Filmmaker Michael Moore uttered the following words last week at a rally to preserve “collective bargaining” with respect to benefits for Wisconsin’s state and local government employee unions: “The nation is not broke, my friends. Wisconsin is not broke. The truth is, there’s lots of money to go around. Lots. It’s just that those in charge have diverted that wealth into a deep well that sits on their well-guarded estates.”
His speech was mostly nonsense. He declared, for example, that the protests were about workers’ right to “bargain about simple things like classroom size or bulletproof vests for everyone on the police force or letting a pilot just get a few extra hours sleep so he or she can do their job.” In fact, none of those things are at issue in Wisconsin.
But his statement that Wisconsin is not broke but just needs to dig for more money is rich in meaning. It underpins a major premise of the union protests in Madison and elsewhere, along with the credo of the modern American left. The implication is that our federal, state and local governments suffer from a revenue problem, not a spending problem.
It isn’t true, but it does explain the heavy lobbying in state capitals by public-sector unions for higher taxes. Wisconsin’s main teachers union, as it happens, spent more money lobbying in Madison last year ($2.1 million) than any corporation or interest group in the state.
One reason the battle of Wisconsin matters for the rest of us is that the Badger State so closely resembles average America. The state’s politics are evenly divided, just like those of the nation as a whole. Its median annual household income is only $227 less than the national average of $50,221. According to the Tax Foundation’s annual report on states, Wisconsin ranked 25th out of 50 in 2009 on per capita state and local government debt.
But Wisconsin also matters because of one area in which it is anything but average. Wisconsin is a front-runner when it comes to the overall tax burden it places on its citizens. Wisconsin’s state and local governments consume 11 percent of all Wisconsin income, a greater share than in all but three other states — New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.
So when Michael Moore said Wisconsin isn’t broke, and that all it needs to do is make taxpayers dig deeper in their pockets, the statement has even bigger implications for those of us who live in lower-tax jurisdictions.
For example, Moore is saying that Marylanders are definitely failing to pull their weight, because their state and local governments skim merely 10 percent off the top of their aggregate earnings. He is saying that residents of the District of Columbia are freeloaders for contributing only 9.6 percent of their income. And I don’t even want to think about what Moore would say of Virginians and their 9.1 percent tax burden.
This is the mindset of modern American liberalism, or progressivism, or whatever you want to call it. When economic times get tough, and private-sector workers suffer from layoffs and lower incomes than before, the answer is to tax them more heavily, and to tax their sources of income (their current or potential
employers) more heavily.
But just remember, the reason we all have to pay more is that we must sustain privileges that were foolishly created for public-sector labor unions in flush times by irresponsible politicians.
Examiner columnist David Freddoso is The Washington Examiner’s online opinion editor.