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Contra Carney

2011 February 26

Photo credit: Emmett Ross

Well, the Wall Street Journal is publishing fawning, sickly articles about how right The Washington Examiner‘s Tim Carney is, so The Busy Signal might as well take an abbreviated stab at making the opposite case. First, I ought to mention that I really enjoy Carney’s writing, cite it often, find it very useful and frequently endorse his critique of the American corporatocracy. But on the issue of the Wisconsin union struggle, I would be remiss were I to decline to point out the deficiencies in his work.

  • Unions don’t exist primarily as a means of combating employers, but of supporting workers.

I should have thought this was obvious, but you’d never know it to read the constant drumbeat of Carney’s. In one tweet, directed to The Nation’s Chris Hayes, Carney made the point thus: “You probably see unions as a counter to Big Biz power. The employer these gov’t unions are fighting, though, is the people.” It is a bit surprising to see Carney take up the equation of “the government” with “the people” (he’s normally quite content to pit the two against one another); but the real point here is that this smacks of obscurantism. Workers can be exploited and mistreated by management no matter who is managing them; unions provide workers with an avenue for redress of grievances that could so easily be denied to any single worker unaffiliated with the rest of them. That is the point of unions. That, in the private sector, unions often find themselves at odds with money-hungry fat cats is further inducement to admiration for them, but that is not their central purpose, as evidenced by the instances of unions partnering with management to improve the lives of the workers they represent. Carney’s insistence on this point serves to divert attention from that fact, which he surely knows well and yet chooses to ignore.

  • The circulation of federal money through public labor and back to politicians is at worst a complete myth and at best obfuscation.

Carney: “Union-funded lawmakers take money from taxpayers and give it [to] the government unions, who kick some of it back to union-funded lawmakers. It’s not too different from banks or defense contractors donating to politicians who bail them out or give them no-bid contracts.” Alright, the first problem with this construction is that it perpetuates what Carney is fond of calling a “Big Lie.” Many on the right advance the slander that the political money unions spend comes out of dues, and Carney’s formulation, though it doesn’t actively assert it, relies on this misunderstanding. In truth, it is not “government unions” who “kick some of it back,” but the workers themselves contributing, as anyone may, to their own political interests. All union Political Action Committees are funded by voluntary donations from the affiliated workers, meaning that it is precisely different from the “contractors and banks” example, unless in employing it Carney means “the sum total donated to political campaigns by individual employees.” The political actions performed by wealthy corporations are financed by their massive, for-profit revenue. In fact, because elected officials make policy that either constricts or liberates public workers, public unions’ political activity is better seenas employees having a say in their who their bosses are. I support workplace democracy, and if Carney doesn’t, he is entitled to come out and say it, but if he does it by this type of euphemism and innuendo, he should expect it to be pointed out.

  • Unions are improperly described as “Big Money.”

Carney is also a big fan of this point. “First, unions are ‘Big Money.’ Of the top 10 sources of political contributions since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, five are unions. Of the top 20 sources of 2010 campaign funds, 10 are unions.” When people on the left criticize “Big Money,” it is not to do with sheer size of budget. After all, The Red Cross and Feed The Children have big balance sheets, but no one could rightly imply that they are of a kind with banks. It’s not even to do with how much money a given group or individual donates to political campaigns (Carney may have detected the left’s general aversion to the Citizen’s United ruling, which has excited very little opposition on the right – unions would love not to have to spend much money on campaigns, indeed many who take up the cause of unions would like campaigns to be separate from money altogether). There is a clear distinction between Goldman-Sachs and AFSCME: the former has as its goal the endless accumulation of wealth and the latter the protection of people who work harder than Carney and make less than he does (by his own admission) from the forces that, unchecked, would exploit them. Milton Friedman, father of modern free market capitalism, famously wrote that “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits,” and this is the philosophy which governs corporate political interests (actual Big Money). The social responsibility of unions is to bolster the position of the vulnerable, which makes them necessarily Not Big Money, however large their political expenditures. This vital distinction prescribes a moral difference, too. My colleague at The Busy Signal, Matthew Hunte, drew my attention to Isaiah Berlin’s refutation of the proposition that “liberty must be equal for the tigers and for the sheep, and that this cannot be avoided even if it enables the former to eat the latter.” This sentiment, by the way, is also what animates my disagreement with Carney on the matter of the Wagner Act.

  • Governor Walker and his legislation are as crony-coddling as can be.

The primary thrust of Carney’s latest piece is that the current populism is not against The Man but against Cronyism and that the Democrats’ failure to grasp this notion is a chief reason for their current political woes. That thesis is all well and good, might even be correct, except that Carney has been offering an awful lot of support for Scott Walker and his proposal and an awful lot of disparagement to the unions, characterizing them as anything-but-populist (Carney: “Maybe the Left couldn’t believe the Tea Party was real grass-roots passion because their rallies really are coordinated form on high.”). But the union-busting bill offers exemptions for public labor unions that routinely support Republicans, indeed supported Candidate Walker. This bit of cronyism has not exorcised Carney, who normally is extremely good at offering indictments of those on the right who violate his stated principles. Indeed, if the new populism is anti-crony, then opposition to this bill must be populism par excellence, Carney’s descriptions of it notwithstanding.

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There are legitimate complaints about unions, and, given a certain philosophical bent, there are even more about public ones, but let’s have this argument openly and without this kind of hand-waving and disingenuity, so uncharacteristic of the normally unimpeachable Carney.

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