I or We?


The way I see it is we’ve got two choices. I can have my union busted and stand alone and be pitted against my neighbor in a desperate and unequal economy, or WE can come together to say, “This is what our families need. This is what our communities need. This is what a just wage is. This is what democracy looks like.”

Wisconsin farmer Tony Schultz

at Saturday’s 100,000-person rally in Madison

In this week’s Sift:

  • Did We Lose? Wisconsin Governor Walker came up with a parliamentary maneuver to pass his union-busting bill without any Democratic support. So in the short term, we lost. But unlike other recent losses, this one leaves a lot to build on.
  • Money and Motivation in Education. It seems like common sense: If you want more from people, reward the top performers. Merit pay, pay-for-performance — it’s called a lot of things. But what if the whole idea behind it is wrong?
  • Short Notes. How many lives have government regulations saved in Japan? Larry Kudlow is grateful that the human toll was worse than the economic toll. NH college students will keep the vote. Why Newt won’t be nominated. Bachman gives Lexington and Concord to NH. Domestic oil production isn’t providing the answer.
  • This Week’s Challenge. Do one thing for democracy this week.

Did We Lose?

Friday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed the union-busting bill that Democrats have been trying to block and the citizens of Wisconsin have been demonstrating against for the last month. He didn’t compromise on anything, and also gained vast new powers to regulate the state health care system.

So it looks like we lost that one. Or did we?

How it got done. The 14 Democrats in the state Senate had escaped to Illinois to deny the Senate the quorum it needs to vote on fiscal matters. Despite a new rumor every few days saying that they were about to give in and come back, they didn’t. And despite a well-funded propaganda campaign about how they needed to “come back and do their jobs” — i.e., knuckle under to Governor Walker — poll after poll showed the people of Wisconsin supporting their position.

Here’s how it went down: After weeks of claiming that the union-busting parts of the bill were absolutely essential to close the budget gap, the Republicans reversed themselves, split the union-busting off from the rest of the bill, and then declared that union-busting part was non-fiscal, and so didn’t need the 20-senator quorum. They passed it 18-1 in what the Wisconsin State Journal called “a bizarre two-and-a-half hour legislative sprint” that appeared to violate Wisconsin laws about public notice.

Democratic Senator Jon Erpanbach summed up:

They have been saying all along that this is a fiscal item; we’ve been saying it is not. They have been lying. Their goal is to bust up the unions.

Will it stand? Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law says that public meetings require 24 hours notice unless there is an emergency, and even then two hours are required. The conference committee that split the fiscal and non-fiscal parts of the bill did neither. Worse, notice was provided inside the Capitol at a time when access to the Capitol had been strictly limited.

So there will be a legal challenge, and it’s possible the bill will get thrown out. On the other hand, the Senate clerk says everything is OK, and it’s not clear that the state courts have the right to call the legislature to account for rules the legislature imposed on itself. I can’t predict what will happen.

BTW, this makes the April 5 election of a new state Supreme Court justice way more interesting.

What next? The bill restricts the public-employee unions’ ability to collect union dues and requires an annual re-certification election, in addition to taking off the table nearly all the issues that would make workers want to have a union to begin with. So without question, it will kill the unions in the long run.

In the short run though, not much happens other than public employees seeing their take-home pay shrink. (Governor Walker told Sean Hannity workers could make up the difference by not paying union dues: “So, you can use those five or $600 if you are a state employee that you otherwise pay for union dues or up to $1,000 for teachers’ union dues, and you can use those if you chose to pay for your health care and your pension contributions.”)

Other than what the courts do, the next fight is to recall the eight Republican senators who are eligible for recall. Petitions are circulating, but the process is difficult. Two senators, though, seem to be in real trouble, and their recall would send a serious message.

Energized Democrats. There are a number of lenses through which to see the two major parties: big government vs. small government, government vs. corporations, and so on. The one that paints the Democrats in the best light is: working people against the rich. That’s the frame this issue reinforces, and the longer it stays in the headlines, the better for Democrats.

