New model corruption

Maryland is divided from my own state of Virginia by the Potomac River and a far wider gulf of mutual disdain.

Marylanders love to tax and regulate, and bend a knee before organized labor.  Virginians mostly don’t do any of those things, being too engrossed in cars and guns.  Consequently, they consider us political hillbillies, while we imagine the river to be a sort of watery curtain keeping out the People’s Republic of Maryland.

This is as it should be in the laboratory of democracy which is our federal system.  Different values will lead to divergent political decisions, and such decisions will add up to interesting contrasts in the way we live.

For the laboratory to work, though, there must be an accounting.  Someone must reckon the costs and benefits of every fork in the political road, if the country at large is to learn from such experiences.

Let us therefore praise the WaPo – of all institutions – for having published, in the guise of an editorial, just such an accounting.

Montgomery County is the wealthiest Maryland suburb of Washington DC.  Fairfax County, where I live, is the wealthiest suburb on the Virginia side of the watery curtain.  As WaPo observes, the two localities are “demographic cousins with populations around 1 million, school systems among the nation’s biggest and best, and public spending equal to that of small countries.”

Both are struggling with the consequences of the economic downturn.  There the similarities end, and the divergent political paths begin.

MONTGOMERY COUNTY has just completed a nightmarish budget year. Stressed, squabbling and besieged elected officials savaged services and programs and jacked up taxes to eliminate an eye-popping deficit of almost $1 billion in a $4.3 billion spending plan. Meanwhile, across the Potomac River in Fairfax County, all was sweetness and light by comparison. With a budget roughly equal to Montgomery’s, Fairfax officials erased a deficit a quarter as large with relative ease and far less drama.

WaPo, normally happy to be in the “Virginia is for hillbillies” camp, explains the problems on the other side of the river with a stark lack of nuance:

To put it bluntly, Montgomery is lurching under the weight of irresponsible governance, unsustainable commitments and political spinelessness — particularly in the face of politically powerful public employees unions.

This is followed by a detailed chronicle of the astonishing behavior of  Montgomery County’s elected officials.

Montgomery County, like most of Maryland, is solidly Democratic.  The public employee unions are muscular players in the county’s Democratic establishment.  For years, ambitious county politicians have spent ever larger sums of the taxpayers’ money on pay and benefit increases for their unionized employees.  Political largesse includes pay increases for teachers of “26 to 29 percent over three years,” plus “almost $300 million in pension benefits over 40 years to thousands of employees based on salary increases they never received.”

We have in such behavior a new model of corruption.

Old-fashioned corruption meant a political machine or a wealthy plutocrat perverted the political system to serve their narrow interests.  This was quite illegal.

In the new model corruption – beta tested in California and Greece – government exists not for the benefit of the electorate but of government employees.  This is perfectly legal but destructive of the democratic principle:  the erection of an aristocracy in all but name.

It is also unsustainable.  California and Greece have been buried under mountainous obligations which they are in no position to meet.  Their governments stand on the edge of failure.  To avoid this, their privileged classes – the public employees – will have to accept a drastic decline in affluence, and a return to the lifestyle of the ordinary schmuck.

Montgomery County, not quite Greece yet, has already started down this path.

This is a rare and excellent WaPo editorial, but I do have a gripe.  The author seeks to excuse the unions themselves, because these are “supposed to represent their workers energetically.”  But the fact remains that they are doing so by corrupting the politics of the county:  by diverting public funds for private profit.

Change “oil companies” or “Wall Street” for “public employee unions,” and see how blameless that sounds.

The whole concept of public employee unions leaves me a tad perplexed.  So long as trade unions aren’t mandated or monopolistic, they are a healthy example of free association – workers banding together, voluntarily, to negotiate with management.  But when management represents the people, any banding together can only be an assertion of private interest against the common good.

Because Virginia forbids, by law, such banding together of public employees, the political history of Fairfax County has diverged from that of Montgomery.  We can, with some cutbacks, pay our bills and maintain our standard of living.  And while the county leans Democratic, we also alternate parties in office, a time-honored way to forestall corruption.

Our “demographic cousins” in the People’s Republic used to be far wealthier than Fairfax.  That has changed.  Rush hour traffic over the bridge, which within my memory was largely northbound, has now reversed polarities.  Marylanders come to Northern Virginia to work.  I see their license plates everywhere – in the considered opinion of most Virginians, they drive like escapees from an over-regulated asylum.

I’m not bragging on my home turf:  but choices matter.


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