Tag Archives: public unions

Unemployment and the Declining Middle Class

I know there are plenty of big fish in the skillet these days: the disaster in Japan, the civil war that we’ve forgotten about in Libya, and the fact that the right side of my NCAA bracket has already collapsed like a tent in a tornado.

Still, I’m fretting about unemployment, especially the fact that our economy is not creating or sustaining quality, well-paying jobs. And I’m back to a now familiar theme: the growing divide in this country between those at the top of the economic and job ladder and those at the bottom.

And when you combine those two issues, you get a glimpse at why the debate over public employee jobs and unions — especially in a state like Ohio that has bleed the manufacturing and other jobs that supported a vibrant middle class — is so important and so contentious.

Paul Krugman in his NYT Op-Ed this morning — “The Forgotten Millions” — looks at unemployment and the reality that jobs and job creation are on the back burner these days if they are on the stove at all. Here’s an excerpt:

More than three years after we entered the worst economic slump since the 1930s, a strange and disturbing thing has happened to our political discourse: Washington has lost interest in the unemployed.

Jobs do get mentioned now and then — and a few political figures, notably Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, are still trying to get some kind of action. But no jobs bills have been introduced in Congress, no job-creation plans have been advanced by the White House and all the policy focus seems to be on spending cuts.

So one-sixth of America’s workers — all those who can’t find any job or are stuck with part-time work when they want a full-time job — have, in effect, been abandoned.

It might not be so bad if the jobless could expect to find new employment fairly soon. But unemployment has become a trap, one that’s very difficult to escape. There are almost five times as many unemployed workers as there are job openings; the average unemployed worker has been jobless for 37 weeks, a post-World War II record.

In short, we’re well on the way to creating a permanent underclass of the jobless.

Why doesn’t Washington care?

Part of the answer may be that while those who are unemployed tend to stay unemployed, those who still have jobs are feeling more secure than they did a couple of years ago. Layoffs and discharges spiked during the crisis of 2008-2009 but have fallen sharply since then, perhaps reducing the sense of urgency. Put it this way: At this point, the U.S. economy is suffering from low hiring, not high firing, so things don’t look so bad — as long as you’re willing to write off the unemployed.

Yet polls indicate that voters still care much more about jobs than they do about the budget deficit. So it’s quite remarkable that inside the Beltway, it’s just the opposite.

Well Dr. K, consider that for the elected officials and their staffs, lobbyists, K Street lawyers, government bureaucrats, policy wonks and other miscreants Inside the Beltway there is never a recession, let alone a Great Recession.

Yet everywhere else, people are worried about jobs — whether they have one or not — and Krugman is right. Unemployment can be a trap. Here’s a NYT editorial “The Unemployed Need Not Apply“:

The Federal Reserve is projecting unemployment to continue at or near 9 percent for the rest of the year. That is 13.9 million Americans out of work. Here is more grim news: Barriers to employment for jobless workers may be even higher than previously thought.

As the Fed updated its forecast last week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held a forum on discrimination against unemployed job seekers. Members of Congress had urged the commission to explore the issue, after reading press reports of numerous instances in which employers and staffing agencies refused to consider the unemployed for openings.

The message — “the unemployed need not apply” — has at times been explicitly stated in job announcements. In other cases, unemployed job seekers have reported verbal rejections after a recruiter or employer learned they were not currently working.

And many of those long-term unemployed — or long-term underemployed — once held jobs that provided middle class incomes, medical benefits and retirement benefits. But as those jobs have disappeared, so has the support for public employees who still have incomes, medical benefits and retirement benefits that afford at best a middle class lifestyle.

Again, from the NYT, “Ohio Town Sees Public Job as Only Route to Middle Class“:

GALLIPOLIS, Ohio — Jodi and Ralph Taylor are public workers whose jobs as a janitor and a sewer manager cover life’s basics. They have moved out of a trailer into a house, do not have to rely on food stamps and sometimes even splurge for the spicy wing specials at the Courtside Bar and Grill.

While that might not seem like much, jobs like theirs, with benefits and higher-than-minimum wages, are considered plum in this depressed corner of southern Ohio. Decades of industrial decline have eroded private-sector jobs here, leaving a thin crust of low-paying service work that makes public-sector jobs look great in comparison.