In all these state budget battles, Democrats are for working people, for the public schools that the children of working people attend, for the state universities working people hope to send their kids to, and for unemployment insurance and state health care assistance they will need if they ever lose their jobs. Republicans, meanwhile, are for tax cuts and subsidies for corporations, and against any regulations that will prevent corporations from abusing their workers, cheating their customers, or destroying the environment.

The longer that frame stays in place, the better for the Democrats.

Best of all, for once Democrats did not knuckle under. They lost, but they lost defiantly, determined to continue the battle and win the war. Rank-and-file Democrats are hungry for that kind of backbone — as was obvious Saturday when nearly 100,000 energized people welcomed the 14 Democratic senators back to Madison.

Contrast this with other recent progressive losses — for example, when the public option was removed from the health care plan. Then we were left feeling depressed and leaderless, because our leaders were the ones telling us we’d have to give in. Is it any wonder Democratic turnout was low in 2010?

I think Walker expected that pattern to repeat. The polls would back him, the Democrats would come back to Madison with their tails between their legs, and we’d all feel depressed again. That didn’t happen. Instead, Walker had to pull a fast one to get his way.

Tactics. The important question is what to do with this energy and how to keep it going. Initially, I worried that there would be violence after the legislative chicanery. But through some combination of leadership and good sense among the rank-and-file, that hasn’t happened.

Obviously, recalling the Republican senators is an important political move.

There has even been talk of a general strike —  a phrase that (until this week) I had not heard used seriously in the United States in my lifetime. I’m still doubtful this will happen, and I’m undecided about whether it would be a good idea. But it shows where we’ve gotten to: Tactics from the earliest days of the labor movement are relevant again, because (like then) the survival of the labor movement is at stake.

Lesser actions are already happening. For example, unions are urging people to take their money out of the M&I bank, which has been a major Walker supporter. The M&I boycott home page is here. The full boycott list is here. (This morning, I sold my IRA’s shares in one of the boycott companies, Johnson Controls.)

What you can do. MoveOn is raising money to support the Wisconsin recall movement. You can contribute here. When I checked this morning, they were just short of $1 million.

Tomorrow, Defend the American Dream demonstrations are planned around the country to protest the ongoing attacks on the middle class disguised as state and federal budget proposals. You can find one near you here.

One way to get rich is to inherit Koch Energy from your Dad. Another way is to start out with next to nothing and use your talent to write books people enjoy reading. Strangely, the people who take these different paths look at the world differently.

Stephen King, well known as a Mainer but also a Florida snowbird, spoke to an Awake the State rally in Sarasota Tuesday. The purpose of the rally was to raise energy against the budget proposed by new Tea Party Governor Rick Scott. King said:

You might say “hey what are you doing up there, aren’t you rich?” The answer is, “thank God, yes” …  And you know what, as a rich person I pay 28 percent [federal] tax. What I want to ask you is: Why am I not paying 50? Why is everybody in my bracket not paying 50?

Scott’s budget is perhaps the most naked class-war attack of any of the new Tea Party governors, because it is clearly not about closing a deficit. He proposes billions in new tax cuts for businesses and property owners while cutting public education and Medicaid, as well as cutting benefits for state workers. Scott intends Florida’s business taxes to go away completely by 2018.

Conservative rhetoric says that soaring compensation for public employees is bankrupting the states. Is there anything to that? Well, no. The Center for American Progress gets numbers from the U. S. Census Bureau and graphs total worker compensation as a percentage of state spending: It’s been heading slowly downward since 1992, from around 23% then to a little less than 20% now.

The states are in trouble because revenue collapsed during the recession and hasn’t completely recovered. No matter how many times you hear someone say, “We don’t have a revenue problem”, we have a revenue problem. Tax cuts just make it worse.

Comparisons have been made between the Wisconsin legislative maneuver and the Democrats passing health care reform through the reconciliation process. There are similarities, but also some important differences: The Democrats’ maneuver was discussed in public long before it happened. At the time it happened, anybody who was paying attention knew what was going on. And finally, the legal justifications of the maneuver were made in public before the fact, not afterwards.

I can’t resist pointing out the time-honored history of the general strike. History’s first recorded general strike was the Aventine Secession of 494 BC that resulted in the establishment of the Roman tribunes, ten plebeian officials who had veto power to protect the common people.

