Thursday, June 7, 2012

Tahrir and the Badger: a postmortem

Sadness precludes analysis or even comment;  let the gifted cartoonist Tom Toles  speak for us here.

As threnody, we simply reprint an earlier post.


I do try to stay away from politics on this site, since

(1) Everything political is already blogged to death
(2) You’re more likely to ignite a flame-war than to persuade anyone
(3) Blogs need a focus -- for this one, primarily philosophy of math and science, often with a theological slant.  
(4) I don’t in general have more political wisdom than the best political commentators (one of them linked-to in the previous post, to which this is an addendum), and have necessarily less empirical grounding than does someone who does that sort of thing full-time.

There is, however, one motivation peculiar to people of my background, which might justifiably call forth comment:   the same motivation that led John Allen Paulos to publish his very useful A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper,  or Bryan Hayes and other statistically sophisticated authors  to pen essays about redistricting and measuring school performance and what have you, in that excellent periodical American Scientist  (American Scientist is now  what Scientific American used to be, decades ago, back when it was any good).  Namely, when a simple bit of logic can be applied to blow away the fog.

Now, logic is what we do, folks;  so let’s roll up our sleeves and go.  And note:  The importance of this exercise is  in one sense  quite independent of whatever degree of importance you might ascribe to what is now going on in Wisconsin.    The point is rather to demonstrate how a tiny wink of clear thinking  can show the media presentations to be internally incoherent.

So:  Consider the bill of goods that the Teabaggers are trying to sell us:

(I)  Public-sector workers are better compensated than private-sector workers.   (Of course, this is useless without statistical provisos such as “doing comparable jobs”;  but let’s bracket that.  For the sake of present argument, assume that (I) is true.)
(II) Therefore, for simple fairness, we need to abolish collective-bargaining rights for public workers.

Now, there has been a bit of logical sleight-of-hand here:  (II) deserves its “therefore”  only granted an unstated four-part premise,

(Ia) The superior compensation of public-sector workers is owing to the fact that
(i) collective bargaining is a powerful tool for winning compensation;
(ii) public employees have  rights to collective bargaining;
(iii) this right is not enjoyed by private-sector workers;
(iv) it is this differential access to the right of collective bargaining that results in their unfair advantage over private workers.

Syllogisms based on such smuggled assumptions are known as enthymemes.  They may still point to valid inferences, once the unstated auxiliary premises are made explicit;  but, for obvious reasons, invalid ones often show up in public rhetoric.

Now:  (Iaii) is true in part, though not generally.  (Iaiv) turns out, quite surprisingly, to be basically false -- but to know that requires a lot of specialized empirical knowledge that you will not get if your principle sources of information about the outside world are “American Idol” and “Jersey Shore”.   We are not asking anything so burdensome of the public, as that they should actually read a decent newspaper;  we wish, rather, to point out a conclusion that may reasonably be drawn by anyone with his wits about him, even if he is a quadriplegic who has been deaf and blind and confined to a vault beneath the ocean ever since 1935.

We pause to  do the math.  


All right, pause over.

We must concede that the above conundrum is not resoluble by anyone whose knowledge of the external world ended in 1934.  But if you have access to  information later than that, you know this:  that the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (when FDR was in the White House:  Working people need to take a gander back to that administration, rather than the smoke and mirrors of Ronnie Reagan) guaranteed collective bargaining rights to workers… in the private sector.  Not to workers in the public sector:  those must be granted ad hoc, piecemeal and patchwork, by local or state governments.
Hence:  the factual picture is virtually the reverse of what the Teabaggers are peddling.   Based on their premise (quite plausible in itself) that collective bargaining is a powerful tool for gaining compensation, we would expect private sector workers to be at least as well off as public.   That is, (I) and (Iaiii) actually clash.

Thus endeth what mere, sheer logic can contribute.   All we know at this point is that something is seriously awry in the picture that is painted for us by the (con) artists, and dutifully passed on to an uncritical public  by the timid media.

