Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Middle Class Conservative Discontents

I ran into this lefty take on GOP presidential hopeful Scott Walker today which struck me because of how thoroughly it misses the way that a lot of ordinary conservatives think. The jumping off point is a recent National Journal piece which attacks Walker for having some credit card debt and not having a lot of savings. As Spross points out, that actually marks Walker as a pretty ordinary kind of guy:
This is a deeply silly genre of journalism. It treats troubles the vast majority of Americans grapple with as vaguely scandalous. And it implicitly assumes the same rules of thumb that should guide household budgets should also guide the federal budget, which is catastrophically wrong.

More to the point, other details in the Journal piece offer a brief look at a presidential candidate of relatively modest means.

"Walker listed only six investments worth between $1,000 and $15,000, a whole life insurance plan worth between $15,000 and $50,000, and a deferred compensation plan from Milwaukee County worth between $15,000 and $50,000," the Journal continued. Walker received a $45,000 advance for a book in the last year, and it looks like his annual salary since assuming the governorship in 2011 has been around $140,000. That's certainly a lot of income compared to most Americans — it puts Walker just below the threshold for the top 10 percent — but it's obviously nothing compared to the fortunes Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton have amassed.
As governor, Walker makes major than most Americans, but as both a governor and someone trying to get a run for the presidency off the ground, he also doubtless has a lot of expenses that spill over into his personal budget. The fact that he's ended up with some short term debt makes him a lot like someone around the same age and income trying to get a small business off the ground. It's hardly a shocking position to be in.

Where Spross, I think, get's it seriously wrong, is when he goes on to suggest that Walker's modest background contradicts his fights with public sector unions which have made him a national figure:
This gets at something poignant about Walker the politician, and by extension Walker the man. While most all presidential candidates and politicians have a significant amount of socioeconomic distance from the median American, Walker has less than most. Besides his income and wealth, Walker came from modest beginnings as a preacher's kid in a small Wisconsin manufacturing town. He attended Marquette University in Milwaukee, but didn't finish his degree — passing on one of the key status symbols that American elites use to separate themselves from the pack.

And yet few Republicans, and certainly no other Republican presidential candidate, has been so ferociously focused on grinding everyday workers into the ground.

Like any good conservative, Walker pushed massive tax cuts for the well-to-do through Wisconsin's state budget, creating a hole he's now trying to fill by slicing education spending. But he also drove a blistering and brutally successful push to crush Wisconsin's public-sector unions, followed by "right to work" laws that will likely cripple the state's private unions as well.

Nor does it look like Walker did this because Republican and business interests were demanding it — he did it because he wanted to, as a matter of ideology.
Typically of his own ideology, Spross wants to see this as some kind of combined self loathing and racism driven by the flight to suburbs leaving minorities dominating the inner cities. However, his take on Walker's anti-union stances pretty fundamentally misses what makes middle class conservatives tick.

Union baiting is actually solidly popular with middle and working class conservatives -- and there are plenty of conservatives among those economic brackets. Venues like conservative talk radio draw primarily from middle income conservatives, not the Wall Street types which progressives would like to imagine dominate the GOP.

The point is not "grinding everyday workers into the ground". After all, most everyday workers are neither union nor public sector. And that's the key. To a lot of conservative everyday workers, it looks like public sector union workers have an unfairly good deal. They're often not fired even for grossly bad behavior or poor performance, and their pension plans can allow them to retire quite young with very generous guaranteed retirement plans.

Nor is disliking this strictly a matter of envy. As smart progressives point out every so often, while the Federal income tax is highly progressive (drawing the vast majority of its money from the rich while actually giving money back to a significant number of people with lower incomes and larger families), state and local taxes tend to be quite regressive. Those public sector union workers are working for local government, so it's disproportionately ordinary people who are having to foot the bill for iron-clad job security and unrealistic pension plans. This naturally makes middle class conservatives cranky, so thrashing public sector unions is fairly popular with them.

Part of the issue here is that American unions have to a great extent pushed an "us first" rather than a common good based approach for a long time. And the result is union rules and benefits which seem focused around not having to do work, getting away with bad behavior, and getting benefits which seem unfairly good. In the private sector, this has served to drive union dominated industries into the ground (see Detroit as exhibit A) while in the public sector it has stuck cities and states with horrific budget problems which can only be solved by raising local taxes and/or slashing government services which people need and want.

None of these play well with non-union middle class workers.


BenK said...

Close, but perhaps you could go further.

It is a reasonable perception that a large fraction of union dues actually profit not the union workers but politicians and union leaders. The benefits to the union workers are largely not in the paycheck but in job security - and this, by keeping other workers out of their space. Finally, should a worker get a job in a union shop and not want to pay protection money, that money is often coerced - seized by the union as a fee that can't be avoided.

Anonymous said...

I actually belong to a union--a public-sector union--and I hate the way it takes my money and spends it promoting the culture of death. I was cheering for Scott Walker all the way.