Time for Media Muckrakers to Follow Public Sector Union Money and Motives

Back in 2011 a California state legislator told me, off the record, that for years, a secret 7:00 a.m. meeting is held once per week in Sacramento. At this meeting are a handful of top officials representing the major public sector unions active in California. They discuss current legislation, political trends, opposition groups, emerging issues, and coordinate their strategy. Collectively, just within California, these public sector union leaders collect and spend over $1.0 billion in membership dues and fees every year.

Compare this to the supposedly shocking expose published this week by the esteemed U.K. Guardian, entitled “State conservative groups plan US-wide assault on education, health and tax.”

If you haven’t heard of the U.K. Guardian before 2013, you might remember it as the media venue that recently published fugitive Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. With a combined worldwide monthly print and online audience of over 30 million, the Guardian is no lightweight. But they seem to have a bad case of scope insensitivity when it comes to money in politics.

The Guardian reveals that the State Policy Network, an “alliance of groups that act as incubators of conservative strategy at state level,” has “an annual warchest of $83m drawn from major corporate donors that include the energy tycoons the Koch brothers…”

When you spread $83 million across the entire U.S., an obvious question – and one the Guardian ought to be asking – is why this amount of money constitutes anything more than an irritant to America’s hapless, beleaguered public sector unions, who scrape by, nationwide, on annual revenues estimated to be at least $8.0 billion per year. Every dime of that $8.0 billion, by the way, comes from taxpayers.

If you combined the annual budgets of every so-called “right wing think tank” in America, including the big independents like the Heritage Foundation, it is unlikely their combined budgets would exceed $250 million, one-fortieth as much as the public sector unions.

And clearly, one must add to the $8.0 billion annual financial heft of America’s public sector unions the allied influence of academia (including K-12 public education), the entertainment industry and the media – actors of incalculable cultural impact whose bias, on balance, swings reliably to the left.

The campaign to taint the work of think tanks, “right wing” think tanks in particular, is serious business. It is part of the well-established and growing tactic of attacking the sources of funding and their alleged ideology and motives, instead of considering the facts and logic behind arguments one finds disagreeable. That’s not ideal behavior, but perhaps comes with the territory when practiced by interest groups who openly oppose a given policy or ideology. It’s inexcusable when practiced by members of the media.

Journalists and editorial boards, starting with the U.K. Guardian, may wish to consider the following points:

(1)  When presented with editorial submissions or press releases announcing studies or proposals coming from think tanks, or from any other source, a journalist’s primary duty is to verify facts and recognize intellectually honest logic. The source is not as important as whether or not the material they produce is factual, honest and relevant. Put another way, you can’t smother the truth simply because you don’t like the messenger.

(2)  There is a diversity within the so-called “right-wing” that is often overlooked by journalists hoping to put a story into context. The “right wing” includes fiscal conservatives, fiscal moderates, fiscal libertarians, social conservatives, social moderates, and social libertarians. And within and between each of these somewhat arbitrary classifications there is intense debate. There is no monolithic “right-wing.”

(3)  There is nothing inherently “right wing” about public sector union reform. Great heroes of the labor movement, including Franklin Roosevelt and George Meany, were outspoken in their opposition to unionized government. Social and fiscal liberals should be concerned that the money that used to go to social programs and infrastructure is now being used instead to pay public employees, on average, twice the level of pay and benefits earned by private sector workers.

(4)  Upon close examination, there is little or no basis to the accusation that wealthy donors to conservative think tanks are trying to benefit themselves economically. It is not by opposing, but by allying themselves with environmentalist extremists and powerful unions, that crony capitalists squelch competition, constrict supply, and enjoy bigger profits. There are plenty of businesspeople who play that game, but most of them are on the left – and instead of being excoriated they are exalted. Why?

(5)  Managing the mega-trends Americans face – a shrinking middle-class, automation, globalization, and an aging population – isn’t going to be easy. But public sector unions have “negotiated” for themselves a separate dispensation with the wealthy elite they routinely demonize and supposedly protect us from – a package of pay and benefits that it is absolutely impossible to provide to all citizens. The consequences (to reiterate) are the same as those consequences attendant to the inflated bonus packages for Wall Street billionaires and inflated prices charged by corporate monopolies – they raise the cost of living for everyone else.

(6)  Taxpayer funded benefits and entitlements, whether you think they should be munificent or minimal, must be financially sustainable, and equally important, must be earned by ALL citizens, public or private, according to the same set of formulas and incentives.