Now, as Ohio’s legislature moves toward final approval of a bill that would chip away at public-sector unions, those workers say they see it as the opening bell in a race to the bottom. At stake, they say, is what little they have that makes them middle class.

“These jobs let you put good food on the table and send your kids on school trips,” said Monty Blanton, a retired electrician and union worker. “The gap between low and middle is collapsing.”

Gallipolis (pronounced gal-uh-POLICE) is a faded town on the Ohio River, one whose fortunes fell with the decline in industries like steel in bigger cities along the river. That erased a swath of middle-income jobs in the area, said Bob Walton, who, as a commissioner for the Southern Ohio Port Authority, an economic development agency, has tracked the economic history of the area for decades.

“It’s a real big change,” Mr. Walton said. “It has changed the complexion of our community.”

Today, storefronts are mostly dark. About one in three people live in poverty. Billboards advertise oxygen tanks and motorized wheelchairs. Old photographs in a local diner look like an exhibit from a town obituary. The region has some of the highest rates of prescription drug abuse in the state, with more people dying from overdoses than car crashes, according to Ed Hughes, executive director of the Counseling Center in Portsmouth, about 55 miles west of here.

David Beaver, 65, a barber, said that when he got out of high school, “you could go anywhere you wanted to and pick your job.”

“Now, it’s depressing,” Mr. Beaver said. “I hear the boys talking. They can’t find anything.”

It is not that there are no jobs, but rather that the jobs available pay too little and have no benefits, resulting in, as Mr. Beaver put it, “just scraping by.” A private hospital and two power plants do offer good jobs, but they are highly competitive and many require some higher education, something that fewer than one in five people here have, according to 2009 census data.

This strikes me as a situation to be concerned about and not just in Ohio: a lack of good jobs, an increasing number of people without the education and skills to compete for the good jobs that are available, and a declining middle class in both the public and private sectors.

And, as Dr. K writes, “Why doesn’t Washington care?”

By the way, as we slide head first into the weekend, I wanted to revisit an earlier post this week where I opined that taking action at the ballot box these days was more important than taking to the streets in protest.

Well, I read a story later that made we reconsider — at least in one instance.

It appears as though students at Tufts University took to the streets in what was described as a partially nude run around campus to protest the decision by university officials to ban the annual Naked Quad Run, held in mid-December to celebrate the end of classes.

Now that’s a street protest worth joining. Just sayin’.

And on reflection, if the union officials, teachers and other public employees in Wisconsin had taken a similar approach, something tells me Gov. Walker and the Republicans would have folded their tents immediately.

C’mon. Think about it.


Teachers and Scapegoats

Well, I’m back in sunny, warm cold, snowy Northeast Ohio after spending a week in sunny, warm Dataw Island, South Carolina. And I can report that from what I saw last week — flowers blooming, trees budding, grass growing — that spring will make it here: eventually.

While  in Dataw, I managed to climb to the roof often enough in the early a.m. and giggle the laptop just right to connect to the Internet — so I wasn’t off the grid entirely. And as I opined from my perch overlooking the marsh, I don’t understand why we as a nation continue to so enthusiastically — and mistakenly — devalue teachers and teaching.

Here’s an editorial cartoon from Clay Bennett at the Chattanooga Times Free Press as reprinted in the Akron Beacon Journal this morning. On the door: Scapegoats’ Teachers’ Lounge.

Teachers as scapegoats. Sweet. And true — at least from what I have seen during the last 20 years or so and more recently in Ohio, Wisconsin, Texas and elsewhere.

OK. I understand that what is going on now in Ohio, Wisconsin and so on involves more than just teachers — it touches all public employees and focuses on issues involving unions and collective bargaining, pay, benefits and the fact that middle class jobs have declined if not vanished in many states and communities beyond jobs in the public sector.

And there have been plenty of thoughtful commentaries about how the move to trim collective bargaining rights for public sector employees and unions is a political move to diminish political power and campaign contributions among groups typically aligned with the Democratic Party. I guess I’m not that cynical and that seems to give too much credit to people like Scott Walker and John Kasich. But maybe so. We’ll see.

