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Matthew Yglesias

Two Cheers for Special Interests

I'm probably not the best person to rebut Mickey Kaus' attacks on the Davis-Bacon Act since I don't really know anything about it, but even accepting his characterization of the issue for the sake of argument I don't buy it. Here's what he has to say:
A Democrat who is serious about using the state for the public good, as opposed to protecting the AFL-CIO, will realize that Davis-Bacon creates a huge hidden impediment to effective government action (if it involves building anything)--and will affirmatively welcome any initiative that undermines the Act. A Democrat who is worried more about union support will do what Drum and Reed do.
So here's the shape of the river. Davis-Bacon strengthens unions, but it makes it harder to do some worthwhile government stuff. In particular, with Davis-Bacon, $X worth of appropriations for, say, building public housing will get you Y units. Without Davis-Bacon those $X would get you some larger number of units zY. So, according to Kaus, Davis-Bacon is bad, QED. Right? Well, not really.

Sep 20, 2005 -- 10:48:43 PM EST

That kind of thinking strikes me as precisely the sort of "policy literalism" that rightly gets critiqued in "The Death of Environmentalism" and that's done little good for progressive politics. It's true that if all you care about is how much public housing we build this budget cycle that Davis-Bacon looks bad, but liberals have every reason to look at the situation more broadly. With Davis-Bacon, you get stronger unions and you get unions as your allies. Those strong, friendly unions then serve as a constituency for appropriating money for federal construction projects. As a result, over the long haul money will be appropriated for such projects and the things will get built.

The limiting factor then become the large interests at work who are trying to starve the government of revenue.

Scrap Davis-Bacon and the GOP doesn't call off the tax cut jihad. But progressives will have knee-capped unions, one of the only forces in American society that's actually capable of serving as a constituency for the principle that the government ought to have revenue. And unions, rather than owing you a debt that might be repaid in terms of support on other topics that aren't narrowly in their interest, see that it's every interest-group for themselves and the whole progressive coalitions continues to break down.

That's a very bad deal on the whole. It's true that you'll probably never achieve an Ideal Policy Utopia as long as politicians are sometimes kowtowing to union interests rather than an abstract conception of the public good. But it's much more true that you're never going to have a politics wholly dominated by an abstract conception of the public good. Politics is the art of the possible, and trying to advance the public interest is necessarily a case of searching for satisficing solutions to problems.

Unless we're just going to abolish capitalism (which would be a bad idea) there are going to be powerful corporate lobbies at work in the political process. Unless those lobbies are checked by some other lobbies, they're going to totally dominate the political process. Unions, historically, have been the major counterweight. If there's going to be a progressive politics in this country capable of accomplishing anything, it's going to need a reasonably strong union movement to be a reasonably large part of it. The notion that you'll be able to advance a sustained anti-poverty agenda while simultaneously crippling unionism is absurd.

Does that mean liberals should never deviate from the AFL-CIO line? Of course not. If it were really the case that the only way to have federal construction projects was to repeal Davis-Bacon, then that'd just be the thing you'd have to do. But that's not how it goes in the real world. It's both a question of how much money you appropriate and how cheaply you can get things done. There's simply no possibility of public housing advocates (or whomever) building a lasting political alliance with the tax-cut-and-union-bust people to accomplish anything. The earnest neoliberals would win the battle tomorrow and then get stabbed in the back the next day.

Now arguably there was a time in America when the coalition backing the Democratic Party was so entrenched and overweening that elements of that coalition really were a substantial barrier to progress. I haven't made a study of the question, but I'll grant it as a possibility. That moment, however, is clearly not September 2005 when unions are a shell of their former selves and Democrats hold zero percent of the political power in Washington. For different elements of the progressive coalition to start stabbing each other in the back to try and maximize their share of table scraps would be suicidal. Coalition-management is a perfectly legitimate element of politics and it's really just silly to pretend otherwise.
Discipline... (5.00 / 1) (#14)
by Libertine on Sep 21, 2005 -- 12:49:45 PM EST
Scrap Davis-Bacon and the GOP doesn't call off the tax cut jihad. But progressives will have knee-capped unions, one of the only forces in American society that's actually capable of serving as a constituency for the principle that the government ought to have revenue. And unions, rather than owing you a debt that might be repaid in terms of support on other topics that aren't narrowly in their interest, see that it's every interest-group for themselves and the whole progressive coalitions continues to break down.