Department of Corrections. Last week I said:

Newly-elected Governor Scott Walker inherited a budget headed for either balance or a small surplus, which he promptly wrecked with corporate tax cuts.

This turns out not to be true, as a commenter pointed out to me. I was fooled by the fact that the budget gap was $137 million and Walker had just passed a $140 million corporate tax cut. But the the cut is for the next fiscal cycle.

I stand by the larger point of the article — that Walker took a fairly minor budget gap and used it as an excuse for solidifying Republican power in ways that had nothing to do with the budget.

Money and Motivation in Education

The best video I saw this week — both for content and technique — was Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. It’s 11 minutes long, has fascinating content, and demonstrates what you can do with low-tech animation tools like a whiteboard and fast forward. It’s from a talk Daniel Pink gave at RSA almost a year ago, and apparently almost 5 million people saw it before I heard about it. (I’ve got to get better connected.)

The economic “common sense” that keeps popping up in both business and government says you can get people to work harder and produce more if you reward the top performers with more money and penalize or fire the poorest performers. This creates a king-of-the-hill environment where everybody scrambles to be the best.

Well, research shows that this only works if the task is mechanical and repetitive. If you’re paying people to dig ditches or stack up cinder blocks, they’ll dig or stack faster if it affects their pay.

But if the task involves skill or thought, the reverse happens: pay-for-performance actually makes performance worse. Money will get you to pay more attention to a task you don’t want to do. But if you already want to succeed, money just mucks things up. (Ask any golfer standing over a million-dollar putt.)

Pink explains:

The best use of money as a motivator is to give people enough to take the issue of money off the table. Pay people enough so that they’re not thinking about money and they’re thinking about the work. Once you do that, there are three factors that the science shows lead to better performance, not to mention personal satisfaction: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

OK, now let’s look at this week’s news: Florida legislators want to rate public-school teachers half on their principal’s opinion and half on student test scores. High-rated teachers will be paid more, while poorly rated teachers will be paid less or fired.

This is a great idea if teaching is a mechanical job like ditch-digging or block-stacking. If teachers aren’t interested in seeing their students learn, then we can pay for performance so that they get interested and work harder at the rote task of teaching.

On the other hand, what if teachers already want to teach? What if good teaching requires thought and creativity? Well, then, Pink’s research says you would get better results if you just paid the teachers decently and got out of the way. Give them autonomy to try out their own ideas. Encourage them to master their profession and find a sense of purpose in the success of their students.

But rather than compare just-so stories from both sides, let’s look at data. Since 2007, New York City has been trying out merit pay for teachers. Public and private sources came up with an extra $75 million for incentives. A Harvard economist (who was originally optimistic about the incentives) analyzed the results and concluded: “If anything, student achievement declined.”

The economist believes differently-structured incentives still might succeed, but a commenter on the news report about this study has a different analysis:

The idea of merit pay includes an underlying assumption that teachers are operating at well below their capacity: in other words, merit pay should only be expected to work if teachers are, in fact, mostly being lazy, and are capable of much better work simply by applying themselves.

That assumption is pretty clearly embedded in the US’ current public image of teachers. My own experience as an educator, however, indicates that such teachers are actually a minority of the active field of teachers. Most of the teachers I work with are working pretty near their capacity (and so couldn’t be realistically expected to raise their performance in response to any sort of incentive…)

An interesting sidebar here is that the same people who believe in merit pay are also likely to believe in reforms that make teaching more mechanical and less emotionally rewarding: uniform curricula, tightly scripted lesson plans, frequent testing, and so on. Perversely, they could end up creating a situation in which their ideas pan out. Teaching could be turned into a dull, mechanical job that nobody really wants to do. And then financial incentives would make a difference.

Short Notes

I’m assuming you already know everything I do about the Japanese earthquake. JM Ashley adds this point: The headline you’ll never see is Strict Government Regulations Save Millions of Lives. But that might well be the truth. Japan’s building codes include a high level of earthquake-proofing, and they’ve done a massive amount of public education regarding disaster preparedness. As bad as this has been, imagine how a libertarian Japan would be faring.