But back to teachers. If we don’t attract, support, retain and reward excellent classroom teachers then this nation is sunk. And yeah, I know, teachers unions protect some poor teachers — just like other unions and civil service rules protect poor pipefitters and federal and state government miscreants. But we are devaluing education. And that matters.

I don’t typically watch Ed Schultz, the liberal Talking Head host of MSNBC’s “The Ed Show,” but he has an interesting post on The Huffington Post, “Why Wisconsin Matters.” Here’s an excerpt:

Governor Scott Walker has leveled the largest assault on public education in the history of the state of Wisconsin. This is an attack on the middle class and an attack on teachers who are being treated as political tools and pawns. They’re bargaining chips in negotiations.

Teachers, who play more of a role in economic development than anybody who wants to take a chance on Wall Street, are being vilified and targeted unfairly.

Nobody goes into teaching to get rich. They do it because they love helping people. They love the reward of seeing kids reach their potential. It takes a special person to be a teacher.

The wonderful thing about public education is that everybody’s welcome — the gifted, the talented, the challenged. The socioeconomically challenged kid can walk in the door and have a chance to learn and his or her only hope, because that home life might not be the best, their hope is that teacher.

Republicans are placing the burden of economic recovery on the backs of the middle class and our teachers. An economic recovery required because of the policies put in place by Republicans, resulting in wealth distribution from the middle class to the top two percent.

My mother was a high school English teacher at Granby High School in Norfolk, Virginia. She had three accelerated classes and three regular classes. My mother graded papers until the wee hours of the morning. She got her kids off to school every day. And when she came home in the afternoon, she was still grading papers, and then she was working on lesson plans on Saturdays.

My mom used to take tremendous pride in knowing that one of her students went off to the University of Virginia and became a doctor. She took a tremendous amount of pride in being part of that student’s education.

And here are two segments from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart that really have a lot to say about what’s wrong with public education — and what’s wrong with the attack on teachers. Both are worth the time to watch.

OK. Well, I’m back and enjoyed survived an early a.m. run in the ice and snow.

And I’m going to continue to opine in my role as a pajama-clad citizen journalist about teaching and teachers. Why?

Well, I’m proud to tell people that I was a classroom teacher — if only for a relatively short time during a 40-year career.

And I believe that if we continue to devalue teaching and teachers — in part by making teachers scapegoats for everything that is wrong with education in this country — the USA will suck an economic and jobs tailpipe that will diminish our prosperity, reduce opportunities for the majority of our young people, and undercut the vitality of our communities and nation as a whole.

Just sayin’.

Ohio and the Value of Teachers and Education

True story: I’m sitting in a small roadhouse cafe, Boondock, just outside Dataw Island last night, enthusiastically eating just-caught shrimp and downing draft beers when a woman approached the table for a stop-and-chat. Her question: “Where you from?” My reply: “Ohio.” Her response: “Oh, too bad.”


But she has a point. The perception among people whom I work with, visit in other states and talk to is that Ohio isn’t really where you want to be these days: high unemployment with little prospect for growing quality and well-paying jobs, crappy weather, housing market in the toilet at best and so on. And it’s a state where as best I can tell young people can’t wait to leave. It’s the old people who are stuck.

Anyway, something clearly has to be done — and I voted for John Kasich so I’m willing to give him the opportunity — along with the Republican-dominated legislature — to actually improve the economy, create jobs and attract industries to Ohio that offer jobs that require more than asking whether you want fries with that burger. (As an aside, here’s an interesting WaPo opinion article from about a month ago written by George Will about John Kasich, “John Kasich: Spoiling for a fight in Ohio.”)

And I understand that we are in the politically popular era of first cutting budgets and government spending and then trying to figure out how to expand the economy and jobs later. Hard to argue with that since Obama’s stimulus money had about the same result as a fart in church. I also understand that there are going to have to be some tough decisions that will translate to sacrifices for all of us in terms of what we can and should expect to see from government in the way of pensions (Social Security included), health care (yep, Medicare as well) and services.

Saying all that, my concern with what is happening in Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and elsewhere to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employees and unions reflects the continuation of a decades-long move in this country to devalue teachers, teaching and education in general. And I don’t understand why we have headed down this road since education is the key to maintaining our standard of living and our economic prosperity — and our very democracy.