And the GOP strategy of "divide and conquer" has worked.  We are all so "parochial" on the left we miss the forest for the trees.  Feminists, labor, environmentalists, etc. look at only the issues they care about.  All the movements on the left are part of our base and if we allow any part of our base to be compromised our whole house is imperiled.  And judging by the lack of power we have in Washington right now our foundation, as a party, has been undermined.  

So that is why it is so important that we all stand up with Organized Labor and fight the suspension of Davis-Bacon in the Katrina reconstruction.  We need to shore up our base and Organized Labor is a very key part of that base.  If we don't defend them, we do not have the strength to defend all the different issues that are important to all of our base...

Re: Two Cheers for Special Interests (4.00 / 1) (#3)
by JohnFH on Sep 21, 2005 -- 12:20:43 AM EST

Special Interests are fine and dandy, but you have to make sure that the sum of the special interests in your coalition is sizeable enough to win elections.

Somehow I get the impression that math is not Matt's strong point. The Democratic party is wedded to special interests whose relative weight in the electorate is on the decrease or never was very significant. Union members are a perfect example.

A better strategy would be to reach out more vigorously to special interests whose weight will grow in the years and decades to come.

True, that means you will have to compete for the votes of Hispanics and Catholics in general, not to mention evangelicals. People who are probably not union members, and even if they are, it doesn't define who they are.

It seems that many liberals believe that competition is a bad thing, to be shied away from. When you are down and out, you are afraid of losing what little you have. 

This mentality has to change. Unless you would rather keep losing, that is. 




Re: Two Cheers for Special Interests (4.00 / 3) (#11)
by Robert Brown on Sep 21, 2005 -- 09:44:18 AM EST
"The notion that you'll be able to advance a sustained anti-poverty agenda while simultaneously crippling unionism is absurd."

Unions are not any more interested in curing poverty than anyone else.  Their purpose for existing is to get more benefits for their members and if that hurts the poor or other workers they don't care.

Re: Two Cheers for Special Interests (4.00 / 1) (#12)
by Emma Zahn on Sep 21, 2005 -- 11:00:15 AM EST
Just exactly what unions have such a strong foothold in the deep South that would warrant a Presidential proclamation to curb their influence on reconstruction? 

We are, after all, notoriously "at will" employment states.  Is Louisiana that different from the rest of the South? 


Re: Two Cheers for Special Interests (3.50 / 4) (#7)
by mw on Sep 21, 2005 -- 07:23:26 AM EST

Here's a flaw in the argument.  Davis-Bacon makes unions allies in the politics of government-financed construction.  But is that what progressives should want?  What if, with respect to low-income housing, section 8 vouchers are a more effective approach (as they seem to be) in terms of providing housing more flexibly and efficiently and getting families out of poverty-concentrated neighborhoods?  As long as Davis-Bacon is around, one can reasonably expect trade unions and their allies to try to undermine spending money on vouchers for private housing as opposed to government financed housing (the construction of which enriches the unions).

Unions become allies of government spending, yes, but only government spending which benefits their members even when it is not the best way to help low-income families.



Re: Two Cheers for Special Interests (3.00 / 0) (#9)
by John Emerson on Sep 21, 2005 -- 09:06:39 AM EST
MW, your response here has an incredibly narrow focus. What I was criticizing wasn't the difference between Section 8 vouchers and government-financed construction. I was criticizing the overal anti-union tenor of your post, as well as your underestimate of the importance of labor (and of unions) in the electorate. The "union = special interest" soundbite is a harmful right-wing cliche, and it's inaccurate.  

