Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Let's Blame the Worker!

David Brooks plays a game of Let's Blame the Worker by attacking state workers' pensions as the reason for state government insolvency.

This is of course absurd. One can point to many causes for problems within state governments--overflowing prison systems, poor lawmakers, the anti-tax mentality that has created budget shortfalls across the board.

Most of the problem revolves around tax revenues. And no one wants to talk about this. The general public knows that they are paying taxes and so pointing a finger at public employees makes a certain amount of sense. But of course, those who aren't paying taxes are the wealthy, corporations, and other entities that have received tax breaks, writeoffs, incentives, and other corporate handouts that have impoverished states increasingly reliant upon sales and income taxes from a recession-plagued population that is working less, living in devalued homes, and spending less on consumer goods.

Of course, Brooks supports all of this. So, in the classic American conservative tradition, Brooks blames pubic sector workers. Lest we forget, public sector workers could almost universally make more money in the private sector. And they provide vital services that we need for a functioning society. A decent pension seems like a good pay-off for giving up so much income during the working years.

We all play Blame the Worker in discussions of school reform. Unfortunately, even Democratic politicians and writers (I'm looking at Yglesias here) play the game with teachers. Obviously, they say, the problem with public schools is teacher unions who don't want test scores deciding their futures and who protect the worst teachers from being fired. Michelle Rhee's resignation today as Schools Chancellor in Washington, D.C. is seen as a defeat for these reformers who want to cripple unions and force schools onto a business model.

I'm glad Rhee's gone. As Richard Kahlenberg convincingly argues, teacher unions are leading reform efforts, not holding them back. They oppose testing partially because it takes away from the education (particularly for subjects like history) and because the reformers who want to tie testing to pay or employment completely ignore issues such as poverty, race, and educational background of parents in determining successful education. Rather, it's a simple reliance on testing they want. And if tie employment to test schools, why would you choose to work in an impoverished inner-city school? To be unemployed in 2 years? That's crazy. This just hurts kids' education in the long run.

But of course, it's always easier for Americans to blame the worker instead of fixing the structural problems plaguing our society. There's little political cost to be paid, it rewards lazy thinking (thus attracting pundits), and doesn't cost a lot.

Unfortunately, each time we blame the worker, we damage our institutions for the long-term, undermining public confidence in government, and telling young talented workers to avoid the public sector.