And I understand that I am pretty much just a retired college gasbag these days — but at least I have some support on this notion that all the talk about cutting the pay, benefits and collective bargaining rights of teachers is going to make it harder to attract and retain qualified and dedicated teachers. And hey, if you think this is easy — especially in an era where teachers have almost total accountability for student success, or not, as measured by test scores — give it a try.

Here’s from a NYT article, “Teachers Wonder, Why the Scorn?“:

The jabs Erin Parker has heard about her job have stunned her. Oh you pathetic teachers, read the online comments and placards of counterdemonstrators. You are glorified baby sitters who leave work at 3 p.m. You deserve minimum wage.

“You feel punched in the stomach,” said Ms. Parker, a high school science teacher in Madison, Wis., where public employees’ two-week occupation of the State Capitol has stalled but not deterred the governor’s plan to try to strip them of bargaining rights.

Ms. Parker, a second-year teacher making $36,000, fears that under the proposed legislation class sizes would rise and higher contributions to her benefits would knock her out of the middle class.


Around the country, many teachers see demands to cut their income, benefits and say in how schools are run through collective bargaining as attacks not just on their livelihoods, but on their value to society.

Even in a country that is of two minds about teachers — Americans glowingly recall the ones who changed their lives, but think the job with its summers off is cushy — education experts say teachers have rarely been the targets of such scorn from politicians and voters.

And here’s from Matt Miller, opining in WaPo, “The public-sector employees on which our future depends.” (Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center,” writes a weekly column for The Post.)

I get that public-sector workers are on both sides of the table, and that there’s something suspect and rigged when pols lifted into office by these unions return the favor with generous health and pension benefits that break the bank. I also get that this conspiracy to roll taxpayers is equally at work when pols backed by business reward supporters with tax breaks and subsidies worth many times the political contributions received.

I know that Republicans want to use today’s fiscal strain to bust public-sector unions and kneecap the Democrats’ biggest funders, and that budgets are being balanced partly on the backs of public workers that didn’t cause the financial meltdown that blew a hole in these budgets in the first place. This, while Wall Street bankers and assorted billionaires pay taxes at marginal rates that could easily be higher without affecting productive economic activity at all.

I also know that public-union work rules often create crazy inefficiencies that help account for why the United States spends more for less in education and health care than other advanced nations. But I also see that the savings Scott Walker seeks from Wisconsin’s unions amount to only 10 percent of the state’s budget gap. I also think the Democratic Party has a serious problem when an outsize portion of its political clout comes from organizations that are largely detached from private enterprise and wealth creation.

In other words, my holistic understanding of the arguments on all sides is capacious and complete. I say this not to boast but to show that I come by my confusion honestly. I’ll admit that in weighing these points I’m not sure where I come down on the question of who should “win.” I don’t think the sky will fall if public unions lose some of their current power and benefits, and I don’t think stripping them of some current powers and benefits will do anything to address America’s biggest challenges.

The one thing I know for sure, however, is this: The future of the country depends on the public-sector workers known as teachers. That’s because unless we dramatically improve our educational performance, America’s standard of living will be at risk.

The second thing I know for sure is that we’ll never attract the kind of talented young people we need to the teaching profession unless it pays far more than it does today. With starting teacher salaries averaging $39,000 nationally, and rising to an average maximum of $67,000, it’s no surprise that we draw teachers from the bottom two-thirds of the college class; for schools in poor neighborhoods, teachers come largely from the bottom third. We’re the only leading nation that thinks it can stay a leading nation with a “strategy” of recruiting mediocre students and praying they’ll prove excellent teachers.

C’mon, folks. We need excellent teachers — and we need to value teaching and education. It’s that important.

OK. I’m finishing this post just as Mr. Sol is starting to peek over the marsh that surrounds part of Dataw Island, South Carolina.

But today it is back to reality as we return to Ohio.

Oh, too bad.

Wisconsin, Ohio and the Divided Economy

OK. Here’s a pop quiz. Do you have now — or expect to have — enough money in a 401K (or similar) savings account for retirement? If you have a defined benefit pension, how secure is it? Do you have guaranteed medical benefits from your employer now and as you enter the golden years and beyond? If you’re working and lose your job, could you find one with equal pay and benefits?

