Friday, September 24, 2010

Don't Blame the Public Sector

WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show has a new weekly segment for this month called Wonk Wars, where two policy wonks debate a particular issue related to the campaign season.  This weeks topic was a true/false question: Public employees have too many benefits.  James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute started the conversation.
It is truly remarkable that some commentators can so readily look past the continued polarization in how we compensate labor in this country to argue that public sector workers might be doing “too well” relative to their private sector counterparts. Most workers generally, as opposed to CEO's and the highest-paid executives, have not fared well over the past two decades in terms of sharing in the prosperity their efforts create. If they had, wages and benefits would be much higher for the typical worker and our middle class would still be broad rather than shrinking.
Private sector workers have really taken it on the chin. Inflation-adjusted real hourly wages for men are less today than 30 years ago, despite substantial productivity growth that should have made possible commensurate gains in wages and living standards. Many fewer private workers have employer-provided health insurance or pensions than in decades past. And now, those with a “winner-take-all” mentality want public sector workers to give up their hard-earned health and pension benefits.
We need to take a step back from this debate and ask where have all the gains in the economy gone since the 1980s? And how do we restore an economy that shares prosperity among all workers?  We shouldn’t be making scapegoats out of our public employees. They certainly didn’t cause the economic collapse, nor are they responsible for the erosion in the wages and benefits of private sector workers.
Steve Malanga of the Manhattan Institute follows with some stats about the bad shape of New York's budget, but doesn't mention the crux of Parrott's point.  The public sector seems to be doing so much better than the private sector, because the private sector has lost so much ground over the last thirty years.  Union membership has plummeted, and wages have remained flat.  Meanwhile, the super rich have made enormous gains, and the middle class has shrunk.

Many people who have lost jobs during the Great Recession are angry and envious of the public sector's strong unions and legally guaranteed benefits, but their anger is misplaced.  The should be mad at corporate America that is doing all it can to reduce costs and drive up profits.  They should also be angry at the government, especially Republicans, who are happy to be pro-business and anti-worker.

And, finally, the angry workers should be mad at themselves for continuing to vote against their own economic interests and for the politicians who care more about the corporations than they do the people.

Instead of demanding that the public sector suffers like the private sector, we should demand that the private sector receives the benefits and pay that they deserve.

This November, vote Democratic.

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