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NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Is It Surprising That Chris Christie Isn’t More Popular?



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Ezra Klein is surprised that Chris Christie is polling at 51 percent in New Jersey. So am I! But we’re surprised for different reasons:

But for all Christie’s celebrity, he’s polling at 51 percent in New Jersey. That’s lower than I would’ve anticipated. And I wonder if it’s not a Pepsi Challenge effect. His YouTube strategy works in small doses, which is all that the national media and the Republican base see of it. But with too much of this out there, it just looks like bullying. The clip atop this post, for instance. And eventually the day will come when Christie bullies the wrong questioner, or gets shown up, or starts to face questions about whether it’s really decent to repeatedly humiliate constituents and then post the evidence online.

I’m surprised that Chris Christie is polling as well as he is polling because the constituencies that he is challenging are extremely popular, as we’ve discussed in this space. Out of 154,007,000 workers in the U.S., 3.2 million work as public school teachers. Yet members of teachers’ unions represented 10 percent of delegates to the last Democratic National Convention, and teacher are, according to a recent Gallup Survey,  are considered very trustworthy by most Americans.

There is a mental model in which all public school teachers are selfless people who are making a tremendous sacrifice by choosing to work in K-12 education, while those who work in the private sector are, with a few notable exceptions, primarily self-interested people who aren’t really engaged in a similarly important or meaningful pursuit. And so criticizing those who represent public school teachers, and other public sector workers, is a form of bullying, while championing the interests of taxpayers reflects the selfishness of the vast majority.

There is another mental model in which many public school teachers really are selfless people, but they’re constantly running into barriers created by other teachers who prefer lockstep compensation and rigid work rules because an incentive system that prizes work effort, specialization, and independent initiative would be to their detriment. In this mental model, everyone consumes money income and psychic income in some combination, and it’s not obvious that people who choose psychic income are necessarily “better” than people who consume money income. Rather, different people have different proclivities and skills, and it’s reasonable to want to protect the interests of taxpayers, many of whom are people who’ve chosen to focus on generating money income — the kind of income that can be taxed — rather than prestige, status, fulfilling work, autonomy, and other hard-to-tax things that they might be sacrificing to achieve some other set of goals.

Among my close friends and family, for example, people tend to at least try to maximize “interestingness” rather than money income. Maximizing “interestingness” can make one feel pretty smug and self-satisfied, all while keeping your tax bill lower than it might be if you devoted the same energy and effort to, say, selling people things that they might use. This is a slightly cynical reading. But the interestingness-chasers are hardly ever subject to the same scrutiny as the money-chasers, and that strikes me as interesting. Part of the reason is that the interestingness-chasers are more likely to write for a mass audience. 

These are all oversimplifications. But I think it helps clarify the narrative frames that dominate our politics. Some oppose wage freezes in the public sector because they identify public sector workers who deserve higher compensation. What they don’t always acknowledge is that while some public sector workers should perhaps receive more compensation commensurate with their skills, experience, work effort, and labor market demand, other should perhaps receive less for the same reasons. Giving managers more flexibility would help this along, and more transparency would give us more insight into which managers are doing a good job. 

The trouble is that the former narrative — visible, powerful public employees are good people, who also happen to be very politically vocal and effective — is far more compelling than the latter narrative — public employees are people, some of whom are good and some of whom are less-good, and taxpayers are a diverse group that is very hard to unite around a set of reforms designed to protect their interests. The former narrative lends itself to divide-and-conquer strategies. The latter narrative promises long-term gain at the expense of short-term pain. It goes without saying that this sucks.

Cleverly, many partisans of the former narrative now claim that believers in the latter have embraced a destructive “austerity fetish” that reflects their privilege and their narcissism. This is despite the fact that both narratives are embraced by fairly heterogeneous groups. 

Think about Adrian Fenty vs. Vince Gray. In a sense, Fenty represented the white bourgeoisie and, in a sense, children from very poor households with an interest in high-quality instruction. Gray, in contrast, connected with many in the public sector middle class, i.e., people who owe their middle and sometimes upper-middle-income status to the upward mobility afforded them by public sector institutions that have done a great job of offering above-market compensation, but not always a great job of delivering public services in a cost-effective way. Also, Fenty was kind of a jerk. 

So yes, Chris Christie will have an increasingly hard time. In light of the resources at the disposal of the teachers’ union and their allies, and keeping in mind the power of loss aversion and the barriers to effective collective action among a large, diffuse group of taxpayers who don’t always understand the mechanics of the public sector and are thus easily swayed by emotive, vaguely pro-child and pro-niceness appeals, it will be a miracle if Christie’s agenda survives intact.

Expect more hazy, general thoughts as the end of the year approaches!



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