Monday, February 28, 2011

Piece of Advice #89: Don't take it personally, we just don't want to pay for your stuff anymore II (public sector edition)

From the mailbox today, reader Janice says:
I'd just like to comment on one current situation. I am a federal employee. I chose to join the "feds" a few years ago, after almost twenty years of various private sector jobs. I admit, I was like you, my jobs were just a way to make a living, I was always drawn to creative pursuits (which, I do admit, are not practical ways to make a living) and I was laid off many times in my private sector career, and yearned for something more stable (especially since I was single and over a certain age- the writing was on the wall, so to speak.) I chuckle now, because, I know that there is no such thing as "security", but federal employment seemed like a better bet than most things going.
I've realized several things. Mainly:
  1. People who have spent their entire career/several years in government have NO clue. They have never been laid off, and have no concept of what its like to have a job one day, go to lunch, and come back and find out that you and your entire department has been let go (with one week of severance pay, if you are lucky) They whine about not getting a raise. I tell them that if they were in the private sector, many of them (myself included) would more than likely not have a job at all.
  2. I think its appalling that the union members expect everyone but themselves to contribute to their retirement. I do not, nor have I ever been part of a union, but the expectations of those who's future if financed entirely but someone but them, again have NO clue. I am lucky to have the government TSP program, but I contribute to my own retirement just as I have for all the years in the private sector to my 401 K ( when I could afford it.)

There is more, but I am still amazed every day in the wake of what is going on that the union members just DO not get it. File this one under "Don't take it personally, we just don't want To Pay for your Stuff anymore" Part II- Federal Edition.
This is an interesting perspective.  I have been watching what has been going on in Wisconsin and in other states with a nail-biting interest.  I have hesitated to comment on it here because my parents (and my grandmother) were public schoolteachers and have sympathy for the union position.  I respect their contributions and their hard work, and, what's more, I don't wish to see them lose their pensions.  I also think teaching school can be very demanding and has gotten progressively more so as the two-parent family has crashed and burned.  It is difficult to effectively teach children who come to school hungry, whose home lives are chaotic, whose parents have no interest in their success or failure to learn.  My family is full of teachers, my nearest neighbor is a teacher, I taught school myself for a year abroad, and I didn't care to continue doing it stateside.

However.  The public sector gets and has gotten a compensation package that is far more generous and more dependable than the one private sector workers get, and we the poorer are paying out of pocket for public workers to get them.  This has been said better and at length around the web, and I will direct you to them.  Today Kevin D. Williamson opined on this in his piece, "Upending Our Caste System" for National Review, and last week Chuck, aided by Novaseeker, did an outstanding blog that said all I was thinking and more.  Please forgive me, but I must quote copiously:
(Novaseeker:) As for the substance, these teachers unions, and the Democratic state senators who are staying out of Wisconsin to prevent a State Senate quorum, are basically subverting the democractic process. There was an election last November, and the Republicans won, both in the state legislature and in the state house. The teachers got to vote along with everyone else. And the Republicans won. The unions don’t get a second bite at the electoral apple by subverting the democratic process to, in effect, nullify the results of an election. This is in outright defiance of the will of the people of Wisconsin, who just elected the GOP to these positions a few months ago — and Gov. Walker’s views were well-known before he was elected. The Democrats attacked him for these views during the campaign, and they lost. Now they are simply trying to relitigate the election. Bastards, cowardly, subversives. The state senators who are refusing to show up should be ashamed of themselves. The teachers who “called in sick” to march in anti-taxpayer rallies (because that is what they are) should be docked pay and given warnings that if they do this again they will be subject to progressive discipline. I don’t get to play hooky from work for political reasons — why should they, and not least of which on the taxpayers’ dime.

