The Government Class

The language of “tough choices” threatens to make a mockery of the reckoning we face today. Not because we don’t face tough choices in the way elected officials mean that we do. And not because, a level down from policymaking, flesh and blood human beings — liberal, conservative, other — are going to have to bear the consequences of policy in their daily lives. No, the real reckoning is with each other. We can see that happening already in Wisconsin. This kind of fury — I almost said ‘divisiveness’ — is going to get worse before it gets better, because the true stakes of our reckoning are only going to grow clearer.

The clarity is going to hit simultaneously at the level of principle and of practicality. As talk turns to the ‘new class war’, the concept of a class defined not so much by its net worth or tax bracket as by its economic (and therefore political) dependence on government will sharpen step for step with the reality of this class, which will be hitting home in all its gruesome implications for those outside and inside it.

So already we can see a reactionary confusion setting in on the left. Because Republicans are going after the government class as an idea and a reality, liberals and progressives are under intense pressure to follow Roger Ebert’s lead in responding this way:

My dad was right. “The Republican Party is against the working man.”

Anyone who responds to the current crisis by anointing unionized employees of the government as the epitome of ‘the working man’ is placing themselves, and I really do not say this lightly, at the mercy of socialism — not just as an intellectual theory, but as an emotional promise of happiness. There has never been a viable, durable Labor Party in the US. But neither has the government class ever been so big or faced such an existential threat.

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More On This Topic:

JOHN YOO > How to Save California: Outlaw Public Employee Unions

  1. Cal Lawton

    Oh no, Mr. Ebert, MY dad is right, “The Democratic Party is against the working man.”

    Today Democrats only speak in terms of groups, not of individuals, where the respective leadership convinces the members that individuality is incompatible with increased income, standard of living, and achievement. Spinning off groups, classes, creates identity that is surely unifying, yet develops as a tool to codify a sense of oppression by, and inequality to, management — be that a corporation, the mayor’s office, or the school board. How then can a working man ever hope to distinguish himself from the crowd? It is not permitted.

    More to the point, government produces nothing. So if we accept a socialist lens, how can government labor be a class as it does not add value to product?

    Sure, counting textbooks in a warehouse or manning a desk at the DMV is far from exciting employment, but that’s the trade-off for never being downsized.

  2. Good Berean

    Right on!

  3. Pseudodionysius

    Help me out. Didn’t I read somewhere in a long since misplaced Peter Drucker book that unionized workers couldn’t ring anymore out of the economy because they already get a huge chunk of corporate profit out of America through their massively generous pension plans?

  4. Rob Bennett

    Does the Government Class include academics?

    Academics have been pushing Buy-and-Hold Investing for decades. It is the idea that we don’t need to lower our stock allocations when prices reach insane levels that caused the crash and a wipe-out of middle-class retirement accounts. There is now 30 years of research done by brave academics like Robert Shiller showing that Buy-and-Hold doesn’t work. But most fear speaking out or publishing research going against the orthodoxy.

    Academics don’t pay any price when their theories don’t work. It’s the middle-class investors who pay the price. It’s the same general phenomenon of one group being protected from the consequences of its actions and another group being forced to pay the bill. A free market becomes the worst of all options when a Ruling Class (which includes government but is not limited to it) is placed above the rest of the populace.

    Rob

  5. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Rob Long: Paul is exactly right — this fight is about lifelong tenure, extravagant wages, and a contempt for the tax-paying class.  In other words, this is the battlefield of our dreams.  My prediction: by Friday, polls will overwhelmingly show that the American people understand what’s going on.  Scott Walker will be the next Chris Christie; Obama will sink further in the polls. · Feb 19 at 11:52am

    I would be very surprised if you were wrong.

  6. Peter Robinson
    C
    Paul A. Rahe

    Rob Long: Paul is exactly right — this fight is about lifelong tenure, extravagant wages, and a contempt for the tax-paying class.  In other words, this is the battlefield of our dreams.  My prediction: by Friday, polls will overwhelmingly show that the American people understand what’s going on.  Scott Walker will be the next Chris Christie; Obama will sink further in the polls. · Feb 19 at 11:52am

    I would be very surprised if you were wrong. · Feb 19 at 3:44pm

    Surprised?  I’d be astounded.  

  7. Jimmy Carter
    Paul A. Rahe: One thing worth noting. Very few of the folks in the private-sector unions sympathize with the public-sector unions. The folks in the private sector pay into their own pension plans (usually, these days, 401ks). They also pay a substantial part of their health insurance costs out of their own pockets. They do not have tenure in their jobs, and they do not think of teachers earning on average $100,000 a year as put upon and oppressed. · Feb 19 at 11:23am

    May I add that public-sector unions don’t ever have to worry about the results of their “work.”

  8. Good Berean

    Great post James. And thanks for the reminder about John’s post.

    This is one of the greatest problems facing Europe as well. Worse for them because they are much farther down that road.

    On a personal level, my brother in law is a semi-retired teacher in Massachusetts, and we had some long talks about these issues when he was visiting last summer. I believe that this part of the social compact needs to be renegotiated, and it will be a painful process. I do hope that we will remember that most public sector employees have a lot vested in the status quo, not just in dollars but in self-worth. When people feel threatened economicaly, they feel threatened in their person and will tend to become reactive, angry, and bitter.

