Progressive Federalism

There are clearly two Americas, and one is holding the other back.  At least this is likely the view held today by many Progressives. To use the terminology of the famous nuclear war strategist Herman Kahn (though obviously in a different context) there is the A-country, and there is the B-country [*See Note Below*].  The A-country is making progress, where the government is involved in creating communities, taking care of the vulnerable, and creating equal opportunity for all.  This is the Northeast, parts of the great lakes (primarily Illinois and Minnesota), and the entire west coast.  These are places that routinely vote for Democrats and have reliably Progressive policy initiatives.  It is also where the most interesting stuff is happening, and where we are most likely to find conditions conducive to a good life (for the Progressive at least).

Then there is what Progressives would likely think of as the B-country; this is all the rest.  Libertarian and conservative politics prevail, the government does far less to provide equal opportunities to all citizens, and the people generally have somewhat “backward” or “traditional” values.  Of course, from the perspective of libertarians and conservatives, much of B-country is preferable to A-country; they see the policies of A-country to be smothering initiative and violating individual rights.  These different ways of life are supported by different sets of values.  

One problem, you might think, with the standard progressive strategy of the past 30 years is that action has been at the national level.  Policies have meant to apply across both A and B countries, even though the people living in those different places have wildly different values.  This has long been the complaint of conservatives who desire for the federal government to stay out of their business, so that they can ban abortion or permit discrimination against minorities.  Additionally, conservative states often want to be left out of various programs that involve the government intervention in various aspects of life.  This preference for strong federalism has been resisted by Progressives who have wanted their policies to apply across the country.  

The resistance to strong forms of federalism makes perfect sense in clear cases of injustice.  Progressives cannot permit the widespread discrimination against minorities or the denial of basic rights to occur anywhere in the country (though there is also conflict about what should be considered a “basic right”).  However, I think there might be a different story for positive programs, like the provision of universal health insurance.  It may be possible for states in the A-country to undertake such programs themselves, much like Massachusetts did in the 2000s, but as a block.  This might be in the form of a single market between states for health insurance (providing more competition) as well as the provision of common regulation and subsidies for that market (providing benefits of scale in implementation), or even a single-payer health system shared by those states.  

The single-payer system may be especially interesting, because it would provide these states (which have a large proportion of the national population) substantial leverage to negotiate prices. It would also seem that this may not violate any constitutional restrictions on limiting federalism (a problem with Trump’s “plan” for the interstate sale of insurance), because it would be formed through the voluntary agreements between states.  Multi-state agreements like this are not uncommon (port authority and transportation authorities, for instance), though this would be far more ambitious.  

There are obvious difficulties to coordinating such a system, but I think it could be done if some of the larger or adjacent states (centered around California and New York, for instance) took the lead.  If large states formed such a block, then the inevitable taxes required to pay for insurance subsidies would not render those states uncompetitive relative to others.  Businesses to not routinely move from California or New York to Texas simply because of small differences in taxes (which already exist).  The benefits of these locations are too enticing.  Such a program could provide the benefits of the Affordable Care Act without the necessity of dragging unwilling states into the mix.  There is a hope that voters in B-country would eventually see the benefits of such a social welfare program and want to be included in the interstate agreement.  This may eventually grow into a truly national program once a critical mass of states agree to join.  Of course, it is possible that majorities in B-country will never come around.  All the worse for them, but it is not the fault of those living in A-country that those living in B-country are backward looking rather than Progressive.

Some will rightly worry that such a program would create a further rift in our country.  Perhaps.  Though in many ways that rift already exists.  People in A-country and B-country already live in rather different worlds.  And voluntary interstate agreements would eliminate the high levels of conflict that exists at the federal level; there simply would be less to argue about.  The hope is that this would lower the stakes of federal policy formation, and thus make our politics more functional.  Progressives will have an easier time convincing New Yorkers and Californians to implement such a program than convincing a block of former slave states.

*Completely unrelated note*: Kahn’s idea (From On Thermonuclear War) was something like the following.  Even if our major cities like New York and LA (A-country) were blown up in the first round of a nuclear war, we might still have a substantial supply of infrastructure, resources, and people left. This “B-country” might include exciting places like Winona or Cedar Rapids.  He thinks that we should plan on a strategy for an extended but winnable nuclear war rather than simply “mutually assured destruction.”  But please don’t tell this to Trump.  Especially because Kahn wrote this before larger stockpiles of hydrogen bombs existed, so his insight may no longer be relevant.

