Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wisconsin and Bureaucrats

One of the sites I have been following was begun by Wayne Baker, a professor at the University of Michigan. Called "Our Values", it is an attempt to model civil discourse by asking folks to reflect on what's important to us. Today's was about the situation in Wisconsin that has drawn our focus over the last several weeks. I put a comment on their website similar to what I wrote in the "civics" piece last week. I've copied their intro and my comment here:

Is Wisconsin's budget crisis just a 'Balloon Boy'?

Yesterday, Wisconsin Republicans figured out a way to end the collective bargaining rights of the state’s public unions. They stripped this element out of the budget bill—and voted to approve it even though all Democratic representatives still are out of the state. So, did ending collective bargaining rights really have to do with reining in a budget deficit?
No. It turns out that Wisconsin was never really in deep economic trouble, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, a nonpartisan service agency for the Wisconsin legislature. In a recent memo to the Badger State’s legislators, the Bureau projects a budget surplus by the end of the 2010–2011 budget biennium. An editorial in The Cap Times says:  “To the extent that there is an imbalance — Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit — it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January.”
Gov. Walker claims that Wisconsin will soon have a $3.6 billion deficit. But, Wisconsin state legislator Mark Pocan, a Democrat, says this is just like the Balloon Boy: the hoax where two parents in Colorado released a large balloon in the air and said their young son was on it. “We found out yesterday after our briefing with non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau,” says Pocan in his blog, “the $3.6 billion deficit in the next budget that Governor Walker and the media has been repeating is a MANUFACTURED CRISIS. The number is based on $3.9 billion in new spending requests by agencies, a 6.2% increase. I don’t think there is a member in the legislature that would vote for that. In fact, I asked Director Lang when was the last time we gave agencies exactly what they requested and was told he couldn’t think of one and he’s been here decades.”

What do you make of all this?

Is union busting the real goal of Wisconsin’s Republicans?

Tell us what you think about the Wisconsin crisis—or similar disputes in other states right now.
Please, take a moment and click to Comment below.

(Originally published at, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.)

Reader Comments (1)

I see the budget conversations in Wisconsin, most other states, and in Washington to be more symptomatic than causal. It's not the issue about specific spending or pensions or NPR. These are simply the places where the larger disease takes root (forgive the cancer imagery, but i think it's appropriate).

The underlying disease is a breakdown in our civic understanding of the common good. We are increasingly privileging short term political position over the long term interests of the society. Budgets are in "crisis" because of 1) an economy that went south, 2) conservatives who have taken revenue off the table, 3) a pernicious scapegoating of segments of the society (with a strange "hands off" counterpart on others), and 4) a refusal to look beyond the next election cycle.

E.J. Dionne has long argued that the real issue is that governmental units are given "temporary majorities" and believe that is a mandate to act.. Here's what he wrote last month about Wisconsin: "This is an effort by a temporary majority -- I use the term because in a democracy, all majorities are, in principle, temporary -- to rush a bill through the legislature designed to alter the balance of political power in the state."

We fail to realize that budgets are long-term operating plans that reflect priorities. Public employees have pensions that are high because previous administrations negotiated them (arguably in exchange for lower wages). It's clear that some abuses have taken place but the solution is to address those, not break collective bargaining. Governmental regulations were put in place to deal with REAL abuses, not to stifle business. Granted, these need regular review and modification (which we aren't good at) but the wholesale changes espoused by temporary majorities ignore reality.

These temporary majorities are accompanied by rhetorical flourishes of "elections have consequences" and "the American people have spoken". But governments are not sports cars -- they can't change direction every two or four years as the temporary majority flips other side. What a temporary majority can do is to make changes they've always wanted SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY CAN. This is what happened last night in Madison.

As I've reflected on this notion of temporary majority, I've begun to think that even the Affordable Care Act (which I fully support) moved too quickly. Politically I can understand why that was done, but in light of the long term efficacy of government it may have been too much.

So temporary majorities do create budget crises. Not because the state's fiscal situation changed since the last election, but because the time window for solving in the manner preferred by the incumbents is very short. It's a CRISIS because two years from now, Wisconsin's legislature could have a Democratic majority.

I've explored more of these thoughts on Civics in America in a recent post on my blog:
March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Hawthorne  
The only thing I'd add to these comments is something that Jeralynne and I were discussing this morning. A large part of the conservative critique of modern government involves "bureaucrats". We don't want bureaucrats between us and our doctor, we don't want bureaucrats telling us what kind of light bulbs we have to buy, we don't want bureaucrats telling us to eat healthy food and banning cookies to the third grade birthday party. (We never hear critiques about the bureaucracy of the military, except in reference to really expensive hammers, and it's the most effective large-scale government force we have.)
Here are two things that I find most striking about these criticisms. First, they aren't true. No federal bureaucrat will be telling you whether to have a particular medical procedure (to say nothing of the ridiculous notion that they'd decide you were too old to bother with -- death panels). The federal law called for better standards on light bulbs (and at the time incandescents didn't meet it; now they do). Notions of "food police" empowered by Michelle Obama knocking on Rush Limbaugh's door is just too silly for comment.
Here's the second thing. When I consider my interaction with real bureaucrats, I'm not talking to government officials! I'm talking to Kaiser Permanente (and I like them). I'm talking to a bank about a credit card charge. I'm exploring options with a loan manager at another bank. We rarely hear critics talking about those inconveniences. Just stupid stories about the DMV or wanting to know why the USPS lost your letter.

Bureaucracy is a fact of modern life. As much as our "small business" rhetoric makes us feel good, the reality is that "big box" stores continue to proliferate the countryside. Our banking is done with international conglomerates. Our insurance agent may be down the street, but the company is in Delaware and the service people are in Mumbai. Sociologist George Ritzer has been exploring this phenomenon for the past couple of decades as a process he calls McDonaldization. It's what happens when bureaucratic principles get applied to more and more sectors of life, just as Max Weber suggested. We can look back on some earlier small-town, small-business, society (which didn't exist then, either) but bureaucracy is here to stay.

What we want are competent and compassionate bureaucrats. And I'd argue that most of them fit that bill. We just love to focus on the rare case because it make a better story (which is why we all need statistics!).

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