The U.K. Guardian has impressive journalistic reach and demonstrated courage. They have earned the respect of their readers, now it is time for them to challenge those readers with stories that don’t adhere to an overly simplistic world view. For starters, they can put a fly on the wall in that office, somewhere in Sacramento, California, where the public sector union bosses meet each week to make plans for everyone.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Public Policy Center.

A Member of the Unionized Government Elite Attacks the CPPC

Shame on You! I am appalled to see your “quick facts” focus almost exclusively on public pensions.  This is not the stuff of an independent, non-profit think tank. It is clear to me that you are pursuing an “agenda [that] includes opposing … [universal] health-care and climate-change regulations, reducing union protections and minimum wages, cutting taxes and business regulations, tightening voting restrictions, and privatizing education.” As Tracie Sharp, the president of the SPN, noted, your collective goal is apparently to “win in your state.” Californians will not accept your push back to the 1920’s (and look what happened then); we are on to your partisan goals and funders.

Submitted via the CPPC “Contact Us” form by a University of California professor on 11-16-2013

There are myriad ways to respond to these accusations. For starters, they don’t question whether or not our “Quick Facts” are factual. That’s too bad, because they are. One of the reasons the California Public Policy Center is being taken seriously by journalists and policymakers in California is because we produce work that has intellectual integrity. And the CPPC is absolutely independent, founded by Californians in 2010, with less than 5% of its funding to-date coming from out-of-state. And while we were pleased to have our application for SPN membership approved in July of 2013, they have had zero impact on either our independence or, unfortunately, our funding status. So much for the great right-wing conspiracy.

If you want to really get at the problem that the CPPC is trying to educate Californians about, the agenda that our UC professor critic ascribes to us only address the symptoms. The core problem is unionized government. While unions have earned a heroic historical legacy in the United States, and even today can play a legitimate role at times in the private sector, they have corrupted our public sector with a self-serving agenda that is bankrupting our state and local governments, oppressing taxpayers, and, ironically, empowering the monopolistic crony capitalists and casino banking interests these unions rhetorically oppose. There are no partisan “wings” to that perspective.

To personify this, let’s examine the employment circumstances of our critic, who is a public sector employee. Because they were honest – or naive – enough to provide us their name and email when they submitted their comment, we will repay the favor by not identifying them by name, campus, or department. But we found them. And they live a life of extraordinary privilege.

The person who feels we are, apparently, not looking out for “working people” is a tenured UC professor who collected a salary of $132,981 in 2012 (ref. “State Worker Salaries” to look up any UC employee). In exchange for this, we may assume that our professor is not working during the summer, nor during Christmas or spring break. We can safely assume they work during the Fall, Winter and Spring quarters, which run from Sept. 23 through Dec. 15 (Fall), Jan. 7 through March 23 (Winter), and April 1 through June 16 (Spring). That is, taking into account six holidays that fall within those dates, they work 33 weeks per year.

For those of us who work, taking into account vacations and holidays, 46 to 50 weeks per year, 33 weeks seems like a pretty good deal. But maybe this professor works really hard during those 33 weeks. Or not. A review of their faculty profile – verified by a call to the University – confirmed they are teaching one class during the Fall 2013 quarter. This requires our champion of working families to be present for office hours for one hour per week, from noon until 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, then to teach their class from 1 p.m. until 3:50 p.m on Tuesdays. Got that? They work four hours per week.

Ah, but perhaps our idealistic friend of the downtrodden does research. Perhaps they write books that bequeath seminal insights onto humanity? Well, maybe. A review of this professor’s resume indicates they published three articles in professional journals during 2010, consuming a total of 70 pages. In 2011, they published two articles consuming a total of 26 pages. They presented one research paper in 2010, and one in 2011. According to their resume, they haven’t conducted a workshop since 2009. We don’t know about their 2012 activity, because their online resume hasn’t been updated.

It would be unfair to jump to conclusions. Perhaps these research papers, workshops, and “reviewing and refereeing activities” consume a monstrous amount of time. Not to worry however. Our professor who is looking out for the little guy is almost certainly eligible for retirement soon, since they got their Ph.D. back in 1991. At 2.5% per year times 23 years, they’ll get a pension equivalent to 57.5% of $132,981 if they retire at the end of this academic year; that’s $76,464 per year. And in the real world, that is an awful lot of retirement income for someone whose formal working hours were four hours a day, one day per week, 33 weeks per year.

A primary educational agenda of the CPPC is to expose exactly why unionized government is making California unaffordable for ordinary people. Our altruistic critic has helped further that agenda, by providing another opportunity to expose their own all-too-common world view that mingles economic illiteracy with rank hypocrisy.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Public Policy Center.