Even in the Gulf, David-Bacon applies to a lot more than just housing construction. There's a lot of work there that can't be done with section 8 vouchers.

On the assumption that vouchers are your issue and not just union-bashing by any means necessary, I suggest that you delink the two issues and talk about them separately. Even granted what you just said here, David-Bacon is a good thiong to support, unless you're  anti-worker.

[ Parent ]

Re: Two Cheers for Special Interests (3.00 / 0) (#17)
by marcbrazeau on Sep 30, 2005 -- 12:22:05 AM EST

And yet Labor continues to champion Section 8, public education, federally mandated overtime, the minimum wage and all sorts of things that are counter to their obivious self-interest.


Davis Bacon and related legislation is important here because paying workers at prevailing wage will spur the economy that we are trying to rebuild much more than profits to large outside operators will.


Union density in the Building Trades in New Orleans is so low as to render Matt's arguement about making policy decisions to help the unions help the Democrats so that they can make more better policy decsions would otherwise be spot on.

[ Parent ]
Of course Kaus' contempt for union members (3.00 / 2) (#1)
by kth on Sep 20, 2005 -- 11:41:32 PM EST
is probably only exceeded by his contempt for public housing dwellers, so there's definitely an element of disingenuousness here.

Re: Two Cheers for Special Interests (3.00 / 0) (#2)
by howard on Sep 20, 2005 -- 11:54:13 PM EST
kth, you beat me to my primary point, so, in order to persevere, i'll also say that kaus has created one of his typical mindless "deals." Increasing the minimum wage so that it at least keeps up with inflation shouldn't require anti-race-to-the-bottom legislation.

but the fact is, kaus could care less about the actual outcome as long as he gets to sound like a resonable worthy (even though he's actually a pathetic little twit).

Re: Two Cheers for Special Interests (3.00 / 2) (#5)
by vmaverick on Sep 21, 2005 -- 04:38:07 AM EST

Perhaps this is naive, but isn't giving people work a legitimate part of reconstruction?  And if so, shouldn't they be paid well?  And if Bush's attitude is really that it will cost what it's going to cost, shouldn't that include worker pay as well?

that's not naive at all (5.00 / 1) (#15)
by Dilan Esper on Sep 21, 2005 -- 02:37:44 PM EST
Indeed, even if we assume generally that Kaus were right and Yglesias wrong about Davis-Bacon, the premise of the objection to Davis-Bacon is that it makes construction so expensive that the government won't do it. But that's clearly not the case in the Gulf, for two reasons:  (1) the "prevailing" wage that would need to be paid under the law is low, something on the order of $9 an hour, and (2) the public mandate for these projects is huge, so nobody's going to cancel them on account of labor costs.

Kaus' argument might be better suited to a debate as to whether the law itself is a good idea-- especially in situations where the prevailing wage is much, much higher. But I don't see how it has any application whatsoever to Bush's action suspending the law for Katrina reconstruction.

[ Parent ]
Re: Two Cheers for Special Interests (3.00 / 2) (#8)
by alkali on Sep 21, 2005 -- 08:54:32 AM EST
vmaverick writes:

Perhaps this is naive, but isn't giving people work a legitimate part of reconstruction?  And if so, shouldn't they be paid well? 

More practically:  suppose that they aren't paid well.  Then they are working poor and have to apply for food stamps and Medicaid, which the federal government pays for in substantial part.  It plainly makes more sense to pay them a reasonable amount up front.

[ Parent ]
Re: Two Cheers for Special Interests (3.00 / 0) (#10)
by theCoach on Sep 21, 2005 -- 09:28:01 AM EST
MY was arguing that even granting Kaus' premise, it is not necessarily true. But, I think you are right -- this is the crux of the issue. To rebuild requires that people have income that they have worked for, and that income needs to be enough for them to support themselves.

