Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Government is Unfair

Here is my old friend from my days as a Minnesotan, Danny Shapiro, talking about his critique of the welfare state (sadly, this video is not embeddable). His thesis: just about every welfare state policy is inferior to some alternative, even by the standards of those who advocate such policies, including the standard sometimes known distributive justice (or "fairness").

A glaring example, possibly different from the sort he cites, just popped up in a Madison WI newspaper.

First, a word of explanation. One way to grasp the idea of distributive justice is to think of the phrase from The Communist Manifesto, "to each according to his ____." How you fill in the blank varies -- according to his moral virtue, talent, contribution to society, effort, or maybe (Marx and Engels' favorite) need -- but the basic idea is that your wealth, income, or whatever, ideally ought to be part of an ordered response to characteristics people have which indicate that they "deserve" the income, etc. Discussions of distributive justice commonly take place with the following sort of background assumptions: There is little chance that free markets will conform to any of these ordered patterns. If distributive justice makes sense, then the government should step in and fix the situation. The question is whether it does make sense and if so which form is the best (to each according to his ... what?). That is how Robert Nozick discusses it in his classic Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974).

People seldom ask whether government itself is distributively just. Take a look at this list of the 20 highest paid municipal employees in Madison WI last year:

John Nelson, Bus driver, $159,258

Dean Brasser, Comptroller, $151,551

Noble Wray, Police chief, $143,585

Michael May, City attorney, $143,434

Carolyn Hogg, Assistant city attorney, $138,084

Mark Olinger, Planning and Development director, $136,787

Randy Gaber, Assistant police chief, $136,248

Debra Amesqua, Fire chief, $136,163

John Davenport, Assistant police chief, $134,382

James Keiken, Assistant fire chief, $133,589

Michael Dirienzo, Assistant fire chief, $133,144

Paul Bloom, Assistant fire chief, $132,873

David Dryer, Traffic engineer/parking manager, $130,831

Tom Carto, Overture Center president, $129,566

Carl Gloede, Police Captain, $128,750

Katherine Noonan, Assistant city attorney, $126,709

James Hess, Monona Terrace director, $126,593

Roger Allen, Assistant city attorney, $126,592

Brad Murphy, Planning unit director, $126,363

Greg Tatman, Bus driver, $125,598

Note that two of them, #20 and, astoundingly, #1 are ordinary city bus drivers. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz did not earn enough to make it on to this list. Now, I'm not anti-bus-driver (my grandfather drove a bus in Detroit MI all his working life) but surely there is no sane version of the distributive justice idea that can justify this arrangement.

The above-linked article, by the way, explains why this odd distribution of income happened: Bus drivers, unlike mayors, are unionized, and the Teamsters got the municipal bus drivers a contract with lavish pay for overtime, and apparently no limits on how much overtime any one employee can accumulate. The article also mentions that this situation last came to John Q. Public's attention in1998, when it caused a bit of a flap. Obviously, the resulting public ire had absolutely no effect on the situation during the twelve long years that have crept by since then.

I draw two conclusions:

1. Government can be distributively unjust, even absurdly so.

2. It can be very, very difficult for John and Jane Public to do a damn thing about it.


Chris said...

Well there's not much to be said beyond your comments, which I think are spot on, but every time unions come up I'm reminded of an exchange on The Simpsons. It's a flashback to the early 1900s at The Burns Family Atom Smashing Plant.

Mr. Burns' Grandfather: Come on, men! Smash those atoms! You there, turn out your pockets.

[Two goons seize a waifish worker and turn out his pockets]

Burns' Grandfather: Aha - atoms! One, two, three, four... SIX of them! Take him away!

Waif: You can't treat the working man this way! One of these days we'll form a union, and get the fair and equitable treatment we deserve! Then we'll go too far, and become corrupt and shiftless, and the Japanese will eat us alive!

The scene ends in modern times with Mr. Burns in a reflective mood, saying:

"If only we'd listened to that boy, instead of walling him up in the abandoned coke oven."

Alright, well, that's all I got, keep on sticking it to the man.

Anonymous said...

Although 159K is a handsome compensation, it is still 90K below the 250K level or the level which Obama defines as high income. Albeit he earned the money with lavish overtime compenstion, if he did indeed work those hours, he was performing a direct function to the economy and from a Rand perspective, he deserves fair compenstion for his labor.

Considering that most who ride public transportation on a daily basis do it because they are low paid or minimum wage workers who can't afford personal transportation. Including the drivers' salaries, plus fuel and maintenance, the 1 million a year it costs to operate a city bus is more than offset by the minimum/low wage laborer which is transported on these vehicles which ultimately contribute to the wealth creation bottom lines of the entreprenaurs' (250K plus income) who employ these people.

Here on Long Island, the local paper Newsday runs similar exposes of gov't workers. Besides the usual list of attorneys (they always make these things), it seems here the sanitation workers and supervisors take the place of the Wisconsin bus driver.

Considering the contribution the sanitation worker makes to our public health, it's still fashionable to use certain sterotypes to highlight "investigative journalism".

Anonymous said...

I fail to see how the article supports the conclusion that government is unfair and that the wages earned by the bus drivers are unfair from a distributive justice perspective. The article makes clear, as your post did not, that the bus drivers identified worked overtime for roughly $100,000 of their wages. Put simply, the worked extra to earn extra. How is that unfair? The city agreed to a contract provision that lets senior drivers get the first opportunity to get overtime. Presumably the city and the union were each represented by attorneys who helped the negotiations and the city council approved the contract after a period allowing for public comment. How is that unfair?
It may be that there are examples of government being unfair. This is spectacularly poor evidence of that thesis

Anonymous said...

