Worldview: My indictment against unions and the politicians trying to take their bargaining rights away

I have maintained all along that both sides in the growing debacle over union collective bargaining rights are wrong, and as the situation continues to develop, I believe each side becomes more wrong than they were to begin with.

The unions have forgotten that, at some point, they need their employers to exist in order to have jobs to bargain over in the first place. The problem many public sector unions face is that their employers are broke, so even if they manage to win the collective bargaining fight, they may not have jobs because they have been laid off due to budget cuts. Nowhere is this problem more dramatically illustrated than by what is happening in public school districts, police departments, and fire departments around the United States. Districts and cities are laying off workers and eliminating positions rather than continue to pay then because the simple fact is that they cannot afford to continue to pay them what their contracts demand. Continuing the status quo with regard to collective bargaining will only ensure that this situation will continue and accelerate.

The politicians, on the other hand, have taken advantage of a turbulent time to score points with their base while also effectively failing to deal with the problems that created this mess in the first place. I think most Americans would agree that teachers, police officers, and firefighters are among the most important employees of the state, yet because of their importance they are also the most visible, and therefore the most vulnerable. While attacking the unions, especially because of some of the ridiculous benefits they have negotiated into their contracts over the years, seems like a way to deal with the problems facing the states, the politicians fail to realize those ridiculous benefits exist because they allowed them to. If politicians want to fix that kind of problem, they need to fix themselves, what motivates them, and what they think they’re supposed to be doing in their various offices.

Instead of fighting over collective bargaining rights, both sides should be focusing on how to survive the real problem: the budget is broken and cannot be fixed without cuts. Unions and politicians alike must face the fact that there is no more money. They cannot continue to spend, negotiate, and demand as they have in the past because there is noting to spend, negotiate for, or demand. Without reform, this whole debate will not even matter, because everyone involved in it will be unemployed anyway.

The first step in this process is to deal with reality:

  • The federal, state, and local budgets must shrink before the deficits riding on them overwhelm them. This means cuts–substantial cuts. If the unions want their bargaining rights, they should concentrate on working with the politicians to make the cuts as smart as they can be.
  • Politicians need to focus on getting rid of all the waste that seems to be endemic of modern government. The best money any government could spend right now would be to employ independent auditors with the authority to make cuts to review government spending and to get rid of duplication and waste.
  • Politicians must eliminate the ridiculous unfunded mandate. Unions must stop demanding laws their employers have no capacity to enact.
  • Unions should fight for a return to local control, especially where it involves school districts, police departments, and fire departments. Large scale standardization is an industrial lie that has saddled far too many localities with mandates that neither apply to them nor help them.
  • Ultimately, both public sector unions and politicians must realize they work for the people. If the people demand something should be done a certain way, then that is the way it should be done. Unions and politicians are not the people’s care takers, they are the people’s employees, and they can be fired at the people’s pleasure.
The second step is for everyone–the people, unions, and politicians alike–to realize things have changed. The same old tired processes that got us all to this point will not produce any other result than they already have. If we are going to solve these problems as a people and a nation, we have to do it by abandoning the things that got us here and by adopting approaches that work for the circumstances at hand.
The third step is for everyone to get ready for whatever happens next. Even if we solved every one of the problems we face today, there are still going to be consequences, potentially big ones, that may last for years, even decades. The milk is already spilled, now it’s just a matter of what the cleanup looks like.
Unless we deal with the problems we now face in all their complexity and reality, they are going to sweep us away whether we like it or not. There are only two solutions: stand and face reality or be swept away by it.
DLH
UPDATED: Fixed the spelling mistake in the title and in the body.

Read more at my Worldview site...

Worldview: The cost of reality means sacrificing until it’s fixed

One of the costs of putting one’s thoughts out in a public forum like a weblog is that one’s readers often expect both an opinion and a solution if the issue at hand is a problem that needs solving. The issue of budget deficits, most recently brought forward by the collective bargaining debates in Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, is no exception.

Again, as I have stated several times now, I think the whole collective bargaining debacle is a tempest in a teacup that distracts everyone–legislators, governors, citizens, and union members alike–from the real and far more pressing issues our communities, states, and nation face.

