Forget about the too-big-to-fail banks: the real economic menace comes from the officer directing traffic downtown. That's the message of yesterday's preposterous Wall Street Journal editorial arguing that public employees - and their unions - "may be the single biggest problem" for the nation's economy. It's part of a mounting conservative effort to direct populist rage against public sector workers and build political will to slash public services, prevent tax increases on the wealthy, and deflect attention from the real causes of our economic decline. After all, why regulate risk-taking bankers when you can stick it to the guy who picks up the trash?
Conservatives' crusade against public employees is decades old, but it's received fresh momentum now that the recession is causing tax shortfalls that have strained public budgets. And the latest impetus comes from a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report finding that a slim majority of the nation's union members now work in the public sector.
The reasons for the shift in union membership are clear: for years private sector employers have been permitted to wage vicious anti-union campaigns whenever their employees dared to organize. Public employers were less likely to violate their employees' rights on the job, so public workplaces were organized more quickly. More recently, the economic downturn hit the most heavily-unionized sectors of the private economy, from construction to the auto industry, particularly hard. Private sector union members lost their jobs. Yet to the extent that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act succeeded in preserving vital public services, many of the teachers, bus drivers, and police officers American communities rely on have so far remained at their posts. That's good news if you care about safe streets and educating the next generation. It's also good for the private sector: when public employees spend their paychecks local stores and services get much-needed business. But if conservatives have their way, more public servants will be in the unemployment line before long.
As if it weren't bad enough that public employees are working, they have the effrontery to get paid for it, too. In an interview with ABC's The Week Senator-elect Scott Brown denounced the "lavish pay and benefit packages [that] have unfortunately become a way of life for public employees." But we're not talking about the Goldman Sachs bonus pool here (although the bailed out bankers also owe their jobs to the taxpayers - and have produced far less of public value in exchange). Instead, conservatives have railed against local, state, and federal employees who earn the very middle-class standard of living all working people are striving to get and hold onto. Rather than being outraged that a public employee earns a living wage, we should ask why more private sector workers don't. Rather than denouncing the public employee pensions that allow firefighters to retire with dignity, we should be asking why we aren't all guaranteed decent provisions in old age after a lifetime of hard work.
Like the folks at the Heritage Foundation, I also find it troubling that the majority of union members now work for the government. But the problem isn't that the nurse at the public hospital is somehow getting "bloated" with my tax dollars. Instead, it's that private companies continue to successfully fight so many of their own employees' efforts to unionize for better pay and benefits. We can't have a middle class rooted exclusively in the public sector workforce: the only sustainable economy is one in which good jobs are within the reach of far more Americans.
While we're fighting for those good jobs, let's remember what really caused the economic collapse: irresponsible lenders and lax regulators drove an unsustainable housing bubble; when it popped, the economy plunged and tax revenue from property, payroll and business taxes declined. As a result of falling revenue, states, cities and the federal government struggled to balance their budgets. Many state and local governments have cut public services as a consequence. But we shouldn't pretend the neighborhood librarian is the one to blame for it.