It’s hard to grasp the scale of the quake, but these numbers give you an idea: Much of the coastline of Japan’s main island of Honshu seems to have moved about 8 feet, and the earth’s axis shifted by 4 inches. And if you think time is speeding up, you’re right: An earth-day is now 1.8 millionths of a second shorter. But Dan McNamara of the U. S. Geological Service says some of the claims for the earthquake are overblown.

CNBC’s free-market cheerleader Larry Kudlow comments on the impact of the quake: “The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll and we can be grateful for that.”  Or at least Larry can be grateful that he has more invested more in stocks than in people.

In addition to busting unions, another element of the Republican plan to solidify power is to make it harder to vote. (Marginal voters tend to vote for Democrats.) Here in New Hampshire, we’ve managed to scrap a plan to disenfranchise college students.

Nate Silver explains why Newt Gingrich won’t be the Republican nominee: He has no base, and his high unfavorability ratings make him a poor dark horse candidate if the early leaders falter.

Speaking of Newt, Salon has graphed “wives per GOP presidential candidate, 1988-2012“. It starts at 1.17, drops to 1 in 1992, and then starts its inexorable climb to 1.8 in 2012.

The drill-baby-drill crowd knows what we have to do to protect the country from high oil prices: Increase domestic production. Guess what? We did. US oil production in 2010 was the highest since 2003, up more than 10% from its low in 2008. Have you noticed any decrease in gas prices at the pump?

Michelle Bachmann continues to do everything necessary to run for president. She just got endorsed by an Iowa state senator who the Iowa Independent describes as “a favorite of Iowa’s evangelical conservatives and tea partiers”.

And then she came to New Hampshire and congratulated us on the battles of Lexington and Concord. Actually that was Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, but we have a Concord in NH too, so what’s the big deal?

This Week’s Challenge

Don’t be passive this week. Whether you support my positions or not, do something to participate in democracy: Go to a demonstration, contribute to a fund, write a letter to the editor, call your representatives, boycott something, or whatever. Don’t just wish things would get better. If you want, post a comment about what you did.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at gmail.com. Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

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  • Abby  On March 14, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    I voted in my town's election on Saturday. I also quizzed a candidate on important matters and reported the results to many friends.

  • Collette  On March 14, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    Hi, the research on motivation raises several questions. One, holding a job and doing that job is very different than performing one kind of task for a reward. Second, the people at that company that uses the creative day are already getting paid, and by a merit system, because that is how all companies pay unless you live in a socialist country, in which case I don't know how it works out exactly but I'm assuming it's different than ours. Third, the teachers whose performance went down when they were put on an incentive system are not conclusive. There is always a lag time on things like that. Real research on it would be extended over time. But the main thing that comes to mind is doing a task for a reward is very different than earning a living. Most people already get paid way more to do complex, mental or creative tasks than to perform mechanical ones. Once you are getting paid, yes you need the other motivators. But look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs. You meet the basic needs, then others follow. More amounts of salary (money you get every week, week after week, to build your life) equals more money for higher level life–books, theater, fun, whatever–more than just room and board.

  • Pat  On March 14, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    Before even reading the challenge, I sent off two letters this morning: one to my governor, Andrew Cuomo, and one to a commission looking into the practice of hydrofracturing to get natural gas out of the ground. In both cases, I asked them to ban “fracking” as it is a dangerous practice and harmful to both humans and the environment. But thanks for the challenge, and I'll try to do more this week.

  • Alan  On March 14, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    I called a lot of people I know in our small town and helped good School Board candidates win.

    I sent a donation to MoveOn.org.

  • Doug Muder  On March 16, 2011 at 7:42 am

    I went to the Defending the Dream rally in front of the New Hampshire Capitol in Concord. There were about 90 people there, mostly from the public employee unions.

  • Allison  On March 21, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    I called my state representative and senator and thanked them for being sponsors of a civil union bill that's currently moving through our state legislature. A small thing, for sure, since they already support the bill, but your challenge gave me the extra push to actually pick up the phone. Thanks.

    I tend to get bogged down in researching rather than taking action, but I'll try to make a habit of picking something each week and making a call or e-mail. It helps that this issue is a no-brainer as far as my stance, and I know that there are plenty of other calls I can make that fall into that category.

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