And, chief among those issues is that we and our communities, states, and nation face a nearly insurmountable debt if we continue to spend the way we have until this point.

So, how do we solve this kind of a problem? From my point of view, not cleanly or easily. We have to face the fact that we cannot afford to continue to pay for the things we are doing the way we are doing them, even if we want to, because there’s simply not enough money to do it.

I know that many people will now shout a raft of ideas: tax the rich more, increase taxes in general, change the rules for how people access social programs, etc. And, I say, fine, do that, and it still won’t solve the problem. Increasing taxes beyond a certain point merely drives the rich away, puts those who can’t leave in greater need of social services, and decreases the amount of money in the economy creating tax revenue. Changing access to social services, especially in conjunction with increased taxes, only causes more people who need access because they can’t afford to do things on their own anymore not to have access to what they’re paying taxes to theoretically have. They’re all bad ideas if that’s all that’s going to be done.

In order to fix these problems, we have to start cutting: real, meaningful cuts that may very well force millions of people to change how they live their lives. Yes, this means cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Yes, this means cuts to education and environment. Yes, this means cuts to the military and intelligence programs. It probably also means at least marginally higher taxes, at least at the local and state levels, until the issues at hand resolve themselves.

How these cuts and higher taxes come about is what this whole debate should really be focused on, not whether or not public employees have collective bargaining rights. We’re expending all of our effort as a nation around the edges without dealing directly with the heart of the problem. Until we reach the heart, we can’t kill the beast, and it still may just devour us.

DLH

Read more at my Worldview site...

Worldview: The cost of reality: who do you believe in?

I believe a significant part of the debate over everything from massive deficits to union bargaining rights centers around a question most people never consciously consider: who do they believe in?

In this case, I am not talking about belief or lack of belief in God, but rather whether they believe in themselves or the government.

I suspect that most people will immediately claim they believe in themselves and dismiss the question as irrelevant, yet in doing so, they will not have considered what the question really means.

For instance, do they believe that it is their responsibility or the government’s to pay down the national debt? Who do they believe is responsible for making sure they are provided for in their retirement? Who should be responsible for making sure they can afford health care? That they can afford gas? That they can afford food?

Too many people, even faced with those questions, will respond with something like, “Well, me, I guess,” even as they then say, “Someone should do something about…” without any sense of irony.

From my perspective, Americans have gone from a collection of people who depended on themselves to a collection of people who depends on the government. In transferring that dependence, only the surface of things has changed–that is, the government still depends on the people, but the people have given up the power to a proxy.

So, even as people depend on the government, what they depend on in a phantom parasite of their own creation, one they believe they can cleverly hide their excess in, yet one that progressively bleeds them dry as time goes on.

It has taken two generations–the Baby Boomers and Generation X–for the United States to go from the most prosperous and powerful nation that has ever existed to a teetering ruin built on ever expanding government and a debt a dozen generations will still not have paid off. That entire transition happened through the auspices of a single idea, that the people handed the government responsibility for aspects of their lives they no longer wanted to be responsible for themselves. The people stopped believing in themselves and started believing in their government, and their government started bleeding them dry.

This transition should be no surprise to anyone who has a decent view of history. Many of the world’s greatest civilizations broke and fell on the same premise. Reading the history of societies as diverse as the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages Chinese dynasties shows the effect of the same corrosive idea.

Our fate as Americans will be no different unless we somehow figure out how to do something that has never been done in history: reverse the trend. Until we, as a nation, return responsibility for the debt, our retirement, health care, our jobs, our well-being, and the well-beings of our most vulnerable citizens to ourselves, we have set ourselves on a path whose destiny is certain.

Yet, even if the destiny of our nation is certain because of our dependence on government, those of us who see this reality for what it is can take heart: something will come next and we can be prepared for it. Hope for the present and plan for the future, but do so knowing this could get ugly before its over.

DLH

Read more at my Worldview site...

Worldview: The cost of reality: taxing ourselves out of debt?

A comment on a previous post suggested that, rather than attack unions or cut spending, we should just raise taxes. My gut response was “raise taxes on what exactly?”

