Children? How are the educations in the schools that don’t tend to have union teachers?Report

              • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

                Regarding Teachers unions, there has been research done comparing ed performance in states with and without unions. There is no evidence kids in union states do worse. At most there is no difference and potentially slightly better school performance in states with unions. Plenty of states with high performing schools have unions. I’ve posted the links before and i can repost them.

                If the TSA was useful then that would be great. I don’t see any reason why some TSA clerk should get treated poorly because the TSA is stupid. Complaining about TSA unions because the TSA stupid is the equivalent of complaining to the flight attendant that the food on the plane is poor and the flight it late.

                Police unions do what police to often do. Protect their own power. I’m sure i’ve said this before. I don’t think unions are panaceas. They are imperfect like every other fishing thing. I do think miner’s unions have done a lot to improve mine safety. Our local firemans union has made a stink about the respirators firemen are using which they, and other firefighters around the country, have had serious safety complaints about.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

                Oh, please understand: I’m 100% down with miner’s unions and, for that matter, trade unions in general. I wish we had more of them, actually. We shop at our local Safeway half the time and it’s a Union Store (and we avoid the store during strikes).

                Now, I know that there are many folks who think that the distinction between private sector unions and public sector unions is a silly/cheap distinction and, hey, that may be. That doesn’t change the fact that there are people who make this silly/cheap distinction and this silly/cheap distinction is important to their philosophy about how they approach unions. I am one of the people who makes this silly/cheap distinction.Report

              • Roger in reply to greginak says:


                I would be interested in such studies…thanks!Report

              • greginak in reply to greginak says:

                Okay. I’m one of those people who think its a weak distinction. If you get rid of public unions the cops will still have plenty of power. People love them some law and order. People want cops and firefighters quick whenever they call. Cops will still have power. Breaking public unions means the DMV clerk who just wasn’t quite fast enough or that teacher who wasn’t nice enough to my special little snowflake or some anonymous worker who you never see or know, will be easier to get rid or cut their benefits. Gutting public unions won’t do much to limit cops abuses but it will affect the janitor at the gov buildings.

                Do you think the ridiculous laws where the cops can take peoples money if they think it had something to do with drugs stay on the books just because of unions? If we want less cop abuses then we need to convince people that cop abuses are bad and push pols to restrain the cops. The problem isn’t unions, its that people like the harsh laws and think prison rape is just retribution. Should private prison businesses have access to petition gov? If yes then why shouldn’t gov employees?Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to greginak says:

                “Do you think the ridiculous laws where the cops can take peoples money if they think it had something to do with drugs stay on the books just because of unions?”

                Do you think it’s a good thing that the guy who got caught on video pepper-spraying a bunch of kids at UC Davis still has his job?Report

              • Zach in reply to Jaybird says:

                All of those unions (if they’re working well) result in better employment conditions for the TSA and police officers and teachers, which is all that they should be focusing on. Certainly, employees are generally happier if their organization is growing, hiring and seems likely to succeed long-term, and their unions will ideally negotiate with these goals in mind.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to greginak says:

                Goes like this: those who pay the bills call the tune. Teacher salaries are paid from property taxes. It’s simple, stupid envy: why should teachers get decent benefits when the taxpayers themselves don’t? Instead of forming a union themselves so they can get decent benefits from their employers, these dumbasses take out their rage and frustration on the teachers.

                In Wisconsin, the teachers’ unions are under attack because they pushed too hard, forcing third parties to purchase sole-vendor health insurance for their members. That led to a backlash. The unions were stupid.

                However, the police and fire fighters have far more pull in Madison than the teachers, since their salaries are not paid with property taxes. Nobody dares attack the cops or fire fighters.

                It’s all moot. Trade unions are a dying phenomenon in this country. It’s become the status quo to curse the trade union movement. Who cares if an already-terrible situation in the public schools gets worse? Nobody.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I think, as time goes on, we’ll see more ambivalence about the police.Report

              • Kimmi in reply to Jaybird says:

                I don’t. authoritarians willc ontinue to be authoritarians.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Jaybird says:

                No we won’t. All this horseshit about reducing costs: as this society becomes ever more authoritarian, the cops will gain even more political power.Report

              • Roger in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Personally, I think people just see some jobs as more brave and selfless than others. People empathize with teachers more than administrators, and firemen most of all. I suspect they are just bringing naive interpretations of economics to the issue.Report

              • Simon K in reply to greginak says:

                Everyone has “a voice”, its called voting. Very few groups have influence and benefit directly from resources handed out by the government and the clout to significantly influence politics. Public service unions are one such group. Rest assured I find the others to be objectionable as well. I assume you probably find lobbying and campaign funding from resource extraction companies that operate on public land to be a problem, right? And banks that benefited from the bailouts then welched on their obligations to homeowners? And Haliburton getting all those contracts in Iraq? What exactly is the difference that and the actions of public service unions.

