Call it the Paulson Principle, Part Deux.
Under the now thankfully-departed Treasury secretary, we got the first bailout for the undeserving – essentially, members of his own Wall Street class.
Now comes the Democratic codicil to the P. Principle. It's a massive bailout and expansion of the public-sector workforce as well as quasi-government workers in fields like health and education. Not so well-rewarded – except for expanded unemployment benefits – will be those suffering the brunt of the downturn, such as construction and manufacturing workers, whose unemployment is now heading north of 10%.
Indeed, a close look at the current stimulus plan shows that as little as 5% of the money is going toward making the country more productive in the longer run – toward such things as new roads, bridges, improved rail and significant new electrical generation. These are things, like the New Deal's many construction projects, that could provide a needed boost to our sagging national morale.
Instead, we are focusing once again on those who have been getting the best deal for doing the least. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports state and local government workers get paid 33% more than their private sector counterparts. If you add in the pensions and other benefits, the difference is over 40%. In New York alone, public-sector wages and benefits since 2000 have grown twice as fast as those of the average private-sector worker.
Egregious stories of overpaid public workers are legion. In suburban Chicago, for example, some school administrators are making over $400,000 with benefits and incentives. Recent reports out of Boston suggest hundreds of firefighters and police officers make well in excess of $100,000 a year. And of course, there are the California prison guards who can make upwards of $300,000 a year with overtime.
Of course, most public sector employees are not so lucky. But, for the most part, these workers enjoy protections, like health care for life, that most others could only dream about. Many also have pensions that allow them to retire in their 50s, while some of us will be hod-carrying well into our 70s.
This all means that the potential price tag for swelling the public workforce could ultimately run into the trillions, a number Washington and Wall Street now use the way we used to talk about billions. At very least, we should be asking new public workers, or those whose jobs are being bailed out by the stimulus package, to make the kind of sacrifices demanded, say, of those working at General Motors. We could, for example, make them wait 'til age 60 or even 65 to retire.
To no one's surprise, much of this favoritism has to do with party politics. The basic truth is that auto and other industrial workers, like those in construction, have become somewhat expendable in the eyes of some Democrats – in part because they do not always follow the party line. In contrast, public-employee unions are the politically correct rock upon which much of the party now rests.
This oversized influence is relatively recent. Yet as private-sector unions have waned, those in the public sector have waxed. They have been able to extort enormous benefits out of City Halls, counties, states and, of course, Congress.
In the process, they have become – like the Wall Street financiers before them – a kind of privileged class. In the case of some Chicago garbage men, they often don't work anything near 40 hours a week but are paid as if they did. Others engage in elaborate schemes to take advantage of injuries, real or imagined. Who would have thought that punching tickets for the Long Island Rail Road would be so hazardous that many retired employees use these "injuries" to collect disability money – in order to play golf or take another job?
This can all get very expensive, especially given the poor immediate prospects that the stock market can finance these additional pensions. Some day the millennial generation should initiate a class action suit for placing this unconscionable burden on them.
Right now, though, there's little reason to expect President Obama and the majority Democrats will change direction. The public sector unions are often among the largest contributors to Democratic campaigns. They have also cultivated strong ties with the Washington media – some of whom, like The Washington Post's Harold Meyerson, have argued over the years that these public workers are increasingly synonymous with the future middle class.
There's certain logic to this. Insulated from global competition, public employees have the ability to ratchet up their demands almost without serious limit. After all, even the most radical Republicans are not proposing to have the postal system transferred to Vietnam. We certainly don't want to outsource our police services to China or Russia.
So what's not to like? Well, nothing – if the Roman Empire or China's Qing Dynasty is your idea of a historical role model. Those regimes epitomize what happens when most of a nation's wealth goes to support an ever-expanding bureaucracy and associated private-sector rent-seekers at the expense of both private commerce and public infrastructure. Look in the dictionary under the word decline.
We can already see its early signs. Across the country, cities are being forced to choose between maintaining their basic infrastructure and honoring the medical, retirement and other pension obligations owed to retired public workers. The head of the Atlanta Fire Fighters' Pension fund described groups like his as "the 800-pound gorilla in the room." This primate has the power to stomp on the ability of states, cities and counties to put money into improving much of anything or even considering lowering taxes.
Over time, though, one can hope President Obama will adjust his course. At some point, the middle- and working-class stiffs in the private sector – unionized or not – will question a stimulus that neglects their aspirations at the expense of protecting the imagined rights of yet another privileged class. Individually, public employees may not be as noxious as John Thain, but there are more of them. And over time, they could cost us even more.
As a charismatic leader with strong union support, Obama could try to pull a "Nixon in China" and insist on reforming the benefits enjoyed by public workers as a condition of federal help. He wouldn't be the only leader attempting a return to sanity. The idea of challenging public sector privilege has gained some currency in Ireland and France, as well as among the Liberal Democrats in the U.K.
Such a bold initiative would earn President Obama not only gratitude from private sector workers but also posterity. But it would take courage, too; the mere suggestion of reform could result in a rash of strikes (as in Greece) and ceaseless yammering from union lobbyists and their allies on Capitol Hill.
Of course, public-sector unions and their supporters will argue that they constitute an important part of the nation's middle class and that their benefits are therefore sacrosanct. Yet it's increasingly evident that this strata of middle-class workers live in a different reality than typical private sector shmoes. As George Orwell suggested in Animal Farm, it seems some animals are more equal than others.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History and is finishing a book on the American future.