These public sector unions are way, way out of hand. Let’s get this straight. Those of us in the private sector have to pay into our own 401k plans (pensions being a thing of the past in the private sector) and essentially finance our own retirement. At the same time, we are also subsidizing the retirements of these public sector employees, who pay less into their retirement accounts than we do, while *we* make up the difference in taxes. This is fair? I don’t think so, and a LOT of people agree. And let’s not kid ourselves, either — the average wages of public sector employees are higher than the average wages of private sector employees, as well, so here again we have people of lesser means subsidizing those of higher means. And all because of the thuggish unions. Disgusting.

It’s good that this is coming to a head, however. The public sector unions, as large as they may be, are outnumbered vastly by people in the private sector who, in a time of fiscal austerity and budget cutting all around (private and public), have mostly no stomach at all for these crybabies who want to preserve their golden apple at the expense of everyone else. The ones who are on their side are the die-hard lefty activists — 60s retreads and their younger counterparts like Daily Kos and so on. The mainstream people in the middle (and of course almost everyone on the right) are dead-set against them, and this public sector union issue is now becoming a huge political win, I think, for Republicans, due to the way that moderates also tend to feel about these public sector unions.

The left has to support them, of course, because they are a main pillar in the program of extending the government. If you have a big enough group of public sector employees who are dependent on the state budget for their livelihood, you can rest assured these voters are going to back the political party that is in favor of spending and against spending cuts, and also in favor of expanding the government — meaning more jobs for them and their friends. So you get this vicious political cycle — the government employees vote overwhelmingly Democratic, and then the state expanse the public sector, and then there are more people voting for the Democrats. So of course the left has to support them. Take away public sector unions, and this pillar falls down, or at least is severely damaged, so it’s no real surprise that the Democrats and other leftists are making their stand in Wisconsin.

They cannot win politically, however, unless they simply shut the government down. That will cost politically at a time when they want to be blaming the Republicans for government shut-downs — but in this case the Republicans have the votes they need, and it’s the Democrats who are blocking the Democratic process in an extra-constitutional manner. It’s desperate and disgusting, but quite revealing of what the left in this country is capable of.
and then:
(Chuck:) Some are calling Scott Walker the “Mubarak of the Midwest”, but, in reality, it is the government workers who have dictatorial power.   If anything, Walker is the anti-Mubarak.  The Republican governor is the analogue to the revolutionists in the streets of Egypt.  It is the government workers who are an atomized version of the Egyptian dictator, for it is they who can’t be deposed.  Their wishes must be acquiesced at the point of a gun.  Taxpayers in that state have to pay their taxes lest they face heavy penalty, fine, and possible imprisonment.  If they skip out on prison, rest assured that someone with a gun strapped to their hip will come looking for them.
As I've said many times here at The Lost Art of Self-Preservation (for Women) if you owe something to someone in perpetuity, you are, in a very real sense, their debtor, their thing to control.  The various layers of government have created via taxes a web of servitude.  If income disappears or prices inflate, we could choose to buy less.  Even something truly necessary, such as heat in winter, could be consumed less.  My family could live in one room or in the basement to conserve it.  But if I can't pay my property, state, or federal taxes, I could lose my home and/or my freedom.  I can't choose to pay less of them just because I can't afford them.  Knowing this and wishing to be as free as possible from a required payment that is not negotiable, I support Scott Walker's desire to put the taxpayer in the driver's seat in regards to its employee contracts.

In the above video David Gregory repeatedly tries to put Walker on the defensive by stating that the unions are now willing to compromise on salary and pension, but does he think that we the public are so stupid as to believe that this year's compromise means anything?  It is a temporary setback in a war of aggression.  The heat is on.  When an adult comes out of a house and onto the street, the bully who has the neighbor boy by the shirt and is ready to pound him, lets go for an instant and smiles innocently.  But what happens to the kid when the adult goes back inside?  We all know.  It would be foolish to believe for one instant talk can solve anything. Talking to a bully is only forestalling a beating.