                Faced with such situations, there are only two options – you either stop the group from influencing politics, or you don’t sub-contract government functions to powerful groups. If you’re okay with preventing public service unions from political campigning, lobbying or financing of any kind, I’m fine with that. But removing their collective bargaining priveleges seems like an easier sell.Report

            • Zach in reply to Simon K says:

              “they don’t necessarily have any incentive not to give the union what it asks for”

              Management in the government works with a limited budget (particularly in states with little borrowing authority); the incentive to negotiate with the union is to have money to spend on things other than wages and benefits within this constraint. Negotiations with public sector unions happen all of the time and are often extremely contentious issues with debates dominating local media and regularly pit the government against public employees unions.

              A huge majority of states and municipalities have been slashing budgets for the better part of the past decade; virtually all of them did so by negotiating pay and benefit cuts with public employees’ unions. These governments have not only failed to give unions what they asked for, but they failed to give unions what they’d already promised. Most of these governments have the ability (if not the public support) to raise taxes, borrow or cut other spending rather than renege on these contracts, yet the sorts of concessions that are routinely made by public sector unions only happen in the private sector during bankruptcies.

              “Indeed, they may share an interest in expanding the footprint of whatever program they happen to both be working on.”

              How does overpaying employees expand the footprint of a program?Report

              • Roger in reply to Zach says:


                There are entire forests of literature on this topic. Certainly governments are constrained by budgets, that is one reason they don’t just raise salaries, this requires raising taxes and eventually that leads to political consequences. The smarter solution is to promise unfunded pensions and retirement benefits or COLAs. This way you can enrich the special interest group and pass the tax hike or deficit to someone down the line. Politicians get the votes, union gets the money, tax payer gets the shaft.

                This is an unhealthy practice. It leads to deficits, forced spending cuts in future years, and is extremely unfair to tax payers. There are well established ways to ensure supply and demand sets adequate wages and benefits. Competition is not impossible in government services.

                In other words, a room full of economists could write out the solution on a blackboard after about an hour discussion. Their suggestions would lead to better efficiency and more prosperity over the long haul than the current system.Report

              • Zach in reply to Roger says:

                “The smarter solution is to promise unfunded pensions and retirement benefits or COLAs.”

                How is this different from private-sector pension/benefit promises that’ve failed in unionized manufacturing and service industries in the United States over the past few decades?Report

              • Roger in reply to Zach says:

                Stockholders are on the hook for these liabilities (except where governments interfere via too big to fail requirements). Stockholders can sell this stock and buy one without unfunded liabilities. In other words, there is competition in open markets, and investment dollars go toward those that manage costs.

                As a response, over the past few decades, private industry has tended to evolve toward defined contribution plans, and away from open ended defined benefit plans. To the extent unions have been able to avoid this transition in private industry, I bet someone more knowledgable than I could explain the ramifications. Off the cuff I would anticipate cost shifting to taxpayers or the decline of the companies health.Report

              • Kimmi in reply to Roger says:

                defined contribution plans are Reagan’s ponzi scheme. the people who got rich were in before dumb money started playing. Now, with the boomers retiring, they’re pulling all their money out.

                and you wonder why stocks fall?Report

              • Kimmi in reply to Roger says:

                READ dailykos’ piece on unfunded pension obligations and Big Auto (maybe it was specifically GM). I think you might find it illuminating…Report

    • M.A. in reply to damon says:

      Of course not. They exist to siphon off more money from the tax payers for their member’s benefits. And since their nominal employer (the state government) is in cahoots with them, it’s become quite easy, until recently.

      Which is why the Wisconsin teachers’ union agreed to a package amounting to a 10% pay cut for every teacher and still got blamed for the budget crisis.