I expect that many Americans — in all age groups — are giving some thought to those and similar questions. And the answers help shape perceptions about what is happening now in states throughout the country and Inside the Beltway as the federal government prepares for a possible shutdown.

And I know there are plenty of important issues on the table now in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and other states about government spending, deficits, public employees and unions, and collective bargaining.

Oh, sorry. One other question. Does America now have essentially two economies?

What got me thinking about that was an editorial cartoon in the Akron Beacon Journal. I most likely won’t get this exactly right but the cartoon depicts two guys. One labeled a public employee is lamenting the fact that his pension might be cut. The other asks — what’s a pension?

Anyway, if you struggled with the answers to today’s pop quiz, here’s some background info.

Here’s from Robert Reich, “The Jobs Report and America’s Two Economies“:

We have two economies. The first is in recovery. The second remains in a continuous depression.

The first is a professional, college-educated, high-wage economy centered in New York and Washington, that’s living well off of global corporate profits. Corporations continue to make money by selling abroad from their foreign operations while cutting costs (especially labor) here at home. Wall Street is making money by taking the Fed’s free money and speculating with it. The richest 10 percent of Americans, holding 90 percent of all financial assets, are riding the wave. And their upscale spending has given high-end retailers and producers a bounce.

The second is most of the rest of America, and it’s still struggling with a mountain of debt, declining home prices, and job losses. In coming months most Americans will also be contending with sharply rising prices of food and fuel.

Our representatives in Washington see and hear mostly the first economy. The business press reports mainly on the first economy. Corporate and Wall Street economists are concerned largely with the first economy.

But the second economy will determine our politics in 2012 and beyond.

Here’s from a WSJ.com article, “Retiring Boomers Find 401(K) Plans Come Up Short“:

Facing shortfalls, many people are postponing retirement, moving to cheaper housing, buying less-expensive food, cutting back on travel, taking bigger risks with their investments and making other sacrifices they never imagined.

“Inevitably, we find that, for the average person, there is not enough there,” says financial adviser Paul Merritt of NTrust Wealth Management in Virginia Beach, Va., who has found himself advising many retirement-age people with too little savings. “The discussion turns out to be: What kind of part-time work do you want to do after you retire?”

He has clients contemplating part-time work into their 70s, he says.

Tax-deferred 401(k) retirement accounts came into wide use in the 1980s, making baby boomers trying to retire now among the first to rely heavily on them.

The problems are widespread, especially among middle-income earners. About 60% of households nearing retirement age have 401(k)-type accounts, according to government data, and those represent the majority of most people’s savings. The situation is less dire for those in a higher income bracket, who tend to save more outside their 401(k) accounts and who have more margin for error if their retirement returns fall below the recommended 85% figure.

And here’s about new jobs,  from The Huffington Post, “60% of New Jobs in 2010 Were in Low-Paying Industries“:

TrimTabs drills into the Labor Bureau’s data for new jobs added in last year, to reveal some unsetting details: “Of the 1.1 million private jobs gained in the last year, 650,000 or 60% are jobs that have absolutely no real wealth creation capacity, nor do they provide any real benefits.”

60% of new jobs went to Temporary Help, Leisure & Hospitality and Retail trade. Leisure and hospitality pays an average hourly wage of $13.14, while a retail salesperson brings in an average of $11.84 an hour, according to the BLS’ database. Temporary help services can be slightly more lucrative at the higher end (Registered Nurses earn $32.77 an hour), but packers and packagers only earn an average of $8.62 per hour.

As TrimTabs puts it:

These jobs are certainly better than no jobs. But for the economy to grow sustainably — without the crutches of $1+ trillion per year in federal deficit spending, zero percent dictated interest rates, and tens of billions per month in central bank debt monetization — American companies need to start generating more higher-paying jobs at home.

I know. It’s tough to spring a pop quiz on you at 4 a.m. So go ahead and review your answers. And take a minute or two to consider some additional reasons why people are standing out in the streets in the dead of winter in Madison, Columbus and elsewhere shouting at each other.

Libya, Democracy and Civility

Something tells me that events in Libya are not going to end well. Gadhafi said Tuesday he will continue fighting until “he dies a martyr.” That doesn’t sound like he is preparing to go gently into the good night, joining Mubarak at the retirement villa for deposed dictators and  playing shuffleboard to while away the long afternoons before happy hour.

