Tuesday, February 27, 2007


It seems like it’s harder and harder for me to stay focused these days. I blame James Burke. If you never saw his show “Connections”, then you missed a real treat. He was the quintessential mad scientist that showed the “connection” between scientific discoveries over time. It was always a wild and entertaining ride.

Anyway, that is what it feels like for me these days. I bounce between a series of seemingly random interests that all seem connected in some strange manner. Let me just delve into it.

First, I told you I’d read Paul Krugman’s The Great Unraveling while I was on vacation. I was searching through it to find a part that I wanted to highlight. I found the column entitled The Public Interest.

Mr. Krugman starts by telling of a government agency that could be downsized -- maybe even abolished or privatized. He builds his fictitious case and then utterly destroys it. It’s a technique he uses often -- taking an idea that is being promoted as good public policy and methodically picking it apart to reveal how foolish it is.

In this example, he used the New York City Fire Department. In demonstrating that the “market” really isn’t a solution for everything he writes, ”...a private firm would always have an incentive to pinch pennies at the expense of public safety. And that’s just not acceptable when the stakes are so high, and in particular when what we need are proud public servants, prepared to do whatever it takes to protect us -- people like New York’s heroic firefighters -- rather than employees who feel that they are paid as little as possible by a company focused on the bottom line.”

He goes on to talk about airport screeners. But go back and read that excerpt again. Only this time, substitute “Air Traffic Controllers” for firefighters.

You can’t think of the NYFD without thinking of 9/11. I can’t think of them without thinking “union.” It’s odd from at least one vantage point. Unions have been declining steadily for decades. They represent fewer and fewer people but look what happened on 9/11. Union firefighters and union police officers responded. The first civilians to respond at “ground zero” were union steel workers. And yes, union controllers were guiding thousands of airplanes to unscheduled landings.

It was a horrible day -- but a proud day -- for so many unions. What was their reward for so many heroic deeds you might ask ?

Remember that Congress proposed the idea of a Department of Homeland Security ? Sure you do. President Bush was against it but then he “flip-flopped” and supported it: After he got what he wanted. What did he want ? No unions.

I was doing a little research on the subject and ran across this cover. As the saying doesn’t go, a cover is worth a thousand words.

It was a strange place to find the story so I went to govexec.com to find the original cover and got distracted with this story.

Talk about strange. You just don’t expect to read many stories about unions in Government Executive.

As I continued to bounce around, I read the story du jour.

GOP Warns of Union Talk in Security Bill

President Bush is threatening to veto the Congressional bill that is trying to enact the 9/11 Commission's recommendations if it includes a provision to allow the Transportation Security Administration airport screeners to form a union. That would be the government airport screeners that were brought in to replace the private airport screeners that failed so miserably on 9/11. Which brings us back to Mr. Krugman’s column “The Public Interest”

The column was written on October 10, 2001. And the following is an example of why so many people find Mr. Krugman so brilliant.

“Whatever the explanation, the dispute over airport security leaves no doubt about one thing: The right’s fanatical distrust of government is the central fact of American politics, even in a time of terror.”

President Bush and the crowd that “brung him” are still dancing around national security at the expense of busting unions. They’d rather kill a bill that adopts the 9/11 Commission's recommendations than let a bunch of airport screeners organize.

I thought The Great Unraveling was an excellent book. Even though it is now dated, it is still relevant. I was only disappointed in one aspect. Mr. Krugman was not very flattering of unions in the few instances he mentioned them. I was surprised. I would have thought he would have appreciated them for the simple fact that, like himself, they’ve stood up to the Bush Administration from day one.

Don Brown
February 27, 2007

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