There has been a lot of complaining about how Wisconsin’s Governor Walker is using a short-term crisis to justify achieving a long-term goal in his battles with unions. Here is how Ezra describes it:
That’s how you keep a crisis from going to waste: You take a complicated problem that requires the apparent need for bold action and use it to achieve a longtime ideological objective. In this case, permanently weakening public-employee unions, a group much-loathed by Republicans in general and by the Republican legislators who have to battle them in elections in particular.
Taking a crisis and using it to serve a “longtime ideological objective” is a pretty good description of a lot of what went into the ARRA, including a lot of the infrastructure investments and Race to the Top. You might argue that “well those are just good policy!” and with some of it I might agree, but they are long-term goals and not the best use of short-term stimulus, and they certainly had ideological detractors on both the left and the right. These parts of the ARRA strike me as fairly comparable to what Governor Walker is doing, so I’m not sure why anyone who didn’t complain about that aspect of the ARRA is complaining about this if they object to this type of policymaking per se. My guess is that most people are fine with this when the long-term ideological goals being met are their own.
Another complaint is that the unions are willing to make many of the concessions that the Governor is asking for that will directly affect the budget, so going after collective bargaining rights is unnecessary. But liberals should understand very well that short-term concessions aren’t a long-term fix if structural issues ensure that in the long-run those concessions can and likely will be undone.
I want to quote Ezra at length here writing about the financial sector, because it’s the kind of long-term political and institutional analysis that liberals are ignoring in this debate when they point to the concessions unions are offering as sufficient:
….I don’t believe you can effectively regulate the financial industry so long as it’s sucking up about a third of domestic profits. The incentives to take massive risks will just be too great. The power to bribe Washington to dismantle regulations and legislation will be irresistible over time.
The situation is worsened because the financial sector doesn’t face the countervailing political pressures that other industries face… Once the memory of this crisis fades a bit, they’re basically alone in the issue space… Few legislators have strong, preexisting interest and understanding of the issue. There’s no real advocacy community. Maybe there’ll be somewhat more of all this after this crisis finishes. But I doubt there’ll be that much. And that makes me very skeptical that regulatory solutions will survive for very long. There’s money, expertise and interest on one side of the ledger, and the other side is likely to be spending its time on other things. How long till one party or the other needs to fund a tough reelection campaign and cuts a quiet deal with the financial sector? Particularly in a post-Citizens United election environment? It’s probably more than five years, but is it more than 15?
The point is that you can put the public sector on a sound financial setting today with the concessions from the unions, but that doesn’t address the power they have to claw back any concessions once they find themselves with in a situation where “one party or the other needs to fund a tough reelection campaign and cuts a quiet deal” with them. Now any attempt to curtail long-term institutionalized power must look at costs and benefits, but it’s important to have that discussion and not simply pretend that short-term concessions will stick. Importantly, if we mostly agree to the desirability of the immediate concessions, then the long-term sustainability of them becomes the issue.