Public Employees and the Politics of Resentment

Oregonian blogger Jeff Mapes predicts, no doubt correctly, that public employee salaries and benefits are likely to come under attack again in these tough times.

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Oregonian blogger Jeff Mapes predicts, no doubt correctly, that public employee salaries and benefits are likely to come under attack again in these tough times.


"There has been a lot of debate in Oregon over whether public employees get an especially cushy deal, particularly when it comes health and retirement benefits," he writes. "It's an issue that is growing nationally as well.

"USA Today reports that new federal statistics show that benefits for public employees around the nation now are outpacing those for private employees. Last year, the value of public employee benefits rose by 69 cents an hour, compared to 23 cents for private employees."

The big reason for the disparity, Mapes correctly notes, is that many public employees still have unions and increasing numbers of private-sector employees don't. It's less easy for employers to cut back wages and benefits if they're locked into a union contract.

"Now that we're in a particularly nasty recession and Oregon and so many other states are facing huge budget gaps, public employees and their benefits are bound to face more scrutiny," Mapes concludes.

This poses a paradox that The Eye has often puzzled over: Instead of complaining that public employees have too much, why don't private-sector employees ask themselves why they have so little - and organize to fight for more? After all, cutting public employees' wages and benefits doesn't do anything to help private-sector employees; it just tends to drag all employees down to the same low level.

The explanation, of course, is that conservative politicians are past masters at playing what New York Times columnist and Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman has called "the politics of resentment" - which, in this case, means persuading working Americans (non-unionized ones) to resent other working Americans (unionized ones) who have a better deal than they have and blame them (the union workers and their unions) for their own rotten deal. It's a strategy that's worked well for the past 30 years, so don't expect conservatives to give it up now.

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