Your local neighborhood drones…

As autonomous vehicles and drones start to become a reality, various possible uses of the technology naturally come to mind. One of the most interesting possibilities is autonomous drone security and policing. The image goes something like this. In the hopes of having more eyes on the streets, police departments in some cities may eventually start using autonomous drones to patrol high-crime areas and during special events. This would primarily provide added surveillance, essentially (drone) eyes on the street. Drones would be outfitted with night-vision sensors and various algorithms for detecting suspicious behavior. When a drone detects something that is suspicious, it notifies the dispatch so that police can respond and investigate. This is not a “robocop” vision, in which drones themselves respond crime, but merely one that extends current automated surveillance techniques already used in many American cities (for instance, gunshot detectors).

Such a system obviously has significant potential to reduce crime and improve the lives of those living in high-crime areas. Increasing the likelihood that crimes will immediately be responded to dramatically increases the expected costs to criminals. If one expects to be followed by a drone immediately after mugging or shooting someone, and then consequently found by the police, there is little sense to the action. This would also likely make people feel far safer in their own neighborhoods, and might create a virtuous cycle in which greater feelings of safety cause more people to be on the streets, which then further increases community surveillance and reduces crime.

Of course, the above vision is also horrifying. It introduces a prospect of total police surveillance, in which the government has a complete record of everything that goes on at all times. And the likelihood that such a policing strategy would disproportionately affect those in minority neighborhoods makes it even worse. It combines the possible nightmare of a police state with problems of racial discrimination. Consequently, it is a future that will likely be closed off by law, whether conventional or constitutional. For Progressives it goes against their commitments to privacy, civil liberties, and limited police powers.

What about the private use of “security” drones? It is entirely possible that cheap drones could (in the not too distant future) be available to private citizens and community groups as well as the government. A neighborhood watch organization could plausibly buy the sort of autonomous drones that I describe above, to provide extra eyes on the street. They similarly may be set up to call 911 upon seeing a possible crime, just like a nosy neighbor. This sort of (highly effective) “neighborhood watch” might be just as transformative for people living in high-crime neighborhoods as police drones, and produce an environment that is nearly as disturbing. “Neighborhood-watch” drones may buzz around watching one’s every move. It doesn’t seem to matter significantly in this sense that they are not owned by the police.

I think that the Progressive is forced to support such drone programs, and in fact, it may be important for progressive organizations to someday fund the purchase of drones for neighborhood organizations that want them. However, it also presents Progressives with a serious dilemma of values. The fear and violence that so many Americans face on a daily basis is too deplorable to be ignored. Although the root causes of these conditions lie in deeply rooted social and economic problems, those issues are unlikely to be solved before drone technology may be of significant use. Likewise, other than an extensive limitation on handgun ownership, which is unlikely to happen for a very long time (if ever), no public policies of any kind are likely to solve the problems of public safety in the foreseeable future.

The problem, of course, is that the choices of some individuals (in setting loose drones) would be transforming the environment for all. The prospect of outside organizations paying for the drones makes matters even worse. It is entirely feasible that the drones patrolling the far south side of Chicago may be provided (to neighborhood groups) by law-and-order nonprofits primarily funded by rich white suburbanites. How we think about this largely depends upon what priority we give public safety. Conservatives often take the provision of public safety to be the primary purpose of the state. But given how necessary minimal levels of justice and safety are to being able to live a good life, Progressives must also take this more seriously. And we would do well to think about how changes in technology might radically effect policing strategies and public safety in the next couple decades.

Must progressives be so boring?

I’m going to make a bold prediction. Hillary Clinton will win the presidential election. I think we should move beyond this fact. Clinton is very competent but no revolutionary. She might do quite well at protecting some of the gains the left made during the Obama administration, but few are expecting her to significantly push the envelope of the progressive agenda in her first term. What will Clinton be able to achieve by 2020? Probably not much. There is almost no chance that she will be able to achieve (or even make substantial steps toward achieving) some of the bolder goals that are part of the Democratic platform, especially a single-payer health system and free higher education. Of course, perhaps those on the left simply need to work hard and bide their time.

However, those who think of themselves as “progressives” should also wonder whether they even know what the “envelope” looks like. Is it represented best by the policy views of Bernie Sanders. For a very long time Americans on the left have, rather reflexively I think, attempted to make an America in the political image of Europe; there is a spoken and unspoken principle of leftist thinking that Europe is a model society, more civilized and decent. European public policy is in many ways the culmination of a post-war welfare-state program, in which the community is tasked with taking care of all.

Those on the left lament the fact that the construction of the welfare state was never as successful in America, even with its unmatched wealth. The standard story (I take it) is that America is too steeped in conflict and corporate domination to be a fertile ground for an extensive welfare state; or perhaps Europe’s cleansing in the fires of WW2 showed it the way to righteous politics. Though perhaps it has more to do with the relative homogeneity of European countries that allowed generous welfare benefits to remain popular. Americans have a long tradition of despising each other, but this is a relatively new phenomenon in European countries that have thrived on consensus politics. Europe’s current internal struggles with immigration reveals that there might be something to this.