Gregory also carps on about "shared sacrifice" insinuating that this is all just a vendetta by a greedy governor unwilling to also give things up.  But the governor represents the taxpayer, and the private sector taxpayer has already been squeezed like an orange.  Just for reference I went and looked up my husband's tax returns for the past 11 years.  I knew we'd taken a huge hit, and this was confirmed by a little number crunching.  In 1999 he paid approximately 2% of his gross income for health insurance.  Each year, this steadily increased until in 2006 it was 15% where it stayed, give or take a percentage point, until 2009 when his work moved to discontinue the PPO plan they offered (by that time also encumbered with deductibles and copays) and replaced it with a high-deductible major medical plan tied to an HSA.  The percentage he contributed remained at 11-12% of his gross income, however, approximately two-thirds of it went into a savings account that remains his until it is spent on future medical bills.

Just to make this clear, that 15% was of his gross income, not 15% of the cost of the insurance.  We were bearing 50% or more of that cost.  His employer also froze his pension in 2006.

While all this was happening in the private sector there wasn't too much outcry from the public sector about unfairness and lost benefits and people going hungry down the line into old age.  This is only to be expected because humans tend to care only about the things that affect them.  The unions care because they don't want to lose their power, influence, and money stream.  The public sector employees don't want to pay more for cruddier benefits, and the taxpayers don't want to pay for others what they don't get even themselves.

But here's the deal: there are more taxpayers than there are union leaders and public sector employees.  And there isn't any money, so this must be solved now.  What's interesting to me is how young Scott Walker is.  In a very significant way, this is intergenerational conflict.  We will see what the Gen X politicians do now that the can of indebtedness has been kicked their way.

Why is this piece of advice relevant to The Lost Art of Self-Preservation (for Women) readers?  Because so many public sector workers are women and are, therefore, dependent on the increasingly overburdened and hostile taxpayer for their livelihood.  Expect and prepare for your standard of living to decline.


  1. I think of all the public employees the state governments could have taken on, teachers were the most foolish choice. Sure, some are lazy and some are overpaid, but most make average wages and do decent work. (Dirty little secret: the big money is in administration.) Yes, some cuts are necessary, and unions need to acquiesce to that reality.

    However, the states, particularly Indiana, have given teachers an increasingly tough job in recent years. Teachers are more or less prohibited from exercising discipline in their classrooms and bureaucrats in the state capitol have made a point of changing the curriculum every two to three years. I'm sorry, but the basics of math and English just do not change year-to-year, and thus there is little need for semi-annual overhauls.

    in the final analysis, I would recommend that the teachers' unions behave a little more prudently: stop defending the extremely overpaid and incompetent teachers. Understand that some complaints are justified and others are not. This all-or-nothing approach just doesn't cut it. Also realize that you will not win the people (you know, the ones who vote) over to your side if you are unwilling to share in their suffering. There is nothing unreasonable about teachers contributing to health care and retirement funds out of pocket; this is common in the private sector. And remember: a pay cut is better than unemployment.

  2. I worked for the federal government for several years and now in the private sector. I have not extensively studied this topic, etc., so the below are just reflections based on my experience.

    The private sector makes a lot more money, but federal employment is more secure with better benefits (fewer hours, set vacation, cheaper health care payments.) Younger workers, like I am, have to pay into the federal version of a 401K and do not get some easy access to retirement after 25 years.

    The problem is those employees who started before 198-, who get to retire with benefits after a set number of years, regardless of their actual age. No one should be retiring off public money until you're close to your age of death.

    However, those employees accepted a payment contract which, in all cases I've ever seen, involved lower wages for the same work as in the private sector.

    I agree with much of the proposed changes by Wisconsin's Governor, but as long as private sector employees have the right to unionize and collectively bargain, the public employees should too.

  3. Grerp:

    Good post and thanks for the shout out.

    Fiscal chickens are coming home to roost. That's really all there is to it. Public sector employees must take their haircut too. The private sector certainly has. I'd love to see a statistic showing the % of public sector employees who have faced foreclosure compared to the number of private employees who've faced the same.

