A Puzzle in Wisconsin

by Reihan Salam

I have argued that advocates of paring back collective bargaining rights for state employees in Wisconsin have done a less-than-stellar job of talking about the public-sector productivity imperative. Productivity in the nontradable sector has been stagnant while productivity in the tradable sector has been increasing at a healthy clip, and this has had negative consequences for overall growth as the nontradable sector, including state and local government, has increased its share of total employment. Sluggish growth in public sector productivity has particularly baleful consequences for the life chances of the people who depend most on public services. That strikes me as a pretty important issue that should be at the heart of the debate over state and local government.

Recently, William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin has suggested that the “assault on collective bargaining rights” represents McCarthyite extremism. Cronon’s argument made no effort to reckon with what I consider to be the most salient questions regarding public sector performance. Rather, it focused on the notion that efforts to pare back collective bargaining rights are in tension with democratic norms as he understands them. 

Now Stephan Thompson, a member of the Wisconsin Republican Party, has asked to see Cronon’s email correspondence. Cronon seems to believe that this is because of a study guide he published on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which didn’t seem to make much of a case regarding the substance of public sector reform. Rather, it published a series of links to other sources and hinted at the possible motivations of ALEC, careful to never offer an actual charge:

 

I want to add a word of caution here at the end. In posting this study guide, I do not want to suggest that I think it is illegitimate in a democracy for citizens who share political convictions to gather for the purpose of sharing ideas or creating strategies to pursue their shared goals. The right to assemble, form alliances, share resources, and pursue common ends is crucial to any vision of democracy I know. (That’s one reason I’m appalled at Governor Walker’s ALEC-supported efforts to shut down public employee unions in Wisconsin, even though I have never belonged to one of those unions, probably never will, and have sometimes been quite critical of their tactics and strategies.)  I’m not suggesting that ALEC, its members, or its allies are illegitimate, corrupt, or illegal. If money were changing hands to buy votes, that would be a different thing, but I don’t believe that’s mainly what’s going on here. Americans who belong to ALEC do so because they genuinely believe in the causes it promotes, not because they’re buying or selling votes.

This is yet another example, in other words, of the impressive and highly skillful ways that conservatives have built very carefully thought-out institutions to advocate for their interests over the past half century. Although there may be analogous structures at the other end of the political spectrum, they’re frequently not nearly so well coordinated or so disciplined in the ways they pursue their goals. (The nearest analog to ALEC that I’m aware of on the left is the Progressive States Network, whose website can be perused athttp://www.progressivestates.org/ but PSN was only founded in 2005, does not mainly focus on writing model legislation, and is not as well organized or as disciplined as ALEC.) To be fair, conservatives would probably argue that the liberal networks they oppose were so well woven into the fabric of government agencies, labor unions, universities, churches, and non-profit organizations that these liberal networks organize themselves and operate quite differently than conservative networks do–and conservatives would be able to able to muster valid evidence to support such an argument, however we might finally evaluate the persuasiveness of that evidence.

To recap: Cronon’s basic belief is that people like me and other Agenda readers who believe that extensive collective bargaining rights can be a barrier to improving the effectiveness of the public institutions that many Americans depend on have gone against Wisconsin’s core values of decency, fairness, generosity, and compromise in championing efforts to pare them back. This idea is so strongly at odds with my own beliefs that I’m not sure I can evaluate it properly. 

I have a number of other disagreements with Cronon’s posts, but that’s immaterial.

What I want to suggest is that Cronon’s arguments should be engaged on their own terms. His political proclivities seem fairly clear and his arguments strike me as fairly weak. So what exactly is the FOIA request is meant to achieve? Cronon writes:

 

I confess that I’m surprised to find myself in this strange position, since (as I said in my earlier blog post) my professional interest as a historian has always been to research and understand the full spectrum of American political opinion. I often spend as much time defending Republican and conservative points of view to my liberal friends as vice versa.  (For what it’s worth, I have never belonged to either party.) But Mr. Thompson obviously read my blog post as an all-out attack on the interests of his party, and his open records request seems designed to give him what he hopes will be ammunition he can use to embarrass, undermine, and ultimately silence me.

One obvious conclusion I draw is that my study guide about the role of ALEC in Wisconsin politics must come pretty close to hitting a bull’s-eye.  Why else would the Republican Party of Wisconsin feel the need to single out a lone university professor for such uncomfortable attention?

I’m not sure which bull’s-eye Cronon’s study guide could hit. His claims regarding the role of ALEC are trivial — various groups have been proposing model legislation in the U.S. for a very long time now; this was quite common during the Progressive era, when the single transferable vote and public ownership of sewers were popular causes, among others. I assume that ALEC, like this other groups, marshals evidence, some of it convincing and some of it unconvincing, to persuade legislators to embrace its conclusions.

As Baugartner et al have argued, lobbying is a form of legislative subsidy. Legislators are called upon to evaluate a panoply of issues, many of which they don’t understand very well. Staffs in most state legislatures are severely limited in size and resources, which makes it even harder to manage the cognitive burdens of getting a handle on many different policy domains at the state level than at the federal level. And so legislators, regardless of political affiliation, will turn to trusted sources and allies, e.g., labor unions or lobbyists on behalf of commercial interests or citizens’ groups, etc.

Beyond this, Cronon’s value-added is to say that Paul Weyrich and the Heritage Foundation were very important. Which may well be true. But this doesn’t exactly give us the granular analysis found in, for example, Steve Teles’s book on The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, which does an excellent job of describing the limits and constraints facing would-be policy entrepreneurs.

My guess about ALEC’s influence: its ideas are embraced when it is politically expedient to do so and they are not embraced when it is not politically expedient to do so. So when state tax revenues were swelling and increasing the public sector workforce was popular, Democratic and Republican governors got in on the act. In leaner periods, public sector unions are more inclined to make concessions to Democratic governors, seeing them as a lesser evil and as a bulwark against right-of-center efforts to constrain public sector cost growth. These efforts from the right generally draw on intellectual spadework done during a time when the political opportunity was not present. Consider Jacob Hacker’s effort to construct a model for health reform during the Bush years. He recognized that the idea wouldn’t prove viable until the political environment had changed, but he devised a strategy nevertheless.  

So I doubt that Stephan Thompson of the Republican Party of Wisconsin is panicking over Cronon’s blog post because it hit close to home. It seems somewhat more plausible to me that Thompson is a political animal who would like to embarrass Cronon. (I can’t see how Cronon could be undermined, as he made claims that can’t really be falsified or verified, if I understand them correctly. And as a celebrated academic, it is unimaginable that he’d ever be silenced by a FOIA request. Quite the contrary, my guess that Stephan Thompson’s efforts will dramatically enhance Cronon’s visibility among activists and perhaps even the wider public.) But I can’t really see what embarrassing Cronon would accomplish either.

Maybe there is some other reason for this FOIA request? From the little I know now, it seems like a huge waste of time that, once again, is distracting attention from more pressing issues, like getting more bang for the buck from our tax dollars.

The Agenda

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