In any case, the ideal of the European welfare state is not transformative in the way progressivism was in the early 20th century, when the sort of abject poverty and powerlessness that characterized the lives of the vast majority of humans for most of human history was all but eliminated in the United States. And in the 1960s the American cultural revolution and civil rights movement did to social relations what the early progressive movement did for physical subsistence, dramatically changing how people thought about themselves and each other.

What I find rather remarkable is how immediately comprehensible the thoughts of ‘60s artists, thinkers, and writers are to us, in ways that those from the ‘50s are not; there is a certain foreignness (for us) to American culture before this time. We don’t often think about how important it is that (many) 18 year-olds today still understand and fully appreciate Bob Dylan or The Beatles, when this music was recorded half a century ago. Even Trump’s veiled racism is little different than Goldwater Republicanism. Truly, our economic aspirations are a century old and cultural aspirations are a half century old. The gadgets of the 21st century nip at the margins of our lived experience, but they have not transformed it.

What goals would be transformative enough to be worthy of the name “progressive”? I’m not sure. But I have a few ideas, and will express some of them between now and the election. I’ll start with an idea that originates, in some ways, in the right’s vision of a radically transformed society: a society of radical personal liberty in a free market.

In many ways the political right possesses the sort of new transformative vision of society that the left lacks. The sort of vision inspired by Milton Friedman and (less cogently) Ayn Rand is one in which the coercive powers of the state have been all but eliminated, and in their place exists a system of free markets and voluntary associations. This is the libertarian ideal. It takes the very old ideas of anarchy and provides a demonstration for why social order can be maintained even absent any sort of significant coercive regime. Its power then – and it really was a powerful idea that transformed conservative political thinking in the 1980s – is in its ability to show how freedom can be made compatible with complex economies and societies.

The reaction of the left, I think, has been largely uninspiring; it is typically argued that this is an unrealistic vision, and that markets will always need substantial government regulation for them to operate efficiently and in the common interest. I think this is true, but rather boring. In particular, it doesn’t get to the heart of the issue of whether the vision offered by the right is one that should inspire us at all. Is there something wrong with the vision, or is it just something we aren’t able to attain? The problem with the latter answer is that it leaves us wondering whether we simply aren’t doing enough the attain the goal. Perhaps we just need to privatize more social programs!

I think there is something basically wrong with the vision of a society composed entirely of free markets and voluntary associations, but I also think this ideal gives us an insight into what might be a progressive ideal. It at least shows us a problem about which we must ponder. The libertarian ideal takes humans to be fully capable of deciding how to act in the market and what voluntary associations to make; in fact, some versions of this ideal take a person’s preferences and values to be identified with the structure of her choices. According to that formulation, there is really no way in which a person can choose poorly in life. If a person chooses to smoke cigarettes, shoot-up heroin, or get serial pay-day loans then she is just “revealing” her preferences for those goods.

The progressive reaction to this ideal brings out an important foundation of progressive politics, and one that stands in tension with the existence of a free society. I think it can be represented by several claims:

  1. There are better and worse ways of living.
  2. At least some of the time, we are incapable of independently making good life choices (leading to a good life). And a substantial number of us are incapable of doing this most of the time.
  3.  We have obligations to care for others.
  4.  A necessary feature of a good life is the liberty to choose how to live one’s own life (personal autonomy).

Most libertarians would deny that the first three conditions are true, and even those who do not deny their truth think that society instantiating the first two conditions (and perhaps 3 as well) is not compatible with one that instantiates the last. In short, they think that any society respecting personal autonomy must ignore (1)-(3) when determining how to design its political institutions. I don’t think the above list would surprise most progressives, but its has important implications for the possible shape of society when put into the context of the 21st century.

The modern welfare state already presumes that (1) is true to some degree; the life of a starving person is worse than that of someone with enough food to eat, and this is why we spend money assuring that everyone has enough food to eat. However, this aspect of the welfare state might be supported by Libertarians as well as those on the left – the provision of cash payments (or vouchers) to the poor is a mainstay of right-wing welfare policy. However, many on the left also promote paternalistic policies, which promote certain ways of living and not just economic goods (like food and housing) that any way of life requires. Paternalism is especially obvious in policies that promote health care and safety; providing incentives for people to get yearly checkups, talk to their doctors about their weight or blood pressure, or wear seatbelts are all perfect examples of paternalistic policies supported by the left and (often) criticized by the right.

And here is where things become more radical, and where serious thought is necessary. Many of the social problems that we see today are due to how people choose (or are forced) to live, rather than their lack of basic necessities. And more importantly, some of the social problems on the horizon cannot be dealt with by the contemporary welfare state, even if benefits are very generous. For instance, automation has drastically reduced the market price of manual and repetitive labor. And AI threatens to reduce the price of even some complex labor. The high unemployment among non-college graduates has in part occurred because the price of manual labor in many sectors has been reduced below the minimum wage that allows workers to obtain a minimally decent lifestyle.

