April 14, 2012

Re: Re: Labor Union Nostalgia

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An inter-columnist debate rages on. Weigh with your own thoughts in the comments section!

Noah’s post raises a number of important points, although nothing which convinces me that my last post was “cliched” and just another rhetorical assault on the labor movement.

First, unlike private interest groups, when public sector unions lobby the government they also lobby their own employer. That is why George Meany, former President of the AFL-CIO, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, former President of the United States, both strongly opposed collective bargaining rights for public sector unions. In 1937, Roosevelt argued that in the case of public employees unions:

“The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. […] The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress”.

Second, Noah seems to forget that taxation is compulsory or, in other words that someone, somewhere in the private sector was forced to pay taxes. Taxpayer money is universal in public union contributions, but ambiguous in a case like the NRA, though demographics should lead me to assume that the NRA gets most of its funding from the private sector.

Noah accuses me of misrepresenting the facts when it comes to political donations arguing that “Political giving 20 years ago isn’t all that important right now.” Instead, he says, we should look at donations given by sector in the current 2011-2012 cycle and notes that in this election cycle finance and eight other sectors have thus far donated more money than labor unions.

Except, the dataset I cited doesn’t just reflect political giving 20 years ago. It includes all political contributions over the past 23 years, in which nearly a quarter-century of education policy has been made. The aggregated dataset includes an order of magnitude more election cycles than the single, isolated dataset Noah wants us to look at. In fact, the 2011-2012 election cycle he prefers has only just begun. It’s not hard to say which source is more misleading.

Does Noah really expect us to believe that, for special example, teachers union contributions over the past 23 years haven’t made any difference in the way that education policy is made? Most people take for granted that Goldman Sachs has a great deal of influence in Washington, not only because of its connections, but because of its $37 million in contributions over the past 23 years. Yet, combining the contributions of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association supplies a total almost double that of Goldman Sachs over the same period.

They wouldn’t keep re-gifting so much taxpayer money if it wasn’t in their special interest.

Of course, a broader discussion about recent trends of money in politics is needed here and I look forward to blogging about it in the future. For that dataset, look here.

Critics of student-centric education reform often chide voucher systems and merit-based pay as radical attempts to transform education into a business. Given the role of political-profiteering, it may be safe to say that education is already quite a business, but a failing one with especially perverse incentives.

Noah’s defense of Randi Weingarten relies on an argument from authority, citing the allegedly expert opinion of Jay Matthews, an education columnist for the Washington Post. Should readers form opinions about public figures solely on the basis of what one journalist says? Let’s evaluate some evidence.

In 2010, my public school district was forced to lay off 24 teachers due to budget cuts, while Randi Weingarten took home a total compensation of $600,000 and settled into a home in East Hampton.

Nearly my entire high school protested the layoffs, which avoided the school district’s worst 24 teachers in favor of those without tenure. Students can’t leave the district unless they move away, misbehave, or pay both private tuition and local school taxes. In a weird way, escaping the district is almost as hard as it is in the Hunger Games.

I wish that this was simply anecdotal evidence, but, in fact, these troubles are statistically systemic. Just read about national test scores and dropout rates. Given the inconvenience of this issue, Noah ignores some of the remarkable statistics I cited. As I mentioned in my previous article, “For every 57 doctors, one loses the right to practice medicine, but in New York City between 2007 and 2010, only 88 of 80,000 teachers lost their jobs due to poor performance according to a report by the New York Daily News.”

Teachers union advocates like Randi Weingarten have historically argued that job security is critical to ensuring teacher quality. Among other recent findings linking student performance to teacher ability, a recent finding by Harvard researchers powerfully contradicts this claim. They note that simply replacing a teacher in the bottom 5% in terms of value-added with a teacher of average value-added quality would “increase the present value of students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000”.

The point of my last blog post was not to demonize all union members and especially not all members of teachers unions. In fact, my own mother is a lifelong public school teacher and a member of one union I’ve discussed in this post. I can attest to her hard work and, like Noah, I’ve encountered plenty of lazy private sector workers. However, our public education system’s systemically perverse incentives are a disservice to children, whose lives are pre-determined by zip codes, instead of work ethic. It doesn’t have to be that way.

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Original Author: Jacob Arluck