[ Parent ]
Re: Two Cheers for Special Interests (3.00 / 0) (#6)
by John Emerson on Sep 21, 2005 -- 07:19:22 AM EST
I've never been able to understand anti-union Democrats like the gentleman above. Some are probably personal operators like Zell Miller and Sen. Lieberman, who do what's good for their own careers, regardless. Others seem to be "moderates" who believe that Tom DeLay and the late Paul Wellstone were equally bad, and want to find the midpoint.

Union members are not a negligible part of the electorate; even now, they and their families are between 10 and 20% of the total, and if unions were healthier (with political help from Democrats in office) the proportion would be higher. Union-busting is one of the main reasons why labor is so weak -- people still have to work for a living at the non-union  jobs. (And of course, NO group is homogenous, including Hispanics and evangelicals).

Whatever the intrinsic value of free trade, when it was put into effect with Republican votes against union opposition, it weakened the Democrats long-term. Brad DeLong says that Clinton's successful freetrade proposals were only half of a two-prong program including retraining and other programs for dislaced workers. It should have been no surprise that the Republicans Clinton relied on to pass his bills refused to pass the second half of the program -- Republicans are anti-worker, period. It shouldn't have been a surprise, either, that a Democratic Party whose leaders parrot anti-union blather about "special interests" and double-cross workers is going to have trouble keeping labor voters on board. (Disgruntled Democrats don't necessarily become Republicans; some of them just quit caring enough to vote).

If you define labor as wage-workers, it's hardly a special interest group. It's probably the biggest voting bloc there is (since most women work too). If labor is to have a representative at the table, it has to be the Democrats. Anti-labor "business Democrats", to the extent that they are actually Democrats, have taken a suicidal path.

Trojan Horse: The Bush Plan for Katrina (3.00 / 0) (#13)
by TheAngryOne on Sep 21, 2005 -- 12:00:58 PM EST
After the 2002 mid-term elections, we all should know what to expect from the Bush administration in the wake of Katrina:

1. They will flip-flop and cave to public pressure on an independent Katrina commission.

2. They will later take credit for its findings.

3. In the meantime, they will push a massive federal spending bill, but include poison pills like curbs on prevailing wage rules, school vouchers, looser environmental rules and more.

4. In a repeat of the Dept of Homeland Security debate, Democrats will rightly oppose these unpopular conservative policies buried in the Katrina relief package.

5. Republicans will run ads saying, "Why do Democrats hate the victims of Katrina?"

For more of the GOP putting politics over people, see:

This discourse is ridiculous (3.00 / 0) (#16)
by jfxgillis on Sep 23, 2005 -- 09:04:51 PM EST
But, paradoxically enough, neither Matt's nor Mickey's comments are ridiculous. Mickey's arguments are about 75% valid and true, and Matt's arguments are about 80% valid and true.

Properly segmented, politics is mostly concerned with creating, securing and distributing the benefits of economic activity. Political Economy. Land, Labor, Capital, blah blah blah.

Some social forces tend to push wealth up the ladder, some down, some shuffle it. There are good and substantial reasons why in any given case one might support policies to encourage any of those movements.

If Mickey wants to whine about the inefficiency of the Wagner Act, that's fine, or if he wants to complain about Davis-Bacon, that's cool, too. BUT IT'S NOT "LIBERAL" (contemporary "liberal"). It just isn't. It makes you a Capital-oriented corporatist Republican partisan. It puts you in the other segment of the polity by definition.

What makes this discourse "ridiculous" is first, the very dea of "liberalism without unions," and second, the idea that that idea is even worth the dignity of a response.

Re: Two Cheers for Special Interests (2.25 / 4) (#4)
by abb1 on Sep 21, 2005 -- 03:24:41 AM EST

...with Davis-Bacon, $X worth of appropriations for, say, building public housing will get you Y units. Without Davis-Bacon those $X would get you some larger number of units Z.


I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.



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