The ready solution to this problem has always been the retraining of these workers, thus increasing their productivity to above the minimum wage. But constraints on fluid intelligence limit the sorts of jobs workers can be retrained to do. It is entirely feasible (as Galbraith argued in the 1950s) that at some point in the future there will simply be no economic use (at a minimally decent wage) for large segments of the population. At some point it may even be more expensive to train those of average (or above average) intelligence to do complex tasks than it will be to develop and maintain a machine to do that same tasks. Of course, there might always be roles for high-level human developers and managers, but very few people are ever capable of being trained to perform those tasks. This leads us to a question that is currently facing some of the generous welfare states of the Europe today: can a life that is not economically productive be as good as one that is not?

In order to answer this question, Progressives must go beyond the 20th century goal of equalizing the consumption of the rich and the poor. It is likely that a life of pure consumption, without a meaningful contribution to society, is not a good life (though this is something that requires thought!). The government could always make positions for people to fill; this was a favorite strategy of the FDR administration. But today this would require the government to not only undertake tasks it might not otherwise undertake, but also undertake them in ways that are dramatically less efficient (utilizing more labor) than could be achieved on the free market.

It is true that the sort of public works projects that employed many during the Great Depression built much of value, but today those projects would certainly be accomplished far cheaper by finding already trained workers from the private sector. In a future in which even construction work is automated, substantial additional funds would have to be spent in order for such projects to employ significant numbers of people. In that case the government might even be able to give the unemployed higher levels consumption by using automation than if they had payed them to do work less efficiently.

This is all rather speculative, but it shows the sort of problem that progressive politics might face in the changing world, problems that I think progressives are in a position to answer. Importantly, I think the left is better able to provide answers than the right. For instance, according to the libertarian ideal if someone isn’t able to successfully compete in the market (meaning no one is willing to pay for their labor at some minimally decent price) then they must rely upon charity. But a society in which vast segments of working-age adults are charity cases baffles the mind; that is not a vision to work toward, but is rather a disaster to avoid.

I will return to this problem in a couple weeks. I admit that I don’t have many answers, but I think that the role of work in the lives of those in the rich world may be one of the defining issues of the 21st century, and progressives must have an answer.

However, in the next post I will ask another question that may be central to progressive politics in the 21st century: what is the role of surveillance and robotics in policing and security? In perhaps not more than 30 years there may exist technologies that will dramatically increase the monitoring and prevention of crimes. They could have live-changing benefits for people living in cities and neighborhoods that are not safe, but raise rather obvious questions about civil liberties. Would the use of, for instance, constant police drone patrols produce a world that was safe but unbearable? This is made more disturbing by the fact that such technologies would likely most often be deployed in minority-majority neighborhoods, increasing the risk of discrimination. Such surveillance techniques have the promise to eliminate much of the intolerable violence of American society, but at serious costs in privacy. Progressives should be conflicted about this prospect, but technological advances are not likely to give us the benefit of decades to deliberate about it.

Being a Democrat in Wisconsin: Winning from the center

Wisconsin Democrats must begin to take more seriously the differences between their base and the political center of Wisconsin.  This is made more difficult by the fact that Democrats are concentrated in a few areas of Wisconsin, giving them very wide margins of victory in those districts but hurting their prospects for winning over many districts.  However, Republican support is rather shallow in many districts, making it feasible for Democrats to win majorities in state government, especially during presidential election years.

Wisconsin is not a progressive state.  As I have argued in a previous post, it would be wrong to mistake the dominance of Wisconsin Democrats in statewide races for national office as strength for the progressive agenda in the state.  The political center of the state is not to be found in Madison or Milwaukee, which many consider to be the base of the Democratic party in Wisconsin.  Of course, these are reliable areas of Democratic support, and Madison is in many ways a model small progressive city.   There are also hopes that Milwaukee could one day be a city possessing similar merits as Minneapolis: a center of political influence that would radiate to all of south-eastern Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is very different from Minnesota.  Perhaps the most important for its political life, the population of Wisconsin is far more distributed than that of Minnesota.  Whereas almost 2/3 of Minnesota’s population lives in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area, only 1/3 of Wisconsin’s population lives in the metropolitan areas of Madison and Milwaukee.  Much like Illinois, the economic and political life of Minnesota is dominated by its first city; this is clearly not the case in Wisconsin.  It does not help things that Milwaukee is a struggling city that is frequently seen by those living in its suburbs as a drain on the metropolitan area rather than a source of strength.  The antagonism between Milwaukee, which is the only city in Wisconsin with a large African American population, and its suburbs also fuels the racism that is often pronounced in those suburbs; it is not a coincidence that those same suburbs experienced large population booms in the late ’60s during the so called “white flight” from Milwaukee.

