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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Fat-and-Happy Public Employees Canard

One of the most important conservative memes this year has been that public employees (particularly at the state and local levels of government) have fattened themselves on high salaries and rich benefit packages, which means it ought to be easy to dismiss state and local fiscal crises and shrink government generally without any real pain for real (you know, non-public-sector-employed) Americans.
There’s only a grain of truth, and a lot of nonsense, in this claim, and the grain of truth involves highly valued public employees like cops and firefighters–and occasionally teachers–who are fortunate enough to benefit from collective bargaining rights and union representation.
Jon Cohn of The New Republic has a good rundown on the facts on this topic, including this passage:

While raw statistics show that public employees get more compensation than private employees doing comparable work, research that adjusts for variables like education has suggested otherwise. Earlier this year, a study with such adjustments by economists Keith Bender and John Heywood concluded that compensation for local and state workers was, on average, 6.8 to 7.4 percent lower than compensation for comparable private sector workers.
Also, as Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research points out, many public employees don’t get Social Security. Overall, he says, “most public sector pensions do not provide retirees with an especially high standard of living.” Exceptions to this rule frequently include firefighters and police, particularly in New York. Then again, they risk their lives to protect the rest of us from lethal threats, which is more than you can say for CEOs like the former telecom executive who in 2007 retired with a $159 million benefit package.

The broader point, as Cohn makes clear, is that conservatives are trying to embitter struggling private-sector workers by making them resent struggling public-sector workers. If there is a “gap” between the economic security they enjoy, then it’s only logical to ask if that’s the result of public-sector employee luxury or private-sector employee impoverishment:

To what extent is the problem that the retirement benefits for unionized public sector workers have become too generous? And to what extent is the problem that retirement benefits for everybody else have become too stingy?
I would suggest it’s more the latter than the former. The promise of stable retirement–one not overly dependent on the ups and downs of the stock market–used to be part of the social contract. If you got an education and worked a steady job, then you got to live out the rest of your life comfortably. You might not be rich, but you wouldn’t be poor, either.
Unions, whatever their flaws, have delivered on that for their members. (In theory, retirement was supposed to rest on a “three-legged stool” of Social Security, pensions, and private benefits.) But unions have not been able to secure similar benefits for everybody else.

So let’s not just assume a race-to-the-bottom where all middle-class folk are expected to struggle is the natural state of things, particularly when the very wealthy are obtaining an ever-increasing share of America’s wealth and other blessings.

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