    Public employee unions may remain quiet while we have massive budget deficits, but they'll resume their push to sop up taxpayer funds as soon as these budget crises are fixed. The public employee union and high government spending experiments have proved unsustainable and, thus, ineffective.

  4. Where is a good old fashioned angry mob with pitchforks and torches, tying the nooses up on some nice thick, sturdy branches and setting up the guillotines on raised platforms when you really need one?

    Oh yeah... We're at work. We're at the cash registers in big box retail stores, working our hands to the bones, standing on our feet for 8+ hours at a time, watching parasites like these use their EBT (welfare) cards to buy better stuff than we could ever afford on our measly minimum wage jobs. We're driving trucks from one end of the end of this nation to the other on extremely tight schedules. We're deliver packages for UPS or Fedex, hurting our backs to put food on the table. We're in offices, making sure that everyone on our staff gets their paychecks on time.

    Screw the parasites, I say. Fire them all. We're currently understaffed at our store, but because of things like welfare, people aren't motivated to apply and take a job with us. It's nice to have the extra hours, which means more money in our pockets, but it sucks that none of us really have any time or energy to do something else in our free time because we're so overworked.

    --A nameless guy who is trying really hard to win "Most Boring and Average Guy in the World" Award.

  5. And demonizing the unions who are made up of workers who also pay taxes and who may or may not agree with all the things their leadership does solves the problem how? When this is all said and done, there will be many changes - many of them very unpleasant. We all know it. We all know there is going to be a lot of hurt because we are in a corner. Will we actually have created a better world by saying the significant segment of the society should have no place at the table in finding solutions to the problem? Smells funny to me.

  6. anonymous:

    you are talking about taxpayers right? because it is unions who represent gov't workers who have been negotiating with taxpayers *agents* - elected representatives. this means that it is taxpayers who have not had a place at the table - until now.

  7. My parents are both teachers (not in Wis.) and all they do is complain. They complain about the admin, the pay, the benefits, the hours, the kids, the vacation (whaat??) you name it. I checked their wages online (public knowledge) and I was surprised at how much they were making. Now every time I visit them (not often) I try to scold and shame them whenever they complain. They have taken notice.

    FTR I work in the private sector in a consulting business (read: billable hours).

  8. My high school age son is thinking of going into teaching. He's a smart kid who would probably teach math and coach basketball. While I admire his thinking, I have to counsel against it. Teachers get treated like %^&* these days, and can't make a decent living in many places in the country.

    I agree with the poster who said that administrative positions are overpaid. And some of the law enforcement in some places (Google CA salaries and pensions). I note that the Gov. of WI has excluded the unions who supported his election. It's just politics, people.

    But every state will have to grapple with this locally. And everybody needs to take some pain. That means less pay/benefits and more taxes. Get used to it and get over it. You're not special.

  9. I'd love to see a statistic showing the % of public sector employees who have faced foreclosure compared to the number of private employees who've faced the same.

    Chuck - I'd be very interested to see that as well.

  10. I am far more interested in seeing the financial pirates get punished. They are the ones receiving billions of taxpayer money to solve their self-caused problems. In fact if we took the banks' money and split it up we could all have nice vacations every year.

    I don't see why the suffering of the worker should be valorized. Private-sector workers should in fact be interested in getting the same kinds of comfortable, indeed humane, benefits as state workers do. They do in Germany and that country's not poor.

  11. My mother is a principal at a public school and she intensely dislikes the teachers' union. They protect the bad teachers. Public school teachers make great money, have excellent benefits and get more time off than almost everyone else. They really have nothing to complain about. People are getting really tired of it where I live.

  12. LOL I am over two years late-but all government employees are not represented by unions especially in the South (where I reside). In addition, I can assure you if I were in the private sector (as I was for many years), I would be paid for the amount of overtime that is expected as a social worker.