The center of GOP dominance extends from the Milwaukee suburbs, especially Waukesha county, down the Fox River toward Green Bay.  This is the old industrial center of state, and is the western flank of the “Rust Belt” that extends through the great lakes region.  This area has traditionally been dominated by heavy industry, especially paper, and remains far more industrial than the western part of the state.  The electoral strength for the GOP in this area is its greatest in Waukesha county and other Milwaukee suburbs and trails off up the Fox river.  Although there is no hope for Democrats to win significant votes in Waukesha, strong Democratic candidates can win in Green Bay and North-East Wisconsin.  An analysis of vote shares in those assembly districts shows that these are the “tipping point” districts where the vote share of Democrats and Republicans approach 50/50.  The battle for the state legislature cannot be won in Madison or the western part of the state, but rather must be won in the Fox Valley.

Wisconsin Democrats are at a crucial disadvantage in this battle, but this is not merely due to gerrymandering after the 2010 census.  A common refrain from Wisconsin Democrats alleges that the Republican majority is in place predominantly because of the way in which districts were redrawn after the overwhelming (and unusual) victories by Republicans in 2010.  One of the primary pieces of evidence for this is the fact that state-wide Democratic candidates for the Wisconsin Assembly typically receive a majority of the votes for office in elections since 2010, but only 1/3 of the seats.  Many take this to be a result of gerrymandering.  However, there is a deeper explanation that gets to the core of how Democrats and Republicans are distributed differently throughout the state.  As the Democratic party has transitioned from a coalition of southerners and working class northerners to the party of collectivists and social liberals, cities have also undergone a period of renewal.  And the sorts of people who have been loyal Democratic voters since Kennedy have taken up urban residences in greater numbers.  Democrats are in fact packing themselves into urban districts.  Given the district-based system of representation that characterizes American government, this has also had substantial effects on the ability of Democrats to win district-based elections.

This can most easily be seen by looking at voting results by assembly district.  In 2014, when Scott Walker won reelection as governor, voters in the most Democratic district (# 16 in Milwaukee) voted for Mary Burke by almost a 10 to 1 margin whereas those in the most Republican district (#99 in Waukesha) voted for Scott Walker by only a 3.5 to 1 margin.  Similar statistics can be found for other election years.  Additionally, this is not limited to a handful of districts.  Democrats have at least a 2 to 1 margin of victory in 15 of the 99 assembly districts, whereas Republicans only have this in 9 districts.  However (using the 2014 data), Republicans have comfortable margins of between 2 to 1 and 1.5 to 1 in another 31 districts, whereas Democrats only have such margins in 5 districts.  This is the strength of the Republican majority in the state legislature; it is relatively shallow but very wide.  Republicans have achieved this while maintaining a relatively rational district map (squarish districts that generally respect local boundaries), absent of the incredible examples of gerrymandering found in states like North Carolina, Florida, Maryland, and other states (you haven’t seen gerrymandering until you’ve seen Maryland’s 3rd district!).

What can be done?  Democrats are at a serious disadvantage in assembly races, though less so for state senate seats.  And this is no excuse for their poor performance in state-wide elections.  Certainly structural problems cannot be blamed for the repeated victories of Scott Walker; this is likely due to the fielding of weak candidates by the Democrats and the lower voter turnout in off-year elections.  But can the Democrats ever hope to control the entire state government as they did between 2008 and 2010?  Maybe.  In 2012 (with the new assembly lines drawn), President Obama won a majority of votes in 42 assembly districts.  Democrats won in 39 assembly races that year.  However, in another 11 districts the margin of victory of Mitt Romney over Obama was less than 1.1 to 1.  If the Democrats were able to win assembly races in all of those districts plus those that Obama won they would have a 53 to 46 majority in the state assembly, something that seems impossible for many Democrats to conceive of at the moment (where they only have 36 seats).  And most of these districts span from Fond du Lac to Green Bay.  Of course, this would not be easy.  But if Democrats can win governor (statewide) races in off-year elections and assembly majorities in presidential years, then the face of Wisconsin politics would be radically changed.

Political scientists have extensively studied the importance of gerrymandering to election outcomes, though the effect of the geographic distributions of political party members on election outcomes has received less attention.  For a recent study of this see:

Jowei Chen and Jonathan Rodden. (2013). “Unintentional gerrymandering: Political geography and electoral bias in legislatures.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science, 8. pp. 239-269.  (Available at


Collective Bargaining Rights and the Importance of a Strong Civil Service.

Democrats should be less concerned about the exploitation of white-collar labor and more concerned about a strong non-partisan civil service.