I’m pretty sure that most Americans have no idea who is paying taxes, how much taxes they are paying, and what effect those taxes have on the economy as a whole.

Before I go into more detail, let’s get one thing straight: you do not pay taxes if you get more money back from the government than you paid in. If you paid, say, $1000 in and get $1500 back because of credits and whatnot, you did not pay taxes. If your income is exempt from taxation, you did not pay taxes. If you can claim sales tax credits, you did not pay taxes.

Now, because of the fact that so many Americans get more back in taxes than they pay in, only about 53 percent of taxable Americans actually pay federal income taxes. And, since most states base a payer’s taxable income on what income was taxable, large numbers of people do not pay state taxes either. The issue is a little more muddled at the local level, but it is safe to say that there are tens of millions of Americans paying no or very little taxes.

That brings us to the 53 percent who are paying taxes. One of the battle cries of the progressive movement is to tax the rich, yet most reliable estimates place the amount of revenue gained from those taxes at around $90 billion per year, or about 7 percent of the projected deficit in 2011. Even if all of the tax cuts were eliminated, it would only gain around $500 billion a year, or about 38 percent of 2011′s deficit.

So, what about raising those taxes even higher? I can speak to that issue personally. I already pay about 40 percent of my income in total taxation–sales taxes, excise taxes (as on gas), income taxes, etc. Ending the current tax cuts would represent a 50 percent increase in my federal taxes (because the 10 percent tax rate would cease to exist, meaning the bulk of my income would be taxed at the 15 percent rate). Further, the expiration of current tax breaks would increase my taxable income, thereby exposing more of my income to state and local taxes. In the end, this method alone could increase my tax burden to as much as 50 percent of my income, and for most Americans the effect would be similar.

What would you do if you took a 10 percent pay cut, because that’s what those increased taxes would represent. What would you have to cut? What would you stop doing? What would you stop paying?

Now, imagine what would happen if the government actually raised those rates even higher.

And, keep in mind that 65 cents of every dollar you are paying in taxes already goes into someone else’s pocket, very likely someone else who is not paying taxes, at least at the federal level.

With that picture in mind, explain how raising taxes helps us get out of debt.

DLH

Read more at my Worldview site...

Worldview: More on the cost of reality

I love that the debate over stripping public unions of the collective bargaining rights has degenerated into an argument, essentially, about protecting union negotiated entitlements. In embracing this debate, both sides have distracted themselves from reality again–that is, the thing that is going to happen whether unions can bargain for entitlements or not.

I will focus on Ohio because I am far more familiar with its finances than I am with Wisconsin’s, but I believe the problems are similar in each state.

Various researchers, including the states own Office of Budget and Management, project that Ohio budgeted to spend somewhere between $5 and $10 billion more than it will collect in tax revenue in 2011. This reality is part of a general trend around the country that has states spending more than they tax even as they find their ability to borrow more and more limited by declining credit ratings due to the immense amount of money they have already borrowed.

This state of affairs threatens to become a crisis for Ohio because the state could have no capacity to fund the programs and services it has obligated itself to fund at the levels it promised to fund them as soon as this year. Nowhere is this potential crisis more evident than in public schools.

There is also a hard place for this state financial crisis to land: many school districts are already broke or are so close to being broke that the difference is irrelevant if funding gets cut by the state. According to the Ohio Auditor of State (.pdf), 15 districts are currently under fiscal watch or emergency, while 60 more just emerged from such a status on 1 January 2011. Around the state, districts are warning that, even if new levies pass this year, the districts will be forced to make cuts and lay off teachers.

So, while so many people seem to be focusing on the question of whether teachers–and other public workers–have the right to bargain contracts, most people seem to be ignoring the fact there may be nothing for them to bargain those contracts with.

This reality is because of the fact that Ohio is broke. It’s not just in 2011 either. Some budget estimates show Ohio running deficits of $5 to $8 billion for the next 10 years, deficits the state has no funds to cover and which it may not be able to borrow to make up for.

