Public Enemy No. 1: Civil Servants?

Thousands of protesters rally against budget cuts to state programs in Illinois at the state Capitol in Springfield. Seth Perlman / AP

When you hear the phrase "cash for Democrat reelection program," what image does that conjure? An infamous Chicago ward heeler handing out $20 bills to poor people on their way to the polling station? Not if you're Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.). What Bachmann was referring to when she uttered the phrase on Fox News (via The Washington Post's Greg Sargent) was actually the $26 billion that Congress passed to provide aid to the states earlier this week. The money is intended to allow cash-strapped state governments to lay off fewer workers, such as public-school teachers, police, and firefighters. Bachmann maintains that the money will be directed, via public-sector employee unions, to spending on Democratic candidates this fall.

If so, it is curious to see Republican governors, even the most fiscally conservative ones such as New Jersey's Chris Christie, accepting the federal aid. Indeed, most of them signed a letter asking for the Medicaid portion of it. Perhaps Bachmann thinks they are Manchurian candidates under a hypnotic spell from fiendish Democrats to undermine the Republican Party, with their whole careers up to this point being an elaborate ruse just to get enough power to really stick it to the GOP.

tax-resisters-INTRO Joseph Stack's Austin attack early in 2010 is just the latest in a long history of protests against the government’s power to tax. Click to view photos. KVUE TV-AP

Republican governors, being stuck with the task of actually governing, are an outlier on the right when it comes to preventing teacher layoffs. Money for public schools facing budget cuts is currently viewed as such a self-evidently wasteful expenditure that what is most surprising about Bachmann's bizarre claim is that she felt the need to make it. Why was it insufficient for her to merely demonize the legislation for its stated purpose? Civil servants are being demonized on the right these days as if they were a cross between personal-injury lawyers, mainstream newspaper reporters, women's studies professors, and "activist judges." According to the new conventional wisdom it is greedy government employees who are to blame for our fiscal woes. As ABC reports, "passage Tuesday of a controversial bill sending billions of dollars to states to shore up payrolls for public school teachers further stoked the debate over whether government employees, their unions and their benefits packages are bankrupting the country."

Republicans in Congress, fiscal watchdog groups, and some locally elected officials are fretting that public-sector employees' benefits are unsustainably expensive. Fox News characterized the aid to states in an online news article as a "teacher union bailout." (Point of fact: a "bailout" is a government loan meant to stave off insolvency for a corporation. Teachers' unions are not at any risk of going bankrupt, and they are not receiving a direct cash infusion in the manner that, say, GM did. The money is being spent on retaining teachers so that public-school classrooms do not become egregiously overcrowded. One can reasonably believe that such an expenditure is unwise, but Fox's characterization of it is demonstrably false.) 

On the more intellectually serious side, consider a recent New York Times business-section column that called the aforementioned debate a "class war." Times columnist Ron Lieber draws the battle lines thusly: "The haves are retirees who were once state or municipal workers ... The have-nots are taxpayers who don’t have generous pensions." Lieber neglects to mention that many of these so-called "have-nots" are professionals and businesspeople who often make considerably more than state or municipal workers, and he comes down strongly on the side of the "have-nots."

"The average retiree [in Colorado] in the fund stopped working at the sprightly age of 58 and deposits a check for $2,883 each month," Lieber writes. "Who wants to pay to top off someone else’s pile of money via increased income taxes or a radical decline in state services?"

Well, $2,883 per month is less than $36,000 per year, before taxes. That is somewhat less than the national median household income. And as Lieber acknowledges, the civil servants receiving it were often ineligible to participate in Social Security. So public health, safety, and education workers receive a pension that is, on average, lower than the median household income, with nothing else to live on, and that is supposedly a wasteful indulgence. Doesn't it just make your blood boil to think about your hard-earned tax dollars being blown on champagne and cigars by your children's fat-cat teachers? No? Mine either.

A responsible person might nonetheless assess the tradeoffs required to meet the pension obligation to Colorado's retired bureaucrats, or the deficit spending needed to retain public-school teachers at the moment, and decide that the taxes, deficit spending, or spending cuts needed are the greater evil instead of condemning retirees to penury or children to overcrowded classes. But to caricature public-sector employees as a plague of bloodsucking vermin engorging themselves at the public trough is bizarre and inaccurate. For one thing, the real source of escalating costs associated with public-sector employees is the same one that bedevils the American manufacturing sector and other unionized fields: health care. Ironically, Republicans vociferously opposed the health-care-reform bill that was designed to address exactly that.

And whatever happened to the GOP's fondness for the heroes of 9/11? Those cops, firefighters, and EMTs were public-sector employees. Don't they still get love from Republicans for being on the front lines of our struggle against terrorism? No, they don't. Just ask Anthony Weiner. At least the GOP deserves credit for being consistent.

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