The “company town” provides the quintessential image of exploitation of blue-collar labor during the 20th century.  Such a town was established (or sprang up spontaneously)  around a large company in order to to house the company’s workers.  Workers purchased and rented homes close to the factory, and because the large company dominated the local employment market workers committed themselves to staying with the company by taking actions (like buying a house) that tied them to the community.  Those workers also took out loans from banks closely associated with the company in order to buy their homes, cars, and other goods.  In this way they were indebted to their employer.  That debt made them even less mobile.  All of these factors gave the workers in the town a substantially weaker bargaining position; their decision to stay in their community became tied with the decision to work for the company, and this made them unwilling to take risks when bargaining.

The modern analog of factory-town exploitation is what one might call “specialization exploitation.”  I’m not sure I’m convinced by the existence of this modern form of exploitation, but many Democrats are.  This modern exploitation supposedly functions as follows.  Workers, even white-collar ones, are convinced to spend significant time and resources on education and work experience that will allow them to provide particular services to the holders of capital (mainly corporations).  Many of those workers incur debt obtaining that education and experience, and subsequently will be less likely to take risks or hold out for higher pay in negotiations with the capitalists.  Because moving requires substantial resources, those with debt are also less likely to seek out higher paying jobs in other parts of the country.  In such a non-competitive labor market, capitalists are able to exploit the desperation and immobility of white-collar laborers in order to reap greater profits.  And because laborers possess the financial burden of improving their own human capital (primarily through education), and they borrow from the capitalists to obtain it, the white-collar laborer must live in debt service to the capitalists who are also her employers.  This gives a morally relevant explanation to slow wage growth; it is the result of capitalist exploitation of labor.

The analogy is even stronger for those with skills specialized for public service.  Unlike for a lawyer or salesperson, the school teacher or social worker who is fired faces uncertain employment prospects unless she is willing to move.  In those, and many other domains of service, the government dominates.  Therefore, it seems that public servants are often put in a similar bargaining position as workers in “company towns” of yore; either take what the company gives you or leave town (at often great cost).

This story comes from the intellectual descendants of early 20th century Socialists.  Those who have a great affinity for Thomas Pikitty’s recent book Capital in the Twenty-first Century should probably count themselves among this group.  In their view, all wage earners are in similar disadvantaged bargaining position with respect to managers and owners of capital.  Social workers, teachers, and clerks are in a similar position as welders and construction workers.  And the basic situation of all wage earners has changed little over the past century; even though their objective economic condition has improved immensely, relative to the capitalists they are still disadvantaged.  This is one important reason why liberals are very concerned with the collective bargaining rights of public workers and other white-collar workers.  It is thought that only through collective bargaining can workers of any type be on equal footing with their employers.  It is a way to make sure that workers get fair compensation and treatment.

I think that something like the above story is correct, though I find the depiction of early 20th century company towns to be more convincing than the modern variant.  However, I don’t think it actually matters much for Wisconsin politics whether the modern socialist view of labor economics is correct or not.  What matters is the fact that most Wisconsinites generally do not buy the fact that white-collar workers need the protections of collective bargaining.  And so any objections to the curtailment of collective bargaining rights of public employees justified by appeal to the disadvantaged bargaining position of white-collar public servants is bound to fail.  And as we know from recent experience in Wisconsin, this argument largely does fail.

Democrats have also attempted to develop another family of arguments that associates collective bargaining with improved service to the public.  In fact, the Wisconsin State Journal recently featured an op-ed by Jennifer Ruef supporting collective bargaining rights for teachers.  Ruef claims that improved working conditions for teachers won through collective bargaining have also benefited the learning conditions of students.  For instance, union agreements in the past capped class sizes and limited the number of sections teachers must teach in a day.  These are probably good policies to benefit student learning, but of course student benefit is only incidental to any benefit to teachers.  Teachers unions are representatives of teachers and not students, and as a result they have incentives only to benefit teachers.  Although the interests of teachers and students will sometimes align, they often will not.  For instance, administrative flexibility in firing and pay decisions likely benefit students by keeping the best teachers and getting rid of the worst ones.  Administrators, rather than teacher’s unions have incentives to improve student performance, and there is no reason to think that schools are resistant to adopt policies most beneficial to students, as long as the funds are available.  More importantly, the sort of argument Ruef provides (and the claim that teachers unions are out to benefit students) looks fishy to many in the public, and in politics this perception is just as important as reality.

Luckily winning over Wisconsinites to liberal economic views or favorable views of teachers unions are largely unnecessary to justifying the core protections that unions afford public workers.  These protections are especially important in public service not because of the disadvantaged bargaining position of public workers but rather was a bulwark against cronyism in the civil service.  A public sector labor union create a locus of power not controlled by appointed political officials.  This prevents political officials from using the civil service to dole out positions as rewards for political support.  Protections from being fired also allow civil servants to file reports and take actions against the wishes of political officials, without fear of political reprisals.