It is from these conditions that the anti-bargaining law originated. Republican lawmakers in Ohio–and Wisconsin, Indiana, and Tennessee–see public unions as a target of opportunity in what is going to prove to be a decade long budget battle to somehow preserve the financial sovereignty of their state. There are, in my opinion, all kinds of problems with the law and with the approach the Republicans have used, yet no one can deny that part of the problem faced by states, municipalities, and school districts right now is the cost of union negotiated compensation packages those entities simply do not have the capacity to pay.

If these entities do not have the capacity to pay, it does not matter if the unions have the right to collectively bargain or not. I suspect that, within the next few years, entire school districts and smaller municipalities are simply going to fold–disincorporate, which is essentially bankruptcy–because they no longer have the capacity to maintain even a fundamental level of the services they are supposed to provide. At that point, even if teachers, police, and firefighters have contracts, it will not matter because the entity they have a contract with has ceased to exist.

From my point of view, if legislators and unions alike want to prove they have their constituents best interests in mind, it is a resolution to this disastrous state of affairs that they would be debating instead of whether unions can collectively bargain contracts with failing entities. Yet, instead they debate about the fringes while the core is collapsing, and when it is done, all of their effort will have been expended for nothing.

DLH

Read more at my Worldview site...

Worldview: The cost of reality

I’ve been watching the progress of the collective bargaining revocation bills in Wisconsin and Ohio with great curiosity and not a small amount of amusement. What I see on all sides of this debate is a failure to deal with reality.

Teacher’s unions fail to understand that there is no more money. Wisconsin is in the hole $2.2 billion. Ohio is in the hole $7 billion. Those deficits are only the ones for 2011. Sure, they are just trying to protect their own, but at what cost? What else has to get cut to protect them? Who else has to pay?

On the other hand, you have the conservative law makers and those who elected them. They claim union busting–because that’s what revoking state collective bargaining agreements really is–will save the tax payers millions. That’s true, but so would cutting state programs, especially the costly social welfare programs even conservatives are addicted to.

The problem, as I see it, is that nobody wants to admit the truth: we’re not going to get out of these problems with selective, politically motivated cuts. Instead, we’re going to have to make far-reaching, across the board cuts at all levels of government that will last decades, and those cuts will only serve to allow us to tread water.

Unfortunately, no one is listening. Liberals and progressives want to tax more and spend more. Conservatives want to attack their political opponents’ pet programs without doing anything real to face the problems. Libertarians are too wild-eyed and disorganized to do anything other than make incoherent noises.

In the midst of all of this, our nation is failing. Our currency is devaluing. Our economy is not creating jobs. More than half our citizens effectively do not pay taxes, and the other half are paying so much they can’t make anything happen. Our tax system penalizes success. Our laws make starting and maintaining businesses unnecessarily complex. This year, local, state, and federal governments will spend between $2.5 and $3 trillion more dollars than they collect in taxes. The total US debt burden carried by all levels of governments could exceed $25 trillion–or twice the entire GDP of the US in 2011.

If we really want to fix the problems that got us here, we have to end–no, destroy–the disincentive to perform, succeed, and innovate on the strengths of our own merits. We have to wipe out the notion that we can somehow treat every individual and situation as some kind of an average and deal with reality in all its uniqueness and complexity. For the first time in decades, we have to think, act, and react in accordance with the situation we have, not the one we are convinced we should have. We have to return the bulk of control to the individual and stop expecting governments to take care of us.

And all of these solutions are going to happen whether we want them to or not. We cannot continue what we are doing because what we are doing is failing. The question that remains is whether we participate in the process by which the next thing comes into being or whether we stand and watch as the terms are dictated to us.

I suspect most will do the latter, which is why I’m pretty sure you should be getting ready for some really tough times ahead.

DLH

Read more at my Worldview site...

Worldview: Gun laws punish those who abide by the law

It was almost impossible that the tragic attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords would not spawn calls to regulate private access to firearms. After all, the shooter obtained his firearm legally under Arizona’s law and then used that firearm to murder 6 people and wound 18 more.