And to put matters into perspective in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East — Egypt included — here’s a NYT article, “When Armies Decide“:

There comes a moment in the life of almost every repressive regime when leaders — and the military forces that have long kept them in power — must make a choice from which there is usually no turning back: Change or start shooting.

Egypt’s military, calculating that it was no longer worth defending an 82-year-old, out-of-touch pharaoh with no palatable successor and no convincing plan for Egypt’s future, ultimately sided with the protesters on the street, at least for Act 1.

In so doing, they ignored the advice of the Saudis, who, in calls to Washington, said that President Hosni Mubarak should open fire if that’s what it took, and that Americans should just stop talking about “universal rights” and back him.

As the contagion of democracy protests spread in the Arab world last week, Bahrain’s far less disciplined forces decided, in effect, that the Saudis, who are their next-door neighbors, were right. They drew two lessons from Egypt: If President Obama calls, hang up. And open fire early.


OK, the situation — revolution? — in Libya is serious to say the least, with plenty of lives already lost — I heard an estimate on TV this morning of 1,000 or more  — and many others certain to be on the line as this thing plays out.

And that’s why it is a major league stretch — for me at least — when pundits and members of the chattering class equate what is going on in Libya, Egypt and so on with the protests in Wisconsin and Ohio over the pension and benefits of public employees, collective bargaining and unions.

Folks, we already live in a representative democracy, and the last time I checked, we go to the polls at certain prescribed intervals and elect our government officials. And if things don’t work out to the satisfaction of voters, then we toss via the ballot box the miscreants out of office and they pack the good china and leave by the front door.

That’s why I have a tough time swallowing Paul Krugman’s suggestion in the NYT that the situation in Wisconsin — and now elsewhere — is somehow making America less of a functioning democracy and leading the USA down the road to becoming a third-world-style oligarchy.

Saying that, I don’t believe that what is happening in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana now should be a complete surprise. Hey, as someone opined, elections have consequences — and as best I can tell the governors and legislators in all the states involved were elected to serve. So it strains my sense of civility when we start calling elected officials a Hitler, a Mubarak, a Gadhafi and so on.

Full disclosure: I voted for John Kasich in Ohio, mostly because it appeared to me that Ted Strickland sat for four years with two thumbs solidly up his ass while the state of Ohio shed jobs and industries. So at this point I’m willing to give Kasich the benefit of the doubt. I got what I asked for –a fiscal conservative who appears willing to make some tough choices that are clearly needed in the Buckeye State.

But I don’t see how drawing a line in the sand on collective bargaining rights for public unions contributes to job growth in Ohio at all. I suppose I’m missing the big picture here

But in any event, couldn’t we tone the demonstrations down a notch? There has to be a more reasoned approach to legislation and policy making than one group shouting “kill the bill” followed by a chorus of “pass the bill.” Wonder if they do the wave? Oops. I digress.

And by the way, four years from now if things don’t improve here in Ohio, I’ll vote to replace John Kasich. And if enough others agree that he hasn’t earned the job, then he’ll pack the china and exit. And voters will have arranged an orderly transfer of power in one of the most serene settings anywhere: in the voting booth. And that’s a long way right now from the streets in the Middle East.

Wisconsin: What’s Really Happening?

Does anyone really understand the issues involved in the contentious — remember when a few weeks ago we were looking at a new era of civility? — protests taking place in Wisconsin involving public-service employees, unions and, in my view, philosophically the role and reach of government in this country.

I’m not sure, despite my best efforts, that I completely understand what is happening in Wisconsin — and what is about to happen in Ohio and other states as elected officials attempt to reduce government spending, cut pensions and reduce health care expenses, and restrict collective bargaining rights.

One problem is the way this and similar stories are reported: more like an OSU-Wisconsin football game with signs, crowds, music and so on — but absent facts and context. (By the way, I found out yesterday that 24 states already limit or deny entirely collective bargaining rights to public sector unions. But I’ve only seen that mentioned in one article.)