Our main expectation of government is to maintain civil order and safety.

I think what's telling here is that 8 of those 20 salaries belong to the police and fire functions.

Although outraged by the cost of gov't services, how often does a mayor get voted out of office because of the city's inability to deliver services or respond properly to a crisis.

The salaries of transit workers may be high but the public becomes equally outraged and businesses can be brought to ruin by transit worker strikes. Maintaining those union contracts, often at high cost explains the high bus driver salaries as well as cadre of attorneys to administer contracts for every city service.

Lester Hunt said...

Anon #1,

If you are saying that hauling away garbage means the worker deserves stratospheric wages because they make a "contribution" to public health, I would only point out that it is a contribution that can be made by almost anybody. I'm sure that the moralists who said "to each according to his contribution to society" had other sorts of things in mind that removing rotting things that attract flies.

Surely, removing a relatively easily removed evil (garbage) ranks far below removing large and difficult to remove ones, such as protecting the city from an expensive law suit, which is the sort of thing the lawyers on the list do.

Lester Hunt said...

Anon # 2,

Of the five relevant factors I mentioned to the post -- moral virtue, talent, contribution to society, effort, and need -- you are going with "effort". That would mean you should be paid in proportion to how much effort you put in. Those drivers took the trouble of putting in extra hours so they deserve an extra $100,000 for the year.

One of the sorts of effort that is relevant here is how much hard work you do before even starting a job, in acquiring the knowledge needed to do it. A lawyer needs a seven years of post-high-school education. A humanities professor needs about nine or ten. A bus driver, I would imagine, needs zero. These factors are part of the equation. Also, how intensive is the effort required, per hour, to drive a bus?

Lester Hunt said...

Anon #3,

I might be missing your point, but it sounds like you are saying that the lavish pay that these drivers get is justified by the fact that it is protection (as in "paying protection") against their bringing the city to its knees with a transit strike.

That doesn't show that their pay is fair, distributively just, or that they deserve it.

By the same token, you could say that I am justified in giving an armed robber all the money in my wallet so that he doesn't kill me. In a sense of course you are right, but that doesn't mean that the robber morally has it coming to him, which is the sort of issue I am talking about here.

Anonymous said...

The reason I went with effort is that the other 4 factors you list are so subjective I doubt there can be an agreed upon definition.
As to effort, while I doubt that learning to drive a bus requires "zero" effort, is the point of your post that Madison's city government is unfair because it pays its drivers overtime? Unfair to whom? Presumably the city hiring freeze, which the article identifies as being part of the reason that these drivers got so much overtime, is being done to save money. It is undoubtedly cheaper for the city, and its taxpayers, to pay workers overtime intstead of hiring more workers and paying them benefits. It is hard to see how one or two drivers getting a lot of overtime rather than many drivers getting some small amount of overtime is unfair to the citizens of Madison. One could argue that the rule that senior workers get first crack at overtime is unfair but the union members affected by the rule voted for it. In any event, I doubt you meant that government is unfair to its employees.
Finally, your comparison of a collective bargaining agreement being to armed robbery is inapt. Employers, government or otherwise, are required to negotiate with unions if the union is elected by the workers to represent it. Employers are not required to reach an agreement with the union and, if the parties don't reach an agreement, are free to unilaterly implement whatever wage and benefit conditions the employer wishes. Some employees have the right to strike if they don't like the conditions. But if they strike, the employer can hire replacement workers. That is the reason the PATCO strike didn't cripple air travel. Although, I don't live there, I highly doubt a bus driver strike could cripple Madison.
As I said, arguments can be made that government is unfair. The fact that a couple bus drivers got a lot of overtime is not a good example in support of that argument.

Anon 2

Lester Hunt said...

Anon 2,

I didn't say that learning to drive the bus requires zero effort, only that it requires zero years of post high school ed.

One thing I should have said in the post: distributive justice (which is what Dan and I are assuming fairness is all about) is about relations between shares of stuff, and not about how it comes about. Thus, it is relevant to DJ that all the other jobs on the list require plenty of post-HS ed, while driving a bus does not. On the other hand, it is not relevant that employers are required to negotiate with unions. Such considerations are based on a different conception of justice (what Nozick would call a "historical" conception, perhaps).

The basic DJ idea is if I have more of something good than you (eg., money) this is unfair unless I have more of some characteristic that makes me more deserving (like working hard).

In DJ terms, it doesn't matter how the shares came about, only how they are related to each other.

The point of my robber analogy was not that all unions are like robbers (I believe some are and some are not) but that having to give in to a threat does not make things fair.

BTW, I was responding to Anon 3's claim that a transit strike would "devastate" the city, a claim with which you apparently do not agree. You should discuss this among yourselves.

Note also that the recent hiring freeze exacerbated but did not cause the distributive weirdness involving the bus drivers, as explained in the linked article. Actually, this illustrates one of the common reasons for government failure: the law of unintended consequences. The mayor froze hiring to save money, but because of the "generous" overtime provision of the Teamsters contract, it achieved the opposite result.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a perceived injustice. True the bus drivers landed 2 of the top 20 paying jobs, but had their overtime been distributed on a more equal basis, i.e. amongst 6 drivers instead of 2, then none of the drivers would have made the list.

I think my point that 8 of the 20 positions are related to police and fire, the principle that government is the guarantor of the general good still holds.

Just as there is false arrest, racial and ethnic profiling, public property domain seizure, special privelages for wealthier citizens, political corruption and other injustices does not change government's primary function.