      What’s the point in a debate when the other side is wedded to insane theories with no basis in reality?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to M.A. says:

        If I made (okay amount) per year and my benefits were for (holy cow, I can’t believe how awesome these are!) per year, a 10% pay cut is something that I would certainly bargain with.Report

        • M.A. in reply to Jaybird says:

          I know people who teach in Wisconsin.

          Their pay is not “okay amount” per year, it’s on the low end. $40-50k if you’re lucky after 8 years.

          Their insurance is not “holy cow, I can’t believe how awesome these are!”, it’s unchanged from 20 years ago. The issue today is the 0.01% have fished the 99% and then told the working classes “why do those rich, lazy, greedy teachers still have the benefits we stripped away from you” and substandard intellects like yourself bought it hook, line, and Walker.Report

          • Simon K in reply to M.A. says:

            $40-$50k is the median household income. As an individual salary, therefore, its pretty much the definition of “okay”. Very few private sector jobs come with insurance the same as it would have been 20 years ago – for the most part its much worse. For the most part the issue isn’t insurance anyway, its pensions.Report

            • wardsmith in reply to Simon K says:

              Not sure if the link will work because it is asearch table but /some/ teachers seem to do quite well in Wisconsin. I also like the “fringe” benefit number but can’t figure out what it is.

              Simon is right however, it is ALL about the pension. I’ve socked away as much as legally possible in my 401K’s and IRA’s and can count on fish all as a return when I’m in my dotage. My ex-brother in law in California however retired in the early 90’s when he was earning $84K/yr (his highest year ever) and now collects $105K/yr from his pension, because the formula includes what current folks are earning. He was cop, not a teacher but they have similar formulas.

              When the Wall Street Journal wrote about this, they received all kinds of letters from retirees – not ONE of whom still lived in Kalifornia. Why would they want to live there and pay the higher taxes to support each other when they can move to no income tax states and keep it all? Self serving comes to mind, but I’m jaded.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to wardsmith says:

                Your link works. Trouble is, there are no teachers on that list. Only principals and administrators.Report

              • wardsmith in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Luckily principals and administrators aren’t paid out of the same budget dollars… err whoops.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to wardsmith says:

                They aren’t. They’re not part of the union, by definition.Report

              • wardsmith in reply to BlaiseP says:

                We’d have to dig into their resumes to find out how many current principals and administrators were former teachers (and union members). The salient point is that education is one big budget line item and everyone is paid out of the same pile unless you can show me something different about Wisconsin.

                I don’t understand, every other front pager seems to have jumped into this fray and yet you’re the only one I know of who actually LIVES in Wisconsin. Not interested in an insider’s view OP?Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Oh Lord. Here’s the law. I’ve already laid this out before: the teacher is hired by the school board. Each school board is part of a school district which concludes contracts with unions. Teacher salaries are paid by the district raising its own funds through property taxes. Poor schools are funded 52% from the state, 42% from property tax assessments. There’s a revenue cap on students, $257 dollars per student unless there’s a referendum, which in rich districts is always done and that money isn’t shared.

                “We’d” have to dig? You put up a patently misleading chart which only shows principals and school district administrators, non-teacher positions. It took me about 30 seconds to find all this.

                Education in Wisconsin is not one big budget line item. Understandable how you might think that way, but you’re dead wrong. There’s federal assistance in there, too, fwiw.Report

              • Kimmi in reply to wardsmith says:

                I am beginning to doubt that you actually ran a business. well, maybe a successful business.

                How much income does a RETIREE have?????? In my experience, not bloody much.
                Maybe states that ain’t PA (or WV) are different. I could be wrong here.

                But it sounds like you’re just reciting conservative pablum even though it’s arse backwards.

                Retirees move out of California because of the standard of living, not the taxes. Only stupid people move to states without income tax (and generally high Regressive Sales Tax) when they retire.Report

          • Tom Van Dyke in reply to M.A. says:

            “Substandard intellects like yourself”? Who left the gateway to the Bearded Spock Universe open again? Come on, fess up.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to M.A. says:

            You keep changing words. The original post said “benefits” and your response talked about pay cuts… even though the original post said “benefits”.

            When I started talking about the difference between pay per year and benefits, you started talking about “insurance” rather than other things that are included in “benefits”.

            Maybe my intellect is sub-standard but it seems that you keep changing what we’re talking about and hoping that I won’t notice and benefit thereby.Report

      • Levi John Wolf in reply to M.A. says:

        Totally agree, Jaybird.

