Queen for a Day

Back in the seventies, in a previous life, the problem with teaching that unit on Greek Myth was that the kids – almost all of them at that expensive prep school destined for the Ivy League schools or schools not quite Ivy – found it all quite silly. Maybe it was Leda and the Swan – more stupid than kinky – or Orpheus leading Eurydice back from the dead with a song, but losing her by looking back to make sure she was tagging along. They got Narcissus falling in love with his reflection in the pool – they were teenagers after all. But they all pointed to each other. That couldn’t be them. That was amusing. But each year this was a tough slog. Did the ancient Greeks really believe this crap?

So it was always the same thing – no, these were framing devices, fanciful ways of thinking about the world – and, if enough people found them useful, they took on a life of their own. They became myth. No one really thought Zeus was up there tossing thunderbolts about when he was grumpy. And all cultures have their creation myths – some involve clay, an apple, and a talking snake. The narratives didn’t have to be true – they became truer than true. Damn, life is just like that, you know. And the Greek Myths are the framing devices that kicked off Western Civilization. It’s wise to know them. All educated people should know them.

They didn’t buy it, but they were good kids and played along. The art of doing well in school is humoring your teacher. But no regrets – it is useful to get young people, just learning about the details of this sorry world, to understand that we live in a world where people trade in what just isn’t true, but what everyone agrees is truer than true, all the time. And that was back in the seventies, when Ronald Reagan, in his 1976 presidential campaign, gave us a new myth, the myth of the Welfare Queen:

She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.

And she was from Chicago’s South Side, of course.

But there was no such person. There never was. It was just a framing device, and enough people found it useful, and it took on a life of its own. And now no one can now stay on welfare indefinitely thanks to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act – the new myth shaped how everyone thought about poverty. And that Act was signed into law by Bill Clinton. Even he bought into the myth. Everyone did. Myths are like that. They are more powerful than literal truth. And now everyone who is receiving government assistance, or Social Security and Medicare – that they bought into – is a bit of a Welfare Queen. And there’s a reason the unemployed are unemployed. They’re likely all drug addicts (Orin Hatch) or just spoiled (Sharron Angle) or just unpleasant people who don’t know how to do a day’s work, basically people with poor work habits and poor personalities (Ben Stein). Those three, and others like them, would probably acknowledge that our current massive unemployment is due to the collapse of the economy in the last year of the Bush administration – a financial house of cards, built by a cadre of very rich men, collapsed, as it had to collapse, wiping out millions of jobs – but myths persist. They’re truer than the truth. Reagan knew that. He was from Hollywood.

And myth can shift, subtly, over time. in the latest issue of the New York Times Magazine there is a new profile of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – Matt Bai on how a little more than a year after surprising even himself by winning that state’s gubernatorial race, Christie now strides through political gatherings “like Bono” – he’s a rock star, with journalists and hapless lesser politicians trailing after him. And Bai says that Christie’s “astonishing” rise is because “he has found the ideal adversary for this moment of economic vertigo.”

Christie just came up with a variation on that former truer-than-true myth – “Ronald Reagan had his ‘welfare queens. Chris Christie has his sprawling and powerful public-sector unions – teachers, cops and firefighters who Christie says are driving up local taxes beyond what the citizenry can afford, while also demanding the kind of lifetime security that most private-sector workers have already lost.”

So teachers, cops and firefighters are the new Welfare Queens. And we learn that Christie’s crusade against unions began long before all the nastiness in Wisconsin. In fact, before he’d even taken office, Christie’s staff analyzed the state’s budget and “came to the conclusion that the only way to get control of local taxes and state spending was to go after the pension and health care benefits.” So now Republicans love him and there are all the rumors that he’ll be running for president in 2012. Christie insists that’s not the case. But he loves the attention. People listen to him. He is the bard with the myth, singing with his lyre.

And myths do matter. Steve Benen in this item reviews how the right rallied behind Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting efforts, and how conservatives hoped other Republican governors would follow his lead. But Indiana’s Mitch Daniels went the other way and announced his reservations about a pending anti-union bill, and that killed the bill. But Benen points out that soon after, conservative Matt Lewis mocked Daniels – “It’s almost like Mitch Daniels is reading ‘How to Run for President’ and then doing the opposite at every turn.”

Mitch Daniels is not paying attention to the new Welfare Queens, and the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund writes here about how he’d like to see Daniels work things more like Scott Walker and Chris Christie:

The Republican governor told reporters yesterday that he had no plans to use state troopers to compel attendance by the AWOL Democrats. “Even the smallest minority, and that’s what we’ve heard from in the last couple days, has every right to express the strength of its views and I salute those who did,” he said. His office later had to clarify that he was referring to union protestors rather than legislators shirking their duty.