Another is that we may have reached the point where there is just too much information, much of it conflicting. Here’s from an informative NPR article by Linton Weeks, “Media Black Hole: So Much News That We’ll Implode“:

Have you noticed? The news cycle is spinning faster. And faster. Andfasterandfaster.

Congressman Christopher Lee (R-NY) resigns because of a scandal even before the scandal is known to the public. On websites we get Tuesday’s news on Monday. As online commenters, we discuss articles we haven’t read and dis movies we haven’t watched. Google anticipates the stories we want to see even before we know we want to see them. And as one person tweeted recently: “Tunisia’s revolution took four weeks. Egypt: 17 days. Who’s next and how much time do they have?”

When it comes to the news of the day, newspapers, websites, bloggers, cable networks and aggregators all trip over themselves to be the fastest and the first. The competition has always existed, but technology has ramped up the rivalries.

And the point:

Still, with news — and reaction to news — moving more quickly than ever, says Louis Gray, a Silicon Valley blogger who chronicles the ever-increasing speed of computers and companies, “it is safe to assume the public does not know about many top stories or issues, and cannot be assumed to have enough data to ascertain truth versus spin, and right versus wrong.”

As a result, Gray says, “people are intentionally filtering the information they consume through sources they agree with, or are turning instead to entertainment and idle-time activities, becoming less informed.”

Hmm. And I was fretting last week about Lindsay Lohan’s dress. Go figure.

Anyway, back to Wisconsin. Let’s see if we can figure out what is really happening based on the comments of some leading pundits, writing in WaPo and the NYT. Also, my friend Bill Sledzik sent me yesterday an interesting post by Robert Reich on Salon.com that examines this situation from a political perspective nationally.

So here goes — and please remember that I am pulling information out of the context of an entire column or post. And as anyone who has written or graded a research paper knows only too well, that may not prove to be the best or most accurate approach.

Eugene Robinson, WaPo, “Starving Wisconsin’s unions“:

Let’s be clear: The high-stakes standoff in Wisconsin has nothing to do with balancing the state’s budget.

It is about money, though – but only in the sense that money translates into political power. At this point, it’s clear for all to see that Gov. Scott Walker’s true aim is to bust the public employee unions, thus permanently reshaping the political landscape in the Republican Party’s favor.

Democratic state senators who fled the state to forestall Walker’s coup have no choice but to remain on the lam. Protesters who support union rights have no choice but to keep their vigil at the capitol in Madison. This is a big deal.

George Will, WaPo, “Out of Wisconsin, a lesson in leadership for Obama“:

As Milwaukee County executive, he [Wisconsin Gov. Walker] had similar dust-ups with government workers’ unions, and when the dust settled, he was resoundingly reelected, twice. If his desire to limit collective bargaining by such unions to salary issues makes him the “Midwest Mussolini” – some protesters did not get the memo about the new civility – other supposed offenses include wanting state employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their pay to their pension plans (most pay less than 1 percent), which would still be less than the average in the private sector. He also wants them to pay 12.6 percent of the cost of their health care premiums – up from about 6 percent but still much less than the private-sector average.

He campaigned on this. Union fliers distributed during the campaign attacked his “5 and 12” plan. He says his brother, a hotel banquet manager, and his sister-in-law, who works at Sears, “would love to have” what he is offering the unions.

For some of Madison’s graying baby boomers, these protests are a jolly stroll down memory lane. Tune up the guitars! “This is,” Walker says, “very much a ’60s mentality.”

He does, however, think there is sincerity unleavened by information: Many protesters do not realize that most worker protections – merit hiring; just cause for discipline and termination – are the result not of collective bargaining but of Wisconsin’s uniquely strong and century-old civil service law.

“I am convinced,” he says, “this is about money – but not the employees’ money.” It concerns union dues, which he wants the state to stop collecting for the unions, just as he wants annual votes by state employees on re-certifying the unions. He says many employees pay $500 to $600 annually in union dues – teachers pay up to $1,000. Given a choice, many might prefer to apply this money to health care premiums or retirement plans. And he thinks “eventually” most will say about the dues collectors, “What do we need this for?”

Such unions are government organized as an interest group to lobby itself to do what it always wants to do anyway – grow. These unions use dues extracted from members to elect their members’ employers. And governments, not disciplined by the need to make a profit, extract government employees’ salaries from taxpayers. Government sits on both sides of the table in cozy “negotiations” with unions.