Cronyism is precisely what many Democrats fear in a civil service dominated by political appointees rather than career civil servants, and it is very difficult for public servants to do their jobs if they have to constantly worry about whether their actions will offend whoever happens to occupy the Governor’s Mansion.  Of course, in a state dominated by Republicans, increased cronyism would likely benefit them.  And this is precisely what can be seen in Governor Walker’s WEDC, which is tasked with spurring economic growth in Wisconsin.  Many jobs in the agencies went to campaign supporters of Walker, and much of the money it lent went to companies that supported him.  In a Wisconsin with a weaker civil service, more corruption is likely inevitable.  For instance, consider whether scientists in the DNR could give an unbiased analysis of the environmental effects of a new mine, if she could be fired and replaced for any reason.  A scientist should certainly think twice about being critical of the mine if the politicians who could fire her received campaign contributions from the mine owners.

A strong civil service is one of the most important tools to prevent corruption in government, and a public employee union contributes significantly to a  strong civil service.  Of course, civil service protections can be written into state law without those employees being unionized.  But when a single party controls the entire state government, which happens often in Wisconsin, the law is little restraint to corruption.  This argument for public service unions works better for some parts of government than others.  It is less clear why public grade school teachers would need to be protected from corruption than it is for state regulators.  However, it is reasonable to think that teachers would need some protections from administrative favoritism, incompetence, and arbitrariness.  At least I think that an argument can be made for the view that unions are important institutional players that require the administration to justify its decisions; and that certainly is better for both teachers and students.  However, I think the argument must be made in different terms than Democrats have done up until now; otherwise they will keep on losing the argument in the eyes of the public.

Reading of Interest

Anyone who wants to learn about corruption that is rampant when there are few protections to those working in the civil service should read about the American bureaucracy during the 19th century.  Protections against arbitrary firings and merit-based hiring procedures that were instituted during the early part of the 20th century significantly decreased corruption in the Federal and state governments.  The following book is a rather famous depiction of the development of this modern American civil service and the corrupt systems that preceded it.

Stephen Skowronek, Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877-1920. Cambridge University Press. 1982.




Being a Democrat in Wisconsin: Putting the beast on a diet

Democrats should embrace incremental agency budget cuts and increased efficiency as means of expanding the functions of government.

A recent story in the Chronicle of Higher Education is quite instructive for how the recent $250 million budget cuts (over 2 years) to the UW system might affect campuses and students.  The story concentrates on UW- Eau Claire specifically, which being a mid-sized campus is a good stand-in for the UW campuses other than Madison and Milwaukee.  Some of the news is bad.  Eau Claire will be cutting some contract faculty and class sizes will be increasing; this is exactly what higher education advocates have insisted would be the result of such dramatic cuts.

But the bulk of the cuts at Eau Claire will be made in administration, by decreasing the amount of routine oversight of operations in the university, and not in positions that are directly related to undergraduate education.  In fact, cuts may make the university more efficient by decreasing the number of people who must approve expenditures and be involved in other operational decisions made at the university; anyone who has ever worked at a large public university can attest to the fact that approvals for even mundane expenditures can spend a very long time in an administrative “black hole”.  This is exactly what conservatives frequently claim is the result of their cuts; agencies find ways of doing the same things more efficiently, and in fact operate better with less money.  This is the main argument against the claim made by Democrats that government funding in the post Reagan U.S. (at all levels) is generally too low.  Democrats need a response.

“Starve the beast!”

According to the standard conservative line, one problem with having government fulfill various social functions is that there are no pressures on it to do things efficiently.  Competition between private businesses puts downward pressure on prices, which requires businesses to operate as efficiently as possible in order to maximize profit.  This automatic market process does not function for monopolies nor when funding is detached from services, and most government agencies operate as at least partial monopolies with their continued existence guaranteed by public funding.  This is why conservatives think that government must severely limit the funds of its administrative offices, thus forcing them to operate as efficiently as possible.  However, as long as the tax money is available to spend government is often reluctant to limit its own expenditures.  This is why conservatives think that taxes must first be cut, thus limiting the funds available to government itself. Only through “starving the beast” can government become more efficient.

What is wrong with this?  As with nutrition, there are two wrong ways to go regarding government funding:

“Feed the beast”

“Starve the beast”

The first is a summary of the standard American-liberal view: government funding should be expanded until the size of the American administrative state approaches that of a large European-style welfare state.  Ultimately most Democrats think that taxes and government funding are too low, and that the main remedy of this is to increase both. But this is based upon a false belief that the value of services provided by a government agency increases with the funds supplied to it.  However, this ignores the various problems that beset the management of organizations in which income is not directly linked to performance.  When there are few constraints on resources, managers will have little reason to eliminate positions and individuals that contribute nothing to the mission of the organization, because such actions risk causing strife among those who remain in the organization.  It is bad to rock the boat.  Additionally, increasing the size of ones department and capturing more funds is almost always seen as a sign of success for managers, even if nothing more is accomplished by it.  Therefore, the basic rational constraints on officials within the bureaucracy make it such that increased funds often lead to decreased efficiency rather than significantly increased public service.  In that case you keep paying more money for similar services.  (See Down’s famous Inside Bureaucracy for more about these simple rational constraints on managers.)

