YET ANOTHER POLITIFRAK: In latest Walker state-pay claim, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel largely avoids context | WisCommunity

YET ANOTHER POLITIFRAK: In latest Walker state-pay claim, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel largely avoids context

Today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Politifact column examined a supposedly burning question: Was Scott Walker truthful when he said most public employees in Wisconsin are paying more for health insurance, but still paying less than private sector workers? Politifact ruled he was being mostly truthful. "Mostly" because, said Poiitifact, Walker made it sound like all public employees in Wisconsin were paying more, when his union-busting law only ensured higher insurance premiums for state government employees, not necessarily other public employees like teachers or municipal workers.

There's other, more important context to consider regarding Walker's statement, but the newspaper utterly ignored it. Sadly, that's a recurring defect in Politifact analysis. The truthfulness rating of a statement by a public figure is too often marred by the statement's relative inconsequence, or by analysis that fails to put the statement into reasonable perspective.

Lower insurance premiums indeed may have been the result of that supposedly terrrible collective bargaining process, but it wasn't as if all-powerful "big labor" unions bludgeoned the state into giving them what they wanted, no holds barred. By definitiion, collective bargaining is a give-and-take process wherein government retained for itself huge legal advantages. Public employees, for example, were and are prohibited by law from going out on strike for any reason. So if you were a politician who was even a little bit Machiavellian if not sociopathic, all you needed to do was sit on your hands, hold your breath and stall for months until the unions accepted your "final" offer, a tactic which for years became the norm in more than one public bargaining session, until Walker dispensed with the process altogether, like the true autocrat he is.

Pre-Walker, what did those final offers look like? Typically, state government negotiators would propose other concessions to unions in exchange for wage hikes lower than the unions sought. Some concessions involved non-cash measures, such as giving unions more sway in grievance procedures. In other cases, unions "accepted" (more like: were forced to accept) lower wages in exchange for a break on their insurance premiums or pension contributions. The government negotiators called most of the shots and held most of the cards, but did try at some level to meet their responsibilties, however inadequately.

So, it may very well be "true" that state employees for the moment still contribute a lower percentage of their health insurance premiums than does Joe Sixpack, amalgam of the private-sector worker. But that truth is meaningless without taking into account an employee's entire compensation package. And that's not to mention the context of professional background. Do doctors and scientists and engineers and others who work in the public sector tend to get better pay and benefits than the state norm for all workers, public or private? Of course they do. Do they and other public employees get compensation that's competitive with their counterparts in the private sector? Not always, either before nor after Walker's measure effectively whacked their total compensation. Studies even within state government itself have confirmed that disparity.

Bear in mind that many though not all public-sector jobs are speciailzed and require advanced college degrees and even professional certification, compared to the state's workforce as a whole. Not to take that into account is to make an apples-to-oranges comparison. Another apples-to-oranges comparison -- very nearly a tautology which Politifact seems happy to further -- contraposes represented employees with non-represented employees. OF COURSE a union can better represent its members in compensation issues than non-represented workers can respresent themselves individually. That's the whole idea. Conventional wisdom now suggests that's a bad thing, but for decades it was considered a positive, and set the trend for the private sector that enabled many workers to gain health coverage, retirement benefits and other union-promoted innovations.

Thus, an even greater context here is Walker's tacit reasoning that there should be no advantage in being organized, thus leading to his further conclusion that there should be no organizing. Because, apparently, no one should be permitted to gain extra benefits by actually talking through the issues. It is better, in the Walker world view, to decree from the top. Workers can have no good motives or wisdom; only managers have that or should have it. This is all so even though, in the real world, it's quite clear that the most successful businesses and the best workforces tend to be the best organized and most egalitarian. [Of course, for this posting we temporarily dispense with Walker's real, underlying motive: Not to save money, because actually he's quite the spender; rather, to neutralize what he perceives as a main political opponent while shrinking government, so he and likeminded others eventually can drown the public sector in a bathtub.]

The slippery slope here is steep, indeed. Consider: If getting a bigger break on contributions to your health insurance coverage is bad, then maybe it's bad, too, if you're any public employee, no matter your title or duties, earning a higher salary than the average Wisconsin resident. Or maybe it's bad if you earn more salary than the minimum wage provides. A governor or a newspaper editorialist could go on and on with a race to the bottom like this until reaching the point of logical absurdity.

Now, Politifact doesn't editorialize, but it does make rulings on what's important, just by deciding which statements are worthy of examination. And in this case, it takes the rather isolated fact that some public workers pay lower insurance premiums than non-public workers as, by itself, a very important statement. Which emphasis serves the interests of ultraconservatives like Walker just fine, especially when the governor gets a "mostly true" for spewing his deliberately skewed, incomplete world view.

What's next? A Politifact analysis of whether Walker is "truthful" when he says the sun comes up every morning? To be fair, Politifact has caught Walker in many untruths. As for the relatively few Walker statements like this one that are given a thumbs up: Politifact too often leads readers through an unhelpful, fairly thoughtless exercise that does not accomplish much of anything, beyond perhaps a little apple-polishing.


December 9, 2013 - 6:30pm