Richard Cohen, WaPo, “Government pensions, an obesity epidemic“:

But, really, enough is enough. The Wisconsin state employees who are demonstrating in Madison have my sympathy but not my total support. I recognize that they have offered givebacks, and I recognize, too, that Gov. Scott Walker has gone too far – if not trying to bust the unions, as it is alleged, then surely trying to cripple them. In the manner of Ronald Reagan taking on student demonstrators at Berkeley in 1966, Walker will become the champion of the common man, the Middle American and all of that. This works. Reagan, you might recall, went on to become president.

Reagan personified the disgust many Americans felt toward unruly (and ungrateful) college students. Walker is personifying the feeling of resentment and anger toward government workers who have so gamed the system that some of them retire on larger stipends than the average American makes in salary – and with health care, too. Like Reagan, Walker has tapped into a feeling of disgust – the always-dangerous sense that you and I have played by the rules and saved for our modest retirements, while government workers, on our dime, have run off with pensions they do not deserve. We feel we have been played for a fool.

Charles Lane, WaPo, “For Wisconsin unions, a telling concession“:

Wisconsin public-sector union leaders have offered Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-majority state legislature a deal. The unions will accept all of the fiscal aspects of Walker’s bill: Henceforth members will pay 5.8 percent of their salary toward their pensions and 12.6 percent of their health-care premiums, up substantially in both areas. All they ask in return is that Walker and the legislature not gut their collective bargaining rights. Sounds statesmanlike, right?

I have my doubts. Certainly, this offer undercuts the unions’ claim that there is no budget crisis in Wisconsin, and that Walker manufactured one as a pretext for union-busting. If there’s no budget crisis, on what possible basis can union leaders instruct their members to give up an estimated $330 million worth of hard-earned, contractually guaranteed benefits over the next couple of years? Are they saying that the rank and file is better off giving up their money now, even though it isn’t necessary to fix the state’s budget, as long as they still have the chance to get the money back at the bargaining table later, maybe?

If that’s the way these guys negotiate, I really wouldn’t want to be a public-sector union member in Wisconsin. If they had the interests of their membership at heart, they would give in on bargaining rights, which can always be restored under a friendlier government later — but keep maximum cash in their members’ pockets here and now.

Looks to me as if Wisconsin’s union leaders have revealed their preference for political power. They want to preserve collective bargaining at all costs, because without it they will lose the flow of dues money. And without dues money, the unions have no political war chests, and without political war chests, they are no longer power brokers in state and local elections.

And David Brooks, NYT, “Make Everybody Hurt“:

Walker’s critics are amusingly Orwellian. They liken the crowd in Madison to the ones in Tunisia and claim to be fighting for democracy. Whatever you might say about Walker, he and the Republican majorities in Wisconsin were elected, and they are doing exactly what they told voters they would do. It’s the Democratic minority that is thwarting the majority will by fleeing to Illinois. It’s the left that has suddenly embraced extralegal obstructionism.

Still, let’s try to put aside the hyperventilation. Everybody now seems to agree that Governor Walker was right to ask state workers to pay more for their benefits. Even if he gets everything he asks for, Wisconsin state workers would still be contributing less to their benefits than the average state worker nationwide and would be contributing far, far less than private sector workers.

The more difficult question is whether Walker was right to try to water down Wisconsin’s collective bargaining agreements. Even if you acknowledge the importance of unions in representing middle-class interests, there are strong arguments on Walker’s side. In Wisconsin and elsewhere, state-union relations are structurally out of whack.

That’s because public sector unions and private sector unions are very different creatures. Private sector unions push against the interests of shareholders and management; public sector unions push against the interests of taxpayers. Private sector union members know that their employers could go out of business, so they have an incentive to mitigate their demands; public sector union members work for state monopolies and have no such interest.

Private sector unions confront managers who have an incentive to push back against their demands. Public sector unions face managers who have an incentive to give into them for the sake of their own survival. Most important, public sector unions help choose those they negotiate with. Through gigantic campaign contributions and overall clout, they have enormous influence over who gets elected to bargain with them, especially in state and local races.

OK. Now, about Lindsay Lohan’s dress…