Gun control advocates will try to tell us that, if Jared Loughner had not been able to legally buy the firearm he used, the shootings would not have happened. Their argument follows that, if firearms laws were more strict and penalties more severe, tragedies like the one in Tuscon would not happen.

It is ironic, then, to look right across the southern border, just 60 miles from Tuscon. Mexico has some of the strictest gun laws in the world, yet is currently experiencing some of the worst gun violence in the world at the same time.

The facts are that criminals do not care how they get their guns, but they will get them if they want them. On the other hand, law-abiding citizens tend to follow the law, no matter how troublesome those laws may be, and are often left defenseless in the face of criminal acts as a result.

It is impossible to know whether or not stricter gun laws might have deterred Loughner, but it is easy to know whether stricter gun laws will reduce gun crime or crime in general. Laws to not force people to be more moral, and those who plan to commit crimes will find ways to do so regardless of the law.

Instead of focusing on the tool used by the criminal, why not focus on the criminals themselves? Jared Loughner showed signs that he was not stable long before the incident that will define the rest of his life. In most cases, people who commit these kinds of crimes leave long trails of warning signs that no one paid attention to. Why focus on the gun when we could focus on helping the individual instead?

DLH

Read more at my Worldview site...

Worldview: 2010: The news that wasn’t

To me, 2010 was defined as much by what did not happen as by what did. It was an anxious year, one that could have been far worse or far better.

Last January 1, I endeavored to make several predictions about the coming year, an impossible task, yet an interesting intellectual exercise nonetheless. Let’s see how I did:

  • The Pakistani conflict with al Qaeda and the Taliban will come to a head: While the Pakistani government did not fall in 2010, the intensity of the country’s internal struggles increased to the point that the distinction between insurgency and civil war is almost irrelevant. The list of major terrorist events inside Pakistan is immense, and reminds me a lot of how Iraq looked in 2005 before the surge. Frankly, it is amazing that the national government managed to survive, and I suspect it owes a lot of its survival to the fact that it ceded control of broad swaths of the country to militants.
  • Iran will demonstrate its capacity to build and deliver a nuclear weapon: I was very surprised that this did not happen, but I think we can congratulate on thing for the fact that it did not: Stuxnet. The Stuxnet worm was a stroke of genius on some nation’s part that was more effective in hampering Iran’s nuclear progress than a thousand bombers could have been. Still, Iran is moving forward with its projects, including the potential of basing missiles in Venezuela capable of reaching the United States.
  • The war in Afghanistan will be revealed to be even more difficult than first officially acknowledged: I think I nailed this one, mostly because the Obama administration has demonstrated no resolve for winning this conflict directly. Coupled with the deep problems in Pakistan, Afghanistan looked increasingly dire in 2010, although there are signs victory is still within reach, especially now that General David Petraeus is in charge of the show.
  • A major terrorist attack against a Western nation will succeed: They did not fail for lack of trying. 2010 was full of attempts to attack the west that failed or were thwarted. The only thing that amazes me more than their lack of success was their apparent ineptitude.
  • Third party candidates will make significant inroads in the November general election: The Tea Party thwarted my hopes for the 2010 midterms as much as it did the Democrats. Perhaps it is not fair to just blame the Tea Party: American voters are creatures of habit, hence our 200-year-long two party system. That said, the next two years should be an entertaining political train wreck.

In a way, I guess some could say that the world turned out far better than I expected it to on 2010.

DLH

Read more at my Worldview site...

Worldview: Once upon a time

A few years ago, I vigorously defended the power of the  government to use warrantless searches as an intelligence gathering tool against foreign nationals and their collaborators living on American soil who our intelligence agencies believed were enemy agents. I defended that action based on precedence (e.g.: forms of warrantless searches for intelligence purposes have been conducted since the Lincoln administration) and the fundamental lack of better tools (e.g.: federal laws do not adequately provide for domestic intelligence gathering methods). I stand by that defense, yet I also stand by my observation that it was only necessary because there were not better tools.

These years later, our intelligence agencies still do not have the better tools they need, and the government has taken even more obtrusive steps in its efforts to secure intelligence through ever-looser definitions of the laws that govern what it can and cannot do.

