Boogiemen

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I was reminded last week of the famous quote from FDR: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself . . . and boogiemen.”

Boogiemen are imaginary monsters parents use to terrorize unruly children into behaving, or, these days, to terrorize public officials into privatizing government services to avoid the wrath of taxpayers.

A favorite boogieman is the DMV, which we all know proves that government cannot operate as efficiently as the private sector. If the DMV isn’t scary enough, privatizers can raise the hoary specter of unions.

When I was teaching economics, I learned that labor unions have done a woeful job image-wise. None of my students gave them any credit for helping create a viable middle class. The terrible work/safety conditions of the Industrial Revolution in mines and sweatshops are long forgotten. Child labor is a third world problem. We can thank politicians for 40 hour weeks, paid vacations, and OSHA.

When I asked my students if any of them were union members, a few reluctant hands went up, usually from construction workers or public employees. Often these union members were unsure what benefits they got from their membership.

Then I would ask if any were members of credit unions, and a few more hands would go up. Users of “Consumer Reports Magazine” were surprised to hear it’s published by a consumers’ union.

None realized when they buy products from Land ‘o Lakes, Sunkist, or Welches, they are buying from farmers’ unions called coops. I’d ask how many were members of the student union in their undergrad days at USC? Did any belong to a homeowners’ association? A mutual insurance company? AARP? The Sierra Club? The AMA? The ABA? The Chamber of Commerce?

Turns out all of us are, in some way or at some time, beneficiaries of unions. A union is just people joining together to gain economic leverage over or protection from something big–employers, buyers, sellers, banks, institutions, government. Yet, unions have become boogiemen.

Lately, public employee unions have earned the evil eye because they went too far on retirement and pension benefits. Of course their bosses, we tax payers and our elected officials, are complicit in this. We thought we could give away the store to unions and then Calpers would bail us out by earning huge rates of return on pension fund money.

The city of Newport Beach  is now soliciting bids to privatize the town’s trash hauling. So far as I know, none of you are unhappy with the trash service the city has provided. But it is a virtual certainty that all the private bids will offer savings through a combination of changes in service and/or reduced costs. Some may be real, but some will assuredly be smoke and mirrors, perhaps at the expense of good service or that old favorite, deferred maintenance.

Apples will be compared to oranges to confuse and obfuscate. Let’s just hope the decision makers can keep the boogiemen out of the decision.

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