Indiana’s right-to-work legislation, which would have made it the 23rd state to bar requiring private sector workers to join a union, died last night with the failure of the legislature to act. Mr. Daniels never opposed the bill but made it clear he thought it would distract from other parts of his legislative agenda. “There was a better time and place to have this very important and legitimate issue raised.”

But Mark Mix of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund says conservatives will remember that Mr. Daniels chose to be a non-combatant in a fight that was almost won.

And Benen points out that Mitt Romney is announcing his support for Walker’s efforts and sending cash to the Republican Party of Wisconsin. And Tim Pawlenty “not to be outdone” launched a website “devoted to celebrating Walker’s measures.”

And Benen adds this:

Under the circumstances, it’s probably fair to say we’re looking at a new litmus-test issue for the 2012 Republican presidential field – all credible candidates will be expected to oppose taxes, gays, abortion, climate science, health care reform, and public-sector unions.

To be sure, it’s not as if unions were popular in Republican circles before this new crusade, but the dispute in Wisconsin has moved the issue to the front-burner and given it a new sense of urgency in far-right circles. “Moderates” when it comes to labor will find themselves at a real disadvantage.

Indeed, I’d be surprised if, during the upcoming debates, folks like Romney and Pawlenty aren’t asked, “So, governor, why didn’t you try to take away workers collective-bargaining rights, too?”

It’s the power of myth. Those multimillionaire second grade teachers with their gold-plated pensions are the reason everything is so bad in the economy. They need to be put in their place.

This puzzles Ezra Klein in this item – riffing on a chart David Leonhardt posted here to show that there hasn’t been a surge in government hiring – the economy is not flooded with fat-cat public employees at the moment. But it seems that part of what is driving the events in Wisconsin is a perception that people in the “real” economy have suffered greatly, while “public workers have been cosseted by their union contracts, their lobbying might and stimulus dollars.” And yes, as Klein says, the public sector “basically sat out the first year of the recession.”

But it’s not what you might think:

Since then, public-sector jobs have been falling – and that’s been particularly true in recent months. … It’s a bit hard to do an apples-to-apples comparison, as the hiring bump on the graph was the product of temporary workers needed to conduct the decennial census, but the public sector lost 378,000 jobs between January 2009 and January 2011 – that’s proportionally equivalent to losing about 1.8 million jobs in the private sector.

All that said, the (perhaps temporary) retention of public-sector jobs was one of the great successes of the stimulus. The worst thing for an unemployed person is another unemployed person. It means more competition for job openings, lower wages and less job security. The idea that it would somehow have been more “fair” for the public sector to shed jobs in 2008 and 2009 is one of these intuitions that cuts against the economic logic of the situation: More unemployed public workers would’ve meant more competition for unemployed private workers seeking jobs, lower tax revenue for states, worse services and more idle resources. It would’ve been bad on every level – and with 9 percent unemployment, it would still be bad today. And yet there are a substantial number of voters and commentators who seem to abstractly favor the idea, despite the fact that it will, in practice, make most of our problems worse rather than better.

Yes, myths can be dangerous. And Kevin Drum adds this:

It’s an unfortunate example of the way we like to view recessions as morality plays rather than macroeconomic events to be dealt with as efficiently as possible.

Yes, myths are morality plays, and Drum says look at the private sector:

Why did companies shed so many workers? Answer: not because their workers were slothful layabouts, but because business was bad. If your widget sales decline by 10%, you don’t need as many sales people, you don’t need to run as many shifts in the factory, and you don’t need as many accounts receivable clerks. So you lay them off. You don’t really have any choice if you want to stay in business, but it’s still unfortunate since people without jobs don’t buy widgets, which just makes your situation even worse. If you could manage it, it would be pretty helpful if no one got laid off at all.

And then there’s the public sector:

It’s exactly the opposite because the public sector isn’t in the business of selling things. If the economy tanks, that doesn’t mean there are fewer fires, less crime, or a smaller number of kids in school. That’s why cops, firefighters, and teachers don’t get laid off. Not because they’re a bunch of cosseted union goons, but because the demand for their services is just as high as it was before the recession. In some cases, in fact, it might be higher. There’s actually more demand during recessions for clerks to handle unemployment applications or Medicaid reimbursements than there is during boom times.

And it’s a good thing, too, since, as Ezra says, “The worst thing for an unemployed person is another unemployed person. It means more competition for job openings, lower wages and less job security.” The best outcome for everyone would be for government to employ more people during recessions and to keep their wages high. This would reduce competition for jobs and help keep consumption from falling, which is why, in a perfect world, the federal government would be running big deficits in order to fund the ability of states to keep the lights on.

But the fact that this makes sense doesn’t mean most people see it this way. We’re biologically wired to be envious of anyone who has things better than us, and there’s never any shortage of demagogues to stoke that envy. So we demand that if we’re going to suffer, then everyone has to suffer. And guess what? That’s exactly what happens.