If you feed the beast too much it’s bound to get fat.

However, the standard conservative view that underlies “starve the beast,” that government funding can almost always be cut without hurting government services, suffers from a basic absurdity.  Although it is true that organizations must be under constant funding constraints in order for efficiency to be incentivised, constantly cutting funds will always eventually lead to a decrease in the value of services provided by the organization.  This is true for both private and public organizations, but unlike private organizations public ones never die from deprivation.  When the income of a company, like Kodak for instance, decreases dramatically it is usually not able to respond by simply “finding efficiencies,” but rather is forced to dramatically decrease its output of products and services.  This often results in a further decline in income and eventually to the death of the company.  RIP Kodak.

Tax-funded public organizations receive income regardless of whether they adequately provide services, therefore there is no death spiral.  But those who rely upon them still receive worse services, and if the public organization is a monopoly (like the IRS or Justice Department) then those who must receive services from the organization will be stuck with the new lower level of service.    But many liberals think there is something even more nefarious behind the attempts of conservatives to incrementally decrease government funding.  Although agencies cannot die a “natural” death like private companies, they can be dismantled by political officials.  Therefore, even though conservatives may claim that they intend to make agencies more efficient when they make budget cuts, their actual intent may be to make those agencies so ineffective at providing services as to justify their replacement by private service providers.  The liberal conspiracy theory — which I think has some merit — holds that “starve the beast” is really just the first step in the privatization of government functions.

If you starve the beast then it won’t be able to bear its burden.

There is a third perspective on government funding that does not suffer from the problems of the other two: keep the beast on a diet.  This sounds simplistic, but the details matter.  Political officials must first settle on what level of services government should provide — this will be the subject of great debate — and then settle on what “full-funding” would be required to provide those services.  The set of services desired should guide tax rates, while information about what tax rates would be required for a given set of government services gives some guidance about how important those services are.  If we are unwilling to pay the taxes required for a given set of services, then perhaps those services aren’t all that important to us.  Through this back and forth deliberative process we finally settle on a service and taxing level that is at equilibrium; a tax increase from this level in order to provide more services wouldn’t be worth it nor would a service reduction for a cut in taxes.  I take this to be standard thinking among Democrats (and others) about how budgeting should work

But in the next paragraph I say some things heretical to Democrats.

Conservatives are correct that austerity provides agencies incentive to work efficiently; therefore, government should generally fund programs below (though not substantially below) what experts take to be the level of “full” funding.  Additionally, a program that meets all of its goals should be incremental and unpredictably deprived of funds in order to keep continual pressure on managers to operate efficiently.  The unpredictability of cuts might be combined with salary incentives to eliminate any countervailing incentives managers might have to purposely sabotage service quality in order to avoid cuts.  Even though agency funding may be cut if it is doing especially well, such cuts must not act as overall disincentives to provide quality service.  And this process should not be seen as solely a way to decrease taxes, though this is how conservative will view it, but rather as a means of freeing up funds for further government services.  In a similar way, so called “unfunded mandates” (the bane of all public managers) might be used to see what resources could be allocated to new services through making the delivery of other services more efficient.  It is key that these cuts be relatively small, and thus manageable.  The problem with recent cuts to the UW-system is that they were sudden and large.  This coupled with the tuition freeze makes it impossible for the system to maintain the same level of services.

The process of placing government agencies on continual “diets” and thus expanding what they capable of doing, or decreasing the cost to tax payers, requires flexibility.  This is why even a liberal might be against allowing institutional constraints on agency flexibility, such as those created by the existence of public employee labor unions.  Therefore, although Walker’s recent attacks on government collective bargaining were most likely done to hurt Democrats and consolidate state power in the Governor’s office, similar actions could be justified by a “big-government” liberal who wants to increase the scope and quality of services provided by government.

Then what should Democrats think about Act 10, which eliminated collective bargaining rights for public employees?  Is there reason to resist initiatives that increase government flexibility at the cost of public employee’s rights?  I think there is, but I will leave that discussion for my next post.

Reading of Interest

There is much to read about the incentive structures that exist in bureaucracies, starting with Max Weber’s 19th century studies of the German bureaucratic state, though I would recommend the following short (and classic) study of the rational constraints on bureaucrats in the American context.

Anthony Downs, Inside Bureaucracy, Rand Corp., 1967.