Jan 3, 2011

Attacks on public employees, 2011 edition

Here are some headlines from the last few days: "Public Workers Face Outrage as Budget Crises Grow." "Cuomo Plans One-Year Freeze on State Workers' Pay." "Frustration, Outrage, and Neighborly Bonds on an Unplowed Block in Queens."

These headlines, and others like them, encapsulate for me the deep conflict our country has about the value and merit of government services. We want our government to provide for our needs and wants, like plowing our streets, but we don't want to pay for those services, acknowledge their worth, or value the people who provide them. We want well-paved and well-plowed streets, prompt trash collection, good public transportation, reliable mail delivery, and all the rest. Those things cost money, and if we're not willing to pay for them in straight-up taxes, we will either have to forfeit them or pay for them some other way. We could, for example, increase our budget deficits, subway fares, and stamp prices.

Inevitably, those fiscal strategies shift the revenue burden to the young (or the future young) and the poor. They also damage our middle class, not least because public employment is a primary way for people to get to and stay in the middle income levels. Remember, when we talk about cutting government services and laying off public employees, we're talking about laying off people - not some abstract "big government," but actual people who have to pay rent and raise their kids and who, when they lose their jobs, decrease consumer spending and thereby hurt the economy. Why don't we instead ask people with more money - say, millionaires - to chip in more by increasing the actual marginal tax rates? Oh, I know why - it's because Republicans, and many Democrats, adhere to a primary principle that they will never, ever, raise taxes on the wealthy. Matt Yglesisas has some interesting things to say about that here.

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