It would not have occurred to me that Americans would actually want to pay higher taxes so that the Department of Motor Vehicles clerk could earn more than they do, or to work until age 75 to support a policeman who retired at 42 and moved to the Philippines, telling New York City to send his checks there (one of my helicopter students! He was up from NYC for a year or two while the taxpayers paid him to attend the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard). Yet this is the conclusion of a New York Times poll (story).
I wonder if the methodology of the poll had something to do with the outcome. About 25 percent of those surveyed said that the salaries and benefits of public employees were “too low.” As this is a practical impossibility without indentured servitude (a worker whose salaries and benefits were “too low” would quit and find a better job, something that public employees very seldom do), I think there are two explanations for this answer. One is that citizens are dissatisfied with the quality and energy of public employees and believe that, by raising salaries, better workers would be found and 20-30 years from now, after the current batch of mediocre workers has retired, public services would be improved. The second explanation is that 25 percent of the people surveyed either are public employees or are financially dependent upon public employees (the wife, children, and grandchildren of Robert W. Healy, Jr. probably would not say that his $5 million pension is excessive or that his $336,317 annual salary (84% of President Obama’s!) to manage a small town was excessive).
Now that over 40 percent of the U.S. economy is government spending (chart), I wonder what would happen if one were to conduct a poll of only those who work in private industry and don’t have a spouse, child, or parent who works for the government.
Finally there is the art of question wording (good video example). The New York Times told poll respondents “Collective bargaining refers to negotiations between an employer and a labor union’s members to determine the conditions of employment.” (all questions) The word “conditions” in my mind generates an image in my mind of working hours, task assignments, etc. The word “employer” makes me think of a private tax-paying company. What if the question had started out “Collective bargaining refers to the ability of a labor union to negotiate with politicians the delivery of pension and health care benefits to be paid for by future taxpayers”? I think the answer might have been very different.
Finally, we could apply Occam’s Razor to explain the poll result. We live in a democracy (“rule of the people”). The current system of government, including the fact that public employees are permitted to unionize and then bargain with the politicians whose election they financed and supported, is the result of citizens voting. So if the voting system works, we should expect our government to be exactly what most people want. It may seem alarming that people voted for a system in which the U.S. would owe 500 percent of GDP (see this nytimes article), but on the other hand the voters are also the same folks who refinanced their mortgages every two years and spent all of the (fake) equity in their homes.
What do readers think? Do Americans with private jobs really, as the NY Times poll seems to indicate, want to work until they are elderly and infirm so that public employees can spend their 50s on the golf course?