    Love of neighbor needs to be in the forefront of our thinking and our behavior if we are, as a society,  to navigate the rough waters ahead and come to port sound.

  9. Deleted Account
    Rob Bennett: Does the Government Class include academics?

    Rob · Feb 20 at 2:08am

    From my POV, I’d definitely say yes. The target shouldn’t be Government class – after all, most government workers are simple cannon fodder like the rest of us, just on a different side of the barricades. The target should be the Governing class; those people who lay out the theory, promise the world to their followers, and consider the general citizenry as a manipulatable statistical mass.

    Codavilla’s essay – America’s Ruling Class - is always worth a read.

     

  10. Skid McBrick
    James Poulos:

    “The clarity is going to hit simultaneously at the level of principle and of practicality.”

    There is quite a contrast of what each side is fighting for.  On the one hand you have an intellectual ideal called collective bargaining.  On the other hand are serious issues of practicality.  Both have sever consequences and the clarity is increasing day by day.

  11. david foster

    Paul Rahe said “Very few of the folks in the private-sector unions sympathize with the public-sector unions”

    I haven’t seen any statistics on this…but in virtually all unionized private-sector businesses, there are at least some performance standards for keeping one’s job. If you’re a welder in an auto plant or an airplane factory who doesn’t really know how to weld very well and won’t learn, then you’re unlikely to keep your job for very long. This is much less true for the typical government employee, especially in the public schools.

  12. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    One thing worth noting. Very few of the folks in the private-sector unions sympathize with the public-sector unions. The folks in the private sector pay into their own pension plans (usually, these days, 401ks). They also pay a substantial part of their health insurance costs out of their own pockets. They do not have tenure in their jobs, and they do not think of teachers earning on average $100,000 a year as put upon and oppressed.

  13. Rob Long
    C

    Paul is exactly right — this fight is about lifelong tenure, extravagant wages, and a contempt for the tax-paying class.  In other words, this is the battlefield of our dreams.  My prediction: by Friday, polls will overwhelmingly show that the American people understand what’s going on.  Scott Walker will be the next Chris Christie; Obama will sink further in the polls.

  14. david foster

    The “government class” should be defined to include people who are members of what I call the “extended government”…those who are not directly government employees, but whose financial well-being is tied to specific government programs and/or the general expansion of government.

    This category includes, first and foremost, the well-paid executives of non-quite-public-not-quite-private entities like Fannie and Freddie. It includes lobbyists, and lawyers with a regulatory practice, as well as executives and employees of corporations which exist primarily to collect money from the government, not to mention the consulting firms and “nonprofits” to which a good portion of the government’s thinking is now outsourced.

    More on this at my post paying higher taxes can be very profitable.

  15. M1919A4
    Pseudodionysius: Help me out. Didn’t I read somewhere in a long since misplaced Peter Drucker book that unionized workers couldn’t ring anymore out of the economy because they already get a huge chunk of corporate profit out of America through their massively generous pension plans? · Feb 19 at 12:36pm

    This is the Drucker book:

    The Unseen Revolution: How Pension Fund Socialism Came to America.

    Amazon has it now.  I read it when it first appeared, but can remember little of it other than the thesis, which was that the union pension funds were such large shareholders in big American corporations that the members would have to take into account the effect upon on their retirement programs of their current wage demands.

  16. Freesmith

    No, that’s not it, nor is the distinction between public sector unionism and private sector unionism accurate to describe the battle that is going on in Wisconsin.

    It’s all about OPM – Other people’s money.

    Yes, Democratic lawmakers wrote sweetheart deals for the public sector unions who supported them in an corrupt feedback loop. And yes, they protected themselves by putting the “sweets” in the future (pensions and benefits) so the lawmakers could appear fiscally prudent at the time.

    But how is that different from the Big 3 automakers? Didn’t they, in the 70s and 80s, buy labor peace and make themselves look good to their stockholders with exactly the same tactic? Didn’t they essentially turn their private companies into healthcare providers with small automotive subsidiaries? 

    The answer is YES and the reason is because the management of those companies only had “short-term skin” in the game, just like the politicians. Once they got out and cashed their options, what did they care? The healthcare and pension benefits would be paid with OPM.

    Correcting Proudhon, “Socialism is theft,” and socialism, whether in the public or the private sphere, is spending other people’s money. 

  17. Jason Hart
    Rob Long: Paul is exactly right — this fight is about lifelong tenure, extravagant wages, and a contempt for the tax-paying class.  In other words, this is the battlefield of our dreams.  My prediction: by Friday, polls will overwhelmingly show that the American people understand what’s going on.  Scott Walker will be the next Chris Christie; Obama will sink further in the polls. · Feb 19 at 11:52am

    Rob, thank you for the strongest dose of optimism I’ve had in weeks! I’ve been reading very little Ricochet, as I’m doing some web consulting and covering Ohio’s union fight, and it’s easy for me to assume the whole endeavor will crash under the weight of the unions’ highly polished class warfare BS.