        In addition, “blamed” for the budget crisis? There’re many different ways politics plays out in democratic societies, but I’d posit that the teachers of Wisconsin alone being responsible for any budget crisis is only one interpretation of the blame game going on up there. Political memory’s a neat thing: blame isn’t static nor uniformly agreed upon.

        Welcome to democracy.Report

  5. Zach says:

    “…of the top donors to political campaigns, about half are unions.”

    Presumably this refers to the sentence, “Of the top 20 sources of 2010 campaign funds, 10 are unions.” Which is true enough in low-money years without Presidential elections. It wasn’t close to true in 2008, though.

    Furthermore, 2012 is showing a totally new dynamic: several single individuals/families have already topped every 2008 or 2010 funding source (funding sources = PACs, unions, corporations and interest groups) other than ActBlue’s 2008 total of $24M (or topped it in the case of Adelson). You’ve got Contran Corp/Harold Simmons ($18M), Adelson ($15M+$11M) and Perry Homes/Bob Perry ($7M). Total spending on elections is increasing dramatically while union dues (especially in the public sector) are not; union spending as a fraction of total spending has decreased since 2006 and will probably fall by quite a bit this cycle.

    This isn’t necessarily relevant in Wisconsin (no clue about WI election finance law), but at least this aspect of Carney’s article is a bit of a smokescreen: election finance is already dominated by incredibly rich people spending through corporate vehicles. I think his idea that there’s some anti-public-union sentiment out there is off, too. It might work temporarily in an era of persistently high unemployment when people envy those who’ve negotiated job & income security, but I don’t know how it’ll pan out in the long run. I’m curious what will happen in the factories moving to right-to-work states the next time there’s full employment and a booming economy.Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Zach says:

      right-to-work states no longer include China. it’s starting it’s minimum wage rampup.Report

    • Roger in reply to Zach says:


      Do you have a good reference source to view political contributions by donor group?Report

      • Zach in reply to Roger says:

        OpenSecrets is what I’m using. That meshed with the 10/20 = union number in the linked article so I’m assuming that’s what was used there as well. This is in terms of donations to parties & candidates, though. I don’t know where to find a list that compiles all spending together while also lumping together tightly affiliated groups.Report

  6. Matt Wilson says:

    Nice points, Ryan. I’m not a fan of recall elections in particular, and ballot initiatives and referenda aren’t far behind.Report

  7. Will Truman says:

    Of the three posts, this one may be my favorite. Even though I disagree with a lot of it. Probably because it’s the matter-of-fact style of post that I would have written.

    More seriously, I’m not a fan of recalls and initiatives. It’s up to the people of Wisconsin whether they want to do this again or not. I’m not ready to call recalls a state of emergency unless it starts becoming a stable as with initiatives.Report

  8. Levi John Wolf says:

    “I’d scrap both Article I and II of the Constitution and replace them with a parliamentary system […] Wisconsin voted for Walker, Wisconsin gets four years of Walker.”

    Just something I thought was interesting. Typically, in Parliamentary systems, elections centered around party slates devolve into discussions about the parliamentary leadership (the PM/Chancellor and their cabinet) and the potential effectiveness of the cabinet-in-waiting. Elections carry much less temporal permanence, however, as votes of confidence, internal party mechanics, and coalition swings in the systems that have significant third parties (thinking Britain and Germany here) can completely change both the composition and the character of the parliamentary leadership.

    If Germany votes for 4 years of Merkel and the CDU/CSU, it may not get a full 4 years of Merkel and CDU/CSU. Snaps and coalition changes can easily alter the parliamentary leadership before the next election.

    If a group can get enough signatures (in this case, WAY in excess of enough signatures) to initiate what essentially amounts to a public vote of no confidence, why is this such a bad thing? Or, really, how is this so incongruous with what occurs in a Parliamentary system, which you seem to support?

    I’m with you on the propositions/initiatives. But using the recall actively? I’m not so sure it’s a net drag on politics.Report

  9. b-psycho says:

    Notice that with all these pushes for government-worker union reform in several states, most have exempted the police? Even thought their power is so great that it leads to WTF stories like this? Even though they tend to have the most generous benefits of all state & local government employees (that is what is being griped about, right?)?Report