At the risk of taking a black eye from my opponents in the warrantless searches debate, I must now say that the government has proven incapable of using the powers it possesses by precedent and function in keeping with the ideals of federal republicanism, the guarantees of the Bill of Rights, and fundamental individual liberty. While I still believe that the warrantless search tool was one the government had the right to use in the proper time and place, I also now believe that the time has come for the people and the government to specifically spell out the type and scope of powers the government has to use for domestic intelligence gathering and to define a meaningful process for due process and appeal against intelligence gathered on US soil.

At the heart of this–partial–reversal in thinking is the following evidence:

“The FBI is building a database with the names and certain personal information, such as employment history, of thousands of U.S. citizens and residents whom a local police officer or a fellow citizen believed to be acting suspiciously. It is accessible to an increasing number of local law enforcement and military criminal investigators, increasing concerns that it could somehow end up in the public domain.”

If suspicion is the only threshold for placing anyone, especially citizens, under surveillance, then the system is broken. Suspicion is not probable cause, nor will it ever be, even in the shadowy world of intelligence gathering. This new threshold represents a fundamental change in thinking on the part of the government, and because it has proven itself so prone to abuse, it also represents a fundamental threat to liberty.

If we are going to bother to call ourselves a nation, we must accept that our government needs tools to act in our national interests, and effective intelligence gathering is one of those tools. Yet, we can now see that the government cannot be trusted to use loosely defined tools responsibly, so the time has come to create limits so that the liberty of the people can be preserved from government abuse.

DLH

Read more at my Worldview site...

Worldview: I sense a revolution coming, and a lot of you aren’t going to like it

As some of you may have gathered, I do a lot of reading, especially about history, politics, and current events. Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a new theme starting to grow, first in comments, then in mainstream articles wherein the writers have begun to question the salaries earned by public sector employees at the taxpayers expense.

I am not commenting on whether or not public sector employees make too much, not enough, or whether what they do is of benefit to the people paying for it. Instead, I am considering what may be the first casualty of the coming taxpayer revolution against bloated government: public sector pay.

Let’s face it. Most taxpayers have no idea what most public sector employees do for a living outside vague notions of the jobs people like teachers, police officers, or firefighters have. Even with jobs the taxpayers think they understand, I suspect most taxpayers think people doing those jobs get paid too much, take advantage of the system, and (perhaps worst of all) could not get jobs elsewhere.

Having been a public sector employee at one time, I can see how the taxpayers might get that impression, which is why I think it is so easy for the taxpayers, angry at the situation we find our nation in but yet unwilling to realize the solution means they will have to make sacrifices, to think that part of the solution is to pay public sector employees less.

Unfortunately, if history is any indication of future trends, the employees who will be targeted by this anger will be the ones who least deserve it. The taxpayers will target local public sector employees–teachers, police officers, fire fighters, etc–who they depend on the most while ignoring the excesses carried out by the actual guilty parties–elected officials and career bureaucrats.

I think if history does repeat itself, the problem this time will be that many public sector employees will just quit. It will be impossible for the taxpayers to demand that, say, teachers begin their careers at 22 with master’s degrees, engage in constant professional development, put up with the taxpayers undisciplined and incapable children, and deal with the never-ending onslaught of government regulations for laborers wages. Take your pick of public sector employees, and you will find similar ridiculous notions.

I am not saying that there are not public sector employees–even teachers, police officers, and fire fighters–who do not get paid more than they should, take advantage of the system, and could not get jobs elsewhere. I am saying that the tendency is for the taxpayers to pick on the public sector employees they rely on the most because they are the most visible and the most accessible.

If we look at the history of such reactions, what we discover is that the governments enduring them and the people making them often fare badly. In the worst cases, the governments collapsed or the nations thrust themselves into civil war. In the best cases, nations endured long periods of malaise.

As a nation, we need to tackle the problems before us, and I understand that even public sector pay needs to be reformed if we are going to find our way out of the mess we’re in. I also understand that making irrational decisions based on anger rarely produces positive outcomes. Consider your demands carefully, because they will have consequences if they become reality.

DLH

Read more at my Worldview site...