To go any further involves getting down in the weeds.   Since you can do this as well as I, I’ll mention only a couple of salient points, made earlier this evening on NPR.  First, depending on the state and on the profession, many public employees are covered by collective bargaining and many are not.  Surprising fact:  Those that are are not in general better compensated than those who are not.  This is clearly counter-intuitive, and requires an explanation, which would likely involve consideration of the demonstration effect (which is vividly on display in the Maghreb  even as we speak) and of statistics concerning labor mobility between markets and so forth.   Such an explanation having been provided, (Iai) need not be false.  Indeed, it is obviously intuitively plausible; and I believe it to be true in actual fact.
Another important point, and the reason why I said that (I) is only “partly” true, is that there is a serious apples and oranges problem.   For  -- according to the report on NPR  above-referenced -- another surprising fact:  If you control for education level of the worker, the public worker is slightly undercompensated w.r.t. the private one.  And if you look just at the more highly skilled professional jobs, public workers are relatively even more undercompensated.   (Logical note!   I don’t know whether those two statements are empirically true.  But they show the kind of factor that must be taken into account, if we are not just to spout simplistic nonsense.)


Eppur’ si! “ (I can hear many of you cry).   “Many public workers enjoy grotesquely inflated pensions, phony disability payments, etc. “

Now -- did I say anything above to deny that?   In point of fact, I affirm it.

Given, however (as outlined above) that public/private disparity in collective bargaining muscle does not explain this -- what does?
The problem lies, not essentially with the workers (who all, understandably, public or private, will usually push for the best deal they can get -- those are the rules of the game), but with spineless and venal politicians who, off in the shadows, out of the limelight, strike sweetheart deals with public workers in return for financial contributions and electoral support.   This ability on the part of elected officials is in principle unrelated  to whether or not the workers in question are even unionized:  the officials just want the swag and the votes.   And the reason such deals affect public workers exclusively, relates not to the power of public workers, but to the circumscribed power of public officials, who do not have the power to grant raises and pensions to private workers.
A further supporting wrinkle:  Federal employees do have collective bargaining rights (in many agencies, though not where I work);  this right was granted in 1962 under JFK.   And yet the outragious deals we hear of  are invariably at the state and local level, not the federal.  (My own pension will apparently amount to less than ten percent of my current income.)  So trying to pin the abuses on "Washington" is way off.   Your troubles, irate locals, are home-grown.

Such sweetheart deals were in effect a fraud perpetrated against the public (including the tax-paying workers of the private sector, who must eventually pick up the tab.  Such clever clefts dividing worker from worker, whose natural interests are one and the same, cause bankers to jiggle with mirth).  That they for the most part involve outsize pensions -- a future cost -- rather than something that must come out of the pockets of those who were taxpayers at the time such deals were struck, shows that the stain of fraud extends beyond the officials, and to some extent must touch the general public, which has been massively incurious about such deals for decades, much as they are incurious about environmental ravages that will mostly affect future generations. (This melancholy subject is discussed under the label "the tragedy of the commons".)  For:   Everyone makes out like bandits.  Politicians and public workers get a sweet deal, and for the time being the taxpayers are not out of pocket (any real-time expenses being typically funded by further borrowing), and they enjoy (for that time) smooth uninterrupted public services provided by happy campers.   The victims here are the next generation, to whom, grinning, politicians and unions both  present the bills, for services rendered to the generation before.  (And I am myself speaking as a codger;  just, a logical codger.)


Nothing to do with logic, but what is needed now:

The Rabid Right is trying to roll back, not just the LBJ Great Society, but FDR’s New Deal.  
They've been stewing in their own rancid juices, ever since 1932.

OK, let’s start all over, from square one.  Suggested reading:
John Steinback,  In Dubious Battle (1936),  The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
 And here's another voice from that era:

Solidarity forever.

[For further labor-related posts, click on the Label immediately below.]

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