And Seth Masket in this item concedes that greater unionization leads to a greater public debt load, but isn’t so sure that is such a bad thing: 

The main benefits that union membership conveys are higher pay and improved working conditions, both of which cost the employer (in this case, the public) more. So if a greater percentage of your state’s work force is unionized, you’re probably going to be paying more for the labor. And since labor costs are usually contractual and not easily cut in the short run, states with greater labor costs will go into debt more quickly when revenues take a dive. This shouldn’t be particularly controversial or surprising.

What the evidence above doesn’t show is what citizens get by paying more for public labor.

With higher pay, you can usually attract better trained workers, turnover will be lower, services will be of higher quality, etc. (By the way, the two states with the lowest public sector unionization rates – Louisiana and Mississippi – have the highest corruption rates.)

Sometimes good things – even when they come from the government – cost more.

But that certainly is not the prevailing myth these days.

But we may have competing myths. See Will Wilkinson’s new theory about the Wisconsin protests:

There’s something about the union demonstrations in Madison, and the excitement it has caused on the left, that reminds me of the Tea Party. I think I’ve figured it out what it is. The advent of the labor movement is at the heart of the left’s sacred creation myth. The sense on the left that unions are under siege gives them something to fight for with a bracing sense of historically-rooted identity and moral authority. Similarly, the sense on the right that America’s foundational values are under siege gave the Tea Party something to fight for with a bracing sense of historically-rooted identity and moral authority.

And those kids way back when didn’t think myth mattered at all.

But myth does matter, particularly when it bumps up against reality, as Jonathan Chait notes here that the House Republican budget “would cut at least $272 million in border security and immigration enforcement, including fencing and surveillance technology” of all things:

First, Republicans almost surely made cuts like this (and others to things like cancer research) in the assumption they wouldn’t come to pass. Democrats control the Senate and White House, there will be negotiations, so Republicans can make cuts they don’t want to actually take place and still retain support from their base.

But second, this shows again how utterly at odds with reality the conservative view of the budget is. There just is not a lot of waste to be found. Republicans like to say they’ve just made a first step, but if the first step means weakening the government function they’ve been demanding to strengthen, then you have to wonder how many other steps there could be. Most of what government does is either necessary, popular, or both. Now, people don’t understand that – they think there are huge savings in foreign aid, welfare, and useless bureaucracy. Republicans can win power by appealing to popular misunderstandings of the budget, but actually implementing a program on the basis of a misunderstanding of reality is quite hard.

Yep, you can feed the myth, but governing is another thing entirely. And Andrew Sullivan suggests this – “The obvious way forward is not to deepen austerity and impede the recovery with big cuts in spending now, but to advance a plan to cut the real debt coming later.” This “would not necessarily mean immediate spending cuts, but by reassuring markets and Americans that the fiscal future of America is not Greek, the confidence we desperately need would come roaring back.” He says this would be a psychological stimulus. But there’s nothing mythical in that. That won’t fly.

It just gets strange, considering this:

General Motors, which nearly collapsed from the weight of its debts two years ago before reorganizing in a government-sponsored bankruptcy, said Thursday that it earned $4.7 billion in 2010, the most in more than a decade.

It was the first profitable year since 2004 for GM, which became publicly traded in November, ending a streak of losses totaling about $90 billion.

In addition, GM said 45,000 union workers would receive profit-sharing checks averaging $4,300, the most in the company’s history.

Steve Benen comments:

What I find amazing about this, from a purely political perspective, is that Republicans still consider this a failure – it was, for example, a common area of complaint at CPAC a few weeks ago. As far as the right is concerned, the Obama administration’s rescue of the American automotive industry wasn’t just wrong – it was one of the president’s most dreadful mistakes. Confront conservatives with reports like the latest from GM, and the response tends to be that the success of the policy doesn’t change anything.

And Benen notes that after saying GM “could still stumble” Jonathan Cohn offered this:

It looks increasingly like the rescue of the auto industry was an overall success, saving hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of jobs and bolstering the country’s manufacturing base for years (if not decades) to come. Maybe it’s time to start giving President Obama some credit for it — and recognizing that, when properly managed, the federal government can do a lot of good.

Benen:

Damn straight. Conservative activists got this wrong, and so did their Republican friends in Congress, many of whom literally predicted “disaster.”

These same folks are now insisting the economy will improve just as soon as the House GOP plan — take money out of the economy, lay off hundreds of thousands of American workers – is approved. Given their track record, perhaps now’s a good time to question their credibility.

But those guys believe in something that is truer than true. There’s a myth here, or an interlocking set of myths, just like way back when. Did the ancient Greeks really believe that crap? No, they just found their myths compelling framing devices, until they didn’t. Yes, myths die. But of